This story begins with a number: 64. For eight years, one month, and 20 days, I daily drove approximately that many miles roundtrip to my job as a newspaper reporter. I won't try to fool you: Battling the Chicago area's bumper-to-bumper traffic will never be confused with fun. But the commuting tedium was allayed considerably by fellow drivers.
Where others may see a polluting "beater" or a fancy Beamer, I unconsciously focus on other vehicles' license- plate digits.
Almost daily, I'll find a number say, 20.875 in my head for no apparent reason. Then I shift my gaze to the pickup truck that has just passed me again. I can't help checking out his license plate. I do some instant math, and realize, "Oh. The first three numbers divided by the last three equal 20.875. That's how that number got there!" This can be disconcerting, as if my mind is taking a correspondence course behind my back.
While other kids were dating during their early-teen years, I was having a simmering affair with numbers. I can still recall my epiphany over fractions in which the denominator is 7. (If the numerator is any number from 1 to 6, adding the first three digits of the resulting fraction with the next three digits equals 999. To wit: 1 divided by 7 is .142857; 3 divided by 7 is .428571. And, apart from the first digit, the numbers stay in sequence, as if they were on a conveyer belt.)
It has always been this way. In fifth grade, I finished tests before anyone else including my teacher, Mrs. Scott. I can still see her look of confusion when I turned in my first quiz moments after she'd finished handing it out.
About this time my family, operating on a limited budget, found me to be a source of cheap entertainment. My siblings would quiz me with drawn-out equations on the calculator, "6 times 17 minus 5 divided by 4 times 18...." My parents were banking on my getting a math scholarship to a place like MIT.
But I lost all interest in high school, when math took a sharp, shocking turn into an annoying land of letters and symbols. What was that all about? This stuff had no place in a self-respecting math class.
In college, I took a math class only because it was required for my journalism degree. I blended in with all the football jocks and skidded home with a C.
But at least my obsession got me through seven years of baseball futility. In other words, I struck out a lot a whole lot. My consolation was to figure out my new batting average by the time I reached the dugout. In time, I graduated to other odd habits, such as multiplying and dividing birth dates, phone numbers and license plates.
This being America, I've been able to pay a decent percentage of my mortgage with this numbers mania. I lead seminars for fellow reporters on how to handle numbers more skillfully, for example. And for the past two years, I've been the guy behind the quirky facts that find their way into a statistics column in Sports Illustrated For Kids.
Before I proceed, permit me an introduction: Behind every great man (as you have heard countless times) is a great woman. Only in my case, behind a greatly disturbed man is a very tolerant woman. That would be my wife, Bridgett.
One time, fairly early on in my SI For Kids stint, I hatched the brilliant idea of finding out which months are the most popular for birthdays among pro athletes. Not just an All-Star team, but every single player on the active roster of every team in the NFL, NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball.
I know, I know. Who cares? Well, in that weak moment, I did.
So, after hours of poring over the rosters of 118 teams totaling 3,929 players I came to a startling realization: I was in way over my head. What did I do? I wish I could say I stood strong and told my editor that this was a crazy idea in the first place. I thought about doing that for maybe two seconds. Then I hollered to Bridgett, in my most needy voice: "Honey, can you help me?"
When we exchanged wedding vows, I don't think she envisioned this: As Bridgett dictated a sequence of numbers from 1 to 12, corresponding to months of the year, I scrawled lines in batches of five, like an inmate marking time on a prison wall. (The most popular birth month? January.)
Ever since then, I've suggested much simpler topics just barely more complex than "How many quarters are in a football game?" or "How tall is Michael Jordan?" I don't want to press the whole "for better or for worse" bit.
Well ... time to bring this confession to a close. And speaking of time that's another realm where numbers show up in a big way. Did you know that there are a million seconds in 11-1/2 days? Or that you turn a billion seconds old when you are about four months shy of 32?
Two years ago, hours before I hit the billion-second milestone, I blurted this bit of trivia to a supermarket cashier. She merely eyed me blankly and snapped her gum. Go figure.