The Non-Expert

Photograph by Alex Vinter

The Superstitious Life

Experts answer what they know. The Non-Expert answers anything. In honor of Friday the 13th, we coach a reader on effective use of superstition.

Have a question? Need some advice? Ignored by everyone else? Send us your questions via email. The Non-Expert handles all subjects and is updated on Fridays, and is written by a member of The Morning News staff.


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Question: Over the past few years I’ve developed a weird superstition—well, maybe it’s not all that weird—where I always get out of bed on my right side. Whenever I get out on the left—and this part is weird—I’ve noticed that I have bad days, get bad news, etc. I’d like to break myself of the habit. How should I do it? Thanks, Kevin

Answer: Whatever you do, don’t break that habit—you’ve already stumbled on no. 8 of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Superstitious People. (Four, being bad luck in Japan, is skipped. We considered making two no. 7’s, since it’s such a lucky number, but that would be confusing.)

Habit no. 1 comes to us from Pliny the Elder, who tells us in his Natural History that “if you have wounded a man and are sorry for it, you have only to spit on the hand that gave the wound, and the pain of the sufferer will be instantly alleviated.” This is particularly useful if your career involves wounding a lot of people, such as cage-fighting or surgery. Your victims will appreciate the effort, and you may find them coming back for more. Pliny obviously followed this advice, because whether he wounded many people or not, he rose to great acclaim in ancient Rome.

Wise people the world over recognize that volcanoes contain demons, hell, or at least lots of molten rock, and they stay away.Of course, Pliny the Elder died in Stabiae, during the fiery first-century eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Which leads to habit no. 2: Don’t live near active volcanoes. Wise people the world over recognize that volcanoes contain demons, hell, or at least lots of molten rock, and they stay away. Call it superstition, call it just plain sense, but the most effective people in history—Attila the Hun, Casanova, Donald Trump—all lived far away from active volcanoes. Indeed, no one on the Fortune 100 list of the world’s wealthiest people has ever died in a volcanic eruption.

Habit no. 3: Never step on a crack. This doesn’t have much to do with being effective, but as we all know, step on a crack, break your mother’s back, and no one wants to be an asshole.

Habit no. 5: Eat peanut butter. Not clear whether this links to an actual superstition, but lots of people I know who are both very effective and very superstitious like the goobers. Go figure.

Habit no. 6: Always carry salt. One of those little paper packets you get on transatlantic flights will do, though I usually carry at least a tablespoon on me. There are just so many needs for the stuff. Sometimes you’ll need it for throwing over your left shoulder, to blind any pesky devils looking to make you ineffective. Sometimes you need it to sprinkle into the coffin of a recently deceased loved one—again, devils. Sometimes you need it because the mashed potatoes are a little dry and tasteless. The point is, you never know when you’ll need salt, and to be highly effective, you need to be highly prepared—and that means carrying salt.

In the same vein, habit no. 7: Always carry a black cat. Cats, like salt, are pretty useful. It’s not as easy as carrying salt, but all you need is a small kitten, and those will fit nicely in a fanny pack or medium-sized purse. Aren’t black cats bad luck, you say? Ah, yes, but only if they cross your path. If you’re already packing kitten, though, other cats are going to stay away—after all, you’re the dude with a cat in a bag, and nothing good can come from getting too close to that. (Note: Whatever you do, don’t swing the bag, or your hips if you’re sporting a fanny pack, out in front of you; according to the Superstition Code S.C. 413.b.1, that technically counts as letting the kitten cross your path.) Also, if you’ve got a cat in your bag, that’s one fewer cat out there to guard against. Very effective.

And, of course, habit no. 8: Always, always get out of bed on the right side. My wife sleeps on the left side, and she is usually pretty cranky in the morning—although less so since I switched sides and stopped climbing over her so I could get out on the left side, too. Usually she would end up kneeing me in the groin, which, I found, is a highly inauspicious way to start the day.

Like you, Kevin, I used to be Mr. Bad Luck. But now I sleep with a cat, a bag of salt, and a jar of peanut butter. My wife has left me, I get a good night’s sleep, and my groin is in much less pain. Follow these simple habits, Kevin, and I promise the same for you.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen