Not even the chosen few really know: Every morning I put my left sock on first. Always my left. All the other basketball nuts who play in the Noon Ball pickup games at the YMCA know I have trouble going to my left. That’s never kept me from putting into practice the All-American “practice makes perfect” philosophy. But because I’m short, slow, old, and hopelessly addicted to playing the game until I drop, I’ve made a religion of putting my left sock on first.
It’s a strange behavior that makes me feel like a superstitious fool whenever my actual mind kicks in. I prefer to think I share this distinction with more famous fools. Captain Ahab of Moby-Dick fame comes to mind — that tragic sufferer who made a whale with a headful of spermaceti synonymous with the mind of God. But for me it’s just my addiction to Noon Ball at the YMCA, not grand whales or God, that gives my left-sock hopes meaning and momentum.
I take some consolation from new genetic research suggesting that my left-sock habit makes me more fit to survive. If the distance between an omen and amen is not great, we can thank the scientists who think they’ve discovered a God gene. Such a gene would have survival applications, notably on the basketball court where what Richard Dawkins called “the selfish gene” comes into play. Ball hogs never pass the ball, and those (like me) always want it back, at least once per game. There are always hidden factors playing their roles. If you’re genetically short, slow and old like me and addicted to the game, you begin taking it on blind faith that a basketball gene was implanted in a special few. So you’re in a welfare system of dependence on your genes. If your selfish gene fails to make a winner of you, then maybe your God gene will get you by.
It’s my belief that my God gene requires me to put my left sock on first every single day.
How do I know if putting my left sock on first improves my Noon Ball performance at the Y? My secret (until now) has required me to be the judge and jury of what works. If I do okay in a Monday game I’m assured my left sock did the trick. If I have a lousy game I’ll have to put it on more carefully next time. On some days I change my socks two or three times so I can increase my odds, left sock first. I need all the help I can get.
When things are going particularly wrong — not only on the court but at home, in Washington D.C., or maybe because the buried victims of an earthquake in Haiti turn me inside out — I feel the need to invent new procedures to reinforce the influence of my left sock. If I stumble going up the stairs it’s probably because I require myself to lead with my left foot. If I refuse a delicious bowl of ice cream it’s probably because my left sock is aware of my sacrifice. If I refuse to scratch an itch it’s because both the bowl of ice cream and the left sock understand that this act of self-denial is expected of me by a Power, genetically expressed, that could make things worse for me.
My practices may be singular but I’m not alone. Check out any ordinary free throw lane in the middle of any TV basketball game. The pressure’s on: The poor guy on the line has practiced forty foot buzzer-beater shots for half a lifetime, and now he’s expected to perform a genteel fifteen-foot lob while standing lonely and still, with body parts seizing up in front of thousands of eyes. Ask Shaq what it’s like trying to drift a cotton ball into a wastebasket from fifteen feet, with the world watching, ready to sneer.
When things are on the line we all need help. Divine intervention. So we try three bounces. Not two, or (ever!) four. A Holy Trinity three is preferred. Then we spin the ball three times in our hands–perfect spins, with no wobbly seams. Then we cradle the ball under our left arm as we touch our stomach, chest and chin with our right hand. In the same order every time. Then we take three deep breaths. Then three exhalations to cast evil demons out. And when the ritual is complete we load the gun and shoot.
I know of no empirical study comparing the success ratio of the thousands who perform similar rituals to the few who don’t. Sometimes it makes me wonder why university research facilities exist.
One of the guys in my city league games had a ritual that took so long he had to change his ways after the refs made a silent pact among themselves to time him out and take his free throws away. “Breaking the habit was really hard,” he said, “because I’d get the shakes. At first I tried cutting down — aiming my hand at the rim and sighting along the arm, then adjusting the elastic on my shorts, then rocking up and down three times with my knees bent. But I felt awkward doing it that way, so I went cold turkey instead.”
“I cut way down. I don’t go to church, but I started saying the same little prayer in my own head every time: ‘God, the ball is in your hands.’ I think it helps. Now and then.”
What he says would make perfect sense to some good neighbors of mine. One of them, an insurance man, says Jesus really walked on water whenever he wanted to. How can that be? He says maybe water isn’t what it used to be. Maybe back in Biblical times there was more substance to it. And maybe days were different back then too. Maybe back then a day was a thousand years old. He says the library is full of books that agree with him, and I should check the internet.
The other neighbor is an engineer who works day and night connecting the little parts of widgets that go BOOM! He believes water’s always been the same, but that doesn’t mean Jesus can’t walk on it. He believes it happened once, but that doesn’t keep his widgets from working efficiently. No harm, no foul.
Basketball benchwarming and time-outs inspire meditative moments that lead to interesting comparisons. Take baseball, for example. I’m grateful I gave up my baseball habit years ago. I don’t spit well. Even foreign exchange students mention that baseball players have strange ways — they say sweet nothings to their bats, they pull on a left ear lobe before every pitch, they adjust their cups just before stepping in the box, they point to the sky after getting a base hit, they envision home runs flying into the grandstands from the readjusted straps of their batting gloves — and they spit. The spitting is not, I’m convinced, merely habitual. It has meaning, as if spitting (sunflower seed husks, tobacco juice, bits of food dislodged from teeth, bits of teeth, or just plain phlegm) is a ritual requirement for membership in the baseball cult. I personally believe that a spit ball’s magic dance results from magic invoked by the spit. Those who doubt the supernatural basis of spitting also can’t account for the infrequency of news reports about baseball players contracting infectious diseases. In the midst of waterfall spitting one never sees a runny nose. Coincidences like that don’t just happen.
If amateur basketball players like me, usually confined indoors, deny themselves spitting’s charms, their limited circumstances offer them ample opportunities to invent their own. Who knows how many left sock firsters there are playing Noon Ball in big city YMCAs everywhere in the world, or who maybe insists on touching his right hand to his nose twice after he puts a sock on, or wearing his jock inside out every other day, or counting to seven just before a game begins, or brushing his teeth before heading for the gym, or wiping a sign of the cross across his chest every time a foul is called on the man guarding him, or retying a shoelace during time outs, or washing a shooting hand in the drinking fountain at halftime of every game, or being sure to call Mom the night before.
Sir James Frazer, in his encyclopedic anthropological study called The Golden Bough, details the many ceremonials so-called primitive peoples performed to persuade their Great Referees to make winners of them. When an infertile Batak woman of Sumatra was having a hard time scoring points as a mother, for example, the tribal elders gathered to sacrifice three grasshoppers to the gods, and then a swallow was set free with a prayer persuading the woman’s infertility to fly away. If the natives of certain islands of the Indian Archipelago periodically sent their diseases away to sea by loading little boats down with fowl, eggs and nasty insects, how many of us who now play twenty-first century Noon Ball at the YMCA heap our missed free throws, bad passes and double dribbles onto the backs of teammates, children, and wives?
It behooves us to step back from our behaviors to gain perspective and make better sense of them. Is there both ritual recurrence and religious fervor to tailgate parties? Frazier tells us that the village chiefs of the Hos of northeastern India believed that their gods required the sacrifice of a cock and two hens (one of them black), these fowls offered up with the flowers of the palas tree, rice-flour bread, and sesame seeds. Then the villagers imposed on themselves the need to chant and shout, preludes to orgies of feasting, drinking, cursing, and debauchery during which “servants forget their duty to their masters, children their reverence for parents, men their respect for women, and women all notions of modesty, delicacy, and gentleness.” If the Hos, normally a modest, quiet, and gentle tribe, were willing to part with their common sense in order to fill their little bowls with rice, what ceremonies do we perform and what divine aid do we invoke in our hi-tech times to reap victory in the Superbowl?
I can’t escape this bottom line: Because we all cut peculiar little left-sock deals, God believes in a free-market economy. We are all deal-making entrepreneurs in God’s vast free enterprise system, and it’s up to God’s Hidden Hand to provide. Maybe it’s our God gene that requires deal-making of us, that and the thrill of the chase. No one can dispute that the mystery of existence is enhanced by the suspense resulting from dramas of profit and loss.
But there’s a beauty to this system too. In the old days philosophers argued for the existence of God by invoking the Argument from Design: Science tells us (ask Newton) that there is both pattern and order to the universe, call it “design,” and because a design requires a designer it follows logically that God exists. Each little left-sock deal I make with God at some free throw line in the mind is my way of saying yes, I’m buying into God’s scheme of things. Every missed free throw is really part of God’s plan. This fact requires me to be a lobbyist too, asking God to tweak the scheme so his Hidden Hand can give me a little of what the politicians call pork. It’s not really practice that makes perfect in this scheme of things. I can never work hard enough to earn enough. Never in my lifetime will I ever slam-dunk a basketball, no matter how many hours I spend in the weight room trying to lift myself up by my bootstraps. Every free throw I shoot is an outward and visible sign that the hand of God is shooting my free throws for me. When you’re on the line loaded down with thought, you realize that not even free throws are really free.
There’s something to be said for the relief from responsibility such thinking inspires.