What happens if your black cat walks under a ladder?

BY now you've noticed that 6/6/06 passed without incident. My own irrational fear of certain numbers (but not fear of irrational numbers — ha! I kill me!) doesn't include 666 or 13. The number 714 creeps me out.

I don't know why. My best guess: When I was in high school, the warning bell for first period rang at 7:15, and I habitually checked my watch just before it rang. Perhaps this led me to associate 7:14 a.m. with hurry and dread.

How did other superstitions start? Were black cats actually more ill-behaved? Was opening an umbrella indoors, or in good weather, apt to knock over lamps and scare the cats, who turned black and ran away, breaking mirrors and scurrying under ladders?

The only origins I can know for certain are those I witnessed. I made up two superstitions when I lived in Stockton. First: straw fortune-telling, or bendymancy. For breakfast every school morning, I had a bagel with melted Velveeta and a cup of Carnation Instant Breakfast — not the complete and nutritious meal that my mother would have preferred.

I drank the shake through a straw (Bendy, not Krazy — after all, I wasn't a baby). Mom bought these straws in

500-packs from the Pak 'n' Save, which printed grocery packing directions on its brown paper bags, headlined with the educational but dismissive "Pack Your Own Savings!"

These white straws came with assorted stripe colors, one quarter of the box was red, one yellow, one blue and one green. I decided that the stripe color of the straw I randomly chose would foretell the quality of my day. Red was horrible, yellow was unpleasant, blue was good and green was great.

And if that makes sense to you, you should read Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," in which an autistic boy decides to make up his own fortune-telling superstition.

Even if I knew it was all fake, even if I drew a red-and-white straw, at least it gave me a worldview, some resignation or confidence so I could frame the events of the day.

The second superstition baffles even me. A hundred years ago, the fad of phrenology washed over the United States. By feeling the bulges on top of one's head and determining the shape of the skull and brain, the doctrine went, a phrenologist could predict someone's personality, aptitudes and tendencies.

Bizarrely, I told some classmates that I knew phrenology, and one of them kept asking me to read her skull for fortune-telling. I did this about every week for a year, during lulls while working on the school newspaper.

I made up some routine, checking her temples and under her ponytail, telling Ashley what I thought she wanted to hear or what might do her good. I have no idea how Ashley could have believed me, but I was generally trustworthy and honest.

Phrenology seems more plausible to someone who's never heard of it than does reading tea leaves or the entrails of birds. And I'd probably absorbed the fortune-teller's trappings from watching my parents cast astrological charts and read palms for our visitors.

As soon as I understood it, I thought astrology was bunk. And I laughed at other parental superstitions. "Don't whistle indoors, or you'll turn into a boy!" is very easy to disprove. We didn't take out the trash or get our hair cut on Fridays; my mother asked me to hold my wedding on a Friday, an auspicious day.

I've discarded those as silly superstitions. But how comfortable are you naming a child after a living relative, or picking up a tails-up penny, or giving knives or scissors as wedding gifts, or swallowing a watermelon seed?

Even seemingly harmless habits like knocking on wood engender the bad habit of magical thinking.

Following a superstition gives me a feeling of power. But it is a false comfort, and so long as I believe in it, it has power over me. Superstition seems to make life easier because blind faith, not thinking, always seems easier in the short term.

How do you believe the world works? Do you act in accordance with those beliefs? And what do you do that you would rather not have to reconcile or defend?

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can send your favorite superstitions to her at sumana@crummy.com.