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Entries in luck (2)


Blue Highways: Hancock's Bridge, New Jersey

Unfolding the Map

When do we have bad luck, or good luck?  Or is there luck at all?  As William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) writes about the ill-timing and bad luck of Judge William Hancock during the Revolutionary War, I will reflect on my feelings about bad luck.  Hopefully, you won't feel that you came across this post by way of bad luck, but if you want to feel lucky and find the spot where all this occurs, please take a risk and look at the map. Why the horse at right?  It's New Jersey's state animal.

Book Quote

"Judge William Hancock, wealthy and influential, had no luck at all in his last year.  In 1734 at Hancock's Bridge, a few miles northwest of Greenwich, he built a grand house that he later had to flee from when militiamen took over south Jersey.  On the night of March 20, 1778, as Tories regained the area, the Loyalist judge elected to slip back; he didn't know that nearly a hundred revolutionists were bivouacked in his house.  They captured him.  Hancock probably would have been safe in the hands of his enemies had two hundred green-coated Loyalists not decided to retake the place that same night.  They surprised the patriots in their sleep and bayoneted them even as the men begged for quarter.  In the dark mayhem, Hancock's confederates killed him too.  The house still stands, a monument to the judge's ill timing."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 12

Hancock House, mentioned by William Least Heat-Moon in Blue Highways, in Hancock's Bridge, New Jersey. Photo by Smallbones and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Hancock's Bridge, New Jersey

When is something truly bad luck?  When is it a random occurrence that strikes one?  What role does choice play in our bad luck?  Or, is luck just luck and there is no good or bad about it?

I remember the stories I was told as a child.  Don't let a black cat cross your path or it will lead to bad luck.  Don't walk under ladders.  Don't let a pole pass between you and someone else.  Don't break a mirror or open an umbrella indoors.  Step on a crack, break your mother's back.  If you did any of these things, then you would be hit with a flood of bad luck.  I guess if I had done all of those things at the same time, I would have been inundated by a tsunami of bad luck.

I think that sometimes true bad luck happens.  We somehow fall into the seemingly random patterns of the universe and we end up in a place where bad things happen.  For example, I might leave the house and get into the car at a certain time on a certain morning.  I might drive down my street and just happen to hit the intersection at a stop light at the same time as a habitual runner of stop signs (there seem to be many on my street at one particular place).  Result, major fender-bender.  That person may just happen to not have insurance, and therefore I not only lose my car to repairs (or maybe totally) but my insurance also takes a big hit.

That happens, and will happen quite a few times in our lives.  Sometimes, it is simply an annoyance, like being stuck in airports for hours on a day where storms cause major disruptions in air travel, or an accident on the freeway snarls people up in traffic.  Sometimes it is more serious and leads to monetary loss, or minor injury, or broken relationships.  Once in awhile, this randomness could lead to serious injury or death because one is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I'm reminded of the recent shootings in a theater in Aurora, Colorado and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

However, I do find it interesting that sometimes what is blamed for bad luck is just the endpoint of a series of choices that we've made and that if we trace those choices back, we can most likely find the point where the choice took us down a path that guaranteed that bad things would happen.  For example, I once met a woman who complained about her bad luck in men.  Her life was a series of relationship disasters.  And yet, if you look at the choices she made, and the actions she took in those relationships, one could easily see that her "bad luck" came always by her choices.  The men she picked, the actions she took once in the relationship, all led to bad endings.  Is that really bad luck?

We have to acknowledge that conscious choices play a part in a lot of what we call bad luck.  I believe that most of what we call bad luck is the intersection of three elements:  the information we have, the patterns that we get ourselves locked into, and the level of risk we are willing to take.  These three things guide the choices we make.  A gambler may complain about her bad luck in gambling, but a gambler relies on all of these things.  She looks around the card table and reads the other players while taking into account her own hand.  She has certain ways of playing certain hands and therefore a pattern emerges in her playing.  She also may be a risk-acceptant or risk-averse person.  If she is a risk-acceptant person, she may play a bit more loosely, a bit more recklessly.  All of these elements add up to the choices she makes in her play, which will have an effect on her winnings.  In essence, this is not luck.  Luck may play a small part in the equation, but most of the outcomes will come down to her decision to fold or stay, raise or call.  Often, you will hear a card player say that they "should have" done something else, indicating that they made a decision that led to the outcome.

If I look back on my life, and I could see all the instances where I felt myself victimized by bad luck, chances are that I could examine my choices and find that it was my decision-making and not luck that led me to most of my difficult circumstances.  Sure, bad luck has happened to me, but not in the quantity that I would like to think.  I have not been victimized regularly by the universe.  The universe has no desires, wishes nor feelings - it just is.  It acts according to its laws and patterns automatically.

We, on the other hand, are not automatic.  We make choices based on information, our own patterns, and our sense of risk and that means that many times, we will make wrong decisions.  If there's anything that I've learned, it's this:  One is better equipped to head off "bad luck" if one makes decisions with more information than less.  The more you know about any situation, and the more you know about yourself, less randomness will accompany your choices and therefore, the better your luck.

Musical Interlude

I happened to find a list of songs about bad luck.  You can find the list here.  And here's two off the list.  The first is by Social Distortion called Bad Luck, because when you have bad luck nothing embodies it like some distorted electric guitar.  The second is a rhythm and blues song by Earl King from New Orleans called Mr. Bad Luck, because New Orleans, in my opinion, sits on the boundary of all that we understand and don't understand in the world.

If you want to know more about Hancock's Bridge

Discover Salem County: Hancock House
Revolutionary War Sites in Hancock's Bridge
Wikipedia: Hancock's Bridge
Wikipedia: Hancock House

Next up: Salem, New Jersey


Blue Highways: Taunton, Massachusetts

Unfolding the Map

Sometimes Murphy's Law hits, and things seem to gang up on you.  William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) touches upon a small example of Murphy's Law as he heads toward Taunton, Massachusetts, that I'll explore and reflect upon in this post.  If you want to avoid pitfalls, get on the right track, and see where Taunton is located, orient yourself at the map.  By the way, the drawing at right is trailing arbutus, the Massachusetts state flower, from Wikimedia Commons.

Book Quote

"Down state 115 southeast toward Taunton.  I had to keep checking route markers for the northwest-bound traffic in order to stay on course.  Rule of the blue road: the highway side to where you've been is better marked than the one to where you're going."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 4

Downtown Taunton, Massachusetts. Taunton is one of the oldest towns in America. Photo at Click on photo to go to host page.

Taunton, Massachusetts

A few times in Blue Highways, LHM refers to what I would call Murphy's Laws of the road.  In case you are reading and are not familiar with Murphy's Laws, these are the humorous laws of the universe that seem to conspire against you at every turn.  The main law, simply stated, is that "whatever can go wrong, will go wrong."  Taken at face value, the law is a truism.  Eventually, everything that can go wrong will go wrong.  It is wrong to assume that something will go wrong at any particular time, but to assume that eventually, something will go wrong to me seems to me, at risk of sounding like Mr. Spock, to be a logical probability.

However, we as humans go through fits of believing that the universe can, will and does treat us like crap.  I have had those times where it seems that everything I do, say, touch and attempt just doesn't work.  There are times where I seem to hit my head on every object that is at my head's height at any particular time.  I have gone days when I can't seem to say anything that doesn't offend, hurt or just come off as wrong.  I have slogged through periods when everything I pick up, and then put down simply disappears, as if I have a strange magical power to send the object to a parallel universe where a mirror me, suffering through the opposite of Murphy's Law, is probably wondering where all the junk has come from.

But, what about Murphy's Laws of the road, you might ask.  After all, Blue Highways is a book about the road, and LHM has had times where he believes the universe conspires against him.  When he drove into mountains, he was turned back by May.  When he needed gas, there wasn't an open gas station for miles and he drove, clenching his buttocks in an attempt to will Ghost Dancing to make it, until he got to a gas station with little more than fumes in the tank.  A fuel line busted in North Dakota, causing a mechanic to tell him the van was about to catch on fire if he didn't get it fixed.  Of course, you might say that these Murphy's Laws only came about because of him - he ignored the snow sign, he could have filled up with gas earlier, and he should have had the fuel line checked.  However, we can also argue that he was operating in imperfect knowledge.  The sign about snow didn't say anything about May.  He was driving in the early 1980s, before the advent of GPS and smart phones that make it easy to know when and where the next 24 hour open gas station is located.  He didn't know that his fuel line was cracked until the precipitous drop on the fuel gauge.  But Michael, you may protest, he was driving on blue highways...the ones where you're more likely to have trouble and find less services.  We can debate all about this, but ultimately, Murphy's Laws seem to depend on our attitude about the world.

For example, the law of the blue highway that he quotes manifests itself in the highly populated Northeast, in a particularly busy area of Massachusetts given its proximity to Boston.  LHM doesn't like the busy highways, and prefers to avoid them.  Therefore, the lack of signage on his side, and the plethora of signage on the other, is probably a product of his own stress level at dealing with the busy roads.  There is probably just as much signage on one side as the other, but he cannot see it.

My Murphy's Laws of the road appear usually because of my own lack of attention.  For example, in a few days I will get a rental car on a trip that I am making.  And I will be willing to wager that the first time I stop for gas, I will pull into a gas station and park by the pumps only to find that the gas tank is not on the left side of the car, as it is on mine, but on the right side of the rental car.  I will be annoyed, then I will get into the car and pull around to align the gas tanks with the pumps.  If I were to put it into Murphy's Laws terms, I would posit the law thus: Whenever one is driving an unfamiliar car, when one stops for gas and pulls up to the pump, the gas tank will be on the opposite side.  However, the "law" occurred simply because I refused to take time to check the location of the gas tank.

Or, here's another:  Whenever one is in a hurry to get someplace, there will be construction or an accident blocking traffic and making one late.  We've all had that happen, correct?  In my case, I usually find that I'm late to begin with, and am simply seeking something to vent my rage at my own lack of attention to time.  That damn traffic, I'll snarl.  Yet if I had left 10-15 minutes earlier, it probably wouldn't have mattered so much.  I might have even missed the accident that was clogging traffic!

The fact is that in my calmer moments, I realize that the universe is not malevolent, nor benevolent for that matter.  The universe just is.  It is easy to rail against it when things are not going our way.  I will probably continue to do so when I feel like fate, chance and luck is taking a piss on me.  In fact, I think that I have raged more against the unfairness of the universe throughout my life than I have thanked it for the good things that have happened to me.  The universe is an easy target, and it cannot answer back.  If all goes well after I rage, well I showed the cosmos.  And if things continue to not go my way, I just provide myself proof that everything is out to get me.

The only thing missing from that equation is me, with all my choices and actions.  That's just too close to home.  I'd rather blame it all on Murphy's Laws.

Musical Interlude

I found this funky early 80s song by Cheri called Murphy's Law.  The lyrics are all about misfortune.

If you want to know more about Taunton

City of Taunton
Old Colony Historical Society
Taunton Daily Gazette (newspaper)
Wikipedia: Taunton

Next up: Fall River, Massachusetts