I remember riding in our car with my father when I was a kid and passing a McDonald’s. The sign claimed that they had served over five billion. I turned to my father and said, “How can that be when there are only four billion people on the planet?” He gave me the usual stare, as baffled by me as I was by the sign. But after he explained how I had confused hamburgers with people, I still didn’t get it. Why would anyone boast about serving burgers instead of people? Weren’t people more important?
I don’t think it was a matter of grammar. The verb “to serve” can take either burger or people as a direct object. Of course, it would be more accurate to say that you serve burgers to people, since without the dative phrase, “to people,” it would be easy to confuse a kid passing by in a car. But advertising isn’t concerned about grammar. Remember, “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should”? That was followed up with, “What do you want, good grammar or good taste?” Clever that, but give me good grammar.
Later, my mother bought me a pair of sneakers that cut into my heel. She told me to put a band-aid on and that would take care of it. So I did. When the blister got worse, I complained that her remedy did not work. “Let me see,” she said. I showed her the sneaker with the band-aid placed strategically at the heel. She laughed. Apparently, I was supposed to put the band-aid on me. Why didn’t I? Because I wasn’t the problem. The sneaker was. I thought it only logical to apply the solution directly to the problem. I have spent years living that down.
But the problem is that I think backwards. After taking so many theology classes in graduate school, I have come to the conclusion that I think in German, maybe Latin. Both are inflected languages and have no problem mixing up the order of words. In fact, there is a joke about the German encyclopedia where all the verbs are in the last volume. I don’t know how this happened. I do know that it continues throughout my life and can explain a few things, like why I find almost everything absurd.
This year I had a relapse. I like to read in bed, but the ceiling light is on the other side of the room. The effect is like a lunar eclipse. All I see is a halo around the book with no light on the page. I had to get my first pair of glasses at nineteen. I want to preserve my eyes, not destroy them. So I bought a reading light. It didn’t work. Why not? Because it kept falling off the bedpost. The clamp was too small to fit on the headboard. Then it occurred to me that the reason the clamp didn’t fit was because it wasn’t meant to fit. It’s supposed to go on the book. That was a Eureka moment that took nearly a year.
Of course, thinking backwards is not all bad. There are some blessings. It helps with humor, writing, and listening to people, especially children. It also helps me lead a simpler life, simplicity being close to ultimate truth. And when you think backwards, it is easy to spot a fellow backward thinker. Once you do, you have more compassion for them as well as others.
Unfortunately, years ago McDonald’s decided to focus on numbers, not people. It’s even worse today with Big Data. Numbers have taken over the world, and there are more than a few Gucci-heeled quants on Wall Street (no band-aids there!). But what would have happened had they posted the number of people they served instead of billions of burgers? What if they had started serving people?
Just imagine Mickey D thinking backwards.
For top photo, go to Tampa Bay Times; for middle photo, History; bottom, Vaseljenska. Haven’t had enough? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Check out Laura Fedora and The Gringo. Note to self: Stop correcting grammar on subway ads.