Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Groundhog Day & Other Rituals

Today is Groundhog DayToday is Groundhog Day, that day when folks gather in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to watch a groundhog emerge from its burrow to deliver a weather prediction for the next six weeks. Actually it looks like such gatherings are occurring in dozens of cities this morning, as apparently “Punxsutawney Phil” is no longer the sole authority when it comes to rodent meteorologists these days.

If the groundhog does not see his shadow, he’ll scurry on out of the burrow, an action that is taken to signify that winter will be ending soon. If he does see his shadow, he’ll turn tail and run back down the hole, meaning we are to expect six more weeks of winter (as the calendar had already indicated).

I always thought that seemed a little counterintuitive, in that seeing a shadow would mean the sun is out, which would perhaps suggest in a more direct way that winter weather might be giving way to spring. Then again, we’re getting our weather forecasts from an animal that allegedly gets frightened at the sight of his own shadow, so perhaps it is best not to be so fussy about such things.

The real value of such rituals lies elsewhere, I suppose. Groundhog Day has origins that date back well into the 19th century, but it doesn’t appear that anyone ever really planned his or her life according to the prediction. Rather, the event is an occasion for an annual social gathering, perhaps some PR for the hosting city (which explains why other places than Punxsutawney are getting into the act), and other more tangible benefits than can possibly be derived from the capricious behavior of what is essentially a big squirrel.

It is fun sometimes to agree -- or pretend to agree -- with others that something that is not verifiably true somehow is. Such is the value of fictions, those made up stories the pleasure of which comes from our willingness not to insist on factual truth. And even if fictions dispense with facts, they can reveal deeper “truths” sometimes -- that is, ideas about our lives’ significance that also give us pleasure, or perhaps edify us in other ways, too.

Poker involves many rituals. Many are connected to the rules of play, almost all of which have been introduced with good reason. Tapping the felt before dealing the community cards signals to players that betting has concluded. Burning cards reduces the likelihood of dodgy dealing. Capping one’s cards with a protector prevents them from being mistakenly dragged into the muck. And so forth.

But many other rituals are superfluous, introduced into the game by players for reasons that aren’t necessarily logical. Rubbing one’s cards on the felt before looking at them. Stacking chips in a particular way. Standing up when all in. These actions have no particular, concrete significance, really, other than perhaps contributing to the player’s comfort level. Yet players perform them. Again and again.

Then there is that card protector. Needful, yes. But often loaded with extra, illogically-assigned meaning, too.

Noticed a tweet about card protectors yesterday from “DonkeyBomber,” a.k.a. Tom Schneider, the two-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner who finished 52nd in last summer’s Main Event. (If you enjoy funny, poker-related tweets, check him out.) Speculates Schneider, “What if the only thing keeping a person from winning the main event is that he was using the wrong lucky card protector for the last 20 yrs.[?]”

Like most of Schneider’s tweets, he’s kidding us. The question nevertheless made me think of an old friend from school, a huge basketball fan with whom I’d sometimes watch games on TV. When his favorite team played, he insisted on a number of rituals, including assigning particular seats to his guests, turning certain lamps on or off, and forbidding the utterance of certain words and phrases at certain times (e.g., never say “miss” when the opposing team shoots a free throw).

Occasionally some new person -- already suspect because his or her very presence introduced a new element into the game-watching -- would challenge the need, say, to refrain from laying one’s jacket over a particular armrest. To which my friend always had a ready response: “You can’t prove it doesn’t have an effect.”

Good enough. Same goes for Punxsutawney Phil, I guess. Or Queen Charlotte. Or Buckeye Chuck. Or General Beauregard Lee. I guess in terms of causality we’re talking about something slightly different here, but there remains the difficulty of trying to prove the lack of a connection between two events.

Groundhog Day does help prove one thing, though. Humans can be cute, silly creatures sometimes.

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Blogger Champ said...

Nice write! Had good flow and brevity to your message.

2/02/2010 12:16 PM  
Anonymous Fred said...

People are OCD at the best of times but when it comes to poker - it's just out of control. Played with some real live ones in my time.

2/04/2010 2:47 PM  
Anonymous Dave Robinson said...

People love rituals and superstition, that's all there is to it. I never bought into things like "how dare you sit in that chair at the blackjack table, you screwed up the order of who gets what card." But when it comes to luck, people can't handle the idea that not everything is under our control.

2/05/2010 9:17 AM  

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