Lesdyxia

I went to grade school in the 1960s.

Learning disabilities were not widely understood nor properly identified by teachers of that era. So children who had problems reading were often "diagnosed" as stupid or, more charitably, slow learners. Since anything in print looked like a word salad to me, I fell into that category. It wasn't until I taught myself how to read in high school that life got better.

Just to put things in context, I later graduated at the top of my class in college, summa cum laude, and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa my junior year, which—not to brag—is a rare honor. I mention these achievements to encourage those with learning disabilities such as lesdyxia. As Ernest Hemingway said, "The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."

That's not to say getting ahead will not be challenging for those similarly afflicted. It will. And what you need to know now is that you have to figure out how to adapt on your own. Indeed, much of the advice you'll receive from well meaning experts, relatives, employers, friends and not so well meaning strangers will often be unhelpful, and may seriously screw you up.

It should be said that I had other challenges to cope with growing up. I'm probably a high functioning autistic (more on that in another post), and I didn't get much needed glasses until my sophomore year in in high school. So I spent a lot of years trying to break out of a hazy fog.

A final impediment worth mentioning is that my physical ineptitude made gym and playground recess miserable. I was always the last one picked for any team. The only thing I did connect with was music, and there's a interesting story about that.

From my earliest years it was music that pulled me out of my shell and resonated with my soul. Not to get off on a tangent, but I believe we are hardwired to the harmonics of the universe. Waves of energy and music are essentially the same thing. When a child has trouble with the abstractness of words, the language of music can communicate a whole range of thoughts and feelings.

So there was a piano in my kindergarten classroom. The teacher would play songs while the children sang. I played along with an imaginary keyboard on my crossed legs. According to my Mom, one day the kindergarten teacher called her and suggested I get piano lessons.

So Mom checked around and found a private teacher known for working with children. Leah Marks was an older Jewish woman. She lived in a big beautiful house on the near north side of the city.

I started taking piano lessons while still in kindergarten. I learned to read music before I could read words. Btw, I think my early learned ability to work with musical notation helped me excel at programming in various computer languages later in life.

Mrs. Marks had my Mom create a cardboard strip overlay that named the letters and scale numbers of the middle piano keys. Mom patiently worked with me at home until I could effortlessly identify finger position and key notation. That learning happened so early in my life I barely remember it. Accomplishing the same thing as an adult would be a slow and tedious process.

Every week Mom drove me to my piano lessons. After a few years Mrs. Marks moved to a senior living apartment. Since it was closer and I was older, I rode my bike to the weekly lessons. She downscaled from a Steinway grand piano to a Spinet. At home I upscaled from an upright player piano to a beautiful Chickering grand.

Mrs. Marks started me on the classics. With each piece we worked out the fingering and rhythms. I practiced at home with a metronome, which I also used when playing scales and Hanon exercises. When I think back on it, the constant repetition with endless false starts and stops must have been maddening. I realize now that was one of many sacrifices Mom made to enrich my life.

WIthout going into a lot of detail, there are two things Mrs. Marks did I'd like to mention.

One, she was always looking for opportunities for me to perform, the main venue for which was a local group called the Matinee Musicale. This group hosted recitals for young musicians.

Two, Mrs. Marks knew when I'd gone as far as possible with a piece of music, which was always way short of perfection. She'd set it aside and say, "Now it's time for something new." When I'd go back to it a few years later, I could see the progress I'd made and take it to a new level. Perhaps there's a life lesson in that approach to learning.

Eventually Mrs. Marks stopped teaching. She got a bad case of the shingles, and advancing age sapped her energy. So one day she called Mom and Dad and me, along with her son Martin, to her apartment. Martin was a professor and concert pianist at the the Butler College School of Music in Indianapolis. It was a like a scene from the movie "The Godfather." Mrs. Marks had everyone gather around, and then she spoke.

"Ted, go into the practice room and play Mozart's Rondo Alla Turca." So I went into her guest bedroom and played the piece. Then I came back and sat down.

"Martin, I'm going to stop teaching. I want you to continue giving lessons to Ted." Then she was done. She was tired and wanted everyone to leave. But before I did, she reached out and gave me a kiss and a hug. This sweet, very wise and lovely woman was a major force in my early life. She, along with my Mom, helped me find enjoyment and a sense of accomplishment when the rest of the world thought I was terminally unique. God bless them both.

I won't go into the years of riding my bike, then driving my first car to Butler University's School of Music. After all, this post is supposed to be about lesdyxia—although I think it's all related at a fundamental level.

Clearly, I didn't fit in with the virtuoso pianists who studied with Martin Marks. We both knew we were dutifully fulfilling his elderly mother's mandate. I did my best, but eventually the time came to relieve us of this torture.

I switched to a music teacher at my high school, Broad Ripple. Thanks to the school's music director, Gene Poston, I was already accompanying several choral groups and instrumental soloists. Like Mrs. Marks, my new piano teacher believed in having all her students perform and enter competitions. So two years later I participated in the Indiana state high school music competition and achieved a first level ranking. Mrs. Marks would have been proud.

And then I was done. My talent was limited and warranted no further investment.

In many ways music sustained me. Turns out it also provided a vector into the reading process, which had eluded me well into high school.

As I said earlier, I had to chart my own course when it came to reading. Something that nearly derailed me was a well intentioned but deeply harmful "speed reading" course I was forced to take my freshman year. Words were projected on a screen using a variable speed scanner. As it went faster and faster, I scored lower and lower. Along with this torture the teacher repeatedly insisted students never "hear the words." Just let them flash by. For my lesdyxic brain, this was the worst possible advice.

I can't remember exactly when, but one day, out of sheer desperation, I started reading out loud to myself. Progress was slow in the beginning. But my grades gradually improved, as did my outlook on life.

Ted's way of reading had its limitations. To keep up in college I had to study all day every day. I outlined all my books and notes. For long courses, I outlined my outlines.

In retrospect, this was evidence of the pressure I felt to achieve way beyond my capabilities. Studying all the time created a severe imbalance. I missed out on important social learning and life experiencing.

By the time I reached law school, I was totally out of my element. There was no way I could read and outline 100+ pages a night of dense legalese, and then be grilled on the minutia of each case the following day. It didn't help matters that I was attending the University of Chicago Law School, one of the top five in the nation. I crashed and burned in the most embarrassing way. All I could think about was how I'd betrayed my parents, the college professors who wrote letters of recommendation and, worst of all, my false sense of intellectual superiority.

It's one thing to push yourself to be your best. But overachieving to gain validation is profoundly self destructive. This was the first of three hardcore crash and burn episodes I experienced in my life. If my parents had not been there for me—albeit seriously disappointed—I would not have survived.

As I will discuss in another post, I should have avoided traditional college altogether and gone to a technical school to become a programmer. That said, I did learn a thing or two in college, and in total contradiction of all common sense, I went on the make my living as a writer. "Some are strong at the broken places."

Truth be told I'm not a great writer. My skill is to figure out and explain. Words are simply the tool I use to convey what I've learned. Still, not everyone can say they've been paid to write, much less made a living at it. In a nutshell, here's the progression of my writing career:
  • In college I loved writing assignments and usually turned them in early. I rarely got less than an A. My senior year, during my pot experimentation phase, I wrote a paper on Shakespeare one night "stoned outta my gourd." The next morning I realized it was one long paragraph. So I quickly rewrote it before going to class. Btw, at all-male Wabash College, most of the classes are under 20 students, and most of them are taught by PhDs using the Socratic method and bluebook exams. Think "Dead Poets Society." When the professor handed back the graded papers, he made a comment: "In all my years of teaching, I've never given an A+ on any assignment, until now. Mr. Seastrom, here is your paper."
  • In my first real job, working for Indiana Bell Telephone Company, whatever my title I was often pulled onto "special projects" that required writing important memos, presentations or studies. One time I was locked in the top-floor executive conference room for a week, with stacks of papers arranged around an enormously long cherry wood table. In those days you wrote by hand, and the tablets I filled were shuttled to the typing pool and then returned a day later for review.
  • When I realized I was not suited for corporate life, and after a failed attempt at selling early personal computers, I started over as a junior copywriter for an advertising agency. Eventually I migrated into public relations and wrote propaganda. On the side, I freelanced articles for business publications.
  • I my 40s I went back to school to study computer science. I learned a variety of computer programming languages and "wrote" code for a living.
  • Went the dot-com bubble burst, I changed the title of my resume to "Technical Writer" and immediately found work creating end user, system admin and code level documentation. I ended up working at the headquarters of both Microsoft and Amazon.
  • Today I write for myself on topics that interest me. So far I've written one ebook about learning how to fly an airplane. I'm also posting about various topics on this TedSeastrom.com website. You can access my Bio, Posts and Books on the menu at the top of every web page.

One more comment about writing, then I think we're done with this post.

I am and will always be lesdyxic. It's always there waiting to trap and embarrass me. This is especially true when I'm tired or distracted. With casual writing, like emails, even after a couple of edits there will still be errors. Your vs. you're, its vs. it's. When something's important, like this post, I'll let it sit for a day and then reread it before posting. For professional work, I need to use an editor.

In my early days as a paid writer, I was pained to discover that some of my unedited work ended up in print. Eventually I was able to find skilled writers willing to review and edit my work. Not only did they catch most of my mistakes, they also taught me to be a better writer. People assume that good writers can catch 100% of their own mistakes. That's simply not true, even for writers without lesdyxia. To prove my point, just notice how many typos and grammatical errors are showing up in posts and news articles—even on top tier news sites. No one pays for copy editors anymore.

So you've noticed I've been using "lesdyxia" rather than the proper spelling "dyslexia." I owe that bit of sly humor to my brother. Unfortunately, he is smarter, better looking and a better natural writer than I am. Life is not fair. But I do take credit for encouraging him to take his writing seriously, and for helping him see editing is one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing.

Comments? Send to: tedkseastrom@gmail.com

Broad Ripple High School
Butler College School of Music
"Dead Poets Society"
Dot-Com Bubble
Indianapolis Matinee Musicale
Martin Marks
Mozart's Rondo Alla Turca
"The Godfather"
Wabash College

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