Back in 2012, I wrote about my compulsive counting habit. I’m revisiting it now, in hopes of collecting stories from other counters. If you count too, I’d love to hear about it. Leave me a comment.
For as long as I can remember, I have counted. If I’m on a train I might count the electric lines we pass or the rows in my car or the number of windows on each side of the aisle. When I’m bicycling, I count pedal strokes. It’s not something I do deliberately; I’ll just suddenly catch myself doing it. It feels like my mind doodling.
I’d never really thought about it, until once, years ago, my aunt Sandy, my mother and I were driving by a string of power lines on the Kansas prairie and somehow Sandy mentioned that she’d been counting the power lines. Big deal, I thought. Doesn’t everybody do that? Mom didn’t know what the hell we were talking about.
My dad does though. As I was writing this just now, I called him and asked, “Dad, do you count?” He knew immediately what I meant. He does it just like I do, and he says that his mom, my grandma Friesen, counted too. So did her dad, my great-grandpa Neufeld. “It has no purpose, I’ve just always done it,” Dad says.
As I recall, Sandy and I counted differently. She counted like this, “one, two, three, four…” while my count went, “two, four, six, eight.” She knew the exact number of power poles we’d passed since she had started counting. I was mentally arranging them into groups, and was concerned only with the number of poles in a given section, not the running total.
My counting isn’t about quantifying numbers—it’s about observing patterns. I seek symmetry and motifs–pairs of lines on each side of the power line, a fence line that’s divided into segments of four. My brain instinctively looks for these patterns and counts them as a way of finding order. I rarely keep a tally. I don’t count that there are 240 telephone poles, I count that there are three sets of four between county roads. Then I count that the next section also has three sets of four. If you ask me an hour later what I’d counted, I’d have to think for a moment.
The picture window in my office has little farmhouse-style cross hatches in it, and they divide each side of the window into eight rectangles. Sometimes when I’m stuck on writing or just sitting on the couch daydreaming or talking on the phone, my mind will count the rectangles. There are two, four, six eight, going up. And two, four, six, eight down. Four across. I’ll count them diagonally and up and down. I have worked from this office for more than seven years. The number of rectangles on my office window has never changed, and yet I still catch myself counting them nearly every day.
I am not an OCD kind of person, and it doesn’t matter to me if my counts are accurate. My counting doesn’t feel like touching the light switch again to make sure it’s turned off; it feels more like tapping my foot or twiddling my thumbs. I do it during drawn-out conference calls and road trips, but never during an interview. If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s a way to keep my mind occupied when it’s not sufficiently engaged in something else.
My habit does require a kind of release though. When I count stairs (always), I count them whichever way makes them even. If it comes out odd on the first flight, I’ll count the landing or the floor as a step to even it out. If I’m in a bathroom and the tiles on the floor run out the seventh time the tile pattern repeats, it’s somehow dissatisfying–I want it to go to eight or stop at six, and I’ll look for something extra to throw into the count to make the numbers work out the way I want. Though I prefer even numbers, my mind also finds satisfaction in patterns of three. I don’t like seven, but 21 is pleasing.
The volume setting on our car radio is numbered. I will set the volume to 10 or 12, but never to 15 or 17. If my husband turns it to a number I don’t like, I’ll reach over and adjust it to a more pleasing number. I can’t really explain why I like 13 but not 15. I especially dislike seven and 27, but I like 23 and I can’t tell you why.
I’ve wondered whether my relationship with numbers represents some kind of synesthesia, but I don’t associate numbers with colors or sounds, though my mind does automatically produce a kind of intuitive number form–a distinct spatial map of where particular numbers belong–but I find this mind map difficult to describe. It feels automatic, and when I try to explain what it looks like or how it works I become disoriented, in the same way I do when I try to give someone directions to a familiar place. I know where the right turn is, but it’s automatic for me, and if I try to articulate whether it’s before or after the red house, I suddenly lose all sense of direction. I know the route in a spatial sort of way, and it’s difficult to turn this intuitive map into a verbal one.
Am I thinking purely mathematically when I count? I’m not sure, but I’ve noticed that I think of numbers a little differently in others languages. I don’t like seven in English, but when I’m counting in Italian, I like sette very much. I don’t like 12 in German, but I like 11 in all three languages. And I can’t explain any of this.
Red train and poles by SP8254 via Flickr.
Cyclist and power lines by Ruth Friesen.