Tales from the Heart of America
The Numbers Are In
- By Scotte Burns
Elliptical machines can be many things: demanding, calculating, even unforgiving at times. But the one I must use three times weekly in our small town Rec Center is something new. It’s a smartass. Each morning, before I can begin the cardio work that we are told is necessary for us so that we don’t end up looking the way we do, I must undergo the same imperial interrogation from the elliptical machine.
A: Manual. Incline 8, Resistance 5.
Press OK to accept.
A: 207. (Why in the hell else do you think I’d be doing this?)
Press OK to accept.
A: 56. Crap, no - 57. (It takes me half a year after a birthday to remember it anymore.)
Press OK to accept...
Like some amused jester sitting at the foot of Fate’s throne, The Machine really gives me no choice for discussion on that one. I realize I can’t do anything about it, and somewhere in the deep recesses of my being, I have reconciled how I still feel inside with how I continue to imagine myself, how I actually appear in the mornings, and how many rotations of the planet I’ve endured. But just who in the hell does the PreCor V elliptical machine think it is to sit in such judgment? Accept your waning years or you shall not pass? Really? So, I press “Accept,” while maintaining the quiet dignity of lying to the PreCorV and doing no such thing.
We are forced to accept many numbers in our lives, with no say in the matter. We receive a social security number, phone numbers, addresses, account numbers, license plates. (Yes, some people pay extra to choose personalized vanity plates, but slapping a plate on a red Corvette that says “The Greg” just gives the rest of us a number of reasons not to talk to you, Greg.) While it is mildly galling to have no voice in such things, the assignment of most numbers is inconsequential, though, especially in a time when we increasingly rely on devices to remember them all for us anyway. Most people still communicate primarily with words, after all.
Or, at least we used to until the ironically-named “social media” became a part of our lives.
Now, I'm as enamored as anyone with the ability to locate long-lost friends, read news from questionable sources tailored just for me, and keep abreast of the startling aging processes of celebrities from my youth. It’s also wonderful to share photos and videos and stories with the 2% of friends and supporters Facebook decides would like to see them - a fair exchange for seeing stuff from the 2% of people it deems I should hear from, I suppose. But the nasty trap of the whole thing, and why we all keep perpetuating it, lies in how it makes us think that the numbers are what matter. The little rush of satisfaction at feeling validated with “likes” on these weird, hyper-data-mined, publicly-private platforms is bizarre, yet tempting, bait. That baby picture, a post about how delighted or despondent I am today, my shared story about a friend in need...only got five “likes?” And they’re the same five people who always like me, dammit! My value to the world = 5. Compared to the hundreds, or thousands, of likes others get for their lives, I’m pitiful. I’m therefore compelled to expose more, and better, stuff about me to climb the ranks and feel comparatively worthwhile.
Embarrassingly, I’ve found myself falling for this trap when we post a new journey photo, we share news about our progress, or especially when I’ve spent forty hours editing and offering a video, and it doesn’t go wildly “viral.” (Incidentally, only people who have grudgingly accepted an advanced number about their age from a piece of gym equipment will recall this, but “viral exposure” used to be the last thing anyone would have wanted.) At these times, I remind myself that these for-profit social fantasy sites should be toys and tools, not ends in themselves. I also often think back to a “quiz” I used to offer to my students on occasion as a part of the daily funnies with which I always began class.
Erroneously credited to Peanuts creator Charles Shulz, its origins are uncertain, but its value is clear. The quiz asks us to name (without Googling) the five wealthiest people in the world, ten years of Heisman, World Series, Oscar, Grammy, Pulitzer, Nobel, and other award winners. In other words, the richest, most attractive, most athletic, accomplished people in the world - the kinds of people that matter, and who get those millions of likes, and follows, and “twits” every day. (And if you just now felt compelled to leap to its defense and correct that to “tweets”, I hope the irony isn’t lost.) Most of my students could get one or two answers per category, of course, with the occasional sports geek scoring extra here and there. Then, the quiz asked things like “Name three friends who helped you through a difficult time; Two people in your family who always make you feel special; One personal hero whose story inspires you; someone who taught you something that makes your life better.” The room usually got quiet for a bit, as everyone populated that part of their lists, and when asked, they could name everyone on it, and why. The purpose, of course, was to show young people how the ideals they’re encouraged to follow on social media, and the models of our culture, are so often not the ones that have profound meaning in our lives. We might casually click “like” on those shiny bits without thinking, but as the days become the years of our lives and we look back, the people that truly matter came to us individually, by ones, or in pairs. They became more to us than their images, their followings...Their numbers.
And so, today, after realizing that my disappointment over having the response to some post or other not devoured by a school of frenzied, digital piranha, I looked inside the little number I received for the bigger message. Inside, I found the family who have never wavered, always believed, always responded by encouraging my and Toni’s lives and dreams. There were also a couple of great friends who clicked those new “buttons” for love and “wow” (There are also options for anger and sadness now, as well. How insightful of Facebook and the other emotional algorithm wizards to recognize that digitized humans needed buttons for expressing other nuances of human life.) The people that “liked” or “loved” or “wowed” us offered little pieces from their own lives in return - an exchange called friendship that we make in person when we can, with hugs for which no click-button will ever suffice. There were even ones and twos of people we’ve met along the Love in America road who have been touched by our work, and who reach back personally sometimes. The numbers aren’t vast, and if they become so, I hope I never take them for granted. Because the stories behind those special ones and twos are what matter in our real lives. They are the tales that can’t be posted or quantified, but that can be lived over time, together.
Looking behind the little numbers has reminded me how deeply, rather than broadly, we are loved, how much our lives have mingled in meaningful ways with others, and how short-sighted the numbers we are sold can make us. I’m so grateful that the Great Mathematician sends those little reminders when needed.
I guess He has my number.