Column: Arithmomania – it's the numbers that count

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Roger VanHaren

You never know when you might learn something useful on “Jeopardy!” A few weeks ago, one of the clues (in a category called “manias”) said something like “a compulsive disorder to count actions or objects.” The answer — and one of the contestants knew it — was “What is Arithmomania?”

I guess I must be an arithmomaniac. I count things. I don’t know why, but I count things as I’m doing jobs, driving, or exercising, whatever. Do you do that?

This probably started when I was a kid on the farm. I wasn’t what you’d call an intrepid hero back in those days. (I’m still not an intrepid sort, I guess.) There were lots of things that I was a little afraid of, but I didn’t like to let anyone know that I was afraid, so in order to take my mind off some things, I’d “count.”

Example: I was not very good with heights, and some of the chores we had to do on the farm involved some climbing. At silo-filling time, for instance, we’d have to climb the silos to put the filler pipes into the the top of the silo. A leaning ladder is one thing, but climbing those metal steps straight up the outside of the silo was not my cup of tea, so I’d set a “personal record” goal in my head and then focus on counting the steps as I climbed, rather than concentrating on the unnerving fact that I was 25, 30, or 40 feet off the ground. I never looked down if I could help it.

Climbing the silo on the “inside,” inside the chute, to go up and throw down silage for the cows, was a little easier, but I still counted the steps every time I went up. Once I was up in the silo, I’d have to count how many forkfuls of silage I was throwing down, too. Ta more practical thing; I knew how many forkfuls each cow had to have and how many cows there were.

Climbing in the haymow was a snap, because if I fell there, the fall would be cushioned by the big stacks of loose hay. (This was in the days before hay balers; the hay was pulled up into the haymow in big soft bird nests by a big eagle-taloned hay fork on a pulley and track system.) But I always counted the ladder steps. Force of habit, I guess.

In the summer, when the cows would pasture on the “lower 40” down by the Oconto River, I’d have to go collect them for milking. We always had good dogs to help round them up, but, of course, it was important to count them to be sure they were all there. There were many places they could “hide” in the cedar swamps and the hardwoods, and making sure I had them all was an important time-saving device. If I’d gone back to the barn and some were missing, then I’d have to go back down to the pasture to find them. Counting was important.

Today, I’m still a counter. When I’m winding up my extension cords, I count how many loops I’m making. When I’m sawing a board, I count how many strokes it takes to cut it off. When I’m driving a nail, I count the strikes. I used to count crunches, curls, and repetitions when I was working out. I count road kills — separate running scores for skunks, raccoons, deer, etc.

When I played golf, I’d have to count my golf strokes naturally, but I usually also knew how many my playing partners had taken as well! I know it’s 14 steps to the lower level of our house. I try to count people when I’m at an event. It just goes on and on.

One day about a week ago, we went to a funeral in Madison. On the way through Madison on our way home, we hit 24 green lights and one yellow before we had to stop for a red light. A new record for me.

When our grandson, Tyler, was about 5, we were watching a golf match on TV. Sergio Garcia, the young Spanish pro, was playing. If you’ve ever watched Garcia, you know that he changes his grip many times before he actually swings the club. After one particularly long session, Tyler announced that Garcia had changed his grip 36 times! I’d been counting, too, and he was right. Nice to know there’s someone to carry on the tradition.

I try to tell myself that all this mental activity is good for me. After all, I’m usually multi-tasking; I’m doing the counting simultaneously to some other function. I can be carrying on a conversation and still be counting something. When the pretzel box says 82 sticks is a serving, how am I going to know when I’ve had my serving if I don’t count?

Contact Roger VanHaren at