If you know what's good for you, you'll knock on wood

Knock on wood—it's starting to look like Junior is finally okay. It's hard to be sure, but she's had several good days in a row. 

Let me digress for a moment about that expression, "Knock on wood." From what I understand, it originated with an ancient belief that malevolent little fairies who had the power of invisibility, but only as long as they hid behind wood, were always lurking on the other side of your wood walls or under your table or up in the beams or in a cigar box—wherever—listening in on every word you said, which they did in the hopes of picking up information they could turn against you for their own entertainment. So, if, for example, you said, "I wonder if my cow would survive a tornado," the fairies would giggle at their great luck and what a fool you were for letting them know about this threat to your cow, and they would arrange for a tornado to come and suck your cow up into the sky. Or, if you said, "Did you hear Grandpa cough? I hope he isn't coming down with mesothelioma," they would make sure he woke up with it the next morning. If business was slow for the fairies and the best you could come up with was telling someone not to let the baby’s milk boil over while you went to yell at the dog about something, they would kill the time by letting it burn black and weld itself to the inside of the pot for good measure. Bad things happen all the time. Now you know why.

No one wants fairies like that around, always waiting for you to clue them in on the worst things that could happen to you so they can turn them against you and make them come true, for no better reason than they like to hear themselves giggle. But, whether you like it or not, they’re always there. It’s easy enough to prove to your own satisfaction: Take a second and look around for anything made of wood. A cupboard, maybe, or a door or table. If you’re at a desk, that’s perfect. They love those. Okay. Now—real quick—look at it. What do you see? Nothing? Which proves it. That’s how good they are at hiding, and that’s why they’re so dangerous.

As singleminded as those little fairies are, though, they all suffer from one universal character flaw, which is that they are prone to forgetting things if—and this is a big if—if they are startled. So, when you casually mention your hope to the fairies that the airliner your whole family is going to be on for the big reunion in Omaha the next day doesn’t accidentally run out of fuel and crash into the Rocky Mountains, you can turn the tragedy around as long as you remember to knock on the wood the fairies are hiding behind. They never expect it. And, what with their being as tiny as they are (you can fit several of them into a thimble, and if you ever do, you would be within your rights to hold the thimble with a fireplace tong and light matches under it and see how they like it for once), but being that tiny, your knocks on wood are like thunder to them. They all stop ho-ho-hoing and high fiving each other and scurry off like fleas. Their panic is so great that later, when they regroup and start asking each other what it was they were supposed to do, none of them can remember, and so, you and your cow and your whole family are safe—for now.

[Editor's note: Now I know how George Bush felt when he said, "If you're not with us, you're against us." 

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