Archive for Thursday, December 27, 2007

Folk wisdom in Kansas needs update

December 27, 2007

On a recent slow night at home, I picked up a book that has been around the house for some time. I don't know exactly when it arrived, but it was likely a gift from someone, perhaps my mother.

From the title of the book, "Folklore from Kansas - Customs, Beliefs, and Superstitions," I assumed it was Paul Bunyan type tall tales, like the Johnny Kaw stuff that surfaced around the 1961 state centennial and is responsible for bad public art in Manhattan's city park.

But there's no stories in the book, just bits of folk wisdom compiled in the mid-1960s by William Koch, who was apparently a professor at Kansas State University, with the help of students at K-State and Fort Hays State universities. The student collected 5,144 sayings through interviews with Kansans in all of the state's counties.

What they came up with is such bits of wisdom as:

"A person whose handwriting slants to the left is pessimistic."

"Never get a haircut in March or you will have haircuts the rest of the year."

"If two people who are walking become separated by an object it will cut their love in two unless they say 'bread and butter.'" (Similar sayings warned two friends would surely quarrel if they went on the separate sides of a tree or pole while walking together. Again saying "salt and pepper" or "bread and butter" would repair the damage.)

"If your wedding ring falls from your finger, there will be a death in the family."

In fact, there were a whole lot of things that were thought to foretell death. I remember my grandfather had such a phobia about a bird in the house, which would set him into frenzy.

The book has a whole section on weather, and the author wrote that 14 percent of the collected sayings dealt with weather. Without the convenience of daily forecasts on the radio, TV or Internet by supposed experts using satellites and computer models, predicting the weather obviously occupied the time of earlier Kansans.

And they were also much more attuned to nature, linking "mackerel" and "horse-tail" clouds to weather patterns. Mackerel clouds look like fish scales, the book helpfully informed me, while adding a picture of the rippled white clouds common to Kansas. I see them all the time but never relate to coming weather. Now I know, "a mackerel sky never leaves the ground dry."

Sometimes those who contributed the collected folk wisdom were at odds. For example, advice on what someone should do if a pin was found on the ground was contradictory.

"It is good luck to pick up a pin. If its point is toward you, you will have sharp luck."

"Don't pick up a pin if its head toward you as you'll have dull luck."

But reading through the book, I realized much has changed in the 40 years since the long list was compiled, and it is sadly in need of an update. As a trained observer, I offer this short list as a start.

"If cell phone conversation between two lovers drops out, they will quarrel unless they say 'dinner and a movie.'"

"If a jet's contrail lingers it will rain."

"Excessive roadkill of possums in the fall means a hard winter."

"It's bad luck to pickup sunglasses in a parking lot unless they are mirrored side up."

"If the power goes off during a football game, someone in your family will get a divorce."

"Screaming and hanging up on a telemarketer will cure insomnia."

"You'll get better gas mileage if you fill your tank on cloudy days."

"If while waiting at a train crossing you see the same graffiti tag more than once, you'll get an e-mail from an old friend."

"Never leave double light switches so that one is up and off and the other is down and off. It's bad luck."

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