Thursday, August 16, 2012

Demand an Education

Dear Students,

I am genuinely sorry I can’t take more of you in my class and that more class sections aren’t available.

This is almost entirely because the legislature won’t budget enough money for community colleges because of decades of tax cuts for wealthy individuals and large businesses.

In the past, California colleges used to be tuition free and our educated population led to California’s past booming aviation, electronics, and computer industries, and general wealth.

We could have that again.

You can actually do a couple of things to change things and help yourself:

  • Register to vote and vote based on what you need as a student.
  • Contact your state legislators and tell them to pass budget and tax legislation that makes it easier for you to go to college, complete your education, and become a contributing member of society. You can find out who they are and their contact information at
  • Vote YES on Proposition 30 this November, which will restore some education funding.
  • Encourage your friends and family members to do the same.
Frederick Douglass said,

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.

Those with power will not make your education a priority again until you demand it.

I hope to see you in my class in future semesters.

Michael J. Dixon
English Instructor
Ventura College

Monday, February 13, 2012

King & Klass


Print, mark up, and bring to class.

Find and write answers with page and paragraph numbers for each article:

o   3-5 functions of movies
o   What other kinds of literature could their ideas apply to and how?
o   What other works of literature have performed three of these functions for you (could be all in one work or three different works)
o   Do you disagree with any of their points?  If so, which and why?
o   Does literature serve any purposes beyond those King and Klass talk about?

1.     I think that we’re all mentally ill; those of us outside the asylums only hide it a little better – and maybe not all that much better, after all. We’ve all known people who talk to themselves, people who sometimes squinch their faces into horrible grimaces when they believe no one is watching, people who have some hysterical fear – of snakes, the dark, the tight place, the long drop . . . and, of course, those final worms and grubs that are waiting so patiently underground.When we pay our four or five bucks and seat ourselves at tenth-row center in a theater showing a horror movie, we are daring the nightmare.

2.     Why?

3.     Some of the reasons are simple and obvious. To show that we can, that we are not afraid, that we can ride this roller coaster. Which is not to say that a really good horror movie may not surprise a scream out of us at some point, the way we may scream when the roller coaster twists through a complete 360 or plows through a lake at the bottom of the drop. And horror movies, like roller coasters, have always been the special province of the young; by the time one turns 40 or 50, one’s appetite for double twists or 360-degree loops may be considerably depleted.

4.     We also go to re-establish our feelings of essential normality; the horror movie is innately conservative, even reactionary. Freda Jackson as the horrible melting woman in Die, Monster, Die! confirms for us that no matter how far we may be removed from the beauty of a Robert Redford or a Diana Ross, we are still light-years from true ugliness.

5.     And we go to have fun.

6.     Ah, but this is where the ground starts to slope away, isn’t it? Because this is a very peculiar sort of fun, indeed. The fun comes from seeing others menaced – sometimes killed. One critic has suggested that if pro football has become the voyeur’s version of combat, then the horror film has become the modern version of the public lynching.

7.     It is true that the mythic “fairy-tale” horror film intends to take away the shades of grey . . . . It urges us to put away our more civilized and adult penchant for analysis and to become children again, seeing things in pure blacks and whites. It may be that horror movies provide psychic relief on this level because this invitation to lapse into simplicity, irrationality and even outright madness is extended so rarely. We are told we may allow our emotions a free rein . . . or no rein at all.

8.     If we are all insane, then sanity becomes a matter of degree. If your insanity leads you to carve up women like Jack the Ripper or the Cleveland Torso Murderer, we clap you away in the funny farm (but neither of those two amateur-night surgeons was ever caught, heh-heh-heh); if, on the other hand,  your insanity leads you only to talk to yourself when you’re under stress or to pick your nose on your morning bus, then you are left alone to go about your business . . . though it is doubtful that you will ever be invited to the best parties.

9.     The potential lyncher is in almost all of us (excluding saints, past and present; but then, most saints have been crazy in their own ways), and every now and then, he has to be let loose to scream and roll around in the grass. Our emotions and our fears form their own body, and we recognize that it demands its own exercise to maintain proper muscle tone. Certain of these emotional muscles are accepted – even exalted – in civilized society; they are, of course, the emotions that tend to maintain the status quo of civilization itself. Love, friendship, loyalty, kindness -- these are all the emotions that we applaud, emotions that have been immortalized in the couplets of Hallmark cards and in the verses (I don’t dare call it poetry) of Leonard Nimoy.

10.   When we exhibit these emotions, society showers us with positive reinforcement; we learn this even before we get out of diapers. When, as children, we hug our rotten little puke of a sister and give her a kiss, all the aunts and uncles smile and twit and cry, “Isn’t he the sweetest little thing?” Such coveted treats as chocolate-covered graham crackers often follow. But if we deliberately slam the rotten little puke of a sister’s fingers in the door, sanctions follow – angry remonstrance from parents, aunts and uncles; instead of a chocolate-covered graham cracker, a spanking.

11.   But anticivilization emotions don’t go away, and they demand periodic exercise. We have such “sick” jokes as, “What’s the difference between a truckload of bowling balls and a truckload of dead babies?” (You can’t unload a truckload of bowling balls with a pitchfork . . . a joke, by the way, that I heard originally from a ten-year-old.) Such a joke may surprise a laugh or a grin out of us even as we recoil, a possibility that confirms the thesis: If we share a brotherhood of man, then we also share an insanity of man. None of which is intended as a defense of either the sick joke or insanity but merely as an explanation of why the best horror films, like the best fairy tales, manage to be reactionary, anarchistic, and revolutionary all at the same time.

12.   The mythic horror movie, like the sick joke, has a dirty job to do. It deliberately appeals to all that is worst in us. It is morbidity unchained, our most base instincts let free, our nastiest fantasies realized . . . and it all happens, fittingly enough, in the dark. For those reasons, good liberals often shy away from horror films. For myself, I like to see the most aggressive of them – Dawn of the Dead, for instance – as lifting a trap door in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath.

13.   Why bother? Because it keeps them from getting out, man. It keeps them down there and me up here. It was Lennon and McCartney who said that all you need is love, and I would agree with that.

14.   As long as you keep the gators fed.

By Perri Klass

1.     Last summer, people worried about whether the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park were too frightening for children. This summer, some may look at The Lion King and wonder if the death of the father lion is too traumatic.

2.     In the first case, the worry was that brilliant special effects would leave children frightened of animals they know do not really walk the Earth; in the second, that a well-told story would have children identifying with an animated lion cub and his grief and guilt over the loss of his father.

3.     In The Lion King, which opens today, Mufasa, the king of beasts, is trampled in a wildebeest stampede as he saves his little cub, Simba. Mufasa's evil brother, Scar, who provoked the stampede to kill his brother and take over the lion kingdom, convinces Simba that he killed his father. The distraught cub leaves home, nearly dies and wanders the veldt until he grows up enough to return and challenge his usurping uncle.

4.     Many reviewers have specifically noted the potentially frightening aspects of the movie. Janet Maslin, writing in The New York Times, referred to "Mufasa's disturbing on-screen death" and wondered if the film "really warranted a G rating."

5.     Terrence Rafferty, writing in The New Yorker, said the film dredged up "deep-seated insecurities and terrors."Richard Corliss, in Time magazine, said, "Get ready to explain to the kids why a good father should die violently and why a child should have to witness the death."And Variety pointed to "scenes of truly terrifying animal-kingdom violence that should cause parents to think twice before bringing along the Little Mermaid set."

6.     The world is full of adults who think that the death of Bambi's mother is too upsetting for small children. Too sad. Too scary. There will be parents who feel that The Lion King may be too upsetting for children, too; a movie about lions is a little, well, redder in tooth and claw than a movie about a deer.

7.     I myself tend to worry more about human villains, both in real life and at the movies.

8.     By my standards, Snow White is the much more upsetting movie. There is nothing in The Lion King that can compare to a wicked queen who wants to kill her stepdaughter for being too beautiful or to a huntsman ordered to kill the girl and cut her heart out. And for that matter, are two lions fighting for control as scary as Cruella De Vil, who, in 101 Dalmatians, wants to kill the puppies and make them into coats?

9.     Do we really want to protect our children from being saddened or scared or even upset by movies - or by books? Do we want to eliminate surprise, reversal, tragedy, conflict and leave children with stories in which they can be smugly confident that the good will always be rewarded and the bad always punished?

10.   Children don't have to sit through Friday the 13th at a tender age, but neither do they need an unending diet of wholesomely bland entertainment. A child who is worried, truly worried, about the outcome of a book is a child who is learning to understand what pulls someone into literature, and in fact it is a triumph that in an age of special effects and interactive videos, words on a page still have the power to move children.

11.   Similarly, in an age when cartoons and live action films are full of bang-'em-on-the-head violence that has no true dramatic impact, this is a movie in which a noble character dies and is truly mourned.

12.   And when we talk about children made sad by a movie, we are talking about children being moved by things that are not really happening to real people, and that is what art and drama and literature are all about. Those children are recognizing a character and feeling for that character, and that is a giant step toward empathy.

13.   Maria Tatar, professor of German studies at Harvard and the author of Off With Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood, points out that stories and folk tales have always offered children a way to consider and even control death and other difficult and forbidden topics. "Kids can handle almost anything if they're authorized to see it, talk about it," she says. "They're much smarter than we give them credit for."

14.   Barry Zuckerman, chairman of the department of pediatrics at Boston City Hospital and an expert on child development, agrees that these stories offer children an opportunity to master troubling issues. "It's not bad for children to be exposed to stressful things. They can cope by having a parent available, so they can cuddle up to a parent who provides safety and security."

15.   And if a child responds to The Lion King on some level that is deeper and more intense than a pow-pow Saturday morning cartoon, that is because the people who made this movie are trying for something more complex here, and children know it.

16.   What there is in The Lion King, along with sometimes breathtaking animation and well-cast voices, is an interesting mix of Hamlet, Bambi and The Jungle Book, all shot through with some contemporary sensibility about men who can't grow up.

17.   Yes, the father dies. And there is a stampede, which is some kind of heroic triumph of animation. But the stampede is not so much scary as it is inexorable, an animal-world event, even if it is provoked by the evil uncle and his hyena henchmen.

18.   Yes, the cub is tortured by guilt, thinking that he started the wildebeests running and is therefore responsible for his father's death. But even small children will have no trouble identifying whose fault it really is; Jeremy Irons gives the evil uncle, Scar, a personality worthy of the long and distinguished line of Disney cartoon villains. And cartoon villains have always had a certain license to be evil, just because they are not real people, and children can see that they are not.

19.   It all comes down to what is real and what is not-real, which can admittedly be a complex question for children. A few months ago my 4-year-old daughter, Josephine, was going to her first opera. Her opera-loving but perhaps overambitious father prepared her as carefully as possible, playing his favorite recording of La Traviata, a little each day, explaining the story, showing her a photograph of Maria Callas, and teaching Josephine to listen for her voice of voices.

20.   Toward the end of the week, I came into the living room to find Josephine sobbing hysterically on the couch, with the music blaring and her father looking flummoxed.

21.   Why was she crying? "Because Maria Callas is dying!" she wailed. And it was hard to know exactly how to comfort her; when her father told her that no, Callas was just playing the part of a woman who was dying, Josephine promptly asked, "So Maria Callas did not die?" Then, of course, he had to explain that as a matter of fact she was dead - and Josephine was in tears again.

22.   She was eventually comforted, and went on to enjoy the opera tremendously, probably because Maria Callas did not die in our local production.

23.   Are there some children, maybe children under 4, who could be too upset by this movie? Probably.

24.   Will I take Josephine, my own 4-year-old? Certainly, and I would have taken her a year ago. The bad guys get it most satisfactorily in the end, and none of the sweet, cute, funny little fellows get hurt - the bird Zazu is actually endowed with cartoon invulnerability and can emerge unscathed from a lion's mouth or a boiling pot.

25.   Children may be made sad by the film, as their parents certainly will be, and they may find the villains scary, but they will also be interested and amused and involved, and that, after all, is the point of art.

26.   Some children may make it through the death of Mufasa, and then fall apart at the final apocalyptic battle between lions and hyenas, which goes on a little too long for the just-keep-your-eyes-closed crowd (the ones who were traumatized by the wolves in Beauty and the Beast).

27.   If you do have a child who identifies too completely with Bambi or Simba, you can practice some reassurances, just to see how they feel. Then decide which you would be more comfortable saying: "Darling, I promise, there are no bad men with guns," or "Darling, I promise, there won't be a wildebeest stampede."

Perri Klass is a pediatrician in Boston. Her most recent book is Baby Doctor.