The Working Waterfront

Confessions of a compulsive counter

English and mathematics remain nimble in mind

Phil Crossman
Posted 2022-09-19
Last Modified 2022-09-19

I was largely adrift in high school. I paid little sustained attention with one intriguing exception. My English teacher was a singularly intimidating and frightful old woman named Gwendlyn Green. One of her eyes wandered endlessly afield of whatever the other, her good and functioning eye, was focused on.

She was the brunt of, but oblivious to, cruel jokes, mostly from my fellow, mostly male students. Her only interest, though, was in teaching to the one or two kids in the class who were worthy and interested in learning. That one of those youngsters was myself was certainly not apparent to me or anyone else but how else to account for the fixation on grammar and expression that emerged decades later.

I wonder if she knew that I would one day awaken.

I do submit, pretty much always, to the temptation to arrange things.

Early on, in one of the singular moments of clarity during those 12 years of education, a moment with Miss Green, I was convincingly persuaded to never start a sentence with “but” or with “and.” It’s done all the time nowadays, by even the most acknowledged writers and essayists, but I still can’t clear that hurdle.

I credit Miss Green, who delivered that admonition so credibly that now, 50 years later, I cannot bring myself to begin a sentence thus, even after, recently, an editor (not Tom) suggested I do so.

I only say this because I’ve begun writing an account of my three-year, 268 mile walk, several years ago, around the shore of Vinalhaven and I want to account for the absence of transitional words one might otherwise expect to be deployed. This is the introduction and it relates to the appeal of counting footsteps.

I have, at 76, evolved—I reserve the right to be generous—to become, among other things, a fellow who, while unwilling to acknowledge being elderly, is reconciled to, even content with, being host to a mild dysfunction. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is characterized by, among other irregularities, a consuming and irrational need to impose order, to arrange things, alphabetically, or by height or length or weight, and to engage in compulsive behavior, particularly counting or averaging or maybe hand washing. Mine, though is an imperfect and, according to several insensitive acquaintances, thus characteristic, affliction.

I do submit, pretty much always, to the temptation to arrange things. On the other hand, things do beg to be sorted out, do they not? I count stuff as well; in fact, I count everything, now that I think about it—footsteps, footsteps between cracks in the sidewalk, footsteps between a beginning and a destination, footsteps per mile, average footsteps per minute, footsteps between my house and my therapist’s office and so forth.

But again, would those unknowns not otherwise remain elusive? Who else do you know who can name our 46 presidents or our 50 states alphabetically, or in reverse order… or their capitals?

Passengers, when I’m driving, and they realize I am not paying attention to them or much else, are disturbed to find that I am instead assigning numeric values to the letters on oncoming license plates, adding them to the plate’s numbers, finding an average, and then pronouncing that vehicle, before it passes from view, to be the corresponding phonetic equivalent.

A car with license number 94HCL13, for example, is a Foxtrot. On the other hand, as a reminder that I must remain cognizant and keep my eyes on the road, I round to the nearest whole number.

I don’t think about irrational things however, I don’t care what anyone says, and, according to my sweetheart Elaine, do not wash my hands nearly enough. Thus, my diagnosis as “modest.”

Now about that walk.

Phil Crossman lives on Vinalhaven where he owns and operates the Tidewater Motel. He may be reached at