I'm not a superstitious person, not since childhood, anyway, when I really did kind of think that if I stepped on a crack I would break my mother's back. It seemed kind of a harsh thing for fate to do--cripple my mother for a careless step of mine--but of course it also has enormous metaphorical significance, doesn't it? My carelessness--my inattention--can indeed harm others, even those--especially those--I love the most.
In my baseball-playing years I tended to adopt some of the, uh, habits (not superstitions!) of other players. When I was hitting, I always prepared exactly the same way before each pitch. Bent down near the plate, grabbed the (approximately) same amount of dirt to rub on my hands, took the same number of practice swings ... that sort of thing. I was like that in basketball, too, at the foul line. Same number of dribbles before the shot. Just habit, you know--not superstition.
As I've grown older, though, my superstitions have gradually flaked away (I'm less flaky now!), though, as I've written before, I remain a creature of routine, and routines, I think, are one way that I employ to pretend that I am in charge, not the universe, not mortality. If I keep doing the things I've always done--and at the same time on the same day--well, frankly, I won't die. It's quite simple.
But one stupid superstition remains, one that I don't even think held all that much sway when I was a kid. The number 13.
When you're really wacky about 13, there's a word for your condition--triskaidekaphobia. Fear of the number 13. (There's a nice website, by the way, that lists all the phobias: Phobia List--there's even a fear of books: bibliophobia, a condition afflicting numbers of my students over the years!)
I am not--not, I emphasize--a triskaidekaphobe. But still ... Just now, for example, I was reheating some Starbucks I'd bought last night. I set the microwave on the usual setting: 1:30. I putzed around in the kitchen a few moments, then looked at the timer: 13 seconds! Damn! What does that mean? In a rational world, I knew, it meant this: Nothing whatsoever. But in my world ... it must mean something, right? I mean, there was only a 1/90 chance that I would glance at the timer at that moment!
(And I just realized, re-reading the paragraph above that 1:30 is NOT good--there's a 13 in it! From now one: coffee reheating is 1:29!)
There's more: A good setting for a couple of microwaved potatoes is thirteen minutes. I set our timer for 12:59. No kidding. And when the microwave (or oven--or any other) timer is counting down, I look away when it nears 13.
When I'm riding the exercise bike out at the health club, I do not look at the timer the entire minute it's between 13:59 and 13:00. I avoid--with a passion I feel for hardly any other routine--looking at that timer when I think it may read :13 after any of the other minutes in its cycle--e.g., 6:13, 5:13, etc.
What the hell is this all about?
I found an article on Yahoo that purports to explain it all: 10 Reasons People Fear 13 (Thank God it's not 13 reasons!) Some of the reasons go back to the Bible and earlier. I particularly like this one: A perfect coven consists of 13 witches. That's something I've never really thought much about, the optimal size for a coven. But, looking over the list, I can't say there's a single one of the ten reasons that has anything to do with my, uh, concern about the number.
I think, maybe, that it's just a kind of symbol of human impotence. We like to think we're in control. We're not. In our genes are time-bombs, ticking away. Accidents are out there, waiting for us to appear. Randomness rules despite our ferocious and feckless attempts to behave as if it's otherwise.
I don't like to think of myself like this. I like to think of myself as rational, scientific, prudent, skeptical. In charge. I'm also serenely contemptuous and dismissive of the superstitions of other people (such puerile nonsense!). I don't avoid black cats; I walk boldly under leaning ladders; I jump up and down on sidewalk cracks; I sneeze in cemeteries; I don't give a damn if I break a mirror; and ...
Okay, I do eat an apple a day, and I knock on wood ... and that pisses me off, too.