Not even close enough for gov’ment work

Published 3:08 pm Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Did you hear the one about the newspaper columnist who writes about everyone’s mistakes, but doesn’t even know the difference between the numbers three and 30?

He’s the same one who brags about how his school might not have been all that fancy, but at least he learned how to add and subtract. He just doesn’t know percentages!

I don’t think I will ever sing “Oh Lord, It’s Hard to be Humble, When You’re Perfect in Every Way” again without thinking of last week’s column. I have never been more ready to write another column. Did you catch my embarrassing error?

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I did!

The fog, if there was any, had not completely lifted in Bainbridge last Wednesday morning when I turned left from Sims Street onto Shotwell. I forget where I was going, but the sign hit me right in the face.

If you are a reader of this column, you might recall the title of last week’s: “Thirty percent in Thirty Minutes.” Quite dramatic, wasn’t it? It was meant to call attention to the rapidly increasing price in gasoline. I made a big deal out of not buying gasoline at one price and, within 30 minutes, it had increased quite a bit.

I rushed home to capture my outrage, my annoyance and put it all in a column so that you could share my vexation. The only problem was that I forgot the ciphering side of my brain. That’s the left side.

I had computed the increase of nine cents, from $2.99 to $3.09, as 30 percent. On the morning the column came out in the paper, the price had increased to a whopping $3.28! Oh boy was I irked again and started to compute this increase. Why, it must be a gazillion percent.

Suddenly, I realized if I started with my original number and ended with the current number, the entire increase was only 10 percent! I had posted in big and bold headlines a huge “Thirty percent in thirty minutes.” My hands automatically hit me in the forehead and I said to myself, “Oh, no, what a stupid error!”

I thought of an appropriately modified version of the Abraham Lincoln quote. It’s better to remain unwritten and thought a fool than to write it down for all to see and remove all doubt.

All I had done, actually, was misplaced the decimal in my ciphering. Three percent was the accurate computation of the increase, but I had turned what I had thought was an excessive rise into a greedy grab. Thirty percent would have been almost a dollar and all of us might be pulling a “Wisconsin” if that were the case. I wasn’t even close enough for gov’ment work.

My first thought was about what other people must be thinking. I had made an embarrassing mistake and it was in black print, in bold headlines, and there was no way to hide. Maybe no one would catch it.

That was quickly negated within the first hour of getting out last Wednesday. I was doing some business at a store and someone I knew saw me and came over. He did not interrupt what I was doing, but I could tell he wanted to say something.

I think a lot of the gentleman. Bainbridge is blessed with many, many citizens who have worked hard and honestly and made the city a great place to live. This was one of those men. As I said, I could tell he was anxious to speak to me. Believe it or not, the substance of my error, at that very moment, was on my mind.

“Has anyone said anything to you yet about your arithmetic?” he said with a good-natured smile.

“I know what you’re talking about,” I replied. “You’re the first, but I expect there are plenty of others who caught the error.”

We talked for a while and he was very gracious about my error. He even gave me a way out.

“Why don’t you simply say that you put the miscalculation in on purpose,” he suggested, with tongue in cheek. “Kind of like a test to see who might be paying attention.”

Good idea, but not quite truthful. I also could have said there was a misprint in the paper. Or, as politicians say sometimes, I could say I misspoke. What about the editor? Shouldn’t my column have been proofread? I could think of a few ways to lesson my responsibility or make excuses, but there was a bottom line to consider.

I had made an error. I had not double-checked my math. I was so busy thinking about the valid points of the column that I was blind to one important aspect. I need to set the record straight and settle my mind.

First off, I made a subject that is worthy of scrutiny sound worse than it is. Gasoline prices are skyrocketing and could be injurious to the economic recovery of our country. That is a matter of fact that affects all of us and, as the column purported, we are more helpless than not.

My mathematical exaggerations were careless and, although it doesn’t sound right, I apologize to gasoline outlets that are faced with the no-win situation of paying Big Oil for their product and, then having to pass Big Oil’s greed onto their customers.

In many ways, these local businesses are trying to survive as any other business. We don’t like their increases and, perhaps they don’t either. My column doesn’t need to make it sound worse than it really is.

Most of all I would like to apologize to my readers. I really enjoy writing this column and I am able to say just about anything I want to. I feel privileged and want you to have confidence in what I write. Sometimes I point my fingers at institutions and situations and I make judgments.

I want you to know that I put my pants on like everyone else and I make my mistakes like everyone else, too. I will try to be more careful, but, please don’t expect perfection.

The Rev. Lynn Roberts is pastor of the Sutton Chapel United Methodist Church, located on Vada Highway.