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Think of All You'd Miss if Your Reading Skills Weren't "Enhanced" by Age

[Smithsonian, February 1997]

Now that all three of my children are teenagers I’ve reached the age where, as they keep reminding me, I’m well on my way to being a geezer. Most signs of impending geezerhood involve diminishment: loss of hearing, memory, and I think there was another one. But one I didn’t expect was the tricks the eye can play while reading. With increasing frequency I’m running across astounding things in headlines, billboards, and captions—only to find, on closer inspection, that it didn’t say that at all.

Take, for example, this attractive photo in Smithsonian magazine; the caption informs me that the plumed avian pair pictured here are "non-imaginary birds." That seems accurate enough, if a trifle defensive, and the birds are glaring defiantly into the camera, as if daring the reader to doubt their existence.

Oh. "Non-migratory." Never mind.

I may be allowed some leeway on a word that I don’t find use for every day, like "non-migratory." It’s a little harder to excuse the misreading of common cliches that have dragged ruts in my mind. Whatever possessed me to read a bumpersticker as, "Stop and sell the roses"? Why did I immediately picture pajama-clad cult devotees, strolling through airports and urging posies on travelers? Worse, why did this seem to me a reasonable admonition for someone to put on a bumpersticker? "Stop and sell the roses," I thought, vaguely. "Okay. Guess they do."

How about a catalog touting a holographic device with the slogan, "Absorb your friends!" I dimly and unsuccessfully tried to picture this, before realizing it was the old familiar, "Astound your friends!"

"Candidates Debate Flax Tax" (next target: amber waves of grain); "the manager is an excellent people mutilator" (there’s a tough boss); "If this vehicle is being driven in an unusual manner…" (sideways?)—with my new talent for creative reading, I find the world becoming a more interesting place every day. Though I don’t want to think about what they serve at the "Human Pagoda" restaurant.

Newspapers, with their small typeface, present a particularly fertile field. Recently an irate reader of our local paper wrote in to protest that "our tax dollars are being spent for convent auctions!" This was news to me. The government is buying up bankrupt convents? Where will all the nuns go? Whatever use can they make of those tiny cells? Wait a minute—make that "covert actions." Ah.

The striking thing in all these cases is that I didn’t feel particularly startled by what I thought I’d read. It is the very complacency these ruminations engender that is their most salient feature. I can read something utterly absurd and tranquilly think it just a new, though unlikely, bit of information. It’s like the sentimental cliche, "Strangers are just fiends you haven’t met yet." (Make that "friends.") These misreadings seem to be congenial but unfamiliar facts, appearing before us in cheerful attire, inviting us to go for a spin.

In a way, this is a treat; it opens a window on Wonderland. By the time you’re a geezerette, you know nearly everything you expect to know in life. Misreadings offer once again a glimpse of the unknown, the world as it was when we were children and a whole lot of things didn’t make sense. For many years of early youth we had daily encounters with completely unlikely facts and idioms. Our task was to make sense of it all, by moving around the furniture in our minds to accomodate the new piece of information.

But sometimes the trusting acceptance of strange new items was unwarranted. As a child I learned a song that, struck me as a little creepy: "My body lies over the ocean, Oh bring back my body to me…." But with childlike patience I filed it away, figuring I’d understand some day. It was just one more example of the strange stuff in Adult World. Likewise, my son David missed the word "hands" in a Sunday School song and happily sang, "My pants belong to you, Lord." At that age it seemed quite possible that someone could be so moved by contemplation of God’s authority over the clothing industry as to pen a song about it.

It is this openess and delight in new notions that should ever accompany us. Geezer-enhanced reading skills can offer new opportunities to experience these delights, a garden of renewed childhood springing with verbal blooms. Let others have their non-migratory birds. I’ve found whole new worlds of tantalizing wonder, right here in the daily news. As Ogden Nash once observed, "If my vision were twenty-twenty, I should miss miracles a-plenty."

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