Baby George Plank.jpg

This is my son George doing his first plank 25 years ago. Not bad form for a baby; his butt's a little high, but that may be the diaper.

George caught onto numbers soon after that, and he's never let go. A one-minute plank turned into a two-minute plank and so on through the years. Last night he sent me an email saying he had taken the half-hour fitness test at the beginning of the Insanity workout program. He had done 160 switch kicks, 50 power jacks, 100 power knees, 70 power jumps, 14 globe jumps, 23 suicide jumps, 38 push-up jacks, and 84 plank obliques. 

Never mind what these are. It's the numbers. When George was little, approximations drove him crazy. "How far to the top?" he would ask on every mountain hike.

"I don't know, a couple miles," I'd answer. 

"No! How far exactly?"

I finally resorted to making up numbers. I'd say we were 1.8 miles from the summit, or that the water temperature in the trailside swimming hole was 53 degrees, or that a big tree was 79 feet tall. Odd numbers and decimals especially satisfied him.

A month or so ago, George and I were laughing about my numerology when I found Dorothy Senior staring at me. "You mean you were lying all that time?" 

"Of course I was lying."

"I just thought you knew those things."

Numbers are sort of like China: a great resource and a scary, misleading enemy. If you set a fitness goal based solely on pounds, you'll drive yourself crazy. Your weight will fluctuate like the weather. Gather lots of data points, weighing yourself frequently. Otherwise each individual number wants to throw you off. 

You need additional forms of measurement as well. If you're losing weight, choose a target pair of pants. Pants are often more accurate than pounds. But don't rely on the pants alone. Set a physical goal as well, such as pull-ups (way easier when you're light), or running times.

For me the big metric is 57. That's how old I am. and how fast in minutes I want to run up Mount Moosilauke this summer. That sounds like I'm obsessing over numbers, but in a way I'm freeing myself of their tyranny. If I run to the top faster than 57 minutes, I'll prove  that my age isn't really 57 years. Instead I can say something like, "I'm 54 minutes with an elevation gain of 2,800 feet." 

I'll be like John Cleese's Robin Hood in the movie Time Bandits.  "How long have you been a robber?" Robin Hood asks a dwarf bandit named Wally. "Four foot one," Wally says. And Robin Hood wisely replies, "Well that is a long time, isn't it?"

A very long time indeed.