Three clerks, seven people in line ahead of me, and outside the post office window the last car of a long coal train cleared the crossing. "A hundred and four cars, Mommy," said my granddaughter to her mother. "That train had 104 cars. I counted." I had, too. She had the number correct. At eight years of age, she's a counter. She and I share a bond that spans the 50 years between us.
My mother taught me to count things as a mental game: crayons in the box, carrots in a bag, books on my shelf, shoes in our closet. Her games became my habit and a constant source of entertainment. How many stop signs and traffic lights are between the freeway and home? Eleven on one route versus 12 on another.
How many steps into the building where I work? Nine, 10, 12, and 14 at four separate entrances.
Now M&Ms: How many red ones, blue ones, yellow ones? I often sort the candies by color, then eat from the longer lines to even them up with the shorter ones. (There is a website that teaches math skills using the multicolored morsels.) My mother visited recently, and she's still counting train cars like the little girl in the post office, pairs of socks as we folded them in the living room, and hostas in full leaf beside the garage.
Neither she nor I counts for a living. Friends who do actuarial statistics for insurance companies, calculate taxes, or audit businesses have my sympathy. But in a broader sense, we humans have loved counting since time immemorial: the seven wonders of the world, 40 days and 40 nights, two by two, the Ten Commandments, the "top 10" of anything, the 12 apostles, Henry VIII, George III, 13 Colonies, and 50 states.
Other numbers we forget with ease - such as how many constitutional amendments there are (27) and which presidential election this November's will be (the 55th, to reelect the 43rd president - or elect the 44th).
Alas, modern freeway driving has made it difficult to count license plates on summer vacation the way we did when I was a kid. My 3-year-old grandson does not know he'll learn that game, in time.
For me, the importance does not lie in the final number, but rather in the fun of counting my way to the total. As with so many things, the "getting there" adds texture, pleasure, and immediacy to our lives in a world too full of thoughtlessness and bigger numbers than we can comprehend - how much is a trillion dollars, really?
It's not the order of train cars in life that's important, nor does it make one train more special than another because it has more cars (although my mother still remembers her record of 131 cars). Instead of feeling frustration that we have to stop and wait at a crossing, I sit in excited anticipation wondering how many cars will pass: Just a few behind a local switcher? Or perhaps a new record?
When we count, we pay attention to what is in front of us. Going upstairs at home, there are nine steps to the landing, another six to the second floor.
This knowledge may make it easier, perhaps, to traverse stairs in the dark. But even in brightest daylight, counting still calls attention to what we are doing at the moment - it makes determining the number a game.
How many cars will get through the brief left-turn arrow at the intersection en route to the post office? Most times, only two; my record is four.
It's much more fun to count and guess than to worry if I'm going to make it.
Computers count higher than we need, faster than we can: When I did an Internet search to find how many websites include the word "counting," I got the answer (6,010,000) in a fraction of a second. But I prefer the slowness of saying each number mentally or aloud: "one, two, three..."
I like personal, smaller numbers that cause me to pause amid busyness, to pay attention, to take pride in knowing "how many" of something like train cars or turning autos. "How many" is fun to find out when I arrive at it on my own - at eight, 58, or 85. Even better to know that train-car counters span generations and families.
It makes a richer number when I discover that someone else is counting.