And Counting

Recently, at work, we completed a count-your-steps wellness program sponsored by the PE department to encourage exercise during the holidays.

My total between November 24th and January 7th:

864,916 steps, or approximately 430 miles.

Averaged out, that’s about nine and a half miles a day.

You may think I’m bragging—and maybe I am, a little—but you should know a person covers four or five miles daily, and my number isn’t that large when you consider I add almost two miles walking to and from school and three or four more miles running or elipticizing at the gym.

And what does that number—or any number—mean?

Truth is, counting steps is only the most recent manifestation of my growing counting fetish.  Since July, I’ve been carefully recording calories on a health site and monitoring the number of pounds I’ve lost.  I keep track of daily haiku, how many books I read a year, and the total pages my classes need to finish to reach the end of novels in timely fashion.  Add all the other things ticked off—the items on my to-do list and the number of appointments or meetings each day—and my life seems all enumeration, all noting, recording, accounting.

Does that make me strange?

We sometimes think of numbers as neutral, amassing on their own, figures growing on some counter we can’t see but readily imagine.  Right now, the amount you owe for heating your home is rising.  Right now, you’re accumulating debt or, if you’re lucky, interest.

And scientists attribute powers to numbers.  If we knew all the numbers, they seem to feel, we might open a hidden window on reality…as if, in those exact figures, we can find something lost, including truths we didn’t know were lost.  I remember a childhood friend who carried a pad in his back pocket for a year, marking every emission of his body.  I saw him as the quintessential scientist.  He thought those numbers would mean something, and any missing data would ruin everything.

Now I sometimes feel like that boy.

But counting isn’t always neutral.  It also compels us.  The clicking of that pedometer in my pocket became a comfortable sound, and I might not have had so many steps if I hadn’t been entering the digits on a public site every morning.  Counting is rarely pure recording.  It quickly becomes a variety of self-consciousness. We affix the expression “but who’s counting?” as a way of alerting the world we are counting, we’re paying attention.

Which is also why counting is the first step of economy.  You can’t conserve without comparison.  You need to know where you’ve been to decide where to go.  I lost pounds that were slowly and unaccountably accumulating when I began measuring today’s consumption against yesterday’s and against an ideal number.  I discovered when I was off-course.

People sometimes encourage me to stop counting.  They call me a nerd.  Everyone, they say, needs a little abandon.  Everyone needs liberation from self-consciousness, planning, and schedules. Sometimes I am nostalgic for the days when I didn’t have to worry about what I ate or spent.  I miss the holidays when, instead of carrying a pedometer, I added foil wrappers from chocolate kisses to a growing ball in my pocket and laughed when it reached tennis ball size.

The trouble is, counting is in me.  Even that tennis ball was counting.  For me, the real trick isn’t knowing when to count and when not, but knowing which numbers should grow and which shrink.  I like to believe those numbers, nerdy as they are, help me lead a deliberate, thoughtful life.

As a world, we’ve gotten into such messes by not counting, but perhaps our biggest messes arise from counting the wrong things or heedlessly amassing what we might have diminished…or shared.

Maybe I should stop counting.  Maybe I should let numbers change invisibly and simply live in the moment, but I wonder if I can.

When the pedometer challenge was over, a colleague and I celebrated the silence of our steps, but, now that I’ve thought about it, I’m ready to admit…

I miss my pedometer.

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Filed under Essays, Meditations, Numbers, Teaching, Writing

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