In the last few days several people have seen me reading while I walk and have said something about it. Most of the time people are asking: "How can you read and walk at the same time?" Sometimes The Question comes with a tone of pleasant curiosity, and sometimes with a hint of puzzlement or even judgment. But one woman about three days ago actually praised me for my ability. "I'm amazed at how you can read and walk at the same time," she said. "It's a gift."
Now I had never really thought of it as a gift exactly. I've often responded silently, "Can't you?" I know I've had to learn a bit. I remember a trip or two when I first started reading while walking, on the Baylor campus in the early '80s, and I remember one spectacular collision with a telephone pole while reading The Old Curiosity Shop for the first time. To avoid the tripping, I've had to develop a habit of picking up my feet slightly more than I usually do. I remember gym teachers yelling at me, "Pick up your feet, Stephenson!" So maybe that slippery bit of the curriculum finally caught traction. I hated hearing the coaches single me out over and over, and I don't like stumbling in public. But lifting my steps an extra inch or so also increases the aerobic effects of the walk, so it's not just a matter of escaping embarrassment. But again, I had to learn this habit; it didn't come naturally.
On the other hand, walking into the telephone pole was an oddity. Unlike some people (like my wife, Nancy), I don't get lost in books; I'm always aware of objects and events going on around me and distracted by stray thoughts from other plans, concerns of the day, or recent entertainments. Having done some research on two major occasions in the last few years, I've concluded that I have ADD. The diagnosis first made sense to me when I read that the syndrome has a misleading name. People with ADD don't suffer any lack of attention but rather a lack of focus; their minds have a tendency to pay attention to too many things. So I knew the first letter of the acronym was wrong (I guess FDD runs the risk of confusion with the network of florists). Now the comment that my ability is a gift has me wondering about the last letter: is what I have really a disorder? I know that the pharmaceutical companies have turned many a personality trait into a disorder after discovering a pill that diminishes it. Maybe I have AAG: Attention Abundance Gift.
Oddly enough, I hadn't thought before this week that my ability to walk and read simultaneously really is an unusual trait. But thinking about it a new way, I see now that I'm able to do it because I'm always aware of the curves and branches in the path, always aware of streets I have to cross and the traffic in them, aware of the geese and the ducks and the messes they leave on the pavement. And yet somehow my walking helps me pay more attention to the book. Maybe the routine focuses my peripheral attention so it becomes less distracting to the central activity.
My wife and daughter and I watched Disney's Beauty and the Beast the other night. It had never occurred to me before that Belle and I have so much in common. Thinking about those recent comments on my morning paths, I watched Belle walk around her village, reading yet constantly aware of everything that happens around her. She knows people whisper and call her "odd" behind her back. She knows which shops she's passing. And she knows to put her hand up to swing that sign just in time to keep the water from hitting her head. As much as I liked the beginning of the movie before, it seems even smarter now.
It took me two days to write this post. I'm sorry it's taken so long. I've had a lot on my mind.