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The Single Pancake Theory

By Ron Scopelliti

So I was in a diner trying to decide whether to order a single pancake or eggs, when my thoughts turned to scaffolding. I realize this seems like an unusual move on the part of my brain, but having lived with it for all these years I’ve gotten used to my thoughts taking unusual turns.

In this case, scaffolding came to mind because a few weeks ago in Providence I was walking on a sidewalk and approached a scaffold that had several levels and a bunch of guys working on it. The sidewalk was wide enough that I had the option of either walking under the scaffold or walking alongside it, and it took me a moment to decide. I figured if I walked under it I was less likely to be hit by a dropped hammer, but there was the potential for paint to drip between the planks and land on me. I reasoned that the paint would hurt less, so I went under.

Then, I wondered whether walking under scaffolding was a violation of the “walking under a ladder” superstition. I felt that the choice I made was obviously the logical one, but superstition is by its nature at odds with logic. Being a creature of logic, superstition shouldn’t have even entered my mind, but it did.

I have a strange relationship with superstitions because I don’t actually believe in them, but I like them. They make us question our relationship with the universe, and look for order where there probably is none. They challenge our typical notions of cause and effect.

I have this longstanding hobby of over examining superstitions, and analyzing their rules. For instance, many years ago I wrote a column about seeing a penny in the parking lot, and not wanting to pick it up because it was tails up. I’d always heard it was good luck if you found a penny heads up. But I wasn’t sure if it was necessarily bad luck to pick it up if it were tails up, or if there was no change in your luck, and you just ended up one penny ahead.

I made my own modification to the penny superstition a few days after the scaffold incident when I dropped a penny on a stairway and it landed tails up. I decided the proper thing to do when you see a tails-up penny is to pick it up, turn it to heads, and leave it there to give someone else good luck. So that’s what I did, taking the extra step of putting it up on the bannister because I didn’t want anyone to slip on it.

Having spent many happy years living with a black cat, I shouldn’t give a second thought to superstitions. But I think about them all the time. How did they develop? Has there ever been any empirical evidence for any of them? Did, for instance, anyone ever look for a correlation between women with broken backs, and their offspring stepping on cracks in the sidewalk?

How exact are they? If you break a mirror do you get exactly seven years of bad luck, or is there some wiggle room? And, does the bad luck start after the breaking of the mirror, or is the act of breaking it part of the bad luck.

Are superstitions cumulative? If you walk under a ladder, could that cause you to break a mirror, resulting in seven years of bad luck which might include inadvertently stepping on a crack and breaking your mother’s back?

Anyway, the reason my choice between a pancake and eggs set off this line of thought was because a friend that I worked with many years ago thought it was bad luck to order a single pancake. I’d forgotten about this superstition until another friend recently reminded me.

I’ve been violating it for years because there are certain places where the pancakes are so big that I’m perfectly satisfied to eat one, and two will leave me stuffed. But I wondered if I’d only gotten away with ordering single pancakes for all those years because I didn’t remember that I was violating a superstition. Now that I was willingly considering defying it, would ordering a single pancake bring me bad luck?

I reasoned that there must be somebody else out there in a similar situation, also ready to defy the single-pancake taboo. So I’d order one pancake with the hope that it would be cosmically connected, through some quirk of quantum entanglement or metaphysics, with another single-pancake order somewhere in the world. Surely the ethereal arbiters of karma and luck would see the spiritual unity of the two orders and spare myself and the other single-pancake diner any bad luck – there must be some sort of overriding, universal justice to make it so.

“On second thought,” I decided, “I’ll have the eggs.”