Friday, May 30, 2008


Numbers are your permanent companions, shadowing your life from “Hello” to “Goodbye.”

A baby is born. Your doctor reports:

“The baby’s height is in the ninetieth percentile.”

“Is that good?”

“I don’t know about ‘good.’ But of every hundred babies that are born, ninety of them are shorter than yours.”

“What does that mean?”

“You have a tall baby.”

“Is that significant?”

“It’s interesting.”

“But does it matter?”

“Not really.”
“Then why did you tell me about it?”

“Most people like to know.”

“That they have a tall baby?”

“Parents brag about that.”

“Well, I may be a voice in the wilderness here, but as far as I’m concerned, height is not important in a baby.”

“You wanted to know her weight.”

“Weight matters. Babies with low birth weights can die. Nobody dies because they’re short.”

“Well, people generally like knowing these things. Though I’m seriously regretting telling you.”

Numbers. Sometimes, they’re important (birth weight); sometimes, they’re not (birth height). Interestingly, as children grow, it’s their height that takes center stage. When a relative crows, “Look how big she’s gotten!” they’re rarely talking about her weight. That’s usually a more whispered observation.

In adulthood, the emphasis reverts to weight. You never hear about Height Loss clinics.

Unlike words, numbers have no intrinsic implications. They’re simply numbers, used for counting, weighing, measuring and comparing. Numbers are essential to sporting events. This is sports without numbers:

“Who won the game?”

“What do you mean?”

Numbers have no significance till our culture applies one to them. Consider your I.Q. Simply a number? Or a powerful bragging device? SAT scores. Just numbers? Or calling cards to the finest colleges? Even your Area Code has a subjective meaning. Especially in L.A.

“What’s your area code?”


“The Valley.”

“Yes. What’s your area code?”


They may try to hide it, but you can hear in their voices.

“’Three-one-oh.’ Now that’s a number!”

Numbers, in themselves meaningless lines and loops, can shimmer with significance. And nowhere more significantly than in the health arena. In medicine, numbers and what they indicate can be the difference between “Go home, you’re fine” and “Sit down, we need to talk.”

Blood pressure, cholesterol, thyroid, prostate issues – phantom killers, all monitored by numbers. You feel perfect, the test numbers come back, “Not so fast.” You may feel tip-top, but the numbers are telling you you’re wrong.

Medical numbers have transformative powers. They can make a non-believer suddenly religious:

“Your numbers are up!”

“Oh, God!”

“Your numbers are fine.”

“Thank God.”

What a surprise. You’re religious and you didn’t even know it.

Once aware of its life-and-death-indicating significance, your number can dominate your consciousness. Suddenly, otherwise reasonable people are obsessing about their number. “Is it climbing? Is it dropping? Is it holding? Is it jumping?” In time, they become so attuned to their number, they can actually feel it, fluctuating in their bodies.

“I had a bad thought, my number went up. I’m worried it went up. It went up again!”

Suddenly, every aspect of their behavior is minutely scrutinized, every action evaluated as to how it will affect The Number. Everything changes. They’re not doing this, they’re refraining from that, they mustn’t go too fast, they mustn’t go too far. Pretty soon, they’re not doing anything at all. They’re just sitting there. Very still. A prisoner to

The Number.

An exaggeration? Offer someone a French fry and check out their reaction.

We started with birth numbers. We’ll finish with

“Irving Pivnick – dead at 72.”

Death. The final number. By itself, devoid of significance. But watch this. The same number – 72 – the “dead at” number – observed from varying perspectives:


Seventy-two? A young man.


A geezer.


The national average.


He went too soon.




Seventy-two, nothing! He was seventy-five!

And the rest of us?


Seventy-two, huh? I can beat that.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about a doctor’s visit for blood test. I recently received the results.

The concern about numbers can make your heart jump, which, of course, is not good for your numbers. My doctor reassures me that if I’m feeling all right, my panicking in the examining room waiting to hear my numbers is generally unwarranted. I’m simply being tested to track the effects of the medicines I’m taking. However, since the medicines I’m taking are for ailments for which I never experienced any symptoms in the first place, I don’t feel particularly reassured.

Plus, I’m a natural scaredy-cat.

My numbers turned out to be fine. I have to go back in six months, where I’ll go through the entire process all over again. Is it good news? Yes. But it’s good news with an appointment.

It looks like the “confronting the numbers” issue is never going to end. Until I do.

The “six months” reference sends me directly into Henny Youngman mode:

“Doctor gave me six months to live. I told him I couldn’t pay the bill. He gave me another six months.”

I paid the bill. And I still have to go back.


Tim Susman said...

There's a great fabulist fiction book by Aimee Bender called "An Invisible Sign of My Own" in which one of the characters has a set of wax numbers, from one to 100, and he wears one every day that describes his mood for the day. The higher the number, the better the mood. It was a really clever device and ended up being a large part of the story...

Anonymous said...

But, are you sure you want to document your whole demise on the internet?

Anonymous said...

Two great posts in a row, Earl. You’re really hitting your stride.

I’m still chuckling over “Height Loss Clinics.” Reminds me of a guy I used to know who went to Height Watchers. Last I heard, he was down to five foot ten inches. Not bad for a former NBA player...