A Rational, Scientific Explanation of Luck

I don't see the point in good luck charms. I don't believe a little trinket can bring good luck, so I've never carried one.

Sure, there are times I wanted a good luck charm, but rational scientific thinking stopped me. How can a fake crystal strung on a cheap necklace made in China, which I bought from a street vendor for five bucks, affect whether the entire universe will grant me favor?

Actually, I do carry one good luck charm in my wallet: a $2 bill my mother-in-law gave me many years ago. It's a reminder of her hopes for me, more than a belief that my efforts will fail if I forget my wallet. Of course, I take my wallet with me everywhere, so we'll never know, will we?

Carrying items for good luck is completely different from preventing bad luck. Everyone knows that. But you don't do it with charms or little tchotchkes in your pocket. That's just silly.

Instead you speak little incantations, make signs with your hands, or complete some small action to ward off evil spirits.

This is also rational, scientific thinking, because I read it in the back of a magazine at the supermarket checkout line. And if it's in print, it must be true.

See? Rational and scientific.

When I was growing up, there was a girl in our school that everyone called "Smelly Shelley." She didn't actually smell, she just had the misfortune of having a name that rhymed, and as 9-year-olds, we lacked imagination. Also, she was a bully and picked on us a lot.

The sidewalk on the way to school had two sidewalk squares with manhole covers in them. We declared these the Smelly Shelley Squares, and said if you stepped in them, it meant you liked her. It also meant other awful things would happen, but we were pretty vague on what those were.

When you're nine, the worst thing that can happen to you is liking another girl.

At that age, liking a girl was terrible, but liking this particular girl was the kiss of death, mostly because she would pound you. We all avoided the Smelly Shelley squares so consistently that we wore little paths in the grass.

Once, when I was in college, I walked from my dad's to my old elementary school, and walked around the squares, both ways. Old habits die hard, and I didn't want Shelley to pound me.

Theater people — a particularly superstitious lot who rank right up there with gypsies and baseball players — are very concerned about avoiding bad luck. They have an encyclopedic knowledge of Things One Must Not Do In The Thea-tah.

Like never turning off the Ghost Light, a light that is left on onstage, to keep away mischievous spirits. Or not whistling in the theater to prevent sandbags from falling on you. Or saying a theater is "dark" rather than "closed," because it could bring down plagues. Or never, ever saying the name "Macbeth." Instead, one refers to Shakespeare's work as "The Scottish Play."

In fact, if you say "Macbeth" or quote lines from the play inside a theater (other than when actually performing it), you must go outside, turn counterclockwise three times, swear (or spit), and then knock to be readmitted.

There's also the tradition of saying "break a leg" before a show, because wishing someone good luck is actually bad luck. It can catch the attention of the theater Sprites, who like to do the opposite of whatever is asked for.

If you wish someone good luck, the Sprites can cause bad luck. Instead, you wish someone bad luck so as to confuse the Sprites, and have them bring good luck.

Theater Sprites are not very smart, and can easily be tricked into doing things for other people, like helping friends move on the weekend or taking them to the airport.

Which raises the question, are there degrees of wishing someone good luck through bad luck? If I only want someone to do a little well, should I say "get a hangnail?" Or if I want them to do really, really well, do I shout at them to "FALL IN A DITCH AND DIE!?"

Should this tradition carry on outside the theater into any public performance? Should I tell public speakers at a conference to "get a concussion?" Or musicians to "get laryngitis?"

Maybe it's not such a bad practice. Theater Sprites seem to follow people around sometimes. We can trick them by wishing the opposite of what we want to have happen.

So, if you're reading this column, I hope you DO cut your finger, get ink poisoning, and have your hand amputated.

See? Rational, scientific, AND thoughtful.

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