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fandom and superstition

Love hurts. This post is an attempt at catharsis.

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There is a hockey tradition that dates back to the 1980’s New York Islanders teams that won four consecutive Stanley Cups. As the tail end of the regular season approaches and teams begin their postseason push, players and hockey fans alike forego their personal hygiene and grow out playoff beards. The etiquette differs slightly — some fans shave on the last day of the regular season; others stop shaving as soon as their team clinches a playoff berth. But all agree that as long as their team remains alive in its quest for the Cup, shaving is verboten.

D’s Russian upbringing makes him particularly susceptible to superstitions, so it is no surprise that he grows a playoff beard devoutly — even in the face of empirical evidence that doing so has rarely produced a championship win for his team and the knowledge that his behavior has no impact whatsoever on the outcome of the games. Over the years S has learned to incorporate Russian superstitions into her life as well, no matter how silly they seem. Here is but a small smattering of the omens we observe:

  • Before traveling, it is absolutely imperative to sit in silence for a moment.
  • God forbid we forget anything when leaving the house, because it is bad luck to return for something. 
  • Of course, any true hex will have a counter-jinx, so if the forgotten item is indispensable one may return for it, provided that one also looks into a mirror prior to leaving the house again. Even though mirrors seems to absorb some of the bad energy caused by returning into the house, it goes without saying that the journey would be a lot more conspicuous if one never returned for the forgotten item.
  • Knocking on wood is good, but by itself may not prevent a jinx, so pretend-spitting is helpful, as is knocking on one’s head when no wooden item avails itself.
  • Thresholds apparently have dark, magical powers, because it is very bad luck to greet anyone over a threshold.

The list goes on and on…

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Obsessed with sports as a teenager, D has largely let his sports affiliations fade. He stopped watching NBA basketball too long ago to remember, and some years even misses the Super Bowl, America’s grandest sporting event. In high school, D regularly spent his spare change on upper deck or bleacher seats at Yankee Stadium, and skipped class to attend Yankees parades when the Bronx Bombers won the World Series. Nowadays, D barely even keeps an eye on the standings and can’t remember the last time he watched a Yankees game from start to finish.

There is, of course an easy explanation: time, distance, and perspective. It is difficult to remain involved when one lives half a world and seven timezones away. It also feels a little trivial to expand a lot of energy and passion on sports when so much else is going on in the world that is more deserving of one’s attention and time. And yet, professional sports have the same kind of draw that Durkheim attributed to organized religion — the power of worshipping and praying together; the power of social identity and the intoxicating feeling of belonging to something larger than oneself. How else to explain the scene D recalls vividly from his graduate school orientation when, asked to briefly introduce themselves by giving their name, origin, and one interesting fact about themselves, many of D’s classmates — a cohort of brilliant, dynamic young people — gave variations on the same sports theme, e.g. “I am from Indianapolis and I hate the New England Patriots.”

Although D’s interest in professional sports has dwindled over the years, there is one team to which he remains hopelessly devoted. It is the kind of devotion that is born of years of enduring misery (nearly every hockey game D attended in college ended in a lopsided loss for his Pittsburgh Penguins) and a brief taste of glory (the Penguins twice survived bankruptcy and a lengthy rebuild to finally hoist the Cup in 2009). And so, despite being half a world and seven timezones away, D grew out his beard again and was up at 2am to watch all but two of the Penguins’ 13 playoff games this year.

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And it was with a heavy heart, and a rather dull blade, that D shaved off his beard after the Penguins were eliminated from the playoffs.

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