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Gimme Shelter: Are you superstitious?

This column appeared in a slightly different form on January 13, 2017.

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 as friggatriskaidekaphobia, pronounced frig-uh-trisk-eye-deck-uh-pho-bee-uh (I think) 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 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 a Friday, they take on an extra weight 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 tight 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 exactly 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. For example, most hospitals don’t have floors numbered 13. 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, and 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 a travel agent friend of mine, noting that some customers who’ve realized too late that 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, my friend is philosophical.

“The Italians have no fear of Friday the 13th,” he said, but beware of asking  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 13, 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 once attended in Philadelphia. “It was scheduled over a 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.”