Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Friday the 13th to Remember!

Ready to draw! (No, not draw blood,
draw people).
You might know a few people who stay home on Friday the 13th because it's a bad luck day, and leaving the house for unnecessary errands would just be tempting fate. I not only left home, I drove a couple hundred miles and dressed up like a nurse! (Luckily there is a costume / fetish shop near my house where I was able to pick up a last-minute nurse's hat to go with super-red lipstick.)

See, I know a few people who see Friday the 13th as a great reason to throw a party. This past weekend I traveled to Southern California to participate in a really wacky event that is part outreach, part fundraiser, part "I dare you" party, and part reunion.
Margaret Downey introduces her volunteer staff of "doctors and nurses," ready to help "cure" the crowd of any lingering superstitions.

In addition to the table centerpieces, there was an area with
food  and food-related superstitions.
Margaret Downey, a longtime activist, equality warrior, and friend of mine, has been throwing these "Friggatriskaidekaphobia Treatment Center" parties in different parts of the country for nearly two decades now. The event always draws interest from the secular and skeptic communities, and news stations see it as an interesting angle to highlight during a dreaded Friday the 13th. As you may have figured out, "Friggatriskaidekaphobia" simply means "fear of Friday the 13th." It's not the only superstition highlighted at the event. A walk around the tables provides an educational tour of many historical and cultural-specific superstitions you might not have been aware of, as each table was topped with a unique centerpiece illustrating a particular item and it's superstitious significance.

This mid-1990s look for the MGM was putting off too many
rich Asian gamblers, who thought it was a little too close
to "walking through the mouth of a lion."
Superstition might be all fun and games (as certainly they were that evening), but many skeptic writers have explored and criticized how this type of thinking can be detrimental. Buildings avoiding the label of a 13th floor, people not shopping on unlucky days--all of it adds up to a dent in the economy and bizarrely missing elevator buttons. Here in Las Vegas there's a famous local story (one that cost our economy millions of dollars) involving the MGM lion. The gigantic Strip resort had invested much time and money into a glamorous art-deco lion entrance during the 1990s, but developers had to scrap the entire frontage soon after reopening. The architects had placed the main entrance right under the lion's mouth, and that's very bad mojo according to Asian superstition. So pretty soon the whole front of the MGM was scaffolded up again so the hotel could be resurfaced with better feng shui in order to entice wary (and highly superstitious) Chinese gamblers.

But economics aside, some superstitions are a deadly business (in a literal sense for both those words). There are some African superstitions that claim albino people can bring good luck--and not in a cheerful way, like you should befriend an albino person or buy them some coffee, because they are lucky to be around. No, to gain luck from an albino person you must (according to the superstition) steal parts of their body for use in magic spells and luck-bringing potions. The killing and mutilating of albinos, called muti murders, are a continuing problem in Africa. According to the Red Cross, at least fifty albinos have been murdered in Tanzania and Burundi in recent years, as Ben Radford mentions in a recent writeup for Discovery News.

The anti-superstition bash at the Fullerton Howard Johnson was a lighthearted affair, however, so there was not much talk of death and murder. Black cats were brought out by the Kitt Crusaders, who facilitate adoptions and fostering of cats and were there to educate people on how black cats are adopted at far lesser rates (and therefore euthanized at much higher rates) due to the superstitious baggage associated with them. No one at the party was able to adopt then and there, but the cats got lots of cuddles and pets, and literature was taken home.

Now, I had drawn at a Friggatriskaidekaphobia party a few years back in Philadelphia, so I knew sort of what to expect. In fact, it was nice seeing so many folks walking around in a shirt I had designed: a few years ago Margaret had asked me to craft a logo for these treatment parties, and I'd settled on an adorable little rabbit amputee. That, along with a trash can full of luck charms, adorned the signs and t-shirts around the event. We even put up balloons (in bunches of 13) and there were little quotations about luck put up all over the ballroom. Margaret really does think of everything.
Ladder limbo!

I was introduced with an ambiguously hyperbolic "She is the best caricature artist in the world of skepticism!" . . . which I think is sort of like being the best tapdancer in the world of taxidermy. For a suggested donation of $13, guests could get their caricature at the party--and I did get things started with a few freebies just to warm up the crowd. It was hosted by the California "backyard skeptics" so I was to expect a little skepticism! In fact, many made that joke as they sat down. "I wasn't going to get one until I saw you were good--because, you know, I'm a skeptic, got to see it to believe it!" Those silly skeptics, jeeeeeez. But skeptical or not, they all plunked down varying donations, some quite generous, and I ended the night with over $200 to contribute to the hosting organizations.

Dancing under umbrellas, while "unlucky" added a fun little
  intimacy for couples hiding their pre-Valentine's day kisses!
As I drew, I got a nice view of the goings-on: there was a crowd umbrella dance, where couples swayed under open umbrellas on the dance floor as crooner Dave Deluca belted out some classic Frank Sinatra. Between musical acts and the dancing, Buck Bowen, the energetic emcee, led folks through ladder limbo, a ceremonial smashing of a mirror, and "level the leprechaun" bowling. Volunteers dressed to the nines as doctors and nurses put people through a superstition obstacle course of sorts, having them spill salt or duck under a ladder. There was a playfulness with all of it that helped people mingle and enjoy themselves. 
Some of the happy couples who (skeptically) sat in my chair at the party.
Once my time in the chair was up, I happily turned off my spotlight and headed to the drink gypsy (doesn't every good party have a drink gypsy?) and purchased one of her $13 "love potions." Normally I NEVER would imbibe at a gig, but this was a pro bono event for a friend, and these were my people. Little did I know, a $13 love potion would probably make up for all my previous parties of staying dry. It was sixteen ounces of solid alcohol and radiated a strange blue hue that should have warned me away from ordering it. Yeah, I got a little tipsy by the end of the night. (Thank you, Margaret, for kindly hosting me and driving to and from the party!)
Fangirling with Wendy Hughes.

As I nursed my giant blue radiation-infused drink, I was able to enjoy the skeptical comedy of Ian Harris, who delighted the crowd with his monologues about meandering through an irrational world. The horoscope rap done by Buck Bowen was delightful, and I even got to meet up with Wendy Hughes, who helps run and contributes to the podcast Skepticality with stories of seemingly wild coincidences (then breaks down the odds with the help of statisticians).

There were a few luminaries in attendance that were not in the entertainment lineup. There were two fellows running around with a film camera and a fake mustache and wig, filming little snippets of the wigged actor "freaking out" over various superstitious omens. He asked one of my models if they were worried I was "stealing his soul" while I drew the caricature--the guy responded dryly "What's a soul?" A camera man and interviewer from one of the local news channels showed up. And Brian Keith Dalton, also known as "Mr. Deity," swung by. Luckily he enjoyed his time and we did not have to face his omnipotent wrath! Roy Sorge, retired captain of the Queen Mary, also attended.
Margaret checks Mr. Deity for signs of everlasting life.

A surprising guest was Mr. Scott Smith, a local photographer whom I did not even recognize at first. Last time I had seen Scott, it was the 1994 Northridge earthquake. He is the brother of my original cartooning mentor, Gary Smith, who lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland. Gary and I had visited southern California around the time I graduated college, and Scott had kindly hosted us (his home was just a few miles from the epicenter). I had joked about how cool it would be if there was an earthquake during our visit--and then immediately we got one! So Gary of course blamed the earthquake on me and said it was "very bad luck" for he and I to travel together . . . . so it was fitting to hang out with his brother again at an event refuting the very existence of luck and superstition!
Me (in sunglasses, because I was SO COOL) surveying the damage back in '94. I think Scott actually took this picture. Then there's me and Scott now, 21 years later. I think we held up pretty well--earthquake damage notwithstanding!

At the end of the night, Margaret and her head nurse Christine Jones did a little routine to the Secret Sisters' "Good Night, Good Luck, Goodbye" as they tossed (artificial) rabbits' feet into the crowd. Then the lights came up and many of the volunteers and some of the braver participants lined up in a group hug/dance, everyone swaying to John Lennon's "Imagine." It was a fun night of meeting new faces, reuniting with a few old friends, and learning new things. So glad I was able to be a part of it.

The next day was Valentine's Day, and I relaxed with Margaret and we swapped stories. She told me about various death threats she had received from Boy Scouts back when she was leading the fight in court to make them accept all boys regardless of religion or sexual orientation if they were going to use public money and be linked with the US military. Apparently Boy Scouts can be pretty graphic when describing how they're going to kill you, the Eagle Scouts especially! I've had no death threats aimed at me, personally--though a few coworkers had experienced the ol' death stare and "I'm gonna kick your ass!" from angered patrons who took offense to their caricature. And Margaret did enjoy hearing a few of the very very inappropriate offers I'd heard from drunk men (or couples!) while I drew them. I'm grateful for Margaret for fighting the fights, while I sit back and draw funny pictures. (Though the next day she texted me with news of the cartoon-inspired shootings in Denmark and said that maybe my job WAS more dangerous than hers.)

As a final bit of "good luck" after this event, the Southern California highways were clear and my drive home was smooth sailing! I may have to thank Mr. Deity for that little miracle--I was able to get back to my husband (and interrupt his bachelor anime fest) well before the stroke of midnight!

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