Saturday, June 18, 2011

Bad luck from a brolly

Bad luck from a brolly

Superstitions are nonsense. But they're also contagious and we all find it difficult to avoid them completely

The outcry was tremendous, like chickens squawking at the threatening fox: I'd opened my umbrella on a coach.

It was a hot day. The so-called air-conditioning did not put the air in better condition; sun blared through the unopenable windows. I was going to hold my large scarf up to block the rays, though that would mean holding my arms up indefinitely. But as I rooted around my bag for it, I found the umbrella: the perfect sunshade. So I opened it up.

Its tightening snap was met with smiles and laughter from one set of ladies, but I could hear the murmured words "open" and "inside".

"Oh, we aren't inside," I said. "We're in a coach."

I said it jokily: surely no one actually cared about this stupid superstition.

Then there was a chorus in which the words "umbrella", "open", and "indoors" were strident.

One woman crossly said, "I've had to spit on your umbrella to keep the bad luck off me. Now, you close that before you make things bad for all of us."

I was a woman in a coal mine causing a cave-in. I was a woman on a ship where, soon, everyone would be drowned because I'd sullied it.

And, ugh, there was spit on my umbrella?

I closed it feeling guilty, absurd, pissed off, disgusted – and hot – and so was grateful when I looked at my companion, an old friend, and he said, definitively: "They're ridiculous, of course." At least it wasn't only me.

I respect superstitions, in fact. I have to – I have my own ridiculous rituals and spells for safety. But I do at least know they're ridiculous and involve primitive, pre-rational, magical thinking. These women embraced a prefab superstition with utter conviction, as if it were objective fact and I was really, truly endangering them.

Why was it supposed to be bad luck, anyway? Why do we all know this superstition? When I arranged four vases of similar colour on a shelf recently, a cousin of mine who'd spent time in Japan saw it and practically ducked, saying, "Oo, you have to take one of those down. You can't have four together. That's bad luck. In Japan, they'd never have four together."


In New York, where buildings are routinely more than 20 storeys high, there is often no 13th floor, as if there were air there holding up Floor No 14; the elevator buttons are labelled 12 and then 14, as if people won't notice or figure out which floor they're actually living on.

And the thing about ladders: well, okay, a ladder could fall on you. That makes sense.

And I won't let my husband say that there's no traffic until after we get home, because the gods will punish us for his hubris and put traffic in our way immediately if he crows about it. I knock on wood, a superstition which makes all wood into chips of Christ's cross, the cross of a man I don't believe is sitting at the right hand of God directing traffic or interceding in my life. I'm just as happy to knock on my skull, which definitely isn't a piece of Christ's cross.

We are at the mercy of forces we can't control. We are afraid of offending those gods who might crazily, irrationally, unfairly punish us. We appease them in small, stupid, irrational ways. We try, at best, to appease our fears; to negotiate between fear and hope.

The gods involved in the umbrella superstition are, judging by a Google search, Ra, god of the sun, who will bring wrath on your household for opening an umbrella indoors (why?). "Another theory borrows from the idea of an umbrella as a protector against the storms of life," says one website: "If you were to open one in your home, the household guardian spirits might think you felt their protection was insufficient, and then they'd leave in a huff." Everyone in the house would be cursed.

The site – comfortingly – offers various caveats: that the open-indoors umbrella will bring bad luck only if it is black, or was a gift, or has never been used outdoors, or if someone is ill in the house. My umbrella had red cherries on it, had been battered by rainstorms, and we weren't, as I'd said in the first place, in a house. So there – I wasn't endangering anyone after all.

Here's the really bad luck of superstitions: they're contagious. Websites about superstitions will tell you more things to worry about – white cats! White! Fear breeds fear.

This is perhaps why the Latin roots for superstition contain a sense of disdain, connoting patrician Romans' contempt for being as fearful of the gods as their own slaves are fearful of their masters. Superstition is low-class. The Catholic church, in its turn, condemned superstition because, if you knocked on wood, it showed a lack of faith in providence.

The way we make sense of the world is through narrative. Stories make sense of events and give experience the meaning it has, the inflection of good or bad. Facts, in many instances, cannot derail this narrative, as some recent studies at the University of Michigan have demonstrated. People who believed, for instance, that the United States spent a high percentage of tax money on welfare were unable to change their minds even when they learned from news articles that the actual expense was only 1%; they still thought it was too much. It conflicted, I imagine, with the narrative they told themselves that their own lives suffered because taxes were too high.

And it's always nice to have someone or something to blame, isn't it?

I will go on opening my umbrella indoors and leaving it in the bath to dry, but meanwhile needing to wear certain things on occasions that feel unsafe to me – and not specifying what these are on this blog because they'd lose their potency if I told, like wishes. I went to progressive schools, so I guess even my superstitions are tailored for individual use.

Meanwhile, those biddies on the bus are going to have my cherry-patterned umbrella to blame for everything that goes bad in their lives for who-knows-how-long. As far as I'm concerned, the bad luck ended when we got into the shade.