Can you write a poem about a graph? Can you grab a column of numbers, distill them to their purest form, and use them to paint a picture? I’ve spent my career trying to make numbers seem interesting. My last three companies, all nonprofits, in reverse order: a library, a domestic violence shelter, a community center. Human services: education, life affirmation, fitness, information, equality, legal services, early childhood instruction, books, movies, music. At each company, a large, dedicated staff deliver these services, execute the mission of the organization. And just one guy to keep the books. In all these jobs, I’m the odd man out. The accountant.

< You can snicker here. Everyone else does. >

It’s OK. My job suits me, I’m good at it. I’m not bored by numbers, although others may wince or become glassy-eyed when my part of the meeting arrives. “Let’s look at account 2321 on the balance sheet…”

I think numbers are cool.

The last ten months have been a numbers geek’s dream. A daily parade of figures—cases, hospitalizations, deaths—for me to obsess over. To calculate death rates, to run averages, to extrapolate exponential curves to predict the future figures for the coming days. Before you protest: yes, I’m fully aware that these numbers represent real people whose lives are being ruined and lost. Covid 19 is not only deadly, but it’s leaving a trail of disabled survivors. This is the one stat that’s rarely reported in the daily news. I think about those people every day.

In 2014, a psychologist diagnosed me as having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Not a huge intellectual stretch for him. I’m a textbook case of obsessive thinking. But for me, a huge surprise. In retrospect, this is ridiculous. As a child, I spent twenty minutes every night checking the locks and lights and even digging behind the clothes in my closet to check for intruders—mortal and supernatural.

In 2016, I tried out a medication for Tourette Syndrome, a disorder that causes involuntary movements and vocalizations. Fun fact: Sixty percent of people with Tourette Syndrome also have OCD. The medication works, sort of. I still have involuntary movements and vocalizations, but probably not as bad as I would… maybe… I guess. But it doesn’t matter, the medicine seriously reduces the OCD. So I take it. Gone are the obsessive thoughts that kept me awake half of every night. I haven’t gotten out of bed at three in the morning to write a to-do list in four years.

Cured? No. A quick scan of my blog since January will show that the pandemic has been my area of obsession since long before President Trump acknowledged we had domestic cases. I’m still obsessive, just less than I was. A lot less.

A conversation from breakfast. Me: “I think the United States is going to shut down again.”

Susan: “What makes you say that?”

Me: “We’ll be hitting 180,000 daily cases by the end of the week.”

Susan: “Is that a lot? Where are we now?”

This is when I learned that Susan doesn’t click on the Covid 19 graph ten times a day. But I do. Even though I typically know within five thousand, how many cases we’ll have each day. I still check morning, noon and night (and late morning, and early afternoon, when I get home from work, after I run, after dinner, at bedtime…). I can’t look away.

If I were to psychoanalyze myself, I’d say it’s all about control. If I check the numbers and they’re where I expect them to be, I don’t freak out. I use the Washington Post’s Covid graph. Yes, I know it’s vogue to use the John’s Hopkins map, I used it way back in January, but I think the Post’s graph is easier to read. I can drill down to state and county level information easier. Plus, I paid for an annual subscription to the Post. I feel compelled to get my money’s worth. Every now and then, the Post throws out a kooky chart. Like the day the number of deaths jumped by 400%. I think they try to sync their data with the Hopkins map every now and then.

When I see a 400% increase in a day, it disrupts my planning. The pandemic has an orderly and predictable curve. Outlier days ruin the chart. I know the case growth over the past five weeks, which helps me plot the likely growth over the next three.

Based on conversations I have with others, I know this level of obsession is unnatural. Many of you reading this blog post are shaking your heads right now, wondering if I should be in therapy. I don’t know. Yes? This is simply the way my mind works. Much like my involuntary movements and sounds, I follow the pandemic through involuntary thoughts. If I could get a job predicting Covid infections for the duration of the pandemic, I’d be killing it.

16 thoughts on “Obsession

  1. Is it weird that I find a small slice of comfort in your obsession? You’re a reliable source of information when it comes to these things for me. So while it’s probably not ideal for you I personally appreciate your dedication to the numbers. I’m not sure if that’s uplifting or selfish but I’m thinking both.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Knowledge is power. To me, it makes sense to stay informed about these numbers, as they impact how we go about our daily lives, helping us assess what risks we’re willing to take or whether we should have a Plan B in the event there are no hospital beds when we need them. WaPo’s daily state charts of Covid-19 cases per capita are part of my routine. I can’t control the numbers, but being aware of them gives me a sense of some (small) control over my own choices.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, I can’t imagine that much of a percentage of our population are more ‘informed’ than me. For all my worry, I don’t really have a plan B. The neighboring counties have far bigger outbreaks than mine. If things get bad in sleepy adams county, we’re in a lot of trouble.


  3. My older daughter is a nurse, and Ben is autistic with zero hygiene thoughts. I just mask up when I go out and figure if it’s gonna get me, it’s gonna get me. I check the numbers periodically. San Diego County was doing really well until SDSU started partying. And when the weather was nice and people were flocking to the beaches.
    We’re in the “purple tier” now… restaurants, bars, churches, salons, some businesses.

    I was thinking the other day that you really haven’t posted much about the Kootie, and that’s HUGE! I know it’s constantly on your mind.
    People need to quit thinking this is short term. The bug is gonna stick around until there’s a reliable vaccine. Like smallpox, like polio, like measles and everything else we have vaccines for.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think now that there appears to be vaccine relief on the horizon, many people will reject any further restrictions. It makes me happy too, but like you I see it as being a moderate distance away. Certainly not in time to help this current winter wave that seems to have no end in sight. I often wonder what would have happened if we didn’t shut down the nation last spring. Well, now we’re going to find out. Based on hospitalizations, we seem to be in the exact same situation as last March (despite what the limited testing showed at the time). I think the election gave me something else to worry about for a while, but now that’s over (for now) and I’m right back to the pandemic.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I was following the numbers when this all started and then I stopped. There were people around me that were getting false positives and I didn’t trust what was being reported. They said cases were on the rise but our hospitals were not being taxed – at all. Now that our school superintendent is following county cases to determine if she will shut the school’s down and send the kids back home I have tried looking at the numbers again and I can’t find where she is getting her stats. She must be using CDC numbers to make her decisions and I guess I will try and find her numbers again later today. There are certain numbers I obsess over, but I don’t think I do it like you do. I love the numbers my Garmin tells me – my RHR, sleep hours, exercise hours, time, distance – I log it all down in a notebook. It’s more like a treat for me, not a concern (unless a number is way off). I am bracing for another shutdown. Since bereavedsingledad said the grocery stores are nuts again and sold out of everything in the UK I have already started trying to stock up on the foods I know were hard to get last shutdown. I really don’t want to go through this again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Other than trying to hold my heart rate down while running, I’m pretty uninterested in what’s on my watch. Eli on the other hand uses it and then plugs it into the PC and starts analyzing. If you have access to the Wa Po map (it might be free without a subscription), If you click on Pennsylvania on the map covered with little dots, you can hover over counties to get current cases and cases per 100,000 etc. You neck of the woods doesn’t look so great.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks! I just checked it out. We are in Chester county. Our numbers have been better than all the counties surrounding us since this thing started but I see we have had 650 new cases this week. Last week was 444 and the weeks before that were between 100-300. Outlook not so good on school staying open. Bummer. But thanks for the resource – I’ll be following it now more closely.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I don’t know, Jeff…your obsession with the COVID graph sounds like my obsession with 538’s polls in the weeks leading up to the election. And we all know what they were worth! 🙂 I think it is about control, yes, but I also think it is a way to reassure ourselves. Trends are predictable.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Hi Jeff,
    Out of curiosity, what medicine did you start taking to treat Tourette’s?
    I have many family members that have TS and have had trouble finding treatments that work.



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