Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, November 30, 2012

When Losers Write History

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been joining in on the critiques of Spielberg's Lincoln, concerned that the movie, by it's narrow scope, shows the abolition of slavery as being too much a white man's thing. The critiques themselves don't much interest me, as it strikes me they mostly amount to saying that people wish Spielberg had made a different movie. However, the history being discussed does. Coates is responding to a quote from screenwriter Tony Kushner who said:
"I think that what Lincoln was doing at the end of war was a very, very smart thing. And it is maybe one of the great tragedies of American history that people didn't take him literally after he was murdered. The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote 'noble cause,' and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies.
Coates says:
This is quite wrong. Lincoln was the first president killed in American history. He was not killed by some wide-eyed crazy, but a man advocating exactly the same cause as the white Southerners whom Kushner believes were so inhumanely brutalized.... There is no daylight between John Wilkes Booth and Jefferson Davis, save that Booth, in the name of white supremacy, was willingness to countenance the killing of one man, and Davis the killing of 600,000. What followed the murder of Abraham Lincoln was not repression and inhumanity. Andrew Johnson offered terms more generous, not less.... When Kushner says the Ku Klux Klan came out of an unwillingness to forgive the South, I don't know what he means. The Klan was founded in 1865. Johnson was still president. There was nothing "unforgiving" about his posture to the South.
Coates links to Corey Robin who reacts to the same quote saying:
I have to confess, I was truly shocked by this comment. Though it points to events after the Civil War, it reveals a point of view that I had thought we abandoned long ago: the Dunning School of American historiography, which essentially holds that Reconstruction was a “tragic era”—and error—in which a cruel and unforgiving North decided to wreak havoc on a victimized (white) South, thereby producing Jim Crow and a century of southern backwardness. When I was in high school—in 1985!—we were taught the Dunning School as an example of how not to do history, a way of thinking about the past that was so benighted no one could possibly believe it anymore.

Yet here we have one of our most esteemed playwrights—a Marxist no less (and whose effort to reclaim an honorary degree from CUNY, which he had been denied, I steadfastly organized for)—essentially peddling the same tropes.
If one steps back from the question of Reconstruction in particular, however, one sees that this approach to history (these people were treated badly and so they were forced to go do something we don't approve by their outrage at their mistreatment) is fairly common. One of my own particular bugbears is the list of three things which everyone thinks they know about World War One:

1) It happened by accident. No one wanted war.
2) It was utterly pointless
3) The cruel peace terms imposed on Germany were the cause of Nazism and the second world war.

None of these are true, but particularly frustrating to me is the third. The peace terms imposed on Germany were not all that draconian, and the allies quickly lost the will to enforce them. The large sum of reparations which Germany was ordered to pay was reduced repeatedly by the Allies, and even at the reduced rate Germany never paid much of it. In 1932 the Allies voted to cancel the reparations entirely, but the implementation of this resolution was contingent on American agreement and before the US could make up its mind Hitler rose to power and announced that he refused to pay any more reparations regardless.

However, the claim that German bad behavior was all the fault of the harsh peace had become a commonplace of anti-war sentiment in France, Britain and the US during the 20s (spurred in part by John Maynard Keynes' 1919 book The Economic Consequences of the Peace) and it has remained one of the trite pieties of pop history to this day.

The more realistic, though less comforting truth which perhaps the Reconstruction and WW1 tropes both mask is that it is often easier to win a war than to win a peace. The greater military power can generally be successful in reducing its foe to the point where organized military resistance is no longer possible. However, almost no degree of military force can make an entire population behave in ways they don't want to. This is what the Northern states ran into after the Civil War. It was well within their power keep the South from splitting off and setting up an independent country. However, the amount of energy necessary to keep Southerners on the ground from behaving mostly the way they wanted to after the war was over was something the North was not willing (perhaps was not able) to expend for long.

Traditional With Benefits

Having been feeding on a steady diet of Victorian novels of late, and running into the occasional set of thoughts about how we need to get back to a more traditional approach to dating and courtship, it has been striking me to what extent I had the benefit of having things both ways. Going to a small, orthodox Catholic college, I had the benefit of living among a congenial group of people in which living according to the Church's teachings on marriage and sexuality was generally taken as a matter of course. Not to say that people never violated these rules, but the rules were, at least, seen as the rules. In this sense, it had something of the feel of the image people have of the "good old days" in regards to dating and courtship.

On the other hand, it was still very much the modern world of the turn of the millennium that I was living in, and with this, in the broader culture, came many freedoms. Even in Stuebenville culture, most of these carried through -- one could avail oneself of flexible modern cultural standards so long as one clearly adhered to Catholic moral standards as well.

Thus, for instance, MrsDarwin and I, in our quiet way, had a lot more leeway during our years of dating and engagement than would have been the case in 1950s, much less the 1850s. During the semester that we both spent studying in Europe, we traveled together every weekend -- sometimes with other students, but usually alone -- and suffered nary a raised eyebrow. Our senior year, seeking both to save money and escape the at times over-close paternal embrace of Steubenville dorm administration, I rented a three bedroom house off campus. A guy I knew shared the one large bedroom with me while MrsD (then my fiance) and a female grad student took the other two rooms. It was by far the most congenial living situation I had during college, and although I'm sure someone or other in Student Life would have had a case of the vapors had they known about it, it was actually an easier environment to maintain virtue in than the more highly supervised dorm life on campus. Because privacy on campus was at such a premium, when a couple did manage to find a little time together it seemed like they had better get some serious kissing and cuddling in before the moment of privacy passed. In the house, we had plenty of time together and so it was usually spent in comfortingly domestic activities like making dinner or talking over morning coffee.

Indeed, thinking back over my relationship with the college, what I liked about Steubenville most was as a social clime was that it provided a culture which clearly shared my moral standards. What I often found most frustrating was the rules it put in place in order to try to enforce those standards. Having and living by those standards, I still very much valued the more modern freedom to organize my life as I saw fit without people seeing the necessity of policing it.

While many look to a return to the more rigidly enforced social standards of the past (or imagined past) as a way to guard traditional morality, the freedom that comes from the mores of the mainstream culture in some ways served, in our case, to make it easier to live according to our own moral strictures. The freedom to be so close made it easier to wait out three and a half years between when we started dating and when we were able to get married.


...Aaand, this is the end of staying up until 3 am. I'm not nearly done with the story, and I shall post the next installment soon, but tonight I'm going to bed. The End.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Are These Folks Really Concerned About Walmart Workers?

Perhaps because it's the Christmas shopping season, everyone is suddenly in a tizzy about Walmart's wages. Mark Shea, known as one of those shy recluses who always tries to state things in the calmest method possible compares Walmart's pay practices to sodomy.

I'd like to dig into the various business and economic issues at play when I've got more time, but one of the things that's particularly struck me about this conversation is the following interchange which seems to invariably result when Walmart comes up:

A: Walmart pays poverty level wages. The company makes huge profits and should pay more.

B: Walmart pays low wages because they employ low skilled workers to do low productivity work. The work isn't worth much more than they're paying for it.

A: But if Walmart paid higher wages, they'd get a higher quality of worker and those higher quality workers would be more productive and they'd make even more money. Look at Costco and Trader Joe's!

Now, I like Costco and Trader Joe's, both as business models and as places to shop, and I'm not fond of shopping at Walmart (indeed, we basically never do these days, though back when we were financially really hard up, we did.) But the thing that strikes me about this line of reasoning is that it purports to be really worried about workers at Walmart, yet then immediately jumps to the idea that if only Walmart paid more, it could not hire the kind of people it currently hires.

Now, maybe it would be nice if Walmart paid higher wages, but if instead of 2.1 million low paid low skilled workers it had 1.4 million better paid more skilled workers, that kind of leaves all the low skilled workers who currently work there out in the cold, doesn't it? Making $8.80/hr to stand by the door and greet people doesn't sound to me like a fun and rewarding way to make a living. (Indeed, back when I went to Walmart fairly often the greeters always kind of bugged me because it seemed like a job I'd hate having.) But if Walmart went to a business model in which they paid twice as much as they currently do and hired more productive workers, a lot of the folks who are currently doing that kind of work at Walmart would simply be out of a job, or else doing something worse. That seems an odd way of doing them a favor.

Stillwater - 21



Richard Spencer was a man who loved the comforts of home — not just the amenities, but the ease, the quiet, the security that came from being in his own space. It was not that he did not like people; he did. But he was a homebody through and through, and was at his happiest on his beloved plantation, in his beloved house, behind his beloved desk in his beloved office, into which no one ever barged unannounced, except Esther Davis. He had not had to deal with Esther in his office for a month and a half, however; she was at Stillwater, and he was in the West Indies, touring sugar plantations on a consulting trip for American Cane. The islands were beautiful; the plantations managed as efficiently as local custom would allow. His business was essentially concluded, and though he was approved to stay up to three more weeks, until mid-April, he had no desire to swan around the islands running up his expense account. He was homesick, with a vengeance.

He had called Cheryl as soon as he was back in the States to tell her he was coming home early. She had accepted the news in her usual placid fashion. 

“Oh, that’s great, honey. I’ll have to tell the kids when I see them, but the vet says Pugsy has to lose some weight, so I’ve just been exercising with her so much that I hardly have a minute to talk to anyone.”

Richard had never considered himself an effusive man, but as his plane touched down in Baton Rouge, he felt an unwonted swelling of his heart. He had been on many consulting trips before, some longer than this last one, but perhaps it was time to pare back on the traveling. He was going home to Stillwater, his Stillwater, and there he wanted to stay, private and peaceful. He wanted to spend pleasant evenings with his pretty Cheryl, with whom he’d never exchanged an angry word in almost thirty years of marriage. He anticipated a reformed Dick, an motivated Malcolm, a bridal Sophia, a diligent Olivia, and dared hope for an absent Esther. Of course he couldn’t count on the girls being at home right now, between work and school, but he’d have them down as soon as possible. And of course there was little Melly too, so quiet and sweet, so patient and so small. Why, he missed her too. What a joy it would be to see them all again! How good it was to be going home!

He traced the familiar route down River Road, eschewing the more direct inland highway. Even as dusk was settling in, he could recognize every curve and sweep of the road as if it were broad daylight. Each plantation house, each town, each field was like an old friend to him. Three miles upriver from the drive of Stillwater, he passed the great mansion of John Spencer’s antebellum rival. Though that plantation still farmed cane, the current owners had thrown in their economic lot with the tourism crowd, adding cottages and wedding chapels and a spa and God only knew what. Let them have it, he thought. Let them have their publicity and their website and their photo shoots and magazine spreads. Let them commercialize and cheapen the venerable name of their house. Let them sell it on key chains and prostitute it for location scouts. At least Stillwater was a still a gracious refuge. As long as he had charge of her, he would maintain her reputation and her mystique, for her own sake and the sake of his children. He knew that they too, underneath their sometimes callow exteriors, loved and honored their home as he did. 

He had never been what might be termed an “involved” father. He had been distant, absorbed in many cares, when he should have been providing paternal guidance. Dick had disappointed him, but in coming home he was making a fresh start. Surely it was not too late for him to change, to mature. The others, thank goodness, seemed more tractable. Malcolm seemed to have found a new drive and direction in his teaching work. Sophia, his oldest girl, was about to be married to a man who adored her and could provide for her. Richard didn’t know Chris Dalton well, but their few brief meetings had been amicable, and of course everyone knew his mother, of the Hazelwood family. Maybe his slow style would settle Sophia. Olivia had grown from a bumbling, awkward child into a woman with a true passion for photography. Richard had kept one of her shots of Stillwater with him on his trip to meditate on when his homesickness became overwhelming.

No, he had not been a close father, but there were certain ideals and responsibilities he’d tried to instill in his children. As each of them had come of age, he had taken them out with him on a tour of the estate. They needed to understand the scope of the land, the geographical boundaries, how long it took to drive around the fields. He took them to see American Cane in action on the leased Stillwater land, so that they might understand the practicalities of cane cultivation and harvesting. He made them page through documents and photos and old accounts, to understand both the honor and the shame of the Spencer legacy at Stillwater. So many plantations had changed hands multiple times since the Civil War, but Spencers had always lived in the house John Spencer had commissioned. That house had been built on the backs of slaves, and though no reparation could alter that fact, Richard Spencer had devoted much time and money to making atonement for the innocent blood spilled on his land, crying to God for vengeance.

At the gate of Stillwater, he paused. The pediment of the roof loomed against the deepening twilight sky. The windows blazed with an usual array of light; he couldn’t remember when he’d last seen the house so illuminated. As he drove down the driveway, watching the homely glow flashing through the oaks lining the road, he was pleased to think that his family was excited to see him. Cheryl must have spoken to someone. They were expecting him, and he was so happy to be back with them.

Rounding the corner of the library wing to park in back, he noticed that the two cottages were also lit up. That meant that Esther and the tenants were at home and not in his house. Now he could truly relax. Here he was, home after seven weeks. Thank God!

In the basement, all was quiet, but in the family room stood a slim dark-haired lady holding a long gown to herself, her face soft with sorrowful contemplation. A forgotten line from Shakespeare rose to the surface of his memory: she looked “like Patience on a monument,/ Smiling at grief.” She had to be Melly, and yet how lovely she was. Richard was surprised by how she'd changed. He recalled her as the wan, sick girl who’d come to them four years ago, but she had grown up without him noticing. That was like children, growing and blossoming under your very nose.

“Hello, Melly,” he said. “You look sad. Where is everyone?”

He had startled her. She dropped the dress and looked at him as if seeing a ghost.

“Hello, Mr. Spencer,” she said, and her voice was sweet and soft. 

And as quickly as movie mania had come upon Stillwater, it was gone. Melly had followed Richard Spencer up to the first floor. His quiet consternation at the chaos in the drawing room, and the muddled and guilty explanations from the parties in the drawing room, would have been amusing to a mind more formed for comedy than hers. As it was, she sank deeper into misery on hearing Richard politely express a desire to see the scenes that everyone had worked so hard on. This was the last request to which anyone wanted to accede, but there was nothing for it. Ian made his farewells and wished the family a very happy reunion, and everyone else trooped down to the family room with Richard. Olivia cued up the footage on her laptop. 

“It isn’t edited, you understand,” she said in a last desperate appeal to her father. “It’s all… very rough.”

“Well, Rome wasn’t filmed in a day,” he said. “Here, come sit by me, and tell me about it.”

It was an awful time of reckoning, made the worse by Richard’s solemnity. João, who seemed utterly unaware of the tensions in the room, happily explained his directorial vision and provided behind-the-scenes commentary as the clips rolled on. The scenes had been placed in a kind of order, so that the exterior shots of Stillwater and the first straight scenes lulled Richard into a false sense of enjoyment. He even smiled at the wretched Malcolm as Ashley and Melanie spoke of love and Twelve Oaks. He listened patiently as Chris talked through his memory techniques. And then came Dick in blackface.

The rest of the evening was a blur to Melly, but to the younger Spencers it did not even have the comfort of seeming surreal. Each now saw the project through their father’s eyes. What had been so hysterical in concept was thuddingly awful in execution. Dick in blackface was not ironic any more; he was crass and pathetic and offensive. Sophia’s lusty Scarlett was an increasingly painful spectacle. There was nothing to fault in Malcolm’s conventional performance but the very fact of his participation in the whole. 

At the end of the scenes the Spencers sat silent in the brightly lit basement. Melly was crying softly. Even João was subdued for a moment.

At last Richard spoke, not angrily. “I didn’t see Melly anywhere. Did she not have a role?”

“Melly wouldn’t take a role,” said Malcolm with bitter self-reproach . “She hated the entire thing from the start.”

“Well, I’m glad it’s over,” said Chris. “I was getting sick of the whole thing. I mean, why do we need all these shenanigans? Let’s just hang out, you know?”

“I think we can agree on that,” said Richard, standing. He surveyed the room of miserable faces.

“I would not prefer for this to be shown around,” he said, in measured tones of terrible mercy. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll say goodnight and go up to see your mother.”

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Went With The Wind

Perhaps some of you are tired of Gone With The Wind parodies, but for those who aren't, I present Went With The Wind from the Carol Burnett show:

Virtue Happens Moment by Moment

Sometimes taking the long view gives perspective, but other times it becomes a way to build for ourselves a seemingly impossible obstacle. We all know how this goes: "Things are bad at the moment. I can get through this moment somehow, yet when I think of the next moment, and the next, and the next it becomes impossible. If things are hard now, how am I going to deal with this for years and years and years?"

This sort of long view is not only unhelpful, but inaccurate. Virtue is not some big project that we can sit down and accomplish (or fail at) in one herculean effort. Virtue is the habit of doing the good, and so, necessarily, virtue is accomplished (or failed at) one moment at a time. We do not need, at once, to deal with the impossible mountain of right choices stretching from here out. We just need to get it right this moment. And the next moment. And the moment after that.

Stillwater - 20

46,545/50,000. I'm gonna win it, guys. 


Eventually Melly kept to the refuge of her room. She was there on Friday afternoon, hemming a pair of trousers for Malcolm, when Alys knocked on her door. 

“Are you too busy, Melly? I was just wondering if you’d help me get these lines down. This is the longest scene I have, and it’s near the beginning so it has to be played fairly straight. Will you read it with me?”

Melly set aside the work.

“I’d be happy to read with you,” she said, “but it really ought to be Malcolm.”

“I can’t find him, and we’re supposed to be shooting the scene this afternoon. Is he even home yet?”

“I don’t think so. There’s some important school paperwork due by 5:00 today. He’d been going in by 6:00 each morning to get it all taken care of so he can be home for the filming, but perhaps he needed more time.”

 Alys dismissed the school with a gesture. “I thought he might have been in one of the front rooms, but Ian and Sophia were making such a pretty spectacle of themselves in the parlor that everyone’s fled from the whole first floor. I think they insist on as many retakes as João does. Good thing you’re safe back here, though I have to warn you, I think Sophia is planning on throwing a vase in the library.”

“Which vase?” Melly was filled with foreboding for the precious antiques of the drawing room.

“Oh, just something from the attic. Esther told Sophia it was fine to use. ”

Alys handed Melly the script and pushed the velvet curtains away from the tall windows. “Okay, I’m in place. Ashley and Melly are supposed to be looking over a balcony overlooking Twelve Oaks — I think they’re going to film it on one of the balconies upstairs. 

Melly looked over the lines on the page Sophia had handed her.

You seem to belong here. As if it had all been 
imagined for you.

I like to feel that I belong to the things you love.

You love Twelve Oaks as I do.

Yes, Ashley. I love it as, as more than a house. It's 
a whole world that wants only to be graceful and 

And so unaware that it may not last, forever.

You're afraid of what may happen when the war comes, 
aren't you? Well, we don't have to be afraid. For us. 
No war can come into our world, Ashley. Whatever 
comes, I'll love you, just as I do now. Until I die.

Melly held the lines in her hand, but she did not see them. She saw Malcolm and Alys, speaking these words to each other, standing side by side by in a haze of beautiful sunlight, overlooking the west lawn of Stillwater. She saw Malcolm taking Alys’s hands in his and kissing them, with gentlemanly fervor. She saw Alys looking up at him with a simple and beautiful devotion shining from her face, masking her amusement at the absurd sincerity of the language. She saw… 

No, she was just getting silly. Malcolm and Alys would just be playing Ashley and Melanie. They wouldn’t be speaking for themselves. And yet Malcolm at least did feel something for Alys. Would he be able to avoid putting some of his own feeling into these lines? Was he supposed to avoid it? How did one act, anyway? 

“I know,” said Alys, observing how Melly’s eyes were fixed on the page. “I don’t know how I’m going to get through these lines. How can anyone be that sincere? I know I’m going to bust up as soon as I look at Malcolm’s face. That’s why I thought I could read with you first, to practice keeping a straight face. You and Malcolm have that same serious look, so at least I’ll be used to seeing it when I rehearse with him. Do you know, I think your eyes are even the same color.”

Melly knew this scene by heart, but she couldn’t imagine reeling off the lines to Alys. She stood by the window, clutching the script as a convenient prop, and half whispered Ashley’s line. The first rehearsal did not go smoothly. Melly could not enjoy putting herself forward enough to be dramatic, and Alys was dissolved in giggles half the time. This was infuriating. Melly thought tartly that perhaps if Alys had read with some conviction, she would have been able to respond in kind. 

“Well, that was terrible,” Alys laughed after their first stumbling attempt at the scene. Melly’s rising frustration kept her from responding to this other than with a sigh. She gamely took up the script again for the next round and was about to deliver her line when there was a knock at the door. 

Melly opened it to find Malcolm standing in the hall, script in hand.

“Melly, I was wondering if you would read my lines with me,” he asked, with some embarrassment. “I got home a little while ago and haven’t been able to find Alys to run this scene with me. I know you don’t want to do any acting, but would you mind helping me rehearse?”

Before Melly had time to ponder how it would have been if Malcolm had been the first one to knock that afternoon, Alys had bounded over to the door. 

“We had the same idea!” she said. “I should have known you would come to Melly’s room eventually; it’s the only sane place in the house.”

“Great minds think alike.” 

Malcolm and Alys were so pleased at the occasion having arranged itself so neatly that Melly found herself agreeing to let them rehearse in her room while she prompted them.  She sat on her bed, script in hand, as they took their places at the window. Before they could begin, however, they had to settle the rehearsal jitters by talking through their blocking and analyzing each line for what Alys called “subtext”. There wasn’t much of either. 

“Usually an actor looks for the meaning underneath the words and tries to communicate that, but in this scene there is no subtext. The characters mean exactly what they’re saying. Where’s the fun in that?”

“I like it, though,” said Malcolm. “It’s comfortable. It’s uncomplicated. It's honest.”

“Yeah, but there’s a good reason that Scarlett is the main character. Imagine a whole movie full of Melly being earnest! How boring would that be?”

“If I recall correctly,” Malcolm pointed out, “it was Melly, and not Scarlett, who was given money by the richest prostitute in Atlanta.”

During this conversation, Melly had been sitting quietly on the bed, looking at the script and imagining how Malcolm would have rehearsed it with her. How would she have be able to listen to him telling her that all this estate seemed to have been imagined for her, without her heart beating with joy? How could she have managed to say, “I like to feel that I belong to the things you love,” without meaning it not just as Melanie, but as Melly? How would she have even been able to speak the words, “I’ll love you, just as I do now”? Everything she felt would have been written on her face. 

Finally the rehearsal began, in as much earnest as Alys could manage. Melly was supposed to be prompting them, but she found herself caught up in watching Malcolm trying to deliver his three lines. He was grave and gentle, if a bit stiff, but he was aided by at least a quarter of a decade’s worth of memories of sitting by his mother’s side, watching Leslie Howard and Olivia de Havilland play this very scene. Alys had no such sentimental connection, and although she did her best to settle down and play Melanie seriously, she could not help wiggling her eyebrows or batting her eyelashes. 

“I’m going to read with Melly, and she’ll show you how it’s done,” Malcolm threatened.

“No,” said Melly in alarm. “I really can’t act.”

That evening everything was thrown into an uproar by the unexpected arrival of Chris Dalton. He had heard brief reports of the moviemaking from Sophia, and, feeling slighted and a bit jealous, had decided to come down for the weekend and get involved. This was a most unwelcome development. Olivia and João, with Ian’s help, had worked out a script with a fair amount of economy, and inserting a new scene or even just a new clip would interrupt the flow and rhythm of the video. It was impossible to have a full consultation about the event with Chris right in the room. Melly, attuned to the tension, noticed a great deal of subtext in the discussions. 

“I think that since Sophia is playing Scarlett, I should be Rhett,” Chris announced. Glances were cast, caught, and flung around the room.

“We’ve already shot quite a few of the scenes, Chris,” said Olivia carefully. “It would be hard to change things now.”

“Chris, don’t be a pain.” Sophia had no patience for this. “We’re not going to redo the whole thing for your sake.”

But Chris was obstinate. “Scarlett is in love with Rhett, so obviously I should be Rhett.”

“Scarlett doesn’t love Rhett. She loves Ashley,” said Olivia. “So it wouldn’t do you much good to play Rhett.”

“Then I’ll play Ashley.”

“Chris, we’ve already filmed most of his scenes.”

“And Ashley is married to another woman,” said Alys reasonably. “You wouldn’t want to play that part.”

“Charles Hamilton,” said Ian suddenly. “You should play Charles Hamilton.”

“Who’s that?” Chris was suspicious.

“Scarlett’s first husband. He marries her right before he goes to war.”

“How come no one ever talks about him?”

“He has a bigger part in the book,” said Sophia, who had never read it. “He dies a hero’s death.”

“Actually, it’s kind of amusing how he proposes,” said Olivia, chewing over the idea. “You know, I think we could work that in somewhere.”

So it was decided. They would squeeze in Chris’s scene during the good daylight filming time after the 11 AM tour group was out of the house. Fortunately, he’d been to the last Stillwater Ball, so there was a jacket in the attic that would fit him nicely. It didn’t matter what pants he wore; only the jacket would show. 

“We’ll need to rig some lights and film a scene or two tomorrow night, since João and Olivia have to leave on Sunday,” Ian decided.

Chris looked forward to the filming with great anticipation. He had counted out his lines, mostly variations on the theme of “Miss O’Hara, will you marry me?”, and was explaining to Melly, who was hearing him read, his memorization technique.

“We had this fellow out to our last conference who’s an expert in memorization. He’s memorized all kinds of things: the phone book, the Iliad, I don’t know what-all. The technique is simple yet powerful. If you want to remember something, you just have to relate it to something else that you’ll remember. Say I want to remember the name of Hazelwood. I have to think, “tree!” Hazel is a kind of tree. And trees are made of wood: Hazel-wood! Now all I have to do is think of trees, and I remember Hazelwood. Of course, I’ll never forget Hazelwood, so that’s just an example. Here, let’s read this scene, and I’ll show you how it works.” 

Melly obediently delivered the cue line: “Oh, what did you say?

Chris dropped to one knee for his big proposal: “I say, Miss O’Hara, I say, would you marry me?”

Melly shook her head gently. “The line is: Miss O’Hara, I said, would you marry me?

“Oh, that’s right. You know what I was thinking of, to remember it? I was thinking of Foghorn Leghorn. Charles says, ‘I said, would you marry me?’, and Foghorn Leghorn always says, ‘I say’. So ‘I say’ reminds me of ‘I said,’ which is the line.”

Melly was dubious. “But Charles says, ‘I said’, because he’s repeating something he said earlier that Scarlett didn’t hear. The cue line is ‘What did you say?’ and he’s answering her.”

Chris shook his head knowingly. “This is how we do things in business. Trust me, I heard a whole lecture on this, and this guy was an expert. You should have heard him recite the phone book.”

This was but a foretaste of Saturday’s filming. Chris free-associated all afternoon, dancing around the text of his lines with the agility of a boxer dodging blows. He paused between every take to explain the adjustments he was making to his memorization techniques. 

“Each time I fine-tune the line, and by trial and error I find the perfect word match,” he declared to the room of tight faces. 

“I thought the point was to memorize it the first time,” said Malcolm.

“Yeah, but I want to get the technique just right.”

The whole afternoon shooting schedule was pushed farther and farther back. Tempers frayed. Dinner was a short affair in the basement family room, everyone wearily gnawing sandwiches except for Chris. Although his scene was finally wrapped, he was conducting a full post-mortem of each of his line choices for the patient Melly. Sophia was behind the bar with Ian, talking in suggestive whispers. Olivia and João were looking over the last business of the evening, reshooting one of Malcolm and Alys’s scenes from another angle. Dick, earbuds in place, was watching the day’s footage on Olivia’s laptop, not so much to see the scenes as to revel in Chris’s out takes. Malcolm and Alys were sitting in companionable silence on the love seat, their usual perch, when her phone rang. She looked at the number and gave an exclamation that caused everyone’s head to turn in her direction.

“It’s that contract on the West Coast!” she hissed at Ian. “He was going to call tonight about the tiara commission, and I agreed because I thought we’d be done by this time.” 

She rose. “I have to take this, guys, sorry.” Quickly she answered the phone, waved goodnight, and headed back to her own cottage.

The missing energy in the room returned with a vengeance. 

“What’s going on?” Olivia wailed. “Why is she leaving? We’re so close!”

“She’s been trying to talk to this guy for weeks about a big jewelry commission, and now she’s finally got him on the phone discussing the details will take ages. She won’t be back tonight, guys,” Ian explained, shrugging ruefully.

There was general murmur. To put off this last take! It was unthinkable. And yet, if Alys was going busy for hours… The frustration was palpable. Dick swore. Malcolm slumped on the loveseat, passing tired hands over his eyes.

João had been studying the scheduled scene, and now he looked up. “It is only her back, and she wears a… a… on her head…” He mimed putting on a hat. 

“Bonnet,” supplied Olivia.

“If Sophia would be nice and be the Melanie in the scene…”

“I don’t look a thing like Alys,” Sophia drawled. “She’s much fairer than I am, and we have different figures. Even under a bonnet anyone could tell.”

“Maybe Olivia…?”

“Same problem.”

“Melly,” said Dick. “Melly could do it. Put her hair up so none of it shows, and get her in Alys’s dress, and no one could ever tell.”

“But she’s too short,” said Olivia, eyeing Melly speculatively.

“She will stand on a box,” said João. 

“No!” cried Melly. “I can’t act.”

“You don’t have to act,” said Dick persuasively. “All you have to do is stand there and let Malcolm hug you.”

“No, I really can’t.”

“Come on, Melly, you’ve done so much work sewing,” coaxed Olivia. “This is a little cameo for you. I’m glad you’ll have a chance to be in the video.”


“Just do it, Melly,” Sophia ordered. “No one’s ever going to know it’s you, so there’s nothing to be shy about. It’s the least you can do for us.”

“You’ll do a better job than Alys,” said Ian, “She’s never serious, and you always are.”


Olivia and João gathered their equipment to head upstairs. Sophia tossed Alys’s dress to Melly. 

“Here, put it on and come up when you’re ready.”

 “I don’t want a part in it.”

“Malcolm, you talk to her,” said Dick in mild disgust. “She does whatever you tell her. Get her to show some Stillwater spirit.” 

The others cleared out. Melly stood, dress in hand, unmoving. Malcolm walked over to her slowly and sighed.

“Melly, I’m sorry about this. I know how much you hate this whole thing, and I agree. It’s bigger and worse and more time-consuming than I imagined it would be.” 

Melly did not look up at him, but she could hear the hoarse weariness in his voice, and she yearned to give him rest.

“This is entirely unfair of them to put this on you without any warning, but this is it. The End. This scene, and the filming is over and we get our house and our quiet time back. Let’s just get it over with.”

“I don’t want to be involved. I don’t want to play a scene in front of everyone.”

“I know you’re nervous, Melly.” His compassion was melting her, bit by bit. “You barely have to do anything. Ashley just has to hug Melanie. This is all it is.”

He put his arms around her and pulled her close, dress and all, pressing her head to his shoulder. She closed her eyes and felt his arms around her.

“Just like this, and I’ll say a line, and it cuts to a reaction shot from Scarlett, I think. All they want is the back of Melanie. Can you do that?”

“I… I don’t know.” If only there were no movie and no Winters and he would hold her like this forever.

“This whole thing will be over soon,” he said, “and everything will go back to normal, thank God.” 

He released her and gave her shoulder a squeeze. 

“There’s no rush. They can wait for you.”

He went upstairs. Melly continued to stand, twisting and untwisting the dress. All she needed to do was be still and let Malcolm hold her. No one would know it was her. She didn’t have to say anything, didn’t have to do anything but put on this dress and go upstairs and make everyone happy. Then everything would be over and everyone would go away again.

But everyone was going away anyway, whether she played the scene or not. Olivia was going back to school and Sophia couldn’t remain at Stillwater indefinitely. Dick ignored her most of the time anyway. And Malcolm would still be here. And so would the Winters.

But if she refused, would Sophia and Dick — and Esther, when she heard about it — think that she ought to leave Stillwater? Was she trying to police everyone’s morals, as Esther claimed? Would Mrs. Spencer even miss her when she was gone? Would Malcolm turn to Alys Winter even more than he had already? Could she live away from Stillwater?

Melly was still standing, dress still in hand, when she heard the outside door open and shut. Alys was back. Alys would play her part and be praised. Melly would again be consigned to the lowest position, perhaps even lower than before because she had not cooperated. She would be nobody again, and no one would rise to her defense this time.

“Hello, Melly,” said a voice from the doorway, a voice ringing with an undertone of profound happiness. “You look sad. Where is everyone?”

Melly’s head shot up, and the dress dropped to the floor. 

“Hello, Mr. Spencer,” she breathed.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Stillwater - 19

Malcolm presented Dick with his decision the next morning, prepared to face some ridicule, but Dick could afford to be gracious. Malcolm made his acceptance conditional on all plans of posting the video on YouTube being abandoned, and Dick, and Sophia when she came in, were prepared (for the moment) to concede the subject of putting the video on the internet; the real fun was in making it, right? As long as they had a good time, nothing else mattered. Malcolm was at pains to make it clear that he had real reservations otherwise, and they nodded politely, but when he was gone Dick and Sophia grinned at each other.

“How the mighty have fallen,” said Dick. “Love conquers all, huh?”

“Score one for Alys,” Sophia agreed. “Though I wouldn’t have taken her for the type who likes the noble boy scout type. To each her own, I guess.”

Alys was very pleased indeed at Malcolm’s change of heart, and the way her blue eyes crinkled warmly at Malcolm when she heard the news seemed to assuage his doubts about participating in the movie. For right now he was the golden boy. He had saved everything; everyone had something complimentary to say about him. Melly, seeing him welcomed into the group again, felt isolated and deserted as she sat in her rocking chair in the family room, the ever-present wedding dress in her lap. 

Filming a movie, even one as short as they were contemplating, was not something that could be rushed, even on a spring break schedule. Olivia and Joâo had been up all night with Cheryl’s 70th Anniversary Edition of Gone With The Wind, accumulating a scene list and noting ideas for comic improvements. She’d found a bootleg screenplay on the internet and was cutting and pasting dialogue to make basic scripts; he was considering camera angles and making a list of issues on which to consult Ian’s expertise.

Sophia and Ian had headed up to the attic and spent a long time selecting costumes. When they came down, Sophia dumped her armload on the table with last night’s costumes, and dragged everything over to where Melly sat by the windows.

“Melly, we need you now,” Sophia announced, sorting the dresses and suits into piles. “You’ve got to alter things to fit everyone.”

“But I’m working on your wedding dress.”

“Never mind the wedding dress,” said Sophia impatiently. “You’ll be done in plenty of time. I’ll postpone the wedding if necessary.” 

“You’re the only one I’d trust to get the costumes ready in anything resembling good time,” said Ian to Melly. “I’ve seen professional seamstresses who don’t work half as well or as fast as you do.”

Melly wasn’t sorry to have the opportunity to set aside the finicky beading work for a time. She turned what she hoped was a professional eye over the assembled garments.

“It’s going to take more time than you have to completely alter every costume,” she told them.

“We don’t need to remake them,” said Ian. “Fortunately, this isn’t a stage show. We’re going for quick and dirty. We’ll pick costumes in the right style that basically fit each character, and then we can play with the camera angle or the positioning so that you might only need pull the extra fabric tight across the back for a quick shot. You might not even have to fully hem dresses that are too long, because we can plan on avoiding full-body shots.”

Melly was fascinated in spite of herself, and found herself caught up in costuming and design discussion with Ian in spite of herself. Sophia, losing interest, wandered off to check out how her lines in the script were shaping up.

“Better pick a dress for yourself,” she called over her shoulder to Melly. “Next thing you know, you’ll be on camera.”

“No,” said Melly, quietly but firmly. “I don’t want to act.”

As cinematic insanity descended upon the house, Melly remained quiet and competent. As a result, she was sought out as confidant of all wherever she happened to be sitting with her needle and thread. The process of filmmaking seemed to be very unsatisfying, and everyone had complaints to level. There could be no filming in the grand front rooms until after the 11 AM tour had gone through each day, so keeping schedule was important, and Joâo, now a self-styled expert on Gone With The Wind, turned out to be a perfectionist of a director, demanding take after take to capture his “vision”. Olivia was particular about the comedy, and many an actor felt that she was throwing off his own natural timing. Malcolm was a rather wooden actor. Alys laughed through every comic scene, and nothing could make her speak louder, which was maybe a boon because her southern accent was denounced by all as atrocious. Dick was out of control and kept pushing to make his scenes increasingly outrageous, and if one disapproved he got sulky and accused the critic of having no sense of humor. Alys could never get Sophia to practice any of their scenes together, so she had to spend all her time working with Malcolm. One stumbled across Ian and Sophia working on their “body language” in all corners of the house, and he was always carrying her around so as to be ready for the filming of the great staircase episode. 

Melly had run into Ian and Sophia several times over the course of the days, and each encounter left her more deeply troubled. She had been sitting in the alcove of the drawing room on a rare afternoon when it was not wanted for scenes, hoping for an undisturbed amount of time to hem a black dress in which Sophia was to dance with Ian. Her room was quiet and restful, but the beauty of the drawing room always refreshed her, and she was glad to find it silent.

She had fallen into the flow of the work — hemming wasn’t difficult, but it was monotonous, and there were yards of hem to take up — when a sound from behind the closed pocket doors to the parlor disturbed her. Someone — a pair of someones — had rustled in and pushed up against the doors. There was low laughter, and more rustling, and finally, lines.

Rhett, I really can’t go on accepting these gifts,” came Sophia’s voice, not at all bright and brisk as Scarlett’s should have been. “Though you are awfully kind.” The word “awfully” was drawn out in a way that froze Melly’s blood. 

I’m not kind,” Ian replied, softly. “I’m just tempting you.” His voice was wrong too. Rhett and Scarlett had been bantering lightly in the movie. Whatever was going on behind the parlor door was not light bantering. “I never give anything without expecting something in return. I always. Get. Paid.” The last words were punctuated by the sound of kisses, though when Sophia spoke, her voice was breathy but unobscured. Wherever Ian’s lips were, they weren’t on Sophia’s mouth.

If you think I’ll marry you just pay for the bonnet, I won’t,” she gasped. 

Don’t flatter yourself, I’m not a marrying man,” came the muffled reply.

Well, I won’t kiss you for it either.”

Melly was petrified in her seat, horrified at the thought that they might choose at any moment to open the pocket door and discover her tucked away in the alcove. But she also knew this scene, and the next line Ian spoke was not the one she expected.

And another thing. Those pantalets.” That wasn’t right. Ian was skipping back to earlier in the scene, and there was something definitely off now about the sound of his voice. It was… it was coming from too low a spot behind the door, and was almost drowned out by the whisper of fabric sussurating and shifting. “I don’t know a woman in Paris who wears pantalets anymore.” 

Suddenly Melly was certain that whatever was going on in the parlor, it needed to be stopped immediately. Without hesitation, she knocked her sewing box on the floor. It clattered noisily on the floor with an explosion of pins, needles, spools and thimbles. There were a pair of hushed but profane exclamations from the other room, and the sound of quiet steps hurrying out and down the hall.

With a sigh, she searched for a safe place to set her foot on the floor so she could start reassembling her box, and once again, she wished Ian Winter out of the house for good.

Knowing that something must be done, and knowing what must be done are very different things. Melly yearned for advice, or even just a sympathetic listener, but wisdom seemed to be in short supply in the house. She wanted the chance to speak to Malcolm privately, where no one else could see her blush and stumble through a recital of her suspicions, but he was a man of many obligations, between school meetings (for, unlike the others, these were not lazy vacation days for him), various commissions in his father’s absence, and reading lines with Alys (and occasionally Sophia). Melly could not get him entirely alone. One evening she managed to get him in a corner of the family room while the others were watching that day’s rushes, but in her embarrassment that she might be overheard she could barely form a coherent sentence.

“I was sewing in the parlor… Well, I was hemming that dress, anyway, and I heard someone in the drawing room rehearsing, but the doors were closed so I couldn’t really see, but anyway, it was Ian and Sophia, only they were so quiet that I could barely hear them, but they were rehearsing that scene with Scarlett and the bonnet, only… only the lines were in the wrong order.” She looked at him desperately, willing him to read her mind so she didn’t have to try and articulate why this was significant. “Ian skipped back and said that line about the… the pantalets, and his voice was… in the wrong place. And Sophia was…” Melly fidgeted and worried at her fingernails and cuticles, then, with an effort, looked at him. “It wasn’t right. They were… I don’t know what they were doing, but they wouldn’t have wanted to be caught.”

Malcolm listened patiently, but he was unable to make much of her vague hints and hunches.

“Melly, I can see that this bothers you, and I agree that Sophia and Ian rehearse with more enthusiasm than sense. I’ll keep an eye on them, and I promise you that if I catch them being inappropriate, I’ll put a stop to it. Okay?”

“Okay.” She had done badly; she had not made him understand; she had only made herself look hysterical. He went back over to the raucous crew on the couch, and she retreated upstairs. In the stairs hall, as she headed toward her own back corridor, she heard a voice call her name sharply, Turning, she saw Esther Davis striding down the fifty-foot length of the main hall.

“Melly! I need to talk to you for a moment! Do you know what I found in the drawing room today during the tour?”

In her hand she held something small and gleaming. Melly’s heart sank as she recognized one of her needles.

“I know you’ve been sewing in there for this video-play-whatever that the kids are doing, but you have to be more careful. One of the tourists could have stepped on this.”

“I’m sorry. I won’t let it happen again.”

“Well, I hope not, or I’ll have to speak to Cheryl about your being allowed to sew in those rooms.”

Esther turned away and headed toward the first door on the left in the main hall, the old estate owner’s office which was now where she managed the public aspects of Stillwater. Melly, seizing an opportunity she knew she would never have the courage to pursue again, followed her.

“May I talk to you in your office?” Her words tumbled out so quickly that she was afraid that Esther would ask her to repeat herself, but after her initial surprise at the request, Esther ushered her in. Melly had seldom been in this room. The imposing masculine atmosphere of old John Spencer’s former digs did little to boost her confidence. 

“Is there something I can help you with?” Esther asked briskly, seating herself behind the desk and giving Melly a look that was doubtless meant to suggest administrative cheer.

Melly stood straight and willed herself to speak more effectively than she had to Malcolm.
“It’s the Gone With The Wind video that they’re shooting. I… I don’t think it’s right. It’s not appropriate to use the house this way.” 

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t think that the video should go on YouTube. It will be bad for Stillwater’s reputation.”

Esther raised her eyebrows. “Stillwater has stood for 160 years and you worry that an internet video will harm it?”

“It doesn’t take much to damage a reputation.”

“Anyway, I understood that the boys didn’t think they were going to make it public right now. Dick told me that Jo… Olivia’s friend was going to finish editing it at Tulane.”

“Is he going to show it at Tulane?” In her anxiety, Melly had almost yelled. 

“I don’t know. Why does it matter?”

“Because… because if it’s funny people will think they ought to share it, even if they shouldn’t.”

Esther was regarding her with impatient confusion.

“I’m sure that the young man will respect the fact that he’s a guest here.” She turned dismissively to her computer, but Melly stood her ground, trembling. She had not gotten this far with Esther to back down now from voicing her concerns, however appealing that may be.

“I… I think the whole thing is wrong, even if no one ever sees the video. It’s inappropriate for Dick to play Mammy in blackface. And I think that Sophia and Ian are… are flirting more than they should. It’s… not right.”

Even as Melly spoke, she knew she sounded ridiculous. Esther was sitting back in her chair, hands clasped in front of her, appraising her with a even stare that made her cheeks and ears hot.

“You think that the Spencers are behaving inappropriately in their own house.”

“Yes,” Melly answered faintly.

“Melly, I only deal with the historical aspects of the house. I don’t run the Spencer family. I don’t have the authority to come in, even if I wanted to, and order Sophia and Dick to behave as suits me. My nieces and nephews are adults and able to make their own decisions. Their video is no concern of mine, except as it involves the state of the front rooms, and the only problem I’ve had from it has been your leaving needles there.”

Esther leaned forward, elbows on the desk, and let her irritation show a bit.

“This is not my house, and it’s not your house either, Melly. It’s nice of them to let you help a bit with the costumes, but you shouldn’t take that as license to start policing everyone’s behavior. That’s inappropriate if anything is.”

Melly did not trust herself to speak as Esther rose and opened the door for her. 

“You’ve been with us a long time, Melly, but you’re old enough and well enough now that you’re here now mainly on sufferance. Of course we all like you, but you need to remember that Stillwater belongs to the Spencers. If you disapprove of their behavior, I can’t think that the solution is that they need to make a change.”

The very force of her humiliation allowed Melly to walk calmly past the stairs and into her own service hall, past the library door to the blessed solitude of her bedroom. She closed the door behind her and simply stood, too miserable to even cry. Malcolm was overwhelmed and Mrs. Spencer was unaware and Esther Davis was unconcerned. She had no ally in the house. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

When A Middling Amount of Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing

In a long post which is mostly a review of Jim Manzi's Uncontrolled and Nate Silver's Signal and the Noise (of the two, he recommends Uncontrolled, and being three quarters of the way through it I'd certainly recommend it) Razib makes an interesting side point about the much discussed questions on polling and forecasting the recent election:
But after soft-pedaling my confidence in polling averages, why did I think the pro-Romney people were delusional? The simple answer is 2004 and 2008. When the polling runs against you consistently and persistently motivated reasoning comes out of the wood-work. There’s a particularly desperate stink to it, and I smelled it with the “polls-are-skewed” promoters of 2012. In 2004 there were many plausible arguments for why the polls underestimated John F. Kerry’s final tally. And in 2008 there were even weirder arguments for why McCain might win. In 2012 it went up to a whole new level, with a lot of the politically conservative pundit class signing on board because of desperation.
After the election was over I actually started reading some of the arguments about why the polls were skewed, and I find that they are extremely plausible to me. And not just me, John Hawks owes me a drink because he simply didn’t believe the turnout models which suggested a demographic more like 2008. The reality is that my instinct was to go with John. I too was very skeptical of the proposition that Obama could turnout the same voters as he did in 2008. And yet he did turnout those voters!
What struck me as interesting here is that Razib essentially made a choice to stick with one basic but fairly well established thing that he knew (averages of large numbers of polls are pretty good at predicting elections) and knowing that he wasn't going to be a true expert in all the mitigating factors which might cause one to question that rule, chose simply not to look at all the argumentation and to stick with his one basic piece of knowledge. Looking at the situation after the fact, he found that indeed the arguments put forward against the basic rule were in fact fairly convincing, but this just served to reinforce his judgement that he had not been in a position to correctly weigh the merits of counterarguments to the basic rule.

This is really interesting from a more general point of view, and I think it underscores some of the pitfalls of having a middling amount of knowledge about a subject. If our knowledge of a topic is basic, and we know it's basic, and so all we do is apply and well agreed upon rules, it's likely that at the very least we won't embarrass ourselves by coming up with something way outside the mainstream. The point when we often get into trouble is when we study a topic a bit more and start to think we know enough to get creative and know when things won't behave in the way that the most basic rules would suggest. It's at this middling stage of knowledge that we're likely to make big mistakes and make them with excessive confidence.

The Minimum Wage and Race

Over at Cafe Hayek, Don Booudreaux posts an extended quote from David Henderson's book The Joy of Freedom dealing with the ulterior motives that were involved in raising the national minimum wage in the 50s and 60s:
“Forty years ago, the politicians who pushed for the increased minimum wage did not hide their motives. Nor, in an era of state-sanctioned segregation, did they feel the need to hide their knowledge of who the intended victims of minimum-wage legislation would be. In a 1957 Senate hearing, minimum-wage advocate Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who just four years later would be President of the United States, stated,
Of course, having on the market a rather large source of cheap labor depresses wages outside of that group, too – the wages of the white worker who has to compete. And when an employer can substitute a colored worker at a lower wage – and there are, as you pointed out, these hundreds of thousands looking for decent work – it affects the whole wage structure of an area, doesn’t it?
“The witness he was addressing, Mr. Clarence Mitchell, then director of the Washington Bureau of the NAACP replied,
I certainly think that is why the Southern picture is as it is today on the wage matters, that there is a constant threat that if the white people don’t accept the low wages that are being paid to them, some Negroes will come in [to] work for a lower wage. Of course, you feel it then up in Connecticut and Massachusetts, because various enterprising people decide to take their plants out of your states and take them down to the areas of cheap labor.
(The quotations from Kennedy, Mitchell, and Javits are from U.S. Senate, Labor and Public Welfare Committee Proposals to Extend Coverage of Minimum Wage Protection, Hearings before the Subcommittee on Labor, 85th Congress, 1st session, March 20, 1957, p. 856)
One of the things which people often forget in discussing setting minimum wage levels is that when people are forbidden from using cost as a means of determining who to hire, they necessarily fall back on other reasons for choosing which in many cases may actually prove to be less savory: influence, preferment, race, etc.

Stillwater - 18

Later that evening, Melly sat in her little room, trying to work out in her mind what it was she found so alarming about the impending project. She thought of her quiet, reserved uncle and of his love for peace and order. She considered how she would feel if Stillwater were her house and someone had, without her permission, shot a movie in it and posted it for the world to see. She thought about Sophia playing Scarlett to Ian’s Rhett, and her brow furrowed with worry. Of course there was nothing wrong in itself with putting on a show — she still remembered when Richard and Cheryl had taken everyone to Baton Rouge to see Les Miserables when it had come through the River Center. She had cried from the moment the curtain went up, and had lived on dreams of the show for days afterwards. So why were Ian Winter and Sophia different from the actors playing Marius and Cosette? Those actors had been professional, for one thing. It was their job to kiss on stage —  it wasn’t personal.

But even non-professional actors kissed on stage. Olivia had played Ado Annie in Oklahoma in high school, and she’d had to kiss a guy. That wasn’t strange, either. It wasn’t as if it were Olivia up there. She had been in character, and so had the guy who’d played Will Parker. She hadn’t even liked him — he was dating the girl who played Aunt Eller, and they hung all over each other backstage, according to Olivia. So, they had been in character, and had always rehearsed the kiss with a director and stage-manager and other actors around, in the appropriate place for rehearsing, which had been the theater. It wasn’t like they went around practicing kissing in someone’s home.

But people could put on plays at home. Malcolm had gone to Shakespeare readings in living rooms. He had read Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. She remembered him reading some of the speeches and the dialogue to her. That had not seemed odd, even when he was saying, “I do love nothing in the world so much as you.” She had liked to hear it, of course, but she knew it was not directed at her. Malcolm was acting out the speeches, but his dramatic reading was much like playing a game.

That was it. The plays she’d seen, the movies she’d watched, were like games from which the actors could walk away. And Ian and Sophia were playing such a deep game, without any oversight or direction, that Melly wondered if they would be able to walk away from it when the time came.

There was a knock on her door, and Malcolm called, “Melly? May I come in?”

Melly was instantly flustered. Malcolm in her room! She jumped off her bed and glanced wildly around. Was anything out of place? She fluffed her pillow and patted the quilt straight. Was she presentable? Dashing to her mirror, she quickly smoothed her hair and checked her teeth, and then, fearing that she’d made him wait too long, she stepped to the door, took a deep breath, and opened it as graciously as she could.

Malcolm had not had occasion to be in Melly’s room for some years. In essentials, it hadn’t changed much since then. She had opted this evening not to turn on the bare light bulb in the fan dropping from the ceiling medallion, instead preferring the warmer light of her lamps and the sconces over the fireplace, which had been wired for electricity around the same time as the fan was installed. Several worn carpets, again rescued from the attic, covered the boards of the cold floor. The faded velvet drapes were pulled shut against the coolness of the March night, and their lush texture and length gave the room a cozier atmosphere than its shabbiness warranted. His eye was caught by a sudden glow and shimmer from the curtains, and he stepped over to see what had caused it.

“Melly, did you bead the curtains?” he asked, half amused, half admiring.

She flushed. “I needed to practice on a heavy fabric. Mrs. Spencer said it was okay.”

He had to smile at her anxious face. “Melly, you don’t need anyone’s approval to make changes in your room. This is your space.” He looked at the walls. The plaster was still cracked and and the ornate moldings were in need of repair. The paint — doubtless old enough to be lead-based, though Malcolm couldn’t recall right now how that was dangerous — was peeling, though the walls had been brushed free of flakes as much as possible and several old pictures from the attic had been hung over the worst spots. 

“We should have these walls repaired and painted. I’ll call the workmen after we get rid of the Spring Break crowd.”

“Can I…” Melly’s hazel eyes were bright with repressed anticipation. “May I pick the color?”

“Of course! Go to town. It’s your room.”

He sat in the wooden chair by her desk and looked about him. By rights the room should have felt stark and impoverished, yet Melly had put her own mark on it over the last four years. It was as neat and organized as Melly herself, but there was a certain exuberance and warmth that she rarely displayed in public. The quilt on her bed was pieced from squares on which she’d practiced various embroidery techniques. Her bookshelf was full to overflowing with volumes she’d collected or been given over the years, and in front of the tightly packed books, knickknacks and mementos stood guard. On every surface were framed photographs — various members of her family, the family all together in several attitudes and settings, Rene and Melly at the Stillwater Fellowship Ball, her parents in a cheap studio shot. The Spencers were well-represented as well, perhaps out of proportion to their regard for her. There were several of each family member. He glanced casually across them, looking to see which ones she had of him. Here he was at seminary, there he was with Dick, Sophia, and Olivia at some Christmas, and there was even a shot of him sitting on the spiral stairs in the light of the stained glass window. He remembered that one — Olivia had taken it when her craze for photography had first manifested. There was also one on her bedside table, and by shifting his position a little, he could see that it was a photo of himself and Rene at the last Ball, each wearing a tuxedo and raising a glass with glee.

Melly had seated herself on her bed and was regarding him in her characteristic way with a mixture of curiosity and anticipation. 

“What do you think of this movie business, Melly?” Malcolm asked her, coming at once to the point.
Melly could have preferred to discuss any subject but that. 

“I wish it wasn’t happening,” she said, with little animation. “It’s not a good idea, and nothing good will come of it.”

“I agree. Dick is too impulsive — he jumps on any stupid idea that enters his head. I don’t think there’s any way he can be talked down from this project.”

“What about your mother? Could she say anything to him?” Melly knew it was a ridiculous question even before she asked it. 

“I wish she had any influence over Dick, but that ship sailed a long time ago, I think. I don’t think he would hear anything she’d have to say, even if she could be bothered to say it.”

 “What do you plan to do?”

“Well,” he said slowly, “that’s why I want to talk to you. Everyone has been asking me to play Ashley in the scenes. Do you think I ought to?”

“No,” she answered promptly, then blushed at having spoken out so quickly.

“Well, I’m glad that you have such a definite answer,” he said, after waiting a moment for her to elaborate. “But could you give me some reasons?”

“I… I think that it would be a good example to the others, if you didn’t take part in something you thought wasn’t right.”

“And yet that’s not going to stop them from doing it.”

“No,” she said slowly, “but… but you can only be responsible for your own behavior.”

“That’s true. So what would I be doing? Playing Ashley? That’s fine so far as it goes. Ashley’s known for being a gentleman.”

“He’s known for being weak.”

Malcolm acknowledged this with a nod.

“There’s also the matter of them wanting to post the finished video on YouTube,” he said.

Melly felt on firmer ground with this.

“You can’t let them do that!” she exclaimed, surprising him with her intensity. “For one thing, what would your father think? His house on the internet for everyone to see, without his permission, and shown in a way that is almost designed to offend and hurt him! And Malcolm,” she rose in agitation and moved to the end of the bed to sit near him and make her point more emphatically, “you have to think about the effect it will have on starting the school. How will it be when you’re trying to start a school for a predominantly black group of students, and then someone finds out that a Gone With The Wind parody was shot at your house, with your brother playing Mammy — in blackface? It’s… it’s appalling! It can only damage your reputation, and embarrass your father.”

“You’re exactly right.” Malcolm leaned toward her urgently. “That’s the thing. I don’t have any influence over Dick and the rest of them right now, because I’m keeping aloof from the project. They only see me as trying to obstruct. They won’t listen if I tell them not to put it on the internet. But if I get involved, if I show good will by taking the part of Ashley, then I have a stake in the whole thing, and my vote carries more weight. Do you see what I mean?”

“Maybe,” said Melly, full of doubt. “But…”

“But what?”

“But Dick will feel like he’s won. You were so serious about not joining in that in reversing your decision, you might lose moral authority instead of gaining it.”

“I suppose it will be an exercise in humility to have Dick crow over me, though it’s not like Chris would be a better influence on the group.” He got up and paced over to the window by the fireplace, looking out toward the cottages. “And think of poor Alys Winter, having to play Chris’s wife!” He smiled at Melly, who looked grave on the bed. “You know you wouldn’t want to do it yourself.”

“I suppose anyone would rather play your wife than Chris’s,” Melly said without thinking.

“See! I thought you would agree with me there.”

“There, yes,” said Melly, alarmed, “but…”

“And she’s been so sweet to you — much nicer than Sophia and Olivia, that’s for sure. I hate to have her feel uncomfortable with Chris, especially when she’s a guest here.”

“She’s a paying guest,” said Melly almost sharply, rising and pacing to the other windows. She pushed aside the velvet curtain and looked out, pressing her forehead to the cool glass so he wouldn’t see her face. She had never had a disagreement with Malcolm before, had never known him to make less than admirable choices, and it was highly unsettling. Compounding her frustration was the thought that this new and eminently human side of him seemed to be evoked by Alys Winter. If it weren’t for her sake, would Malcolm even be thinking about appeasing Dick, of all people? 

“Melly, I can tell you don’t like the idea.” Malcolm knit his brows. It was unusual enough for Melly to be at odds with him on any topic that he suddenly realized he had come here to ask her opinion only to hear her support his own. He left the window and crossed out from around the bed to where she stood at the tall window. “You know I respect your judgment. If you really think it’s so wrong…”

“Malcolm, I…” She could not look at him. It was difficult to disappoint him, and yet it was hard that this decision should be pushed on to her. But then, she reflected, how many times have I felt secure in a decision because he approved of it? She had always trusted him to help her make the right choices. Now her judgment must be correct for his sake. “I.. I can’t think it’s the right thing to do.”

He had grown so used to her approval that even this mild resistance gave her an air of unfamiliarity. He studied her as she stood at the window, turned half away from him. There was nothing different about her. She wasn’t wearing her hair differently, he didn’t think; it was still as long and straight and dark as always, and very thick. She was no taller than usual — well, a bit taller, actually; he must have been thinking of her as she’d been at fifteen, hunched and scrawny and ill. She wasn’t scrawny any more, and she didn’t seem sick; her face seemed to have a healthy glow right now. Actually, she looked rather nice. He wondered that he’d never seen it before. It was wrong of him to keep treating her like she was a little girl. He should consult with her instead of demanding validation.

“Can you think of a better idea?” he asked quietly.

“No,” she murmured, and her dark lashes seemed wet with tears. “I can’t, right now. But I don’t like it.”

“Neither do I, but the only way I can think of to rein Dick in is to join up with him and manage him from the inside.”

Melly was silent. Malcolm was resolved not to push her any more tonight; she looked tired and distraught. He squeezed her shoulder.

“Good night then, Melly. Get some rest. ‘Tomorrow is another day’, right?”

She gave him a quiet solemn look that stripped his jest of any humor and turned it against him as a reproach. He made a hasty exit. 

Melly moved slowly to her bed and sat down. The tears she had been trying to restrain in Malcolm’s presence trickled down her cheeks unheeded. The spectacle of Malcolm trying to justify himself to her was disheartening, and she grieved for her friend and his abandoned ideals. If he, who was so strong, could yield so easily to temptation, how could there be any hope for her, weak as she was? What support could she count on if she were pressured to act as well by Dick or Sophia or, worse, Malcolm? She curled up miserably in bed and reached under her pillow for her rosary, clutching it as a lifeline and whispering her tearful Hail Marys with the pitiful cadence of a young child moaning for help.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Should We Expect Catholics to Agree?

The Feast of Christ the King which we celebrated today is of fairly recent origin. It was established in 1925 by Pope Pius XI and moved to its current place on the last Sunday of the church calendar in 1969 by Paul VI. The feast was instituted as a counterbalance to the rising secularism of the 20th century. In the encyclical Quas Primas, in which he declared the feast, Pius XI begins by summing up the challenge of secularism and his promise to counter it:
We remember saying that these manifold evils in the world were due to the fact that the majority of men had thrust Jesus Christ and his holy law out of their lives; that these had no place either in private affairs or in politics: and we said further, that as long as individuals and states refused to submit to the rule of our Savior, there would be no really hopeful prospect of a lasting peace among nations. Men must look for the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ; and that We promised to do as far as lay in Our power.

This emphasis on Christ as ruler, intentionally set in contrast to civil secularism, reminded me of something that had me thinking in the wake of the election. A number of posts that I read lamented the extent to which Catholics had been divided by the election. This post over at Catholic Moral Theology was one which I had saved on a link to on that theme:
The most significant question for me today has nothing to do with who won the election or what will happen on the American scene now. The most significant question for me is, what will we do as a church? We are fortunate to live in the US, but American politics is not our final goal toward which we are working. What can be said about a vitriolic election in which Catholics fought against Catholics – in which Catholics came down very keenly split across political parties?

I have been so sad (perhaps even distraught) about the ways in which I have seen the church divided against itself this election season. That only harms us – because when we are divided, we cannot very well witness Christ to other people.
In this election, we lined up and chose sides, based on American ideologies and not Catholic doctrine. In public discourse, it seemed we were either FOR the “Nuns on the Bus” or FOR the “bishops”. We began election arguments by deciding that “those” people are not the truly pure Catholics, and therefore we don’t have to listen to their arguments.
Now, maybe I'm just a very cynical person, but it generally does not surprise me when Catholics end up on both sides of a partisan divide. There are a few issues on which one could at least hope that Catholics would speak with one voice: abortion, persecution of the Church, etc. But on most political issues it strikes me as unsurprising that Catholics would be as divided as other people because the issues at stake are not ones which the faith can answer for us in some definitive fashion.

When it comes to helping the poor, do work requirement help people rise out of poverty or are they yet another indignity heaped upon those requiring public assistance?

What is the right balance between reforming entitlements and increasing taxes?

Is Wagner Act-style unionism a solution to the low wages of service sector workers, or would it simply drive up prices and unemployment?

Is raising the minimum wage or using negative income tax-like tools such as the Earned Income Tax Credit a better way to help low wage workers?

Does the pay given to executives constitute "stealing" from those who make less, or it is a legitimate profit for the services rendered?

How much of a person's health care expenses is it reasonable to expect a person to pay himself, assuming that he able to afford the cost?

Would a given set of environmental regulations actually improve the environment enough to be worth the cost?

These are questions on which people in full agreement on the moral teachings of the Church could strongly disagree. How one rules on these questions relies not on teachings on faith and morals but rather on how one believes the nation and the economy to work, and where one believes the balance should be struck between the duties of the individual and the duties of society. Why, then, should we expect that Catholics should not be as divided on these kind of issues as any other group of people? As Catholics, we may share moral principles, but we certainly cannot expect to all share the same views as to how the economy works. Thus, I can hardly see it as a scandal that Catholics are divided on many of the same issues that divide the rest of the country.

Thinking on all this, I was curious as to what issues in particular, if any, Pius XI spoke about in relation to the proclamation of the Feast of Christ the King. It turns out, they are mostly what we today would call "religious issues", particularly the anti-clericalism which was so often a feature of the secular regimes that were on the rise at that time in had been traditionally Catholic countries:
24. If We ordain that the whole Catholic world shall revere Christ as King, We shall minister to the need of the present day, and at the same time provide an excellent remedy for the plague which now infects society. We refer to the plague of anti-clericalism, its errors and impious activities. This evil spirit, as you are well aware, Venerable Brethren, has not come into being in one day; it has long lurked beneath the surface. The empire of Christ over all nations was rejected. The right which the Church has from Christ himself, to teach mankind, to make laws, to govern peoples in all that pertains to their eternal salvation, that right was denied. Then gradually the religion of Christ came to be likened to false religions and to be placed ignominiously on the same level with them. It was then put under the power of the state and tolerated more or less at the whim of princes and rulers. Some men went even further, and wished to set up in the place of God's religion a natural religion consisting in some instinctive affection of the heart. There were even some nations who thought they could dispense with God, and that their religion should consist in impiety and the neglect of God. The rebellion of individuals and states against the authority of Christ has produced deplorable consequences. We lamented these in the Encyclical Ubi arcano; we lament them today: the seeds of discord sown far and wide; those bitter enmities and rivalries between nations, which still hinder so much the cause of peace; that insatiable greed which is so often hidden under a pretense of public spirit and patriotism, and gives rise to so many private quarrels; a blind and immoderate selfishness, making men seek nothing but their own comfort and advantage, and measure everything by these; no peace in the home, because men have forgotten or neglect their duty; the unity and stability of the family undermined; society in a word, shaken to its foundations and on the way to ruin. We firmly hope, however, that the feast of the Kingship of Christ, which in future will be yearly observed, may hasten the return of society to our loving Savior. It would be the duty of Catholics to do all they can to bring about this happy result. Many of these, however, have neither the station in society nor the authority which should belong to those who bear the torch of truth. This state of things may perhaps be attributed to a certain slowness and timidity in good people, who are reluctant to engage in conflict or oppose but a weak resistance; thus the enemies of the Church become bolder in their attacks. But if the faithful were generally to understand that it behooves them ever to fight courageously under the banner of Christ their King, then, fired with apostolic zeal, they would strive to win over to their Lord those hearts that are bitter and estranged from him, and would valiantly defend his rights.

25. Moreover, the annual and universal celebration of the feast of the Kingship of Christ will draw attention to the evils which anticlericalism has brought upon society in drawing men away from Christ, and will also do much to remedy them. While nations insult the beloved name of our Redeemer by suppressing all mention of it in their conferences and parliaments, we must all the more loudly proclaim his kingly dignity and power, all the more universally affirm his rights.
Opposing the repression of the Church is, at least, something which one would imagine all Catholics could agree upon. Viva Cristo Rey!

Stillwater - 17



Part Three: The Scenes


The Winters had been at Stillwater for several weeks when Ian decided to fly back to New York for a few days. Like most of his travel decisions, it was made impulsively. He was under no obligation to mention it to anyone, with the consequence that neither Sophia or Olivia factored his absence into their plans. When they both decided to come down again that weekend, they found Stillwater unaccountably dull and frustrating. Olivia spent Friday night moping around the house, wandering morosely from room to room. Eventually she flopped next to Melly on the couch where she was patiently beading a dense and intricate pattern of swirls along the hem of Sophia’s wedding dress.

“Everything is dead here this weekend,” she complained. “I’m going back to Tulane tomorrow — I can’t believe I actually thought about missing the photography club party to spend quality time with my brothers and sister. Dick is stupid and Malcolm is boring and Sophia’s such a bitch. How do you put up with her all the time? I’d go insane.”

“Sophia isn’t usually here,” said Melly, carefully tying a knot before starting on the next bead. “She only comes down lately so she can keep up with the wedding planning.”

“Wedding planning, bull,” scoffed Olivia. “She comes down here because she wants to flirt with Ian. I’d be embarrassed to throw myself at a man that obviously. Not like it matters — she’s engaged, so of course she thinks she can do whatever she wants. I don’t know why Chris puts up with it, except that he’s so dumb he can’t talk about anything but football and renovations on his old house. I mean, nice guy and all, but can you imagine being married to him?”

“No,” said Melly, relieved to have an opportunity of stating a completely uncontroversial sentiment to which no one could possibly object or press her to elaborate. “No, I can’t imagine that.”

Sophia was not as obliging as Olivia, who only griped at Melly. Rather, she took out her irritation on everyone at Stillwater, and especially on Chris, who’d decided to come down with her.  Chris was not a man of action on the weekends. He was perfectly content to watch the full spectrum of Saturday sports and commentary, and if his mind ranged to wider topics or was laden with many cares, he was at no pains to dispel any impression he might give of being completely shallow. He was rich and hot (everyone said so) and he was accommodating, and originally that had been enough for Sophia to consider him a fair prize to dangle at clubs and parties. But as the engagement wore on, it began to dawn on her that she going to have to spend more than just social time with Chris. Sure, they lived together now, but there was no real commitment in that — she could get out for weekends with her friends or trips to Stillwater as often as she wanted. Being required to ride with him to Hazelwood when she wanted to go with the Stillwater group, and play hostess when she had no interest in doing so, had brought home to her that not only could she make demands of Chris, but that the time was coming when he would make demands of her (legitimate demands, she acknowledged in her more self-aware moments). And she didn’t know if she wanted to be under any kind of obligation to Chris.

Olivia went back to college on Saturday morning and Sophia wanted to leave as well.

“Come on, Chris,” she ordered, striding into the family room. “I’ve packed up all my stuff, so we can go any time.”

Chris was settling down on the couch with Dick in front of ESPN and had no inclination to budge.

“I thought you wanted to stay for dinner at least,” he said, “but we can go after the game if you want.”

“After the game?” She was scornful. “I don’t want to wait around here all that time. Let’s go.”

Chris didn’t pay any attention to her. He and Dick were busy placing bets on the final score of the game. Dick won more often than Chris did, but Chris was always convinced that next time was the big time.

Sophia found that she needed to change up her tactics. Snuggling on the couch next to him, she affected to watch for a moment, and then said, “We could be so much more cozy watching the game at home. Let’s just run home. We’ll be there in less than an hour — you probably won’t even miss the game, just the pre-game stuff.”

Chris shook her off. “I let you do your stuff, honey. This is my stuff. Go shopping or something. Talk to your mom. Do some girl stuff. I’m watching the game.”

Sophia pushed off the couch, sullen, and stalked to the door.

“You always used to go on about how you wanted a woman to treat like a princess,” she tossed back at him as she went out.

“Make it up you later, honey,” Chris said, eyes on the screen. “Don’t forget that this trip was your idea anyway. Now hush up.”

Olivia’s spring break was in late March. She had made plans, several months ago, to take a senior trip with friends to Florida, but now she made her excuses and chose to come home and spend the entire week at Stillwater. As a pretense, she brought with her a friend from college who was studying photography and had expressed, at some point, a desire to see the plantation and capture it on film. This fellow was an exchange student from Brazil with the impossible name of Joâo Azevedo. He was an amiable addition to the group — his English was passable, his comprehension the same, and he was not inclined to take offense at the bungling American attempts to pronounce his first name. Olivia just called him “Joe”, and so did Dick. Sophia never called him by name if she could help it. Alys gave her best approximation, which wasn’t too bad, and Malcolm and Melly thought it easier to say “Mr. Azevedo”. Only Ian got it right the first time, and every time.

On the first Friday evening of the break, everyone was gathered down in the basement family room, even Sophia, who did not plan to let Olivia monopolize Ian for a week. There was a sense of anticipation in the air. Everyone felt the freedom of the nine days ahead, and everyone felt the need to be doing, to take some project in hand.

“Let’s take a road trip,” suggested Dick, pacing around the room in his usual antic way, all his other ideas having been shot down by his more practical siblings. “We could go to New Orleans. I have a friend who’s got an apartment in the Garden District, and I bet he’d let us all crash on his floor.”

“Oh yeah, no sanitary concerns there,” said Sophia. “Why don’t we just sleep in a dump?” She was at the table, leaning over Ian’s chair, her hair brushing his cheek, looking at a collection of large black and white prints Joâo’s and Olivia had spread out over the table. Ian was listening to Joâo talk about his recent videography classes, interjecting, from time to time, some professional advice and telling anecdotes about his own various film projects. Melly, at her constant beading in the rocking chair near the latticed windows, noticed that his hand would occasionally brush Sophia’s as they picked up the various prints to study.

“Y’all ought to stay here,” said Cheryl from the couch, where she was watching TV with Pugsy. “Don’t go off and leave me here by myself when Daddy’s out of the country.”

“Melly could stay here with you. She won’t mind.”

“You could stay here, Dick, and let the rest of us go,” called Malcolm from his spot next to Alys on the loveseat near Melly’s rocking chair. “Any New Orleans trip that includes you always involves spending exorbitant amounts of money.”

“Come on, I wouldn’t expect you to bail me out again.”

“I would like very much to take some photos of Stillwater while I am here,” said Joâo. “Or maybe to make a short film. I have shot some videos before. The house, Stillwater, is very dramatic. It has potential.”

“Oh, hell yeah!” said Dick, instantly involved. “We need to make a movie. Ian and Joe can direct it, and the rest of us can be the cast. How about it?”

“That would be awesome,” said Olivia, leaning across the table in excitement. “You’ve got lots of experience, Ian. You could teach Joe about shooting short movies.”

“But what would the movie be about?” Ian asked in amusement.

“Let’s do a slasher!” offered Dick. “I could be a serial killer who breaks into this old house and stalks his victims room by room.”

“Fake blood is a pain to work with,” Ian cautioned. “And it can ruin your clothes and your furniture.”

“Dick, don’t make a big mess,” said Cheryl mildly.

“You wouldn’t have to show the blood,” Dick countered. “You could do some crazy things with camera angles.”

“No,” said Sophia.

“Okay, then. Zombies.”


“Let’s make something funny,” said Olivia. “Something fun we can put up on YouTube. We could go viral.”

“You want to put Stillwater on YouTube?” said Malcolm. “Absolutely not. What would Dad say? He’d have a heart attack.”

“Don’t y’all do anything Daddy wouldn’t like,” said Cheryl, reaching for the remote.

“You’re getting ahead of yourself anyway,” Alys said lightly. “Before you put a movie on YouTube, you first have to have a movie.”

“Let’s ask the expert,” said Olivia. “What would you suggest, Ian?”

“Well,” said Ian, “you only have a week, give or take, to shoot the scenes, and after that you have to edit them. You should do something fairly low-tech. Special effects take time.”

“Let’s do something like those College Humor videos,” said Dick. “They’re short. How about a sketch about vampires?”

“You have such a one-track mind,” said Sophia in disgust.

“Let’s do a spoof,” said Olivia.

“Of what, though?” asked Ian.

“I would love to use the light in the big rooms upstairs,” said Joâo. “Maybe a play by Shakespeare would be nice.”

“I’m not going to spend all week doing Shakespeare,” Dick stated flatly.

Alys proposed a fake movie trailer. Joâo desired to film something epic. Dick demanded humor. Various schemes were proffered, criticized, and rejected, and the liberty of being entirely free to choose one’s own amusement was quickly passing into the discontent of anarchy.

Cheryl had listened placidly to all the discussion. Now she gathered up her little pug preparatory to heading upstairs. “Y’all should do scenes from Gone With the Wind with all those antebellum dresses in the attic.”

At the very name of the movie, Dick, Sophia, and Olivia uttered a Pavlovian groan.

“Mom,” said Dick, rolling his eyes. “Gone With The Wind is like eighty years old. No one under fifty watches it.”

“Except us,” said Olivia. “We’ve all seen it at least once a year for the past twenty years.”

 “It comes on TV all the time,” said Cheryl. “Everybody’s seen it. People would like it.” Pausing at the doorway, she looked over the room of dubious faces. “I would like it.”

With that, she went upstairs.

Joâo was confused. “I do not think that I know the Gone With The Wind. What is it?”

“A famous movie. It’s an American thing,” Olivia said.

“It’s a Southern thing,” said Alys archly.

“Mom is obsessed with it,” explained Dick.

Ian felt that the demands of politeness required that he at least entertain the suggestion of the hostess. “Well, that would fit with the various costumes in the attic. And you wouldn’t really need that many people for it. Rhett and Scarlett, Ashley and Melanie…” He laughed. “I call Rhett!”

Dick decided to play along. “I call Mammy!”

“Dick, You can’t be Mammy,” said Malcolm.

“Yes I can,” Dick countered. “I could do it in blackface. It would totally awesome.”

“It would be totally offensive.”

“Perhaps,” said Ian, “it would be a… a commentary on race and prejudice.”

Alys laughed. “Gone With The Wind is, what? Four hours? Five hours? You can’t just remake it.”

But Ian was warming to the idea. “What you do is, you make an extended preview. You get some good scenes in for each character, play them perfectly straight, and then suddenly throw in this bizarre twist: Mammy in blackface! From there it can keep building up to be more and more absurd.”

“So, okay,” said Alys. “What iconic scenes do you have to have for a Gone With The Wind parody?”

“The staircase scene, obviously,” said Sophia.

“Scarlett slaps Rhett,” said Olivia

“Scarlett slaps Prissy,” said Dick. “And then Prissy’s head explodes.”

“Who’s going to be Prissy?” asked Ian.

“Me!” said Dick. “I’ll play Mammy and Prissy. That can be ironic somehow.”

Everyone was getting into the spirit of the thing. Sophia struck a dramatic pose, raised her clenched fist, and declaimed, “As God is my witness, as God is my witness…”

Olivia chimed in. “…I'll never be hungry again! If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill…”

“Or whore…,” said Dick.

“Or commit mail fraud…,” said Alys.

“Or sell junk bonds…,” said Ian.

There was general hilarity.

“Mammy shows Rhett her red petticoat!” Dick howled. “Then she does a striptease!”

“Dick.” Malcolm was growing irritated with him. “Tone it down. I don’t want anything to do with any project which sends you into full idiocy mode for a week.”

Dick had an opportunity to channel his surplus energy a moment later when he, Ian, Sophia, Olivia, and Joâo made a foray up to the attic to bring down various articles of clothing. A blessed quiet descended upon the room. Melly felt a temporary relief. Maybe the first excitement of the undertaking would spend itself out in playing dress-up.

“What do you think of the movie plan?” Alys asked Malcolm. “You don’t seem as enthusiastic as everyone else.”

“I don’t like it, no,” he replied. “I don’t think my father would want videos of Stillwater on YouTube. He values his privacy and his house. And the whole premise is a bad idea, and I’m pretty sure he would find it offensive. I find it offensive. I mean, Dick in blackface?”

Alys tried to look serious, but her lips were quivering with suppressed laughter. “You don’t think it’s funny at all?”

“Something doesn’t stop being inappropriate just because it’s funny,” said Malcolm.

“They don’t have to put it up on YouTube,” said Alys reasonably. “That way we can have the fun of the project, and no one has to be offended.”

Malcolm was not convinced, but he let the subject drop.

The others retuned, bantering and laughing, with their arms full of suits and gowns and petticoats. The table was soon loaded with piles of wool and satin and crinoline, and Alys went over to inspect and admire the lot. Ian soon found a white suit that seemed made for Rhett Butler. He held it up against himself and cocked an eyebrow.

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” He mimicked Clark Gable perfectly, and received his applause with a cool bow.

“We’ve got our Rhett, so now we need Scarlett.” Dick was burrowing through the clothes looking for a Mammy suit. “Obviously it can’t be Alys. You girls are going to have to audition for it, and Ian can pick out his leading lady. Olivia, get in a costume and give us something.”

Olivia seized a dress from and wrestled it over her head, getting stuck in the layers. She yelped.
“Melly! Help me with this thing. I don’t know where any of the openings are.”

Melly obligingly set her work aside and crossed to help Olivia. The dress was all confused, but she persevered in straightening it out and assisted Olivia in getting it settled over her t-shirt and jeans. Olivia tucked her sleeves up as well she could, and then pulled out three chairs and set them in a row.

“Here, swains,” she summoned Ian and Joâo. “Sit in the outside chairs and look adoring.”

Joâo and Ian took their places, Ian looking appropriately soppy and Joâo, puzzled, trying to mimic him. Olivia sashayed to the center seat, settled herself coyly, and gave each of the boys a slyly demure look. Alys snorted.

“Fiddle-dee-dee!” she said in a goofy approximation of Vivien Leigh’s English-tinged southern accent, tossing her head and wriggling in her chair. “War, war, war; I get so bored I could scream. If either of you boys says ‘war’ one more time…”

Ian took his cue. “War!”

Olivia flounced off a few steps, turned, threw the boys one more demure smile, and resumed her seat.

“War!” Ian pushed.

Olivia smiled brilliantly at him and, unexpectedly, uttered a piercing shriek. Joâo gave an echoing shriek in surprise and then politely applauded her performance. Ian and Dick howled and pounded each other on the back, and Alys was giggling with Malcolm on the loveseat. Even Melly, behind the table, couldn’t help smiling. Olivia had a comic streak.

“That was pretty good!” Dick pronounced. “Sophia, you’re going to have to do pretty well to beat that.”

“Was it good? I missed it,” answered Sophia, entering the room. She had gone out to the big hall to change into her dress, and now she paused in the doorway in a daring dress that slid off her shoulders. She held it closed behind her back in a manner intended to enhance the already decollete effect of the neckline. Heads turned.

Sophia enjoyed her effect for a moment, then ordered, “Melly, come zip me up.”

Melly walked slowly to the far side of the room. She didn’t like this move of Sophia’s. Olivia had been caught up in the fun spirit of the moment, but Sophia was, as always, more calculating. As Melly pulled the zipper up carefully she realized that Sophia had not rolled up her clothes under the dress, but taken them off.

The fastened dress fitted tautly over Sophia’s bare body, and as she moved toward Ian she was evidently very aware of the fact. She crossed up to him, took his hands, cast a smoldering glance up at him through lowered lashes, and murmured, “Ashley, oh, Ashley!”

Ian met her direct gaze, then let his eyes drop briefly down to take in the glories of the dress . “Well, you’re already in character,” he said at last. “But you’re addressing the wrong gentleman.”

“You, sir, are no gentleman.”

“And you, Miss, are no lady.”

Olivia disapproved. “Come on, Sophia, stop fooling around. Try acting a little. We’re supposed to be doing something funny.”

Sophia was no comedian, but she gave it a game shot. She minced toward Melly, took her arm and, glancing at Ian, said with exaggerated confidentiality, ”He looks as if he knows what I look like without my shimmy.”

With that, she made her exit to the hall. Ian was looking after her with an expression which indicated to Melly that whether or not he knew what Sophia looked like without her shimmy, he certainly knew that she hadn’t been wearing one.

While Sophia was out of the room, it was Dick’s turn to try a few scenes. Olivia obligingly slapped him as he played Prissy, and the two of them made hash of Mammy making Scarlett eat before the barbeque. When Sophia entered again, fully dressed (once more Melly had been called upon to help with the zipper, a task she was finding increasingly distasteful), it was time for Ian to make his casting decision.

He struck a dramatic pose, thumbs behind his imaginary suspenders. Sophia and Olivia were both regarding him expectantly, the latter with eagerness, the former with a bold complacency. Olivia was in doubt as to Ian’s choice; Sophia was not. Ian, a master politician, stepped back and regarded the sisters, then turned to Olivia.

“I think you’re probably the funniest actress in the room,” he said easily. She glowed. “I don’t know if there’s any way that I could watch you play Scarlett and keep from cracking up. I couldn’t say my own lines without laughing at your expression. You need a better straight man than me to make your talents shine.”

Olivia wavered, undecided whether she was being praised or slighted.

“You can be Melly Wilkes,” Sophia offered, making an effort not to bask too obviously in her triumph. Her satisfied attitude was not lost on Olivia, and she flushed angrily. Before she could say anything, however, Dick shot that idea down.

““You think Scarlett is too serious for Olivia, so she should play Melly?” he exclaimed. “I think Alys is the only one here who can carry off Melly. Olivia can play…” He rapidly reviewed the movie in his mind. “…She can play Aunt Pittypat. She’s pretty funny. I’d play her myself if I didn’t already have two characters to keep track of.”

This effort at conciliation left Olivia cold, but she didn’t intend to make herself ridiculous in front of everyone by looking like she cared too much about her role.

“I don’t see that we need Aunt Pittypat at all — there’s too many other scenes to cover with throwing her in for distraction,” she said sharply. “I might just help Joe with the camera work. I’m sure he’d appreciate working with someone at least mildly competent.”

Ian could see that she was offended, but before he could decide on the best way to proceed, Dick, tying his head up in a big kerchief, was moving on to other casting decisions. “So Alys will play Melly Wilkes, then.”

Alys seemed pleased at the idea, but she hesitated before accepting. “Perhaps Melly should play her namesake. Wouldn’t that be appropriate?”

This was a suggestion that surprised everyone, and all eyes turned to Melly for her answer. Melly was appalled at the very idea of any expecting her to act in the parody.

“I can’t act,” she protested, hoping that her sorry performance now would convince everyone. “I’m no good at it. I’d ruin the part. No.” She could tell that everyone felt she was over-reacting to a polite question, and her agitation rose.

“You’re mistaken about the namesake,” said Malcolm, who could see how awkward Melly felt about being scrutinized and wanted to shift the attention of the room. “Melly’s name is Melusine, not Melanie.”

“That’s beautiful,” said Alys. “I’ve never heard it before. I guess there’s no connection between Melly and Melly Wilkes, then, except that they’re both perfect ladies.”

Dick didn’t have any time for names or ladies. “So do you want to play Melly, Alys?”

“I’d love to,” she responded. “But who will be Ashley?”

“Malcolm, of course.”

“Wait a minute,” Malcolm protested. “I don’t even know if I want to be part of this whole scheme. For one thing, I don’t know that you, Dick, need any encouragement to be more offensive than you normally are. For another, I don’t care for the project itself. You’re going to make a mockery of Mom’s favorite movie, in Dad’s house, and put it on YouTube without his approval? I don’t like it at all. Pick something else to film.”

“There’s nothing sacred about Gone With The Wind,” said Dick indignantly. “Anyway, it’s dated. Why shouldn’t we mock it? It’s chock full of prejudice and stereotypes.”

“Oh, and you’re going to show up all the stereotypes by playing Mammy in blackface?”

“Exactly!” Ian was proof against this objection. “What could be better? Performing in blackface has always been a sort of tribute to black actors and musicians, an acknowledgment that there was a certain kind of humor that they had perfected. And by showing Scarlett being rude and domineering to a white man, even though in blackface, we show how repulsively selfish her racial attitudes are. It’s completely ironic.”

Malcolm hesitated, looking first to Melly for support, and then over the group. “Can’t one of you do it?”

“Who?” Dick demanded. “Shall we pull another man out of thin air?”

“There’s always Chris,” Sophia drawled. “I’m sure he’d be happy to play Ashley, though I can’t guarantee his acting skills.”

Alys was less than thrilled at the idea of playing Melly to Chris Dalton’s Ashley. “I’m sure that would work out. I’d want to be kind of particular about which scenes he and I do, in that case. He is your fiance and all.”

“Oh, I don’t care.” Sophia brushed off any claim on Chris’s person or actions. “I’m not jealous.”

“Let’s not get Chris involved,” Dick groaned. “Come on, Malcolm, don’t be lame. It’s not like we’re shooting a porno or something. I mean, Gone With The Wind has themes and all. And whatever ironic point we’re trying to make will be completely lost if Chris plays any of the roles.”

“Then do something less ironic.” Malcolm had made up his mind. “I don’t want part of it.”

Alys stood up. “I’m exhausted. Let’s keep on planning in the morning — maybe we can find a good compromise in the morning.”

“Way to go,” Dick muttered to Malcolm as the Winters left. “It’s one thing to bore our family by being all narrow-minded — after all, we’re used to it — but I didn’t think it was part of your old-fashioned code of chivalry to make ladies uncomfortable.”

“I think it’s ironic that you’re appealing to chivalry when you’re asking me to play, ironically, the stereotype of a Southern gentleman.”

“Don’t be academic, Malcolm,” said Olivia. “We’re not dealing with the abstract here. I mean, we’re talking about Chris.”