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Numbers and Life

December 18, 2001

A public radio commentary

This is my 100th piece for this station. I'm not celebrating, though, because right now I'm rejecting numbers. They've taken over my life and I'm trying to avoid them.

I got my first hint that numbers would dominate my world when my grade school teacher screened DONALD DUCK IN MATHMAGIC LAND. While not great cinema, Donald showed how math permeates music, sports, and the arts. I should have been more alarmed when he quacked on and on, because today I find that numbers have indeed taken over. They begin their assault first thing in the morning. A single number determines what I'll wear that day. In the summer I use the heat index, in the winter, the wind chill factor; from that point on my day fills with numbers.

The information revolution alone has quadrupled the numbers in my life. I have three telephone numbers - two at home, one at my office - a pager, a cell phone, and a fax. Adding to this overload is my wife's work phone, cell phone, and pager. And to access my university library's computer system, I've memorized a fifteen digit ID number.

I'm not the first to complain about numbers filling our minds. In 1963 the New York Times objected to the newly introduced Zip Code for mail. They wrote "Life is rendered intolerably complex by substituting number-memory for name association, which is not germane to the human psyche." Indeed. No wonder I nearly lost it when the Post Office added four digits to the zip code. But, I held on to my sanity until I got a second phone line.

To accommodate our increased internet usage, my wife and I decided to get a second line dedicated to our computers. The telephone installers arrive and quickly did their work, finishing the job by handing me my new phone number. I stared at it, feeling numb.

Dazed, I went to our old phone to call a friend. Just as I finished dialing, the new phone rang. I hung up, rushed to answer it, only to find no one on the other end. I returned to the old phone. Again, just as I finished dialing the new phone rang. Suddenly I realized: I'm calling my new phone number. It had lodged itself in my overloaded mind.

So, you can see that celebrating this, my 100th piece, frightens me a bit. Although my fear of numbers may come from elsewhere. I've just celebrated one of those birthdays that ends in a zero, one which marks a new decade of life. Perhaps that is what makes me want to stop counting. I keep telling myself, ala Jack Benny, I'm still thirty nine.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises