Saturday, May 22, 2010

Faking It

I read slowly. Really slowly.

It's not because I'm savoring every word, though that happens at times. It's simply because I can't ready quickly, or at least, not very well.

That is, except when I read really, really, really quickly. In which case, I read faster than anyone I know.

This morning, I was trying to figure out why sometimes it takes forever to read a page and at others, it takes no time at all.

Learning to Read
When I was five, I was introduced to phonetics, the sounds of various letters and letter combinations. The whole concept felt somehow amazingly powerful to my five-year-old sensibilities and I became obsessed with spelling things.

I would ask my mom to give me words to spell and I would slowly break them down into their component phonemes, spelling them back to her. I might spell fish with a ph or with an f, depending on which phoneme was most current for me, but I pretty quickly got to the point where I could sound out any word. My parents would have me perform at family gatherings and parties. I can remember my mom asking me to spell antidisestablishmentarianism and watching everyone gape as I slowly worked my way through this word that held absolutely no meaning for me.

At first to mom's delight, and later less so, I started sounding out and pronouncing random words that I would see: on billboards, on posters, on backs of magazines, on letters. I would pick words because of how they looked (their shapes or the colors of the letters), not because of what they meant. Even after pronouncing and hearing them, more often than not, I didn't know what they meant.

Because, I was really good with phonetics, my teacher decided that I was an exceptional reader and put me into the 'top' reading group. I came home from school and proudly announced the fact to my mom who celebrated it with me, telling me how wonderful I was.

There was only one problem. I couldn't read.

I mean, I could look at the page and pronounce every word on it. It didn't matter whether or not I'd seen the words before. I didn't matter whether or not I understood the words or the context or the story. It sure seemed like I was an amazing reader. That is, as long as understanding what you're reading doesn't matter.

Elementary Fast Track
I sailed through first, second and most of third grades being a 'top' reader. But then, in fourth grade, they wanted us to start explaining the contexts of the stories, the motivations of the characters, the lessons learned. I didn't have a clue. It's not that I couldn't remember the specifics and needed to look them up. I would look at the written exercises before me and not be able to interpret the questions, let alone answer them.

Because I had been such a great sounder-outer, it never occurred to anyone that I couldn't read. Everyone assumed that I simply wasn't trying. I received lecture upon lecture about how I have to do my work. I was made to stay in my room until it was done, until I learned to be responsible.

You can imagine how well that all worked.

Remedial Reading
By my junior year of high school, I was sentenced to the remedial reading lab in the hope that I might learn to read well enough to graduate. At this point, I'd also completely bombed out of math. The reading lab had a self-paced program that involved readings and exercises to test comprehension.

The level at which I began the program was not too far beyond where I'd been in third grade. I began working through each assignment and answering all the questions. Sometimes it would go quickly, but most times I had to take it really slowly or I'd miss something (or pretty much everything.) In the end, if I read slowly (and usually repeatedly) enough mouthing the words just loudly enough so that I could hear them, I could satisfactorily answer all the questions.

I remember feeling embarrassed and not wanting anyone to watch me as I painstakingly worked through these rudimentary exercises that felt stupid to me. It wasn't that the concepts or ideas being conveyed by the stories were challenging. It wasn't that the vocabulary was challenging. It was simply that getting from point A to point B was, well, nearly impossible.

Pattern Recognition
Even today, I'm a really slow reader, except when I'm not. I think the difference lies in logic and pattern recognition.

For example, if I were to read a novel with many characters and lots of 'random' events and behaviors, I would need to read really slowly to follow it. However, if I read a scientific text on physics, or computers, or biology, or neurology, or if I look at the instructions on how to build or put something together, I fly.

I realized this morning that the difference lies in the subject matter, not in my reading skills. Scientific phenomena tend to behave in predictable manner. Instruction manuals tend to reflect (more or less) the underlying design of the tool or system. One doesn't need to read all the superfluous prose to understand what needs understanding. You can hop from key phrase to key phrase and fill the rest in.

On the other hand, novels (and for that matter, instructions on the completion of bureaucratic forms, and legal documents) tend not to be as well structured, thought through, or organized. You can't pick up a word here or there and accurately fill in the gaps. You have to read the whole thing. In that case, if I can't get someone else to do it for me, I read really slowly.

Faking It
Fortunately for me, outside the realms of bureaucracy, religion, tort law, and psychology, most of the universe has an underlying logic and flow. You don't need many data points to figure things out. So when it's time to read elaborate documentation, I fake it.

I've talked before about never learning to read music because it's so much easier to simply hear it and play it. It's the same with the technology. After being handed reams of documentation on requirements and design, I'll ask someone to simply draw a picture of what they want to accomplish; it's so much easier just to derive all the math than to read a description written by someone else. Not only do I not read the instructions that come with do-it-yourself furniture, but I also put it together without leftover parts.

Also fortunately, going the other direction isn't a challenge. I can't read music, but I can write down what I hear. I can document complex technical work. I can write this blog.

Sometimes, in regard to music, people will ask me, "What do you mean you can't read? You can write!"

Hard to explain.

So What?
I'm not particularly sure how I ended up thinking about reading this morning. Perhaps it's because the other night, as I lay in bed reading a novel on my iPad, Iris decided to rest her head on my shoulder and read along with me. I could feel her body move ever so slightly as she completed each page just as I reached the midpoint.

It might be a meeting that I had this week with one of my colleagues at Angel-Med as we worked on interpreting the electronically captured waveforms of a beating heart. He pointed to a section of the waveform and contemplated how we might get the algorithm to "see" the pattern of change. I thought aloud, "Well, if we can see it, then we can get the software to see it."

Whatever the reason, it occurs to me that there may be other people out there who've had the same experience, some of whom might be just five or ten or sixteen years old. You might have people in your life (including you) who seem capable of something at some times, and then completely incapable at others. Maybe, they're not capable in the first place. Maybe they're just faking it.

Of course, all this is coming from someone who can't even read.

Happy Saturday!

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