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I throw salt over my left shoulder, and it's all my mother's fault.

I know, I know.   I know that spilling sodium chloride isn't actually an invitation to the evil spirits lurking about the left side of my body to come out and play.  I know that this odd little custom is the remnant of a Roman practice that originated salt being a rare, precious, and expensive commodity.  I'm fully aware that a modern American, here in the first years of the 21st century, shouldn't be such a slave to an irrational terror of upsetting non-corporeal entities that likely have much better things to do even if they actually do hang out somewhere in the vicinity of my sinister shoulder blade.

I know all this.  I really, truly do.  And yet the habit of scooping up a pinch of spilled salt and tossing it over my left shoulder is so engrained that I can no more not than I can fly through the air.  My mother, God rest her soul, taught me all too well.

Why Mum was so superstitious about this I don't know.  Her sister Betty was the same, making it likely my grandmother's influence, but it may well have been something they picked up in college since none of their brothers did so.  That's not to say that other members of my family didn't have their little rituals against evil; my uncle Lou wore a gorgeous intaglio ring as a talisman against death or injury during the three years he participated in some of the worst combat the world has ever seen, and whether it was actually lucky or not, it's not in dispute that barring a recurring case of malaria he picked up in North Africa, Lou came home in the fall of 1945 safe, sound, and sane.  Betty always believed that the color of one's clothing on significant days mattered, while Mum invariably knocked on wood or the nearest wood grained object to placate the doubtless fascinated dryads and hamadryads that lurked in our furniture and cabinets.

So I come by my salt flinging and wood knocking honestly, even if I freely admit that it's pretty silly.  I also wear Lou's intaglio ring on my left hand, partly to honor his courage and devotion to duty, partly because hey, if it worked for him in a tank destroyer battalion it'll work for me in an office.  I even do my best to wear my favorite color to job interviews and on important days, although that's as much me liking blue as anything else.

I do draw the line at touching a corpse to keep the deceased from haunting me, though, although this may be one of the reasons I've always wanted to be cremated rather than buried.  

Today is the 13th of April.  It's not a Friday, so theoretically this day should not be any less lucky than any others, but as that great philosopher and sage Albert Alligator once said, “Friday 13 come on Saturday this month!”  And since I am my mother's daughter, and the number 13 makes me twitch slightly, tonight I bring you not bad books, but a list of thirteen interests, obsessions, and actions that have brought me comfort, delight, and enlightenment over the course of my life.  Some of these will be familiar to long-time readers of these diaries, while others will be fresh evidence that where other people have logical and organized brains, mine could be charitably described as a "great big heap o' stuff." All have played enough of a part in making me who I am that I would humbly offer them as an offering against melancholy, despair, and ill luck in this year of grace:

Osgood Textiles - this immense fabric warehouse in West Springfield, Massachusetts, is the place to buy cloth in my neck of the woods (and many, many others).  They boast of having over a million bolts of cloth for sale, and given that their main sales space is close to the size of a football field, they're probably right.  They're open late on Thursdays, closed on Saturdays because the third generation co-owner is shomer shabbas, and if they can't find what you want or need, you probably need to visit New York…and even then, I'm not sure you'd find what you were looking for.  They have a particularly fine stock of natural fibers that have all but disappeared from the local Jo-Ann's, so are valuable for that alone.

The Pennsic War - I'm not going this year because of finances, but this gathering of 12,000 members of the Society for Creative Anachronism and associated groups is something that every medieval reenactor/recreationist should take in at least once.  Begun after an early king declared war on himself and lost (don't ask), Pennsic was originally fought for possession of the Barony March of the Debatable Lands, aka Pittsburgh.  My native city is now permanently part of the Kingdom of Aethelmarc, but the War, which lasts two weeks and encompasses everything from classes on all aspects of medieval life to battles fought primarily between the East and the Midrealm, vigils for those being raised to the peerage to church services in the medieval style, food, parties, shopping, parties, fire eater, shopping, royal court, the Ansteorran Chili Party, shopping, the Feast of the Ascension of St. Elvis, classes, music, theater, did I say shopping?….

The Boston Early Music Festival - this huge gathering of early music performers, scholars, instrument makers, and enthusiasts is the largest of its kind in the United States.  Held in odd-numbered years in Boston (duh), the BEMF hosts concerts by some of the leading lights in the world of authentic pre-19th century musical performance, including the Boston Camerata, Jordi Savall, Paul O'Dette, Dame Emma Kirkby, Philippe Jaroussky, and a host of other world-class artists.  Their series of full-staged Baroque operas has become legendary, and after seeing Niobe in 2011 it's easy to see why this event has become so popular.  Particularly wonderful is the sale section, where instrument makers, publishers, and record companies offer rare and wonderful items that simply can't be found anywhere else.

Conbust - this tiny SF and fantasy convention, hosted at the end of March by the Smith College Science Fiction and Fantasy Society, is the perfect late-winter/early spring convention for the geek in all of us:  there are hall costumes, merchants, live action gaming, and a surprisingly high-caliber guest list that regularly includes the likes of author Jane Yolen, Questionable Content artist Jeph Jacques, editor Sharyn November, and plenty of other writers, artists, web comic creators, and fans.  I've been an intermittent panelist for years, have helped my friend K merchant, and generally have a blast.  And if they sometimes make me tell the tragickal saga of the Silence of the Peeps, well, such is the price of being the co-founder of one of my beloved alma mater's oldest and least conventional organizations.

The Miss Florence Diner - this venerable old school diner has been operating in the center of Florence, Massachusetts, right next door to my writing office, since 1941.  It's undergone ownership changes and tweaked its menu over the years, but it's still the best place around to get classic diner fare like from-scratch pies, stews, and the best pancakes in the Pioneer Valley.  My favorites are the turkey burger (served with salsa instead of ketchup…mm, salsa!) and the Patriot breakfast (a single blueberry pancake topped with fresh strawberries and whipped cream), but I've yet to have a bad meal here.  One of the few places that still knows how to make a proper black & white shake.

Dykes to Watch Out For
- Alison Bechdel's late, lamented, and utterly hilarious weekly strip about the lives, loves, and relationships among a group of lesbian feminists and their friends is still one of my favorites.  The characters, from protagonist Mo to perpetual student Ginger, her housemate and drag king champion Lois, and their housemate and activist Sparrow (and Sparrow's boyfriend Stuart, and their daughter JR) on down to minor figures like bookstore owner Jezannah, feminist stripper Babette, and proto-yuppies Toni, Clarice, and their son Rafi, are fully fleshed out, and their stories (buying a house!  Having an elderly and somewhat cracked relative move it!  Lesbian bed-death! Gentrification! Tenure! Caffeine addiction!) are beautifully and deftly told.  

Babylon 5 - I grew up with Star Trek and love it dearly, but this is arguably one of the two or three finest science fiction television series in history.  Written almost entirely by series creator J. Michael Straczynski, this five year look at the politics, history, and culture of a spacegoing Earth and its interactions with alien races boasts wonderful characters, a rich and complex plot, and excellent acting.  The ending "Z'ha'dum," the last episode of the third season, still leaves me gasping, and the final episode of the series, "Sleeping in Light," had me bawling like a child.  Enormously influential and very, very worth tracking down and viewing.

Wistariahurst - this mansion has one of the most unusual stories of any historic house in America:  built by wealthy silk manufacturer William Skinner in 1868 for his wife and children, the original twenty-room mansion survived a devastating flood in 1874 that destroyed Skinner's mill village, killed 141 people, and destroyed homes and factories throughout the Mill River Valley near Northampton.  Skinner, who was 49 and had been starting to slow down a bit, rebuilt his life in nearby Holyoke, including having his almost new house disassembled, loaded onto oxcarts and railroad cars, and rebuilt on a prime lot in his new city.  It's been there ever since, and now boasts a splendid entry hall, a passive solar conservatory, and a 120 seat music room courtesy of his daughter, legendary philanthropist and collector Belle Skinner.  I docent there on Sunday afternoons, so New England Kossacks, come on down and I'll give you a tour you'll never forget!

Smith College
- I first realized that Sophia Smith's "perpetual blessing to the country and the world" was the school for me when I visited the campus in 1977 and found that Smith boasted the biggest library at a school of its size in the East (almost a million volumes then, in four separate libraries).  Even better, it boasted a lively, boisterous, unpretentious student body that did things like uproot the large round stones that lined the campus paths and place them tenderly beneath a Leonard Baskin sculpture of an owl to make it look like the fierce, quarrelsome bird was defending its clutch.  I arrived there in 1978, spent four academically spotting if socially healthy years there, and have lived nearby since 1988.  I regularly use the library (almost 1.5 million volumes now), attend events (see above), and have made my mark on future generations of students by co-founding the campus science fiction club (ditto).  If there is a place I love more than any other, it's this one, the home of my heart and my mind.

American Heritage
- my uncle Oscar started subscribing to this venerable publication in 1955, and I was lucky enough to inherit his nearly complete set after his death.  Brilliant writing, excellent pictures, and a contributor's list that included everyone from Henry Steele Commager to Doris Kearns Goodwin, American Heritage has been a continuing source of sound, fact-based, information on American history for almost sixty years.  Interviews with legends like Father Coughlin (who refused to answer questions about his anti-Semitism, seemingly in the belief that this would help restore his reputation), still-relevant articles on vigilantism that point out that the danger to our Republic has always come more from the right than the left, new research in a popular format…I still read and reread back issues with delight, and collect old ones at tag sales.

Shape note music - this curious, very American phenomenon has its origins in the old "singing schools" of the early Republic.  The lessons imparted by these institutions differed in many crucial ways from the training offered in Europe: the songs were contrapuntal settings of old Puritan hymns, the scale was taught as "fa so la" instead of "do re mi," the lead melody was in the tenor line, and notes were printed in little triangles, diamonds, and squares.  The results could be dire when applied to classical music (imagine Messiah sung with the lead in the tenor.  I dare you), which is shape note singing died out in the East by the Civil War, but it hung on in the South and was revived by folk music collectors in the mid-20th century.  Modern aficionados gather periodically for all-day sings that involve standing in a square and belting out the tunes from The Sacred Harp and similar collections, having a potluck lunch, and then coming back to sing until their voices give out.  

Bumperstickers - I first started slapping bumper stickers on my cars back when I owned a red Honda Civic coupe.  I had bought it off a lease, and after the third time I tried to open someone else's car at the local mall, I realized that I needed some way to distinguish my very common, ordinary little vehicle from all its local clones.  That car had over twenty bumper stickers adorning its bumper, trunk, and even doors by the time I finally donated it to the American Cancer Society, ranging from "Republicans for Voldemort" to "Impeach Bush" to "Veteran of the Pennsic War."  My current car has far fewer, but then again I've only had it for five years, so give me time….

- I first became enamored of the strange, the unnatural, and the just plain weird when I came across a book called High Weirdness By Mail.  Authored by Rev. Ivan Stang of the Church of the Sub-Genius, this fascinating collection of strange cults, off-beat 'zines, music, and art, and fringe politics, all of which would be happy to send you information for the price of a few stamps, amused me so thoroughly that my copy eventually disintegrated.  I've collected more than a few similar books over the years, most notably Roadside America (strange tourist sites, or, where you can find such important artifacts as the World's Largest Ball of String) and The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste (short histories of everything from lousy Hawaiian restaurants to professional wrestling).  As much as I love the fine and the beautiful, I love the odd and the homely more, not that this should be news by now….


And so - do you have any particular superstitions?  A copy of Stevie Wonder's song on your playlist?  Do you knock wood?  Will you admit it?  This is a safe space, so come and share....


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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Apr 13, 2013 at 06:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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