There’s a scene in Counting on You where Henry shares a memory from his childhood where he tries to count all of the grains of sugar in a single serve packet. His mother interrupts before he gets too far, dusting the sugar from the table while pleading with Henry to stop counting things. She may as well have asked him to stop breathing. Henry doesn’t just love to count things. He needs to. Knowing the quantity of a certain item makes him more than happy. It’s calming and soothing and makes him feel in control of his environment.
How do I know this? Do you really have to ask?
I recently wrote another character who likes to count things. Nick, in my upcoming book, Sundays with Oliver, keeps an extraordinarily close track of time. Not only does he like to do the same things at the same time every day, but he knows how many minutes (sometimes seconds) these tasks will occupy.
For instance, where most people would say, let’s leave home at nine and start for the door at nine o’clock (or thereabouts), Nick will start for the door at 8:54 because he knows that it will take six minutes to gather his keys and sunglasses, grab a bottle of water, round everyone else up, get them situated, sync his phone, open the garage door, and have the front tires of the vehicle meet the top of the driveway at exactly nine a.m.
Is Nick relatable only to me?
Many (most?) of my characters have personality quirks that I’ve taken from myself and blown up into something that defines them. I do this for a couple of reasons, the first being that it’s a fun way to differentiate my characters. I’ve written fifteen novels, nine novellas, and countless short stories over the past nine years and the majority of them have featured two male leads. To me, they’re all distinct.
The other reason is that it’s really quite fun to take a quirk of mine and expand it—run with it. See what it would be like if that one small thing came to define me. The counting and time things, though? I didn’t have to stretch that far. But it was only during the lockdown of 2020 that I began to realize how much.
With nowhere to go for four months, my need to plan outings to the last minute went unexercised and I had counted everything in my house years beforehand. Instead of looking for new ways to measure time and count things, however, I actually found myself slacking off. Letting things blur a little. As the weeks passed, my routine began to slip until I no longer needed to be at my desk at six a.m. on the dot. Lunch often occurred at five minutes past twelve! Dinner happened around five. I stopped cleaning the bathrooms on Mondays and going to the supermarket on Tuesdays. In fact, I wasn’t going grocery shopping at all. I was letting someone else choose what I ate and that should have made me very, very anxious. To my surprise, it did not. In fact, it was like being on vacation.
I stopped counting steps, putting my Fitbit into a drawer, and subsequently forgetting which drawer. The ease of not having to find a way to meet my step goal before I retired each night was amazing.
These changes didn’t happen overnight. But over the past two years, I have shed counting habits like skins. Not all of them make me feel less anxious—which is an idea I’m still grappling with, because hadn’t I formed all of these habits in order to feel more in control of my environment? For example, I quit Goodreads last year, opting instead to build my own reading tracker in Notion. But after designing a gorgeous database and uploading all of my books, past and present, I found that I didn’t feel compelled to keep it up. There was no reading goal to satisfy—and why was I setting reading goals anyway?
I generally read upward of two hundred books a year. I do not need to be encouraged to read more. Also—two hundred books were starting to feel like too many. I wanted to start rereading some classic SF&F, and in general I wanted to slow down and try to read a little more mindfully. And so, as of… I don’t know… maybe March this year? I have stopped adding entries to my reading database. I’m not sure I’ve been reading less, but I haven’t been feeling as much pressure to finish a book so I can get to the next one, unless I’m excited about the next one, in which case I can—gasp—put the one I’m reading aside for a while and go right there. Because why not?
I have also managed to read more mindfully, in that I’ve been choosing books that really interest me as a reader rather than books I think I should be reading (because they’re popular or everyone else loved it, etc.) and have been taking the time to really absorb the stories or information, meaning I’ll sit with a book for half an hour to an hour instead of ten-minute snatches throughout the day. For some, I’ve even researched the book after the fact, listening to videos regarding the meaning (essential for books like Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe), looking for interviews with the author, and joining discussion groups (for basically every Iain M. Banks Culture novel).
(As a side note, I used to do all of this on Goodreads, but after becoming an author, I found Goodreads to be a rather toxic environment. I now default to Reddit for book-related discussion groups.)
At this point in time, I don’t know how many books I’ve read this year. It’s over fifty. Is it close to a hundred yet? Maybe. Do I care? Absolutely not. Do I still know how many books I have in the house? Well, yes. I can’t stop counting everything all at once.
I have stopped counting words, though. I used to use Pacemaker while writing a novel to keep track of my daily/weekly/monthly word count, and again, I used it because knowing how many words I had left in a project was empowering and stress-relieving. I’m not sure what the difference is now—perhaps the fact I’m not writing to a deadline? Not even a personal one. I don’t actually care whether I finish this current book. If I do, I do. If I don’t, well, then, I don’t. I’ll think about that when the day arrives that I don’t feel like working on it anymore.
In the meantime, I know I’ve written a certain number of words because Word still likes to count things for me.
I no longer count calories. I do have a certain range in my head or an arbitrary figure for most foods/meal combos, but only because I’m fifty-four years old and can’t eat as much as I used to and still fit into my favorite jeans. So it’s become more watching what I eat—and a little more strictly now and then—than keeping an actual diary.
I do still know the daily balance of all of my bank accounts and credit cards. I mean, that’s only sensible.
I still count while pouring detergent into the washing machine and iced tea from the pitcher into my glass. In fact, I count in my head while pouring nearly every liquid because—I have no idea why, but this is a habit I have not been able to break.
I count reps while working out with my hand weights and resistance bands.
I sometimes stand in front of the microwave and count seconds with it, which is weird, right? I mean, it’s not as if it can’t keep time all on its own.
I now clean the bathrooms on Saturday, because having bathroom cleaning day as floating and freeform was apparently too much freedom.
But the ways in which I have become untethered feel important in a manner I haven’t quite defined. I’m in a bit of limbo at the moment as I continue to figure out what I really need to count and what might remain unquantified. It’s the gaps of time (unmeasured) that I’m finding in between that really matter. Time I now spend lying on the front lawn while a cat flops heavily next to my head to pant quietly in the sun. Because it’s hot out there and she has black fur.
It’s the lunches I take out on the back deck with no book, no podcast, no TV show, no input whatsoever, except for the chatter of squirrels and chipmunks and the rustle of leaves as the window blows through the backyard. It’s feeling the heat of the day and remembering the scent of sunshine.
I’m not rushing as much. I still want to pass through the doorway at 8:54 so that the tires meet the top of the driveway at nine o’clock on the freaking dot, but I’ve accepted that leaving at 9:01 will get us to the supermarket at around the same time.
I suppose the only question remaining is will I continue to shed counting habits or will I eventually pick them back up again? Make new ones? I don’t know. But until either occurs, my aim is simply to continue enjoying my less quantified life.
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