At Large

If Wishes Were Horses

By Published On: March 27th, 2024

If it had happened once, it likely would have simply been an anomaly – an odd moment in the universe when reasoning got temporarily suspended. It was, however, the third time in less than two weeks that a similar moment had presented itself.

“That’ll be six dollars.”  

The total of two “senior citizen” admissions to the local high school basketball game would be six dollars. We handed over a ten and a one, hoping for a five dollar bill in return rather than depleting what appeared to be a limited number of one dollar bills in the cash drawer on the table.

The world stopped, caught in a moment of suspended animation that froze the cashier, leaving them breathless. The companion at the entrance table was able to tear off two red paper tickets and hand them across with a pleasant “Enjoy the game,” but the person holding the eleven dollars could not move.

“That should be five dollars back,” we offered, trying to break the spell. “A five-dollar bill.”

They were not breathing. We were suddenly fearful that the heart had stopped and the relatively benign Friday night entertainment experience was about to be marred by sirens and flashing red lights as the local EMT crew appeared to try and resuscitate the cashier.

Fortunately for all concerned, the ticket tearer reached in, took the proffered eleven dollars, placed the two bills in the appropriate bins, withdrew a five-dollar bill, and handed it over. With polite thanks we retreated into the gym to find seats and wonder, out loud we admit, “How can you be in high school and not know how to make change?”

In the world of fully automated cash registers and sales that are rarely conducted in cash, the need to be able to subtract 6 from 11 in one’s head seems to have become a lost art. Granted, many of us were not able to breeze through long division, and with humble honesty, algebra was like a foreign language when we tip-toed through high school back in the day. But 11 minus 6?

The daily laugh

My dear friend Nat offers up a daily dose of humor that gives a momentary assist in the otherwise challenging hours of the day. Although an excellent writer, he does not need to draw on his comedic skills. He merely sends along photos of signs and newspaper clippings that announce just how far we’ve come as a literate society.

“Weather forces Holmes County Spelling Bee to be moved to Tursday” (Wooster Daily Record). “Yellow Bananas, Boneless $0.59” “Permissions $1.39 each” (produce signs in grocery stores). “Due to unforeseen circumcisions the dining room will be closed tonight” (sign on a restaurant door).

It usually takes a few moments to stop laughing, only to be followed by the bewildering feeling of wondering what has happened to basic intelligence in our world. How have we failed? Why can’t we do a better job of educating the next generations? Is ours the last generation that can add, subtract, spell, and reason?

Reality check

Will the world be a worse place because someone can’t do simple arithmetic or spell persimmons or circumstances? Of course not. But will our once-vaunted society begin to fray at the edges as ignorance is deemed satisfactory and bad behavior is applauded? Taunting, name calling, shaming, and marginalizing certainly seem to be the “coin of the realm” in politics and commentary. We seem to have stepped on the (boneless) banana peel of reason and are in mid-air, anticipating a less-than-graceful arrival on the pavement.

Wishing things were different will not make them so. My grandfather, a classically educated, frankly brilliant mind, would likely have been a winning contestant on Jeopardy. He seemed to remember everything, including aphorisms that were an odd product of the mind of a multiple linguist with a Columbia PhD. “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride” he reminded me on several occasions. He also affirmed that, “You can’t tell the depth of the well by the length of the handle on the pump.”

Allowing the lessons of the past to wash over the experiences of the present, it may be time to be a bit less judgmental and a touch more concerned that when given the opportunity to build and encourage in our interactions with strangers, we do so. Even a moment so fleeting as the exchange of a few dollars at the entrance of a high school gymnasium can be viewed with sensitivity and as an opportunity not to pull one more thread from the fraying society.  

A profound Chinese proverb seems to sum it up quite nicely: “The flapping of the wings of a butterfly can be felt on the other side of the world.”

And, if we can be so bold, adding a smile to the transaction might be a good idea, as well. •