I’m back. I’m rested. I’m ready. My name is Linda Viable and I was the narrator of the very first indirect, or Third Person story (in which a narrator tells the reader a story about a third person) my brother Paul ever wrote, called Scare Tactics, in which I trash my mother. Although Paul later developed this innovative technique in a number of his later stories utilizing increasingly more sophisticated plot lines, I recently reread Scare Tactics, and I found it actually held up pretty well. Now I’m back by popular demand to be the subject of what is planned to be a Direct, or First Person story (in which the narrator communicates his or her story directly to the reader,) featuring yours truly.
I get a little bit of a bad rap from people who know me alleging I’m very secretive. But my life is really an open book. So, what is it you want to know? I was pretty much of an average student in high school. I didn’t have any special interests or extracurricular activities and certainly no romantic attachments, which my mother would have frowned upon. My brother must have felt insecure toward me, since he used to belittle me every chance he got for no reason. Both my brother and I were accepted as legacy children to the Midwest university where my father earned his Ph.D. As I had wound up taking 4 courses in French in high school, I followed the path of least resistance and majored in French, developing my expertise in conjugating French verbs. In contrast, I don’t know what his problem was, but Paul dropped out of school after his first year and bounced around for a while before finding his sea legs and going back to college at the State University of New York.
One of the downside consequences of my not really having taken ownership of any meaningful specialized knowledge or skill during my college career was that I was completely unqualified to hold a job upon graduation. I had moved back to my parent’s house in suburban Maryland, and I would scour the classified ad pages of the newspaper every day in search of employment. One day, I hit pay dirt: a big government agency located a short drive from our house, responsible for monitoring the nation’s weather patterns was hiring candidates in entry level positions, describing it with those three little words that every French major longs to hear, “no experience required.” The job was tailor-made for me: the personnel department just needed to verify that I had a B.A. degree from a legitimate university and that I didn’t have a criminal record, and before I knew it, I was gainfully employed.
I still don’t know what it was I did there every day. I guess the Agency is what you would call a bureaucracy. Thousands of people worked there, but I only knew my supervisor and the few people in my immediate group. My job description was to show up at 9 A.M., leave at 5 P.M., eat lunch in the middle of the day, and perform whatever meaningless tasks they told me to do the rest of the time. I can no longer recall the exact content of these things, but I suppose they were no more purposeless than conjugating French verbs.
The important turning point in my life occurred after I had been working there about a year when they sent around a memo telling us that they were moving the headquarters of the agency to Boulder, Colorado, and anyone choosing not to move would be laid off. There may well have been employees there for whom, because of their children’s schools or their spouse’s job, this announcement represented a catastrophe. But for me, who had no particular allegiance to the Maryland location, it was an opportunity for adventure. I hadn’t even finished reading the memo when I told my supervisor I wanted to go.
Although my official duties required for the job remained unchanged following my relocation to Boulder, there was something about the fresh air in the new environment that really encouraged me to blossom and break out of the rut I had drifted into. I gradually developed the perspective that the true significance of my job, with its perquisites of paid vacations and vested pension benefits, was to provide the home base and the source of funding to enable me to live my actual new life, which would now consist of previously unexplored interests and activities that were fun to do.
One of the interests I developed there was encouraged by a couple women in my apartment complex who used to drop by for coffee occasionally. We were sitting in my kitchen one evening when one of them asked if I had any vivid memories from my childhood I could describe. After reflecting for a moment, I recalled the time my father arranged a boat ride for the family to celebrate my mother’s birthday. The trip was going along fine, and we were interacting with the other passengers, when I’m afraid I inadvertently ruined everything by getting seasick. My mother begged the captain to turn the boat around and return to shore, but he refused, citing the interests of the other passengers. When she told him sadly it was her birthday, the other passengers mocked her by singing Happy Birthday to her.
Both women told me I had recounted the story so well that we should start a storytelling group, where we would meet once a month, and one of us would have responsibility for telling a story and leading a discussion about it afterwards. They each added that they knew other women who would be interested in participating. And so, my interest in storytelling began. I think we had 9 or 10 members eventually, and we shared stories that mostly originated from actual events, but the element which turned them into interesting stories that held the audience’s attention was the judicious use of the raconteur’s imagination. My own stories I employed to regale the group might have begun with specific events involving my family while I was growing up, but I craftily tilted the plots so as to present myself in the most favorable light.
Once the genie was out of the bottle, however, I’m afraid my imagination took on a life of its own. The most egregious example of this development had to do with my use of the social media platform known as Facebook. In it, users can utilize their I-phones and computers to post observations, photos, and videos to all their followers as a group (it is not really designed for private communications the way emails and text messages are, so that what readers see is a jumble of disconnected messages from unrelated users seemingly talking past one another.) In my case, I opened up two Facebook accounts, one in my name, and the other in the name of my cat, Quandary. Most of my posts were in Quandary’s name, so, for instance, if I wanted to communicate something about myself to my readers, I would have Quandary post the information. A problem arose when Quandary died, but I have adapted to this temporary setback not by cancelling Quandary’s account, but simply by signing his posts “Q Spirit.” Of course, casual readers unfamiliar with my eccentricities might literally be in something of a “quandary” themselves reading this material, but I figure that’s their problem. It’s only an issue for the minority of Facebook readers who are laboring under delusion that posted messages are supposed to communicate meaningful information.
It is true that I occasionally worry that my overactive imagination may one day completely get the better of me, and I might unconsciously slip into a state of mind from which I can no longer distinguish between reality and fantasy – a condition that economic growth theorists and elevator operators refer to as “deep overshooting.” When I find myself overly concerned about this possibility, I try to keep in mind that it is my constitutional right to base my ideas on an alternative set of facts, even if I am playing with a deck of only 51 cards. I’m sure my role model, President Trump, doesn’t let a
little annoyance like reality get in his way.
Besides my new interests, I have also found new activities to amuse myself with in my new adopted home, most of which stem from the fact that I am surrounded by the Rocky Mountains. I tried skiing, but I quickly concluded it was much too dangerous. On the other hand, mountain climbing, for the most part, doesn’t suffer from this disadvantage. And, after developing my skill on less challenging peaks, I soon graduated to more difficult heights, and I now hold the Boulder record for the largest number of “fourteeners,” or successful scaling of mountains with elevations of 14,000 feet or greater.
Since I had no previous experience with mountain climbing, you might wonder what special preparation I had to undergo to ensure my readiness for these ordeals. I’ll tell you, to get myself emotionally in the right frame of mind, I seek out inspiration from movies I have seen, which can also pay big dividends in a pinch if I’m stuck for a story to tell in my group. Now, personally, my two favorite movies are the under-appreciated masterpieces Willard and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, but for its sheer manipulative power, you can’t do better than The Verdict, starring my dreamboat Paul Newman as attorney Frank Galvin (if that surname sounds familiar, it’s because my brother gave it to his central character in his novel In My Mind’s Eye.)
In the movie, Galvin is hired to prosecute the case of a large Catholic hospital and two world renown physicians, defended by an expensive team of lawyers, for malpractice in the incapacitation of one of their patients. Galvin proceeds to make one error in judgment after another and at one point is convinced he will lose the case and ruin his already-shaky career. But then, he pulls a rabbit out of a hat, tracks down a missing witness who was the admitting nurse on that day, takes advantage of errors on the part of the judge and the lead defense counsel, and pulls off something of a miracle, winning the case against all odds.
My inspiration is drawn from Galvin’s summation to the jury. In it, he talks about how most of the time we are just lost, that witnessing dishonesty and corruption takes its toll on people and can make them doubt themselves and doubt the law. “But today,” he says, “You are the law. In my religion, we are taught that to have faith, you need only act as if you have faith, and it will be given to you. To have faith in justice, you need only to have faith in yourself that you can act with justice. I believe we have justice in our hearts.” I tell myself these words when I’m having an exhausting struggle with one of my fourteeners.
During this time, I began branching out and taking advantage of the agency’s generous paid vacation policy to visit a number of foreign countries, sometimes to try my hand at mountain climbing there. I know that Paul and his wife also do a lot of travelling and, in fact, I recently learned they were in England at the same time as I was, but I didn’t try to get in touch with them. After his wife phoned me to ask why I had dodged them, I first pleaded ignorance, but later I began to warm up to the idea that maybe I had been judging Paul too harshly all these years. One thing led to another, and we arranged for me to visit for a few days this summer. I was a little nervous about it since I’m now getting a little long in the tooth, and, with my long gray hair, I am no longer recognizable as the cute brunette on my Facebook page.
Paul does not have a very good memory, so I like to ridicule him about it by saying “Paul? This is Linda, your sister,” whenever I telephone him. No matter how many times I call, I always say the same thing. Paul has been very successful in the business world and has become quite a philanthropist in his old age, leaving money in his will to be disbursed after he and his wife die for funding several medical research grants at a local hospital and also a chaired professorship at the university where he earned his Ph.D. I asked him impetuously if I was included in his will, but he had to tell me that although I was included in an earlier version, it became obsolete after he got married. Incidentally, I’m something of a philanthropist myself. As Q spirit announced on Facebook, “The storytellers league was soliciting contributions, so Linda coughed up twenty bucks.”
Paul’s wife had bought us tickets for an unusual concert which featured a segment of a rare kinescope performance by Alberta Hunter, who was a famous Jazz singer from the early 1920’s to the late 1950’s, when she stopped performing and worked the next 20 fears as a nurse, only to come out of retirement in the late 1970’s and resume her singing career. I knew the tickets had to be expensive, so I said I could not accept their generosity unless they permitted me to reimburse them for my ticket. Don’t get me wrong – I was not offering to treat them to the concert or anything like that, only to pay for myself. As I explained to them, since I was not as wealthy as they were, this was the only gesture I could make to show my appreciation for their hospitality. When I said this, though, they looked puzzled and asked, if that were true, how could I go on all those trips to foreign countries? But, I told them I always flew economy class, stayed in cheap rooming houses, and, since I had no friends, I took my meals alone in my room. I don’t know if they tried to square my claims with my active participation on Facebook, but I could tell they knew I was lying, which made the discussion very awkward. Oh, President Trump, where are you when I need you?
The concert was quite good, and the Alberta Hunter segment, in which she sang something called “Without A Song,”, was composed by Richard Fusilier. It was very moving, and she introduced it with the observation, “They don’t write them like this anymore.”
Here are the lyrics:
Without a song, the day would never end
Without a song, the road would never bend
When things go wrong a man ain’t got a friend
Without a song
That field of corn would never see a plow
That field of corn would be deserted now
A man is born but he’s no good no how
Without a song
I’ve got my troubles and woe and sure as I know the Jordan will roll
And I’ll get along as long as a song is strong in my soul
I’ll never know what makes the rain to fall
I’ll never know what makes that grass so tall
I only know there ain’t no love at all
Without a song.
The performance forced me to ask myself difficult questions that left me feeling uncomfortable. I realized that maybe I really am secretive with people I know but can’t take them into my confidence for fear they’ll see I’m really too comfortable playing fast and loose with the truth. What Alberta Hunter sang was that there are already too many limitations in our lives, so we probably shouldn’t add to that number by choosing to keep the trustworthy people we know at arm’s length.
I’m not sure I did a very good job of patching things up with Paul; probably, the least negative judgment about me they could come to was that I was a real piece of work. Naturally, there was an exchange of emails afterwards, saying how wonderful it was to see one another and that they would plan to visit me in Boulder next time, but we didn’t give a time frame for that. I’ve tried to recall everything from my visit as well as everything else that I’ve included in my discussion here, and I honestly don’t think I’ve done anything wrong or peculiar. It all seems perfectly normal to me.