“If it wasn’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all”

On Thanksgiving Day, I broke a mirror.

The mirror was in our storage shed/workshop, a structure that was replaced in 2017 after an electrical fire. Many of the materials stored in that shed until the fire were discarded, leaving room for the shed to function also as a dance studio for my daughters. Their mirror was tall and narrow, the kind of mirror people often attach inside a bedroom door or bathroom door so they can see how their clothing looks from head to toe. Needless to say, the mirror was also helpful for their dance practices.

I was preparing to cook the Thanksgiving turkey. I always cook the turkey outdoors over charcoal, leaving the oven in the kitchen free for bread, muffins, vegetable casseroles, pies, or whatever else the other cooks have on the menu. Rather than using starter fluid, I ignite the coals with an electric coil. Since I locate the grill a safe distance from any other structure, I need a long electrical cord to work the starter coil. On Thanksgiving, I was leaning over the mirror to plug the extension cord into the outlet when I bumped the mirror and it fell forward, shattering on the shed/dance studio floor.

I am not superstitious. Borrowing a joke from baseball manager Joe Madden, I’m not even “just a little stitious.” I agree with the adage, “It’s bad luck to be superstitious.” We have a black cat in our household; it crosses my path several times a day without bringing me bad luck. Friday the thirteenth is just another day on the calendar. I don’t bother to knock on wood after saying that things have been going well so far. Breaking a mirror is an inconvenience, and replacing the mirror is an expense, but I’m not worried about seven years of bad luck. (Although I did gash one of my fingers picking up the pieces of the broken mirror, a wound that had to be bandaged for the next five days.)

If there were any truth to the superstition that breaking a mirror brings seven years of bad luck, I would like to declare the bad luck retroactive to the breaking of this mirror. I would like to cancel the bad luck of the last three thousand days, extending back to the start of the Mayan Apocalypse in October 2012. In particular, I would like to cancel the shed fire, the various automotive troubles the family has faced, and a few other disappointments along the way. Failing a cancellation of the past, I would like the broken mirror to signal an end to seven years of bad luck. No more quarantines, no more rigged elections (or accusations of the same), no more dark nights of the soul.

Life is too complex to blame bad luck on black cats or broken mirrors. In spite of the darkness, a number of good things have happened in the past seven years. My children have received college diplomas and have started jobs. Our family debts—pretty serious at the start of the Mayan Apocalypse—have been paid. I’ve written and published a few books. Yes, things could be better, but they could also be a lot worse.

On Thanksgiving Day, I broke a mirror. The pieces have been hauled away with the family trash, and a new mirror has been purchased and put in the shed. The turkey was eaten and enjoyed. My finger has healed. Christmas decorations have gone up, Christmas gifts have been bought (but not yet wrapped), and Christmas cookies are being baked. Our annual Christmas party at work has been replaced with a gift card—for an introvert like me, that’s a win. We won’t be traveling this Christmas season to spend time with family—a mixed blessing, since I’d like to see these people, but also a massive reprieve from stress and tension. The end of the year is coming. I hate to put too much pressure on New Year’s Day and the change of calendars, but closing the book on 2020 may provide a boost of morale. Life goes on, the good with the bad. What more is there to say? J.

Pennant? Yes. Championship? Probably not.

I’m sure every American has heard these numbers repeatedly, for what seems like thousands of times: until this month the Chicago Cubs have not won the National League pennant since 1945—that is 71 years—and they have not won the championship in the World Series since 1908—that is 108 years. No other professional sports team in the United States has existed for one hundred years or more without winning a championship. Those teams that have never won a championship have existed for only a few decades or less.

I am a Cubs fan. I have been watching every game they played in the play-offs this month, although I had to join some games late because of classes I teach. I have been wearing blue every day this month. The Cubs and baseball have been on my mind day and night, yet I have not written a word about them to anyone—not on this blog, not on Facebook, not even in an email to family or friends. Why this silence? I have not written about the Cubs because of a personal superstition.

I am not normally a superstitious person. I share my house with a black cat and we cross paths often. I treat Friday the 13th like any other Friday. Yet as a baseball fan, I do follow certain superstitions, and one of those involves the fact that, whenever I write something about the Cubs, they immediately begin losing.

Now superstitions are the scientific method gone wrong. The scientific method is observation, interpretation, and testing the interpretation with predictions. Biologists and chemists and sociologists all use this method to learn about what they are studying. Why did something happen? Can we observe it happening, interpret its cause, and make predictions based on that interpretation? If the predictions come to be, we believe that our interpretation is valid. Every superstition involves some sense of cause and effect that is mistaken. Superstitious people do certain things expecting certain results, but other observers can see no connection between the actions and the results.

Not every tradition or custom is a superstition. When driving on the highway, I always look over my shoulder before changing lanes. A person who knew nothing about traffic might call that action a superstition, but I know that looking over my shoulder reduces the chance that my car will collide with another car.

Baseball superstitions are based on observations that appear to be cause and effect. Two friends are attending a game and their favored team is losing. Late in the game they exchange seats, and their team pulls ahead and wins the game. If this happens a second time, they will probably exchange seats every time they are at a game and their team is losing.

It is considered bad luck to mention that the pitcher is pitching a no-hitter. Many announcers scorn this superstition because they believe that they have a duty to keep their audience informed. Many fans groan when an announcer mentions the no-hitter, because often the other team gets a hit right after the no-hitter is mentioned. My father says it is bad luck for a pitcher to strike out the first hitter of the game. I have heard no one else mention this superstition, but I have observed that the prediction came true twice this month for the Cubs—both times the pitcher for the Cubs struck out the first batter of the game, the Cubs lost that game.

Whenever I write about the Cubs, they begin losing. Therefore, I have not written about the Cubs all this year. They won 103 games, which is a very good record for the regular season. They beat the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers to earn the National League pennant. Now they are in the World Series against the Cleveland Indians. But the Indians have won three of the four games played so far; to win the championship, the Cubs need to win three more games. If they lose just one more game, the World Series is over and the Indians have won.

A sage has said, “It’s bad luck to be superstitious.” Like fans who exchange seats to try to reverse the luck of their team, I’ve tried to reverse the Cubs fortune. If I fly a Cubs flag and they win, I fly it again for the next game; but if they lose, I put it away. If they lose while the flag is away, I fly it again for the next game.

Researchers say that sports superstitions serve a purpose: they allow fans to feel as though they take part in the teams’ successes. Superstitions allow fans to say “we won!” instead of “they won!” after a game. Obviously, the reverse is true: when a team loses, the team’s fans might blame themselves. This is why it is also healthy for fans to remind themselves, “It’s only a game.” Fans root for their team, they celebrate the wins, and life goes on in spite of the losses.

My name is Salvageable, and I am a Cubs fan. J.

Baseball talk

As of this writing (July 4, 2016), the Chicago Cubs and the San Francisco Giants are the best teams in the National League. The Cubs have the best winning percentage; the Giants, who have played three more games than the Cubs, have one more win than the Cubs. An old tradition said that the team leading the league on the fourth of July would win the pennant. I know that tradition did not always hold true before the creation of divisions, although I suspect it was true more than half the time. Since the creation of divisions it has definitely been true less than half the time. Often, even the team with the best record at the end of the regular season does not win the pennant.

The Cubs and the Giants each have patterns that might determine their path to the pennant. The Giants have won the pennant and championship on all the even-numbered years of the decade so far (2010, 2012, and 2014). The Cubs’ pattern is more complex. Since divisions and playoff series were invented, the Cubs have reached the playoff games seven times. Each time they have been eliminated by a different team. On two occasions they met a team in the playoffs which had eliminated them in a previous year. Both times the Cubs defeated that team—the Giants in a one-game tiebreaker in 1998, and the Atlanta Braves in 2003. Last year’s playoffs demonstrated that the Cubs are not eliminated by a team in their own division. That leaves only three teams that can deny them the pennant: the Colorado Rockies, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Washington Nationals.

Many baseball games remain to be played in July, August, and September. In the current standings, though, the Rockies and the Phillies are no threat to enter the playoffs. On the other hand, the Nationals lead the East Division of the National League. If the standings remain unchanged after the last games of the season, the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets would play for the Wild Card slot, with the winner playing against the Cubs. The Nationals and Giants would face each other.

Giants fans might believe that destiny is on their side, since 2016 is an even number. Given the Cubs’ pattern dating back to 1984, I would cheer for the Giants to beat the Nationals while the Cubs beat the Wild Card team. A Cubs-Giants match-up would favor the Cubs, since the Giants barred them from the pennant in 1989. A Cubs-Nationals match-up would favor the Nationals, since they have never kept the Cubs from advancing through the playoffs to the pennant.

In addition, the “Murphy” factor would remain in play for the Nationals. According to tradition, a billy goat named Murphy was barred from Wrigley Field in either 1908 or 1945, and Murphy’s owner cursed the Cubs, saying that they would never be champions again. In 1984, the first time the Cubs played in the National League playoffs, they were within one win of the pennant, but they lost three straight games in Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego. Last year the Cubs were winning solidly in the playoffs until the met the New York Mets. The Mets’ offensive hero of their four victories over the Cubs was Daniel Murphy, who hit a home run in each of the games. Murphy now plays for the Nationals (and, as of July 4, had the best hitting percentage in the National League).

Real baseball is played on the field, but baseball traditions and superstitions are almost as fun as the game. The Cubs were on a record-breaking pace until injuries slowed them late in June; they are still likely to reach the playoffs where they will strive once again to earn a National League pennant and, of course, a world championship. Go, Cubs, go! J.


Cubs fan

I finally am saying it: I am a fan of the Chicago Cubs. I am a Cubs fan, I always have been a Cubs fan, and I always will be a Cubs fan.

I am not ashamed of my loyalty. I proudly wear their cap and T-shirt, I fly their flag, and when I can I watch their games. But I have not written about the Cubs this year because I did not want to jinx them while they were playing. My very first post mentioned the Cubs, and they lost on opening day. Since then, I have written nothing about the Cubs—nothing on this blog, nothing on social media, nothing even in letters to my family. The misfortune of the Chicago Bulls after I wrote a blog post about them made me more determined not to bring disaster on the Cubs of 2015. Now that we are back in the season of “wait until next year,” I can proclaim my pride in this year’s team and my high esteem for all the Cubs teams, both good and bad, that I have watched over the years.

Cubs fans speak more about the near-successes than about the losing seasons. I remember the Cubs of 1969: Ernie Banks, Glenn Beckert, Don Kessinger, Ron Santo, Randy Hundley, Billy Williams, and Fergie Jenkins. They were far ahead of their opposition that summer, but they wilted in the August heat and were overtaken by the dreaded New York Mets. I remember the playoffs of 1984 when the Cubs won the first two games against the San Diego Padres only to be beaten three straight times. In 1989 it was the turn of the San Francisco Giants. Then came the Atlanta Braves in 1998. In 2003, the Cubs were within five outs of winning the National League pennant, but once again it was not to be. The Florida Marlins prevailed in that series. Then came the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2007 and 2008. This year it was the turn of the Mets.

Every time the Cubs lost their chance at the pennant to a rival from another National League division, they have lost to a different team. In 1998 they defeated the Giants in a one-game play-off, and in 2003 they got past the Atlanta Braves. This year they proved that they cannot be restrained by divisional rivals in the playoffs, as they won against the Pirates and the Cardinals. This leaves only three National League teams that can deny them a pennant: the Washington Nationals, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Colorado Rockies. When the Cubs make the playoffs and none of those three teams stand in their way, they are sure to win it all.

Most of the players we saw this year will probably achieve that goal. They have assembled a very talented team of young players; barring severe injuries to more than one of their rising stars, the Cubs are going to be even better in the next few years to come. The Mets prevailed with superb young pitching, and Cubs fans expect a new pitcher or two to join the team over the winter, either through a free-agent signing or through a trade.

The Cubs were one of the first professional baseball teams organized. Their best streak was in 1906-1908, in which they won three pennants and two championships. Notoriously, the Cubs have not won a championship since 1908, making them the only professional team in any sport that has existed for one hundred years without winning a championship at least once in those hundred years. The Cubs have not even been in the World Series since 1945, meaning that the majority of their fans have never seen the Cubs play in a World Series game.

Being a Cubs fan involves endurance, faith, hope, and great inner strength. When the Cubs are doing well, their fans are careful not to change anything, for fear of breaking the magic. During their playoff games this year I did not even replace burned-out light bulbs in my house. When the Cubs do poorly, especially those years when they have done well to raise expectations, a Cub fan will blame himself or herself for breaking the magic. By Friday October 16, all my blue socks were in the laundry and I had to wear different colored socks Saturday and Sunday. That may have turned the tide for the hitherto unstoppable Cubs.

A Cubs fan might blame himself or herself, but real Cubs fans do not blame other Cubs fans. The fan who tried to catch a foul ball in the playoff game against the Marlins did nothing wrong, and no real fan of the Cubs blames him. Most of the blame is media-generated, since the media loves a good story. I have been told more than once that “it’s bad luck to be superstitious,” and I try my best not to bring more bad luck upon the Cubs with my silly superstitions. Even so, I did my best to help by writing nothing about them all year.

Until now. Now, even though they lost to the Mets, they still had a wonderfully successful season. I am proud to be a Cubs fan, and I look forward to more successes on their part in the years to come. J.

Magical thinking and sports superstitions

[Note: this post was written a few days ago, but I waited to post it because I did not want to jinx my team.]

The phrase “magical thinking” has slightly different meanings when it is used in different contexts. In the context of mental and emotional health, magical thinking is a symptom of various disorders, including OCD. A person who expects things to change just because of thoughts in that person’s head or actions that person does, in spite of the fact that there is no connection between the thoughts or actions and the expected change, is subject to magical thinking. Let me add two thoughts to this paragraph. First, I am not an expert in psychology, and other people can explain this symptom better than I can. Second, I am in no way mocking anyone suffering from a disorder that includes magical thinking. What I am writing is sincere, and it is largely based on observing my own thoughts and actions.

In the sports world, many athletes have customs so ingrained that they are considered superstitious. Some pitchers, for example, will be careful to enter and leave the baseball field jumping over the chalk line instead of stepping on it. Some batters will continue to wear the same socks every game as long as they are in a hitting streak. It is considered bad luck to talk to a pitcher who is pitching so well that the other team has not gotten a hit. Many other customs are followed by athletes, even though their customs should have nothing to do with their performance. Some studies indicate that these superstitions become self-fulfilling prophecies. People perform better in sports when they have been convinced that luck is on their side.

The athletes are not the only ones who are superstitious. Fans can also believe that their traditions or actions might affect the outcome of a game. If two fans go to the ballpark and their team is losing, they might exchange seats to see if that changes the team’s luck. Many fans, in the ballpark and watching on television, believe that the clothes they are wearing will bring their team luck. Some fans even choose not to attend the games because “they lose every time I come to the ballpark.”

The Chicago Bulls won enough games this season to enter the basketball playoffs. Their first opponent was the Milwaukee Bucks.  I was able to watch the first two games, both of which the Bulls won. The third game was not available where I live, but I checked the internet for the score a few times during the game, and the Bulls won that game too.

The Chicago Bulls won six championships back in the 1990s when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were on the team. My children and I watched the games on television, and we had a bowl of pretzels for a snack. To keep the children from emptying the bowl early in the game, I limited the number of pretzels each could eat. Somehow we started the custom of each eating one pretzel after one of the Bulls players had done something especially well. “Give that man a pretzel,” I would say, and we each would eat a pretzel.

So, after the third victory, I went to the grocery store and bought a bag of pretzels. During the fourth game, I ate a pretzel for every basket and every good defensive move by a Bulls player. The Bulls lost that game, but it was a close game. For the next game, I watched again with my bag of pretzels, again eating a pretzel for every good play. They lost again.

For the sixth game, I decided to leave my pretzels upstairs. This time the Bulls won, meaning that they would next play the Cleveland Cavaliers. For the first game of that series, I again left the pretzels upstairs. The Bulls won the game.

Can you see where this is going? There is no way that my eating pretzels or not eating pretzels can change the course of a professional basketball game. Even so, I want the Bulls to win, and if they lose while I am eating pretzels, then I will not eat a pretzel on game day.

For this reason, when the Bulls lost their second game to Cleveland, I went upstairs after the game and ate some pretzels. Magical thinking or not, I will do everything I can to help the team win another championship.


[Postscript: The day after I wrote this post, the Bulls began a three-game losing streak that knocked them out of the playoffs. Feel free to tell me that it’s not my fault; I won’t believe you. J.]