Just a Pinch of Salt by
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Prompted By Superstition

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Spill some salt, throw it over your left shoulder. Step on a crack, break your mother’s back, Break a mirror, seven years of bad luck. Don’t walk under a ladder. Don’t cross paths with a black cat. Cross your fingers for good luck (or if you were telling a little lie, but didn’t want it to count).

As children, we encountered so many ways to accrue bad luck, if we believed all the old tales (they were called “old wives’ tales”, weren’t they, perhaps growing out fear of old witchy women…look what happened in Salem, MA in the late 1600s due to fear and superstition). Can we take back that phrase and see with age comes wisdom? When my first child was born, I needed so much wisdom from older women to help me through.

Each ethnic group also has its own mythology. In Judaism, we don’t name our children after living relatives, lest the Angel of Death get confused and take the wrong person. My grandmother’s generation, from the “old country” in Eastern Europe or Russia was very superstitious and was always afraid to tempt the “evil eye”. If a compliment was given, my grandmother would quickly put up her forefinger and middler finger, then spit twice between them to ward off the evil eye, who might cause harm to the complimented person (always a loved one).

Theater people have their own set of idiosyncracies. Naming the Shakespeare play “Macbeth” in a theater is supposed to cause bad luck. It is always referred to as “the Scottish play”. We never wish another actor “good luck” before a show, but rather, the opposite: “break a leg”!

Ball players may wear the same underwear for days on end, or eat the same meal before pitching a game, if on a streak of good luck. As it becomes clear that a pitcher is throwing a no-hitter, those on the bench will move away and not speak to him, so they don’t break his streak.

How about carrying a rabbit’s foot as a lucky charm? I remember having one attached to my looseleaf binder as a kid at school, not so much for luck, but because it was soft and felt good to rub. I didn’t think about the fact that it came from a real rabbit since it was dyed pink or blue! How about a four-leaf clover? We all need the “luck of the Irish” these days.

I tend not to be superstitious; but rather, fatalistic. I can control only the things within my power to control. The rest is up to the Universe. I can be a good person, try to eat well, exercise, maintain my health, be a safe driver (I remember from Driver’s Ed we called it driving defensively). Yet so much is not within my power to control. Some is heredity.

I can take all the precautions necessary against the Coronavirus, but I still go to grocery stores and pharmacies, so I cannot know if I may come into contact with it, despite my best efforts to stay safe. This practice caused a good friend to worry about me. She encouraged me to order directly from stores that would deliver. I don’t think I am that organized, nor can I get everything I want from the stores she mentioned that deliver. Besides, we do take-out food almost every night, so though we don’t come into contact with as many people, the containers are still touched by others. We take the precautions we need; masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, social distancing, LOTS of hand washing.

Let us all believe in science over superstition or disinformation. It has stood us in good standing over the centuries and kept us from injecting Lysol to disinfect our insides. We need science more than ever now if we are to save ourselves and save the planet.

 

 

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.


Characterizations: right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy, thanx for reminding me of a few more things my grandmother told me!

    And yes, with all due respect for tradition, now is the time to focus on science!

  2. John Shutkin says:

    An excellent compendium of superstitions, Betsy, both secular and religious. And I could not agree more with your overall approach to superstitions vs. science, as well as that netherworld in between where, as you note, we try to control that which we can and be fatalistic about that which we cannot. And your last paragraph is absolutely dead on as to the importance — now more than ever — of believing in science. (That said, I can think of a few people whom I would not mind if they ingested Lysol.)

    One brief addendum to your reference to the superstitions about no hitters. Not only is one not supposed to talk to the pitcher, but the fact that he is pitching a no hitter is also not to be spoken of by anyone in the vicinity. This has posed a real dilemma over the years for sportscasters since an ongoing no-hitter (particularly in late innings) is certainly a noteworthy event. But the few sportscasters who have specifically mentioned it on air have been excoriated, especially if the no-hitter is then broken up. Typically, they will just show a visual of the “line score” and trust the viewer can see what is going on. But it is a lot tougher for radio broadcasters.

  3. dskdan says:

    Opera singers say “in bocca al lupo!” Italian for “in the mouth of the wolf.” . The idiomatic interpretation is similar to break a leg and means don’t get your head caught and lose your words and tune.
    Dancers say merde. Maybe that came from a poor ballerina who was dropped by her partner in the pas de deux.

  4. Thank you for a beautifully written, informative and impassioned story, Betsy. I’m with you…never been superstitious although the thoughts do arise just because they’re so ingrained in our consciousness. And I’m also a fatalist in that I find comfort in that I’m not in control. One of my fondest sayings is “We make plans and God laughs.”

    The pros and cons of supermarket shopping versus delivery is interesting…delivery actually adds one more pair of hands to the chain, but I have found it so convenient that I’m pretty sure I’ll continue with it in the new age. I love that I can sit at my desk to plan my meals based on what I can see is available online (no surprises of an empty shelf or bin, and they offer a choice of replacement options) and then opening the door to the precise groceries I need. I’m amazed at what a good job they do. It actually makes me happy to cook more, and when I think of how much we’re saving on not going out, I love it even more. Not to say I’ll never shop again, or eat out…but then it will be more of a special occasion. I also have a patio staging area where I let things sit for a while, then bring them inside to wash or wipe them down. So overall, in this instance, I DO feel like I’m more in control.

    Let’s hear it for science, and intelligence, and compassion. And let’s get out the vote! If I hear one more ignorant word coming from that so-and-so I will implode…unless it appears to be coming from Sarah Cooper’s mouth!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I confess, Barb, I don’t really cook, so I don’t need much at the grocery store. I’m in and out quickly. We bring in or eat left-overs almost every night! That is as much my husband’s choice as mine. He’s been retired and home with not much to do now for 18 years, so going out to dinner was his daily activity. Guess I just never got into ordering groceries.

      And yes…hooray for science!

    • BB, I’m also having food deliveries and want to do the right thing, how long do you let things sit on the patio before you take them in and wipe them down?

      Boy, I can’t wait for the restaurants to reopen, and indulge in all those creature comforts we took for granted!

    • Betsy, sounds like you’ve got your system and it’s working for you…that’s what it’s all about. And I DO love eating out!

      And Dee, after I unpack the bags and dispose of them, I usually let things in boxes (cereal, crackers, etc.) sit outside for the rest of the day before putting them away in the pantry. Things that need to be refrigerated I bring in right away and wipe them down. I like to think I’m not obsessive, just mindful. I hear the virus doesn’t thrive on food, so it’s the packaging that I’m most careful with.

      • Betsy Pfau says:

        Barb, we eat modestly, and frequent the same restaurants over and over again, but it does offer an escape. I am careful with the take-out items. We wear gloves and masks when we get the food, of course. Take the food right out of the containers, which go straight into my trash barrels in my garage. Then I scrub my hands thoroughly before eating.

        Like you (in your comment to Dana), we have close friends who order in all their groceries and are very careful with them, bought a second fridge so as not to mix newly purchased groceries. She keeps everything apart for two days to ensure safety. And now, with the nice weather, is growing her own veggies. But she’s a wonderful cook. That helps!

  5. Marian says:

    Love recalling the Jewish superstitions, Betsy. Our grandparents from the old country indeed had a lot of them. I never experienced this particular one, but a Jewish friend told me her grandmother put a red bow on her newborn’s cradle. Something to do with repelling the Evil Eye. We were rarely praised or complimented as children due to the superstition you mention.

  6. Suzy says:

    This is a great rundown of superstitions, Betsy. I love the baseball ones, and John’s addendum about no-hitters. I remember learning about not saying “Macbeth” at the theatre, and of course saying “break a leg” and never “good luck” to a performer! And I started to write about the Jewish ones, but you did a better job of it, so I’m glad I deleted it from mine.

    Of course you are right that science is to be believed rather than superstition, but I still won’t tempt fate by saying something overconfident. After all, it must have been because we all said out loud that Hillary was going to win in 2016 that we ended up with the orange monster.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      You are so right about not tempting fate, Suzy! And being over-confident about elections. Let’s do all we can to turn out Blue voters in November. It is not trivial to say “vote as if your life depends on it!”

  7. Well said, Betsy. The way to deal with uncertainty is to embrace it for what it is. Wearing gloves, of course.

  8. Great collection of superstitions, Betsy. You might want to keep a running superstition journal and even extend it to other cultures! It’s only been recently that science has taken over for superstition, and thank goodness for that. Thought your last ‘graph was particularly heartfelt. We are all in the midst of a terrifying pandemic where a vacuum of information can breed superstition. I just recalled Stevie Wonder’s chorus to “Superstition” —
    When you believe in things
    That you don’t understand,
    Then you suffer,
    Superstition aint the way
    Woo!

  9. Laurie Levy says:

    Great story, Betsy. You covered almost every superstition I grew up with. Given where we re at these days, I agree that science is what matters. Now, if we could only convince you know who!

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