Growing up was accompanied by learning fired at us from all angles. Most of it was real; other stuff, fired by kids and relatives, was not so real. One of those, and, seemingly most important was the maternal bit of wisdom, from mothers, grandmothers, and other female persons. These were later discovered to be “bubbameisters” or “old wives’ tales.” The males were occupied with sports, politics and, in my case, the price of hindquarters of beef.
We did not immediately learn the separation of fact from fiction and superstition. We learned the irrefutable law according to mom or grandma, and there was no appeal to a higher court or being. Thus, we followed the dictates of the bubbameisters until, and unless, we learned better. Today, we not only have the joy of bubbameisters, but also other supposedly unchallengeable truths.
Let’s begin with the bubbameisters. In the old days, as summer approached, the kids looked forward to the beach or a community swimming pool. Aha! The irrefutable household law proclaimed, “No swimming before the Fourth of July!” and, to complete the proclamation, “No swimming after Labor Day!” This was all compounded by the quite rational yearly fear of polio, which was always equated with the onset of summer. We were taught that polio came from swimming pools and their ilk.
The usual superstitions persisted – some to this day – don’t walk under ladders, avoid the dreaded number 13, don’t step on cracks on the sidewalk, don’t whistle indoors (I believe this was more because the off-key noise drove everyone stark mad), and never let a black cat cross your path. Some of these superstitions transcend cultures in slightly altered forms. In Japan, for example, the number four is deadly. There are no sets of dishes in fours; golf balls never have a number four, and so on. In China, however, four is fine. There’s another bad number lurking somewhere.
So far, this was all harmless enough, although when Mom was living on the 14th floor of an east coast high rise it was not good when we pointed out that she was really on the 13th floor since the building skipped the 13th floor designation. Horrors!
The 20th century and early 21st century bubbameisters have been supplemented by stuff that sounds good, until you peel away the onion skin and get to a very rotten core. Try the sportscaster/sportswriter special, “The (fill in the name of a team) now control their own destiny.” Right on…oops, there’s something wrong. According to friend Noah Webster (unabridged no less): “destiny” is a “state or condition appointed or predetermined; ultimate fate…” Sportscasters and sportswriters pay heed: if something is predetermined or ultimate fate, it cannot be controlled. Sorry, guys and gals.
How about two which are a bit related? “Drink eight glasses of water a day” and “Celery has negative calories”. Who says? Yes, water (if clean, pure and all that) is good for you, but what genius settled on eight glasses? Note that we are never even told what size glasses! Negative calories? Horse-hockey. There is no such animal.
There’s one that can get pretty serious if taken as a universal truth. How many times have we heard, “There are two sides to every story”? Whoa, think about it. It’s simply not always correct. Consider, for example, what’s the other side of child molestation? There isn’t any.
The moral of the bubbameisters story, if any, is that we should question what we hear presented as fact over and over again. Maybe it’s true; maybe not.
By the way, I’m not at all superstitious. I don’t walk under ladders; I never wore number 13; I avoid black cats about to cross in front of me. That’s not superstition. I just don’t like to take chances.