Gimme Shelter: Fernsler and Frigga on avoiding the number crunch

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 Looking at the calendar today, it’s important to remember some old common sense: Being superstitious brings bad luck.

Fear of this date is known by some as friggatriskaidekaphobia, pronounced frig-uh-trisk-eye-deck-uh-pho-bee-uh (but you knew that) in tribute to the unhappily named Frigga, a Norse goddess. Why Frigga (I just like saying it) gave her name to freaking out over a date that happens at least once a year  —  twice like 2018 and sometimes three like 2012 — is lost in the blizzards of Scandinavian lore.

The tail end of that boxcar of a description above is the fear of the number 13, and when the numerically squirrelly among us see that number coupled with Friday, they take on an extra measure of dread.

Not only was Christ crucified on a Friday, but the number of diners at the table the night before he was betrayed at the Last Supper was 13. This has sent some hosts and hostesses who are wrapped too tightly  into a panic down the ages when they realize they will be entertaining 12 at table.

“In France,” author Douglas Hill wrote, “it’s still common for a quartorzieme, or 14th diner, to be included at the spur of the moment to round out a dinner party.”

President Franklin Roosevelt was surely not French, but he would never dine with 12 others. His secretary Grace Tully recalled, “The boss was superstitious, especially about the No. 13.” And so Grace was on occasion drafted as a quartorzieme, and had the good fortune to take an impromptu seat at history’s table.

Even institutions dedicated to science and reason succumb to the sinister power of 13. Most hospitals don’t have floors numbered 13. A Stony Brook University Hospital spokesman Greg Filiano, who takes the elevator daily at the hospital, never noticed the numbers, he said to me a while ago, so was asked to take a ride to check.

After the 12th floor, and before the 14th, he got off at “MR,” or Medical Records, he reported.

Believing Friday the 13th is ominous can truly bring bad luck, said Jim Marino, owner of Oyster Bay Travel and past president of the Long Island Association of Travel Agents. Mr. Marino’s faint-hearted customers who’ve realized too late they’re traveling on Frigga’s Day have changed their travel plans.

“They have to pay extra for tickets, stay an extra night in a hotel and their schedules are all screwed up,” he said.

But times have changed and he finds far fewer superstitious people these days than in days past. About the irrationality of the whole thing, Mr. Marino is philosophical.

“The Italians have no fear of Friday the 13th,” he said, but don’t ask them to do anything important on Friday the 17th, or a Spaniard on Tuesday the 13th.

To get to the bottom of this, I consulted with “Dr. 13,” also known as Thomas Fernsler, associate policy scientist at the University of Delaware. “If you can figure out what the hell that [title] means, please let me know,” Professor Fernsler said, adding he’s really a math teacher.

The mathematician has made a career of exploring the number, and the vagaries and mysteries of the Gregorian calendar. “I started looking into it in 1987, which had three Friday the 13ths,” Professor Fernsler said.

He went on discuss other months with exact date patterns and what Leap Year does to numerical models, but I was drifting away like Frigga in a storm of numbers.

Professor Fernsler brought me back by remembering a math teachers’ conference he attended in Philadelphia in October 2000. “It was scheduled over the weekend, and I was to speak on Friday the 13th,” he said, adding he got to Philadelphia the night before and checked into a hotel. And was assigned room 1417.

“Room 1417 was of course a room on the 13th floor of the hotel,” he said.

Math teachers obviously entertain themselves in hotel rooms differently than normal people because Professor Fernsler started playing with the number of his room, finding that 1417 evenly divides by 13. “It goes in 109 times. And if you add the digits of 1417, it equals 13.”

Is he superstitious? “Absolutely not,” the professor said in his gravest associate policy scientist’s tone. “But every time I fly on a commercial airliner, I wear the same socks and shoes, same pants and shirt and same underwear. And my lucky cap.”

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