Category Archives: Numbers

Ahead and Behind

Other runners must have the same daydream—shambling along at my tired pace, I look up and imagine the back of my younger self racing out of reach ahead.  The two of us can’t be split and still be one person, but, if we could be, he’d be winning.

Like most ex-competitive runners over fifty, my best times are behind me. I’ve nearly used up the expression, “Back in the day.”

Little in life is as quantifiable as the time it once took you to cover a distance.  I don’t figure my time completing projects at work or my efficiency answering e-mails—but I remember my best at every distance.  The numbers have remained relevant because the high school cross country athletes I coach—including my son—periodically ask me, “What’s your fastest at…?”

But I’m sensible enough to know how meaningless those numbers really are.  Some runners—even ones whose bodies have long betrayed them—still see themselves as an X-minute, Y-seconds Z-distance runner.  They regale you with former workouts and stellar performances at races that occurred decades ago.  Their triumphs are as fresh as last weekend.

Okay, me too.  But usually I wait to be asked and tell the story with disbelief.  Those performances belong to someone else.  That I once ran so fast astounds me.  What astounds me even more is that I once trained hard enough to attain those times.

The biggest difference between me and the imaginary younger runner ahead is the spirit behind his dedication.  He has a naive faith in sacrifice, the cumulative effect of daily work, and the tolerance of pain.  He has no excuse for taking it easy—mostly because he doesn’t take it easy—and he’s never as impressed with himself as he hopes to be after his next race.  He’s not nostalgic because it’s not time yet.

His perspective is what I miss, not the times or even the body that produced the times.  I’m lucky I get to work with young runners filled with hope and am grateful so much of their spirit rubs off on me.  However, experience, especially the sort that tells you what’s possible, makes you resistant to their sort of ambition.

Perhaps it’s time for another dream. For me, the hardest part of aging has been feeling less hopeful.  My racing years have ended, and I could turn to other goals, but little seems as quantifiable—verifiable—as those old times do.  Strangely, new tasks often feel like starting over.  Another magnitude of desire seems required.  I gulp very hard to toe the line.

I’d love to shout to the young man ahead of me—ask him to stop for a moment and indulge an old man with a little advice—how does he do it?  I’d love to get a pat on the back, a smile, and a shove.

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Filed under Aging, Birthdays, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Hope, life, Meditations, Memory, Numbers, Teaching, Thoughts, Work

Obscurnymity

Some statistics: according to my blogstats, viewers visited this site 32 times this week—two days it received two visits—and one person viewed my last post.

Which means, of course, no one may be listening right now.

At school, I’m teaching a Personal Writing ISP (Independent Study Project) to two wonderful students, and Friday we discussed Montaigne and the idea of what an audience is in essay writing—how a writer thinks of his or her readers, these people the writer can’t know or watch in real time. We talked about how a writer encourages and tries readers’ trust or affection, how voice communicates the sort of relationship the author seeks with readers. We did not, however, discuss whether the audience is real.

Yet the internet makes voices come out of the wilderness–writers, like me, who speak from need, not for profit or acclaim, and with little realistic hope of being heard by any sort of mass audience.

In an interview in November 2007, Derek Gordon, vice president of Technorati, reported that 99% of blogs receive no hits, and, as this blog dives and flies along the WordPress baseline, it comes close to that standard.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not feeling sorry for myself. I’m presenting fact, and the facts are strangely liberating. I don’t worry about revealing my pathetic readership because this revelation may be a cybertree falling in a cyberforest—I’m unlikely to attract or drive away readers who don’t exist.

I write because writing is something I can’t not do (if you follow that poor wording) and, besides, I need the practice. I teach composition, and a writing teacher should speak from experience if he of she desires credibility. And, okay, I do aspire to a little wider audience. I appreciate any regular readers and anyone who lands here accidentally, and, if only for those few, I hope Emerson is right, “Condense some daily experience into a glowing symbol and an audience is electrified.”

But, just as I can’t say who’s listening right now, I can’t answer “Why write?” for any other blogger. What do all these cries into the wilderness mean?

David Cronenburg, the director of A History of Violence and other films, said in a 2006 interview on Rocketboom, that the industrial revolution really created the concept of a mass audience, that the patron-driven art of Bach or Beethoven aimed at a particular aristocratic, elite, and definable target. Our “democratic” art, he suggests, relies on the assumption that we can speak to everyone and appeals for the attention of an audience with dramatically “splintered” interests. “You can only spend 220 million on a film” he says, “if you think it has a mass audience.”

Then he adds, “The possibility of doing that”—of spending that sum with the assumption of success, “is going to diminish.”

While I have trouble imagining the disappearance of popular films, he raises an interesting question about audiences splintered down to one or two…or zero—does writing (and art in general) require a mass audience or any audience at all? And that question raises an even bigger one, “Is it doing or acceptance of what we’ve done that matters?”

Thoreau wrote in his journal that we gain greatest insight into friends when they speak in public. The friend, he said, “will be stranger to him as he is more familiar to the audience. The longest intimacy could not foretell how he would behave then.” However, I wonder if the estrangement he attributes to the friend can occur on an individual level, when no one but you is listening. In the imagined presence of others, with just the possibility of being heard, you might see yourself anew.

Do we bloggers really write to hear ourselves speak? Saying so sounds like the rationalization of readerless writers and fulfills the public image of bloggers as self-absorbed and uninteresting to anyone but themselves. Yet, a writer can seldom say, at least while writing, whether there’s a market for his or her words. A writer never knows who’s reading or if a reader understands.  So is the audience what it’s all about?

Some time ago, I had an important presentation of the revised freshman curriculum to make and devoted a couple of hours to what I wanted to say, crafting and recrafting my exact words. When I arrived at school, however, I discovered I was mistaken. I was simply to answer questions, and I sat nearby listening to a colleague do what I’d thought was my task. I hated wasting the labor, and I couldn’t help thinking I might have done a better job, but those were matters of ego.  Another sensation dwarfed them—an odd disorientation, as if the presentation I heard and the presentation I prepared were somehow both real, superimposed from alternate dimensions.

I often feel that way when I blog. No one might be out there right now, or they might have only made it to word 550 before stumbling off to another site or getting up for a sandwich, but this essay seems real.

And I’m glad I wrote it.

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Filed under Blogging, Essays, Meditations, Numbers, Teaching, Thoreau, Writing

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