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Dana Parsons

No Matter What You Want to Believe, It's Friday the 13th

September 13, 1996|Dana Parsons

I'm not the superstitious type, preferring paranoia and self-deception as my main modes of reality avoidance.

But today is Friday the 13th, so if only to honor tradition, I'm going nowhere near the two black cats that in recent weeks have made overtures suggesting they want to get to know me better.

I don't think they're related, but who knows, it could be a setup. One shows up almost every night when I get my mail and follows me down the sidewalk, doing its best to walk between my legs until I trip over it or pet it. The other, bigger cat has been lounging on my patio, lolling on the wood floor like the lump he apparently is. My appearance used to provoke a reaction from him, but now nothing short of an unleashed Great Dane could get him to move. I had been petting him until the other night, when after doing so I got back in the house and discovered a flea on my leg.

Is that how black-cat superstition started?

Those of us who scoff at superstition probably shouldn't. Browsing some previous Friday the 13th articles turned up these tidbits:

* A British journal mentions a study showing significantly more traffic accidents on Friday the 13th than on Friday the 6th.

* Franklin Roosevelt avoided leaving on trips on the 13th of the month.

* The ill-fated Apollo 13 mission ran into trouble on April 13. The article also reported that the craft launched at 13:13 hours, but that is too eerie to believe.

The uneasiness over Friday the 13th probably dates to Christian theology, because Christ died on a Friday and 13 people attended the Last Supper. The fear of the number 13 predates Christianity, according to researchers.

One of the articles mentioned that many Americans will be so white-knuckled today that they won't leave their homes. I have that feeling on many days, but it usually relates only to the need to write this column.

Anyway, I found it hard to believe that people would be that bummed today (one article said more than 10% of the public considers Friday the 13th unlucky), so I consulted Marvin Beitner, a Fountain Valley psychologist. He's been practicing in the area for 30 years and says, "I've never run into a patient who wouldn't leave home. I have patients who, when they're scheduled for Friday the 13th, they tend to react. I get the acknowledgment and a little bit of discomfort, but I've never had a patient refuse to come in on the 13th."

Superstitions that seem nutty to most of us have roots in people's desires to control situations, Beitner says. "The basis of all superstitions involves an attempt to somehow control our lives, maintain security and protect ourselves from unanticipated harm," he says. "So, often, things happen over which we have control, so when people are superstitious, in a sense, psychologically, it gives them a feeling of being in control."

If only because they've been around for centuries, superstitions are real. Beitner notes that the ancients consulted oracles before launching a military expedition. Or, they examined the entrails of birds, looking for reassurance.

I suppose a better reporter would have asked Beitner what the entrails would reveal, but I didn't.

Superstitions and phobias can be serious things--Beitner notes that some people are afraid to go more than a block from their homes--while others are either comical or irritating.

In the latter category, I must put Sparky Anderson, former Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers manager and now broadcaster for the Angels.

When going to and from the dugout and the pitcher's mound, Anderson walked at a normal pace until he approached the chalked foul line. At that point, even to the extent of altering his gait, he would make a mincing step over the line, making sure never to step on the chalk.

I don't know if Sparky was superstitious or just a neatness freak, but he drove me nuts when he did it.

Then again, baseball and probably all sports are notorious for their superstitions, such as players not changing their sweaty underwear if they're hitting well. If you see a ballplayer who's on a tear and is sitting by himself at the end of the bench, with no other players anywhere near, you can be pretty sure he's superstitious.

What if everyone was like that? Imagine the workplace if everyone who had a good week refused to change their underwear, for fear of breaking the streak?

On second thought, enough about superstitions.

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at the Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.

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