Our Town: A world now filled with small numbers

Numbers have many meanings

Numbers are amusing creatures and never are what they seem. Ask a man turning 50 how old he feels and he will say “old,’ but ask a man of 70 to describe the 50-year-old and he will tell you “he’s a youngster.”
As I age I have learned one true thing. A one-minute task will take 10 minutes and a 10-minute task usually takes about an hour and God forbid if you have a task that is estimated to take one day:  You will still be at it on Day 10.
The COVID pandemic has had an interesting impact on numbers as well. Since we are no longer able to attend events with large numbers of people, theaters, schools, sporting events, churches and synagogues have become essentially off limits. So what impact if any does this restriction have on humans? Actors are out of work and athletes must struggle to feel the juice of competition without the roar of the crowds urging them on.
But what about the spectator when we no longer get to immerse ourselves in the crowd experience? The urge to congregate may be one of the prime reasons for all these street demonstrations. It gives the participants a chance to meet and greet.
I once did a piece where I described the difference between watching the U.S. Tennis Open at home vs. attending the matches in person. My conclusion was that there was no way to compare the two experiences. Watching on television allows you to see the players up close and to hear each and every grunt and groan, thanks to zoom lens and high-definition mikes. Going to the stadium in the flesh gives you no such views. In fact, you can barely see the athletes from those seats way up in the sky above the court. Instead you become immersed in the crowd experience itself. In a way the crowd is the show rather than the players.
Now you might be surprised to hear that good old Marshal McLuhan had much to say about the power of being with large numbers of people. McLuhan is that genius from Canada who coined the phrase “the medium is the message.” In fact, he wrote a whole chapter on numbers in his book “Understanding Media.” He suggested that humans love and even crave the experience of being in large groups and pointed out that increased levels of privacy, isolationism, unique points of view and work specialization was slowly producing a full-scale sense of fragmentation. Durkheim’s concept of anomie described the same problem as did Jean Paul Sartre and all the existentialists.
So as we settle into a world of full on isolation and where “one is the loneliest number that you ever heard,” let us pay homage to the world of small numbers.
Small numbers are ubiquitous and are the language of science. I had hoped to major in mathematics until I took my first calculus class in college and got a 36 on the final exam. I quickly changed to psychology.
Numbers are more a part of our lives then we realize. When I say “57 Varieties,” you know I am referring to Heinz ketchup though how they came up with 57 types of ketchup is beyond me.
Then we have “7 Up”, the good old-fashioned “5 and 10 store” and “7-Eleven.” Business seems to love the number “99” as in $5.99 rather the $6.00. Soccer fans love the number “10,” which is Messi’s number. Baseball has cherished the numbers “7” for Mickey Mantle, “8” for Yogi Berra and “42” for Jackie Robinson.
Some numbers are out and out bad news. The number 13 is a nasty number and this may stem back to a Norse myth where the thirteen god came to town and spoiled the party. And Judas had the 13th seat at the Last Supper. Four is considered bad luck in Japan and Korea.
Religion seems to be fond of the number three as in the Holy Trinity. The artist Francis Bacon loved to make triptychs and who doesn’t love the sights of adorable triplets.
Someday we shall all be able to immerse ourselves in among the madding crowd at a 2,500-seat Broadway theater or a golf event where 45,000 screaming fans shout out their love, but until that time we must settle for smaller integers to dwell upon.
I take considerable comfort in being able to write this column on a Sunday afternoon smack in the middle of a three-day weekend. You see this is Labor Day weekend, so I have one more whole day to get up late, to have coffee and even to take a nap on a Monday afternoon. The pleasure of getting lost in a crowd will have to wait for a while. We must settle for the hope that we will have a few more three-day weekends coming up soon. Triplets, triptychs and three-day weekends, three seems to be a good number to favor for the time being.


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