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Counting Backwards

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On the last day of every year, I gather with friends to count backwards. I paint my face, dress in my shiniest gear, and warm up to the big countdown with rump-shaking, glass-raising, and hugging exercises. I need to be free, loose, and limber come midnight, when we huddle as a group to ceremoniously squeeze the old year out of each other. Before we can exorcize the old year though, we count.

The numbers “ten, nine, eight, seven,” are punctuated with much fist pumping, back slapping, and Rockette-imitating. “Six, five, four,” are screeched an octave––or even frequency––higher, our pupils dilated, champagne glasses at the ready. I make use of this window to locate the beneficiary of my number “one” kiss. Said beneficiary spends rest of countdown ensuring that he is not enjoying counting backwards so much that he is laughing at “one”––and I am kissing teeth. He knows only too well to fear the New Year’s “firsts”—and their implications for the rest of the year.

“Three, two, one” is spent looking up. I am suddenly fearful that the glowing lunar ball above us might drop—if only to punish us for shunning the mass “big crystal ball but no public toilets” ritual in Times Square. I send up a quick request for an extension—just like I do every time I’m on a plane—and then follow it up with an “I owe you.”

Our ball stays put and we cross from one year to another with much chest beating, lip smacking, and fire cracking. We scare the old year’s demons away by blowing whistles, cheering at horn-honkers, yelling at the sky, and then yelling back at no-fun neighbors.

Then, all of a sudden, it’s January.

The party is over.

The work of a whole new year must begin. The diets, the goals, the plans, the … oh, why did we declare them out loud?

It’s time for bed. We’re too old to be out this late. The party disperses.

Everyone returns to their counting-forward ways. Everyone but me: I count backwards all the time.

I count backwards from ten at least eleven times a day. Having a four-year old, an eleven-year old, and a small apartment means I can go from ten to two faster than a pregnant woman can go from blessed to pissed. I count backwards to count my way to calm, though it’s often the calm before the storm. When at one I stand before my two trembling noisemakers, I’m often reminded of the first time I counted backwards for them.

With my first, I paced the creaking wood floors of my small, overheated apartment and I panted “ten puff-puff, nine puff-puff, eight puff-puff, seven puff-puff …” I had already endured the rejection at the hospital the previous day so I was determined to count until I could count no more. Counting backwards was my only way of taking the contractions—growing in intensity with every puff-puff—down a peg, or at least a number. When I finally had the numbers and credibility to get into the labor-ward, the midwife counted that last push down from three to one, and another countdown was marked with much chest beating and back slapping (my husband), and even some yelling at the sky (my son).

My second was a different labor, and I didn’t find myself relying on my backwards-counting methods until a week after he was born and I was counting down through tears, as he latched on for his hourly feed. With every number counted away, I reminded myself that he was gaining weight and I was (surely?) losing it. That his resolve against sleep was getting softer and my mammaries were getting tougher.

I have a regular counting backwards gig every Wednesday evening. I count from five to one to signal the start of a race from the street corner to the steps of our house. At five, the kids are digging elbows to get the best start. At four, jackets are being pulled and shoved, war cries issued. At three, youngest takes off like a spring hare, with eldest on his tail like a not-to-be-denied greyhound. At two, husband blocks hound so that crying hare can make a good break for the gate. At one, I bypass husband and squealing hound and close in on happy-again hare. At the gate, I am taken down by elder males, as young hare steals the win … again.

Then there’s my counting backwards to indicate that all bedtime begrudging must come to a silent end or there will be no song time. The popular requests of late are for Irish traditional songs, in particular “Spancil Hill.” I’m sure my neighbors are relieved that I’m no longer rapping “Gold Digger,” or screeching “Welcome to the Jungle,” but they’re surely counting backwards themselves as I belt out all seven verses for all the street to hear. See, the louder I sing, the faster they fall asleep. Might be some kind of pain-reflex.

I also do a backwards three-finger count at least daily, to indicate that I mean business. I pause to count five split seconds between each very emphatic finger to be sure the person on the receiving end of my very serious finger waving has adequate time to pick up his toys/go brush his teeth/have Dad make me a cup of tea. I’m always amazed at the power of this simple technique. The backwards counting grabs their attention. The build-up feeds their fear. In fact, it’s so powerful that I don’t even have to count at all—I just have to threaten to count—and my will is done.

I count down to photo-taking, rocket-blasting, time-outing, birthday candle blowing, guitar practicing, football tossing, tea-brewing, and tooth brushing. I even count down along with the microwave. I can’t count all the times I count down, or even the reasons. It could be that counting backwards it far too fun to limit to once a year. Could be that counting backwards keeps me moving forward, but without getting too far ahead of myself. It keeps me in the moment. Try it: three … two … one … NOW!


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