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Miracles for Sale

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Michael Morgenstern

We live in an age of miracles.

I hadn't realized that until a recent Sunday edition of The Washington Post carried a front-page story with the headline "Believing in Miracles." The Post was one-upped the next morning when The Today Show promised two stories about miracles. In the meantime, a TV commercial jingle offered "just another ordinary miracle today." It required taking advantage of a "beauty sale."

The first person I knew who believed in miracles would be appalled. She was a neighbor, a kind of surrogate aunt, and deeply religious. For her, miracles were few and far between, and most happened long ago. They came from only one source and had to meet rigorous standards of proof. Any event was disqualified if there was a plausible alternative explanation, like discount cosmetics. By her criteria, the only "ordinary miracle" in our lives had "whip" in its name, came in a jar, got spread on otherwise decent sandwiches, and topped my mother's locally famous banana-based Candlestick Salad.

Those days are long gone. The miracle monopoly is now broken, and miracles have been privatized, outsourced, and set to music.

Naturally, I blame the media and point my finger at the usual suspects. Seeking evidence of miracle proliferation, I searched the Web sites of The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and Fox News. The results weren't pretty. (They also weren't fair, systematic, or scientific, but that's not a deal killer for criticizing the media.) When I typed the word "miracle" to search The Wall Street Journal, my computer froze. I took that as an omen, although I wasn't sure what the message was or who was sending it, so I gave up. The other sites yielded evidence aplenty. The Times led the pack with 12,457 hits on "miracle." The Post followed closely with 12,124. (Media conspiracy theorists, are we sensing a pattern?) Far behind, with 804 hits, was USA Today. Most miracle-resistant of all was Fox News, with 679. Bill O'Reilly, however, accounted for one miracle all by himself.

If the media are busy reporting miracles, the commercial jingle also suggests that others are selling them. To test that possibility, I went to the Internet once again, this time to look for businesses with "miracle" in their names (excluding churches because that is their business). I selected four cities. My sampling criteria were rigorous and required me to, one, know something about each place, and two, be able to spell their names (thereby eliminating parts of upstate New York and New England). They were Baltimore; Erie, Pennsylvania; Sacramento, California; and Atlanta, Georgia.

There were intriguing local variations. Baltimore was short on miracle businesses, yielding only branches of a hearing aid franchise, a day care center, a beauty shop, an apartment complex, and an astrologer. Erie also had a dearth of miracles, represented only by hair styling, surface restoration, and again, hearing aids. I hit the jackpot with Sacramento, with 24 miracle businesses, including a holistic practitioner, a trucking company, and a satellite dish business. By far, the largest concentration in Sacramento — five — was in automobile repairs, a business that could benefit from them.

Atlanta, nonetheless, was the champ, with a church-adjusted number of 47 "miracle" businesses. Most provided the same types of service as those in the other cities, but there was an interesting addition, a miracle massage therapist. No, not that kind. This one offers "Ionic Foot Detox."

So the proof is conclusive: In print, on the Internet, and in commerce, miracles abound.

Maybe that's a good thing, maybe not. I liked my surrogate aunt's criteria for miracles better than the present free-market approach to using the word. But, little by little, I'm coming around. As a result, I no longer have ordinary credit card debt. Instead, I have a lot of miracle-based spending to pay off. But then, so do we all.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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