I spent the afternoon at a local orchard with my wife and my youngest son. The other kids were buried in homework and/or video games, but it's apple season here in New England, so off the three of us went on a beautiful fall day. The orchard was recently featured in Travel and Leisure magazine, so aside from being overrun by trendy Bostonians and New Yorkers trudging around out in the country, we had a great time.
Until, that is, I went to buy some of their fresh ice cream covered in fruit. This seems pretty benign, right? The wife and I couldn't decide if we wanted the peaches or the farm berry mix on our ice cream and did the only sensible thing. We decided to have both. Since we'd already gorged ourselves on apple-smoked sausage (I really do love New England), we went for a small serving of each. Not a bad deal at $2.75 a pop, so as my friendly ice cream scooper and teller waited for her turn at the little calculator that serves as a cash register in their dairy window, I counted out $5.50 and set it on the counter. I had already gathered up my ice creams when she triumphantly announced, "That'll be $5.50, sir!"
Really, she was very nice. Remarkably friendly, even, in the face of so many tourists trying to keep the mud off their Kenneth Cole shoes. However, the look of surprise on her face when she saw that I already knew my total would be $5.50 and had, in fact, already counted it out long before she punched that first $2.75 into her calculator really bothered me.
It's not like there was any long division involved here. Technically, there were fractions, but no tax, no pennies, nothing. There was also no sense from our happy little scooper that someone might be able to quickly make some basic calculations in his or her head.
Last night, an awesome trip to Barnes and Noble (new Neal Stephenson book!!! First Edition!!! Hardcover!!! Anathem!!! Woo Hoo) ended with me being overcharged for said Neal Stephenson book. It wasn't a big deal. The book was simply still marked 40% off (after my member discount); I was only given 20% off. As I watched my books being rung up, a quick mental calculation told me that something was out of whack and the cashier noticed, too. Of course, she was probably in her mid-forties.
I guarantee that my mid-17's ice cream scooper wouldn't have caught the mistake. I'm afraid the idea of mental math has died a terrible death in the last 20 years, replaced by an utter reliance on calculators and a complete inability even to estimate, let alone calculate.