Monday, April 12, 2010

Whose Design is it Anyway?

One of my favorite poems is a deceptive sonnet by Robert Frost called “Design.” In the poem, Frost describes the coincidental combination of a white flower, a white spider, and an unfortunate moth, which is eaten by the spider. The jaunty tone and pacing of the poem belie these facts: (1) that it is written in a traditional poetic form, the Petrarchan sonnet, and (2) that Frost uses this tiny but violent natural accident to question the order, divine or otherwise, of the whole universe. In fact, the poem concludes with two devastating questions:

“What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?--
If design govern in a thing so small.

“Design” caused the famous critic Lionel Trilling to call Robert Frost “a terrifying poet,” and Trilling was right. Frost is saying in these lines that if there is a God, then He is a mean SOB. And if there isn’t a Power in charge, we have only violent chaos in all creation.

All of which leads to me to my haircut today (I know, some of you are thinking that it’s always about the dude’s haircut). Thanks to a valuable Great Clips coupon and a skilled technician named Natalie, I received the best $7.99 haircut a man can get in Modesto. At around 12:15PM, Natalie, whose own bleached-blonde hair stands at attention on the top of her head, was wrapping up her work on me, and I heard on the shop’s stereo someone request that Hawk 104.1 play “Hell’s Bells” by AC/DC. As I waited for the guitar riff to follow the chiming bells in the song’s intro, I saw in the mirror that the young woman who had been getting a haircut on the opposite side of the shop was now piling her own hair into a ball on the back of her head. She was (is) a person of the German Baptist persuasion, and she soon had fitted her cap on to her hair. All the while Brian Johnson warbled his incomprehensible song lyrics.

And I sat stunned by the Monday confluence of these incongruities.

What, after all, brought me to that Great Clips during the Hawk’s All-Request Lunch Hour? I have never heard the Hawk on the Great Clips radio. It’s usually tuned to something much more contemporary. Nor have I ever seen a German Baptist woman get her hair cut at a “salon.” Was it luck that Natalie was the available stylist when I walked in? Or that I just entered the shop before several other customers?

By the way, I know it could be that none of this matters, and yet I choose to believe that there is poetry in the world—by Design.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Something's Rotten in this Ham-let

I want to apologize to my loyal readers for the following piece. It’s not really funny at all. I have put on my op-ed hat for this one because I’m sick of what’s going on at my alma mater, CSU Stanislaus. Thanks for your patience. I’ll get back to the silliness soon.

If you live in the San Joaquin Valley or the greater central valley of California, then it is likely you have heard about the plan to bring former Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin to the Turlock campus of California State University, Stanislaus for a fundraising dinner/speech. Predictably, the announcement of Palin’s visit immediately sparked a veritable “firestorm of controversy.”

Palin probably has a great deal of supporters in the mostly conservative valley, and tickets are reportedly selling briskly, but students, faculty, and many alumni are disgusted that the institution would associate itself with a politician known mostly for her lack of intelligence and knowledge and her disregard for education. Protesting Palin is all well and good, but she is not really the most significant part of this hullaballoo. The hullaballoo is important because it is shedding some light on the shady dealings of CSUS President Ham Shirvani and his cronies.

Though Mrs. Palin’s appearance is part of the CSUS 50th-anniversary celebration and the event will be held on campus, the event’s sponsoring organization, the CSUS Foundation, contends that the fundraiser is not an actual University activity. The Foundation, we’re told, is not a University group, though its chair is named Ham Shirvani. And even though the gala event is labeled a fundraiser, the foundation’s president and spokesperson, Matt Swanson, has so far declined to name any purpose for the funds raised by Palin’s appearance.

The Foundation, in fact, refuses to reveal any financial information, other than the price of a ticket ($500) to the gala celebration. State Senator Leland Lee wants to know the terms of the Foundation’s contract with Palin, but the Foundation has said, “It’s none of your damn business.” The Foundation calls itself a private “auxiliary” group, or a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, which means its financial dealings are not subject to public scrutiny or regulation. Now, I know that all charitable or non-profit organizations are required to follow some disclosure rules, but the point here is that the Foundation is the “CSUS” Foundation and it operates under the direction of Ham Shirvani. So, the Foundation raises money, perhaps lots of it, ostensibly for the University, but only one University official (yes, I know there’s one faculty and one student representative on the board) controls the direction of this money. Frankly, it smells like a good, old-fashioned slush fund.

Is it possible that Shirvani only uses this money good and not evil? I suppose so, but his ham-fisted governance of the University and his mismanagement of official funds suggest that a thorough investigation of the Foundation’s finances would show that the Foundation brings little actual benefit to students and faculty. The Foundation, for instance, has not prevented the cancelation of much-needed general education classes, such as Freshman Composition, and the Foundation certainly won’t pledge any of the Palin proceeds toward instructional costs.

Unfortunately, there won’t be any pressure from the local press for any investigation into the Shirvani slush fund because the Modesto Bee has its editorial head thrust into a very dark place. In a recent editorial, the Bee cast the Palin debate in terms of free speech and academic freedom—which was misleading and just plain bogus. Mrs. Palin, we are discovering, is a businessperson, and her appearance is simply a business deal. Senator Yee would like the terms of the deal to be more transparent. And while I applaud his efforts, the transparence needs to be much broader than Sarah Palin’s compensation. Ham Shirvani now has three spokespeople, if you don’t the Bee’s editors: two who are on the CSUS payroll and Matt Swanson of the Foundation. Two of these spokespeople should quit, and the other one should tell students, faculty, alumni, and the community the truth.