Confessions Of A Triskaidekaphilia

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By Ken Ring, Ph.D.
Other Essays
1. Waiting To Die
2. One Flu Over The Dang Fool Test
3. The Great Debate
4. Laughing At Death
5. Goodbye To All That
6. What Hath Roth Wrought
7. Cheers At The Half
8. Better Dying Through Chemistry
9. Living With Lauren
10. Detouronomy
11. Nothing To Be Frightened Of
12. The Body Is A Sometimes Thing
13. Kenneth Letterman
14. La Famiglia e gli altri sulla strada verso la morte
15. Eighty-Three And Counting
16. Confessions Of A Triskaidekaphilia
Notes From The Ringdom

The following is Essay #16, Confessions Of A Triskaidekaphilia, of Dr. Ring's new book, Waiting to Die: A Near-Death Researcher's (Mostly Humorous) Reflections on His Own Endgame.


I admit it. I am a triskaidekaphiliac. Perhaps you are not familiar with that formidable term. Suppose I were to tell you that I was born on Friday the 13th, and because of that, I have always considered 13 to be my lucky number. So now you have presumably divined my psychiatric condition. I have an inordinate fondness for the number 13.

Actually, that's not my only confession. But since this will be my last essay in this series, I reckon I had better take the opportunity now to fess up to some of my other sins.

For one thing, do you remember that last essay of mine that I entitled "Eighty-Three and Counting"? Well, actually, that was written last year when I was turning eighty-three. And to confess further since I am now in a full disclosure mode, so were most of the other essays of mine I've inflicted on you. They were all slightly past tense, even as I seem to be these days, a man from a bygone era. But this one is being written in real time, not long before I will turn eighty-four when I will be saying farewell to you, if not yet to life (I hope!).

And that's another thing I have to confess. All this time I have been waiting to die, I have been troubled by a niggling doubt. What if I just don't have the knack for it? I keep waiting for the man with the scythe to show up at my door, but he seems to have got lost or perhaps took up golfing, another way to die before death. In any case, I guess I shall just have to give up this pretense of waiting to die. I'd better find something else to do with my life. And I have.

I've written another book. I seem to be making a habit of it. To paraphrase General MacArthur, old academics never die; they just keep writing books that nobody reads.

This one is about classical music, which is another subject few people are interested in these days -- or at least many fewer than was the case when I was growing up back in the antediluvian period when classical music was actually a big deal. In those days, the great conductor, Arturo Toscanini (and his NBC orchestra), was prime time entertainment on national TV. There were also several weekly radio programs (do you remember radios?) featuring classical music, and many motion pictures about classical composers or opera singers. (When I was a kid I actually saw one of these, "The Great Caruso," starring Mario Lanza, seven times, which will give you an idea of what kind of nut I was about opera when I was a teenager.) Even the famous "Ed Sullivan Show" that introduced the Beatles to America also introduced the young Israeli violinist, Itzhak Perlman. "Those were the days, my friends, I thought they would never end."

But they did. It's just that I didn't. Which brings me back to my book, which is about those days when classical music was riding high in the world and about all those fabulous musicians who gave me (and millions of others) so many thrilling experiences and countless moments of pleasure.

Which also brings me back to my upcoming birthday and my seemingly incurable case of triskaidekaphilia.

You see, this year, assuming I make it to my birthday, it will be special because it actually falls on Friday the 13th. God willing, it will the last Friday the 13th birthday of my life so I plan to make the most of it. I was even thinking -- still hankering for that perfect death date -- that what would make it particularly special is if (I know this is morbid of me).

I would actually die on that date. I mean, how cool would that be -- to have been born on a Friday the 13th, and then, eighty-four years later, to die on one. I would be like Mark Twain who was born in 1835 (exactly a hundred years before I was) when Halley's comet was streaking through the skies, and then died seventy-five years later when Halley's comet had returned to see him off. Now, that kind of symmetry really appeals to me.

But I'm not the only person who has entertained such thoughts, and I actually write about one such man, a famous composer, in my new book. How about if I give you a little sample of what you'd find in this book about another man who had a thing about the number thirteen?

His name was Arnold Schoenberg and this is what I wrote about him:


Schoenberg was my opposite: He suffered from a really bad case of triskaidekaphobia. So bad that it killed him. We will get to that.

But first, I suppose I must state a few obvious and well known facts about Schoenberg. Unlike the first two Viennese composers we have considered, Schoenberg was famous in his lifetime and has remained famous after his death. He is widely acknowledged as one of the two most influential and important composers in the first half of the 20th century. He is most famous for the invention of what to me is one of the most hateful devices of modern music, the twelve tone system that gives equal weight to each note of the chromatic scale. That's his claim to fame. It brought about a revolution in modern music. To me, it brought about the end of music and the beginning of something that drove mass audiences elsewhere to find their listening pleasures. All this is familiar fare.

Whether Schoenberg was "great" depends on your point of view, but certainly when the definitive history of 20th century is written, Schoenberg's name will be a prominent entry. He's a composer who really made a difference.

But he was also a very strange man. So rather than simply treading over familiar ground in order to tell you something about Schoenberg, I'd like just to tell you one story about him that will help you to understand just how strange he was.

Schoenberg, like Korngold [another composer I wrote about], was a Jewish refugee from Vienna who was forced to leave when the Nazis came to power and, again like Korngold, he settled in Los Angeles. Unlike Korngold, he didn't work for the movies; he played tennis instead. And continued to compose, to teach, to paint (Schoenberg was also a gifted painter) and to polemicize. But he also lived with a demon.

It was his fear of the number 13.

Schoenberg was born on September 13, 1874, and in what would be his last year, 1951, he would be turning 76. But of course in Schoenberg's phobic mind, he couldn't help thinking of his age as 7+6=13, a fateful dreaded number. And, as it turned out a fatal one, since he wound up dying on July 13 of that year.

But that's just the beginning and end of the story. What makes it even more curious and spooky is what came in between.

Throughout his life he fastidiously avoided rooms, floors and buildings with the number 13. He even refused to rent a house because its street address had been 13 Pine Street. This was not a superficial concern, but rather a powerful, all-consuming obsession that was central to his entire belief system. His musical manuscripts show the customary measure numbers, but starting with the composition of the 13th song of the cycle Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten (Book of the Hanging Gardens), Schoenberg began to substitute the number 13 with 12a in the measure count. Then there was the case of his opera, Moses and Aaron. Oops, that makes thirteen letters! For Schoenberg, that also made for a big problem. But he found a way to solve it. Simple but effective: He just left out one of the "a's" in Aaron, so the title of his opera became Moses and Aron. Now you know why.

As Schoenberg got older, the degree of his triskaidekaphobia increased and spread into all aspects of his life, from the mundane to the existential. He absolutely dreaded his sixty-fifth birthday in 1939, because that year was a multiple of 13. In a letter dated 4 March 1939, Schoenberg wrote:


"Indeed, I am not so well at the moment. I am in my 65th year and you know that 5 times 13 is 65 and 13 is my bad number."


In 1950, on the occasion of this seventy-sixth birthday, Schoenberg received an ill-omened note from his fellow composer and musician Oskar Adler. Adler stipulated that since Schoenberg's age of 76 added up to 13 (7+6), it would be a critically dangerous year. According to friends and family, this ominous suggestion severely depressed and apparently stunned Schoenberg. His obsession was taking a dangerous form.

Things finally came to a head on Friday the 13th July, 1951. On that day Schoenberg stayed in bed all day. He was sick, anxious and depressed, but he wasn't going to take any chances. His wife Gertrud reported, "About a quarter to twelve I looked at the clock and said to myself: another quarter of an hour and then the worst is over."

But it wasn't. Gertrud reported to her sister-in-law Ottilie the next day that her husband had actually died at 11:45, 15 minutes before midnight, just as he had feared. The curse of triskaidekaphobia had struck!

I think that Schoenberg must have been a character in a story by Edgar Allan Poe all along and just didn't know it, don't you?

That will do it for me, dear readers. It's been fun writing these essays while waiting (and failing) to die, and I hope you have found at least some of them entertaining and maybe even a few instructive and worth pondering, particularly when I was discussing the nature and implications of near-death experiences. I know I wrote a lot of second-rate humor and other flapdoodle, but the material on near-death experiences was the important thing and I hope I was able to contribute at least something worthwhile to you on that subject. I wish you all the best of times, even though these aren't the best of times, but at least you can be reassured that when your time does come, it will be indeed be the best of times, even more than you can imagine.

Kenneth Ring's New Book:
Waiting to Die: A Near-Death Researcher's (Mostly Humorous) Reflections on His Own Endgame

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