Kimmy Sophia Brown

Who Cares If We're A Penny Off?

Jul 13, 2003
When my husband and I first moved in together, he handed me a pile of tangled receipts and what was to become our joint checkbook, and asked me if I could take over the book keeping. He set up a computer spreadsheet for me so I could keep track of our checking account and reconcile the statements every month. I had always had a very hard time doing math, in fact my seventh grade math teacher, Miss Schwartz told me I was the worst student she had ever had. I had a mental block with numbers. Consequently, bank balances eluded me for years.

I would try to take an ATM withdrawal and find out we were overdrawn again. Cries of anguish poured forth; That's impossible! How? Why? We'd look at the computer spreadsheet program, and scan the numbers. If I couldn't find the mistake, I'd switch off the computer, hoping the mistake would just go away. I thought that the computer innards might find the discrepancies and mend them internally, the way the body heals itself without direct intervention. It wouldn't have been so bad if it only happened once in a while, but it seemed to happen every month. I felt like the victim of a plot.

Later I would discover that a $300 phonebill payment had been recorded as a deposit instead of an expense. Sometimes my mistake was forgetting to enter an ATM withdrawal, or ordering new checks and forgetting to record the fee. These mistakes sometimes caused nine overlapping overdraft fees at $30 each, which would send me into a tornado of depression and self-accusation.

I wished for the days of trading zucchinis and chicken eggs for services. You deliver my baby, I'll build you a rowboat. Like on Star Trek, when Captain Picard says magnanimously, "In our century we don't have the need for money. We do what we think will contribute to the future of mankind, and get our compensation that way."

Some people feel great satisfaction from the search and destroy tactics of good bookkeeping. Keeping track of details like that gave me anxiety. My philosophy was, who cares if we're a penny off? What difference does a lousy penny make? But I have come to realize now that precision numbers have a place in the world.

My husband and I found an out of print book called "Trachtenberg Math" It described a mathematical method developed by Professor Jakow Trachtenberg, who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII. As stated in the 1960 book: "To keep his sanity, Trachtenberg moved into a world of his own - a world of logic and order. While his body grew more emaciated, and all about him was pestilence, death and destruction, his mind refused to accept defeat and followed paths of numbers which, at his bidding, performed miraculous feats." (Imagine, someone finding their sanity by doing math!)

"He visualized gigantic numbers to be added and he set himself the task of totaling them. And since no-one can remember thousands of numbers, he invented a fool-proof method that would make it impossible for even a child to add thousands of numbers together without making a mistake - without, in fact, ever adding higher than eleven."

We used the book for a few months to teach our children an alternative method for calculating numbers. Reading about this man revealed to me that there is a secret world of numbers which show the orderliness of the creator. Another book my husband is reading now is called, "Math in Every Day Life" by Joe Schmoe. The author touches on geometric patterns in the universe, about the odd numbers which appear in the cycle of the pattern of pinecones, sea shells, and the planets themselves.

I used to think that being a penny off wouldn't matter in the long run. But God made the universe using precise calculations. If the formulas weren't exact, the earth might have extreme temperature fluctuations. (Worse than what we already have in the state of Virginia!) The hours in a day, the days in a year, and how many miles the earth is from the sun, are all calculations made by God with a specific purpose in mind. (To support life on earth!)

I recently realized that even though math may not be my calling, it has a vital role in the universe. I deny a fascinating aspect of reality if I trivialize numbers. Despite my insistence all of my life that I am math-impaired, I am now motivated to find the mistake in my bookkeeping and fix it. I want my children to have the dogged determination to get it right, as well. There's a real satisfaction in finding the needle in the proverbial haystack. Especially if one doesn't find the needle sticking in one's bum. Besides that, I don't want to pay any more overdraft fees at the bank.

On the other hand, fortunately history doesn't measure the value of a man by his bank balance. Once my husband and I were thumbing through the World Book encyclopedia and we read about Rembrandt van Rijn, the famous Dutch painter. He had to declare bankruptcy toward the end of his life, (in 1656) and sell his possessions and house. Maybe he struggled with bookkeeping too. But who cares? Three hundred and forty years later, the world is still marveling at the beauty of his work, even if he stopped getting credit card opportunities in the mail.

Kim lives in Maine, which is lovely, and where she continues her enthusiastic relationship with Art, Music, Nature, Books, Animals, Humor and Trees.