About Me

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After 35 years in public education as a university administrator and a high school English teacher, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalists awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Hiding fromthe Virus: Living the New Normal

It’s Day 14 of our lockdown in the Château Lake San Marcos retirement community. None of our 140 residents have been diagnosed with COVID 19.

Yesterday, according Public Health Services, there were 341 cases and two deaths reported in San Diego County, including 3 cases in San Marcos, 15 in Carlsbad, 12 in Encinitas, 8 in Oceanside, 7 in Escondido, and 5 in Vista.

We pass our time cocooning with the same daily schedule we had before the virus got here.

Awakening at 5 AM, we watch the morning news, beginning with BBC America, since our son lives in London with his wife and our 13-year-old granddaughter. Thanks to our weekly Skype video calls, we stay connected with them during their own lockdown.

BBC America has also become our favorite channel to maintain our mental health. Yesterday morning we watched the weekly meeting of the House of Commons, called Questions to the Prime Minister, when Boris Johnson was called upon by members of Parliament to answer questions about his government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.

The questions from members of Parliament were the same as those we hear in President Trump’s press briefings. Why are there shortages of personal protective equipment for hospital medical staff? What will be done to help low income families survive the hardship of unemployment? All questions accused the Prime Minister’s government of doing too little too late.

While the subject matter was the same as ours, the civility was not. Unlike press briefings, the questions to the Prime Minister are presided over by the Speaker of the House of Commons, who gives permission to a member to ask a question upon rising from their seat. The questions address the Prime Minister in the third person, not directly, as “Can the Prime Minister tell us why the government is not responding to the crisis quickly enough?” The PM’s reply is phrased accordingly. “The Honorable Member apparently doesn’t know about the many steps we’ve taken.”

Compare that to the response to a polite question NBC White House correspondent Peter Alexander asked President Trump at his recent press briefing. “What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?” Trump’s response? “I say that you’re a terrible reporter.” Those press briefings have brought us more anger and anxiety than information, so we’ve stopped watching them.

After breakfast it’s on to our respective writing projects, Karen is working on another novel, as well as planning how she can transform an earlier one into a short musical play, suitable for production with a cast chosen from our retirement community neighbors.

At 11:30 we call the dining room with our lunch order. Within about 30 minutes, our server will arrive, pounding on the door before placing on our doorstep the bagful of disposable, recyclable containers carrying our food, fresh from the oven. The server doesn’t wait around for a thank you, but races off to maintain the social distancing required of employees.

Following lunch it’s time for a 30-minute nap, after which we reserve ten minutes to meditate, employing our virtual personal assistant, giving the command, “Alexa! Sound ocean waves.”

After meditation we take the first of our two 15-minute daily walks around the grounds, calling out, “Hi, how are you?” to others seeking fresh air and exercise, putting lots of distance between us.

After our walk we practice singing the songs we plan to perform in our 3:00 daily guitar-accompanied duet from our opened front door.

Late afternoons are reserved for sipping a glass of wine, while watching mourning doves and finches fight over the seeds in our platform feeders, as hummingbirds compete for the crimson nectar in their feeder, just a few feet away.

We can watch the avian action through the glass doors to our patio from the comfort of our couch, while we enjoy Netflix and Amazon Prime Video streaming films. A few days ago we treated ourselves to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Seeing Tracy and Hepburn in action was comfort food for our spirits.

So, all is well with us, here in our COVID-19 cocoon. We appreciate the free room service, choosing from a splendidly varied daily menu. Yesterday we had chicken cordon bleu for lunch, our main meal each day. The day before, we enjoyed the blackened salmon. I'm not kidding. The food here is that good.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Coping with COVID-19: Cocooning in Our Own Chateau


Two days before the pandemic was declared, we received a warning from the executive director of our 55+ senior community. The Château’s salad bar would be closed during meals. Seating in the dining hall would be limited. Two days later we found the second notice, a critical update after the pandemic was declared, taped to our front door.

The dining room has now been closed, and will remain so for at least 30 days. We may order our breakfast, lunch and dinner by telephone. Meals, packed in disposable boxes, will be carried to our front doors. Servers will not be permitted to enter our units or come within six feet of us upon delivery. It is “highly recommended” that we “limit outside guests or other visitors.” We are urged to “minimize all contact with non-residents.”

Karen and I are strongly supportive of these measures, impressed by the chateau’s management from the time our executive director announced his plan at last month’s HOA Board Meeting. We have friends and relatives within an hour’s drive of one of the nation’s coronavirus epicenters, a rest home in Washington state. We are both of an age to worry about the virus, Karen even more so because of her asthma.

You might say we have been quarantined, but we choose to call it cocooned. Quarantined is such an ugly word, implying isolation as punishment. But when I found this definition of cocooning, a “retreat from the stressful conditions of public life into the cozy private world of the family,” that seemed a better fit for this place, which has become our family.

Karen, my eternal optimist and history lover was reminded of her parents experience during the depression. Here’s what she wrote in a letter to our Chateau friends, who’ve become our family.

My mother told me often about that grim day, Monday, October 29, 1929, when the stock market crashed.

"Your father threw open the front door, grabbed me around the waist, kissed my lips hard, gave me a wink, and said, “Pearl, we’ve lost everything but five dollars. Let’s go to the movies and out to dinner.”

Mother was stunned. She said, “But Walter, then we won’t have anything!”

Daddy said, “We’ll have each other, and we’ll figure things out. Come on! Let’s go…I’m hungry for some popcorn!”

Four hours later, Mother and Daddy sat down at the kitchen table (my family’s command center for heavy talks) with paper and pencils, and worked on numbers and ideas to keep them alive. Their list follows.

Laughter

Shoulders back

Head up

Sense of humor

Walks in the fresh air

Inner strength

Love

Hope

Laughter

Helping others

Stone Soup

Yes, my mother really made Stone Soup and she was proud of her recipe: Find small “just right” stone in yard, drop small stone into pot, heat water in pot, gather anything edible you can find in garden or lawn, and toss into pot. Add salt, pepper, and any other seasoning you may have. (A small slice of garlic adds a wonderful taste). And, of course, if you are lucky enough to have leftovers in the ice box, add them to pot. Simmer for 4 minutes. Dress dinner table with cloth, candles and tree greens.  Dress self in bright, happy clothes and a smile, and call family to dinner.

Mother also served bowls of stone soup during World War II. By then I was old enough to help gather the ingredients and take my turn to proudly find “just the right stone” for the soup.

Stay well and live.

Fortunately, Karen and I are both writers. While we remain cocooned here we will fill our days with writing, taking walks in the fresh air, and singing together. As movie buffs we will stay entertained with Netflix and Amazon Prime Video streaming films. I guess you could say that’s our own stone soup.

Friday, February 14, 2020

The San Marcos City Planning Men's Club


All three male members of the San Marcos Planning Commission whose two-year terms expired in December were reappointed by the mayor and city council in January. The only woman on the seven-member commission, Wendy Matthews, was also reappointed.

There are no term limits for commissioners, allowing for the growth of the good old boys network. Kevin Norris begins his eleventh year on the council, while Bruce Minnery stepped down after eleven and a half years.

Five women were among the twelve new applicants who failed to win a seat on the commission. Filling vacancies with incumbents was a missed opportunity for the city to bring gender balance to the commission.

Here are a few of the qualifications of the women applicants who were passed over.

--A real estate and business attorney

--A marketing and strategic operations manager

--A local business owner

There are also only three women on the fifteen-member San Marcos Creekside Specific Plan Oversight Committee.

Given the scarcity of women on city planning groups, it’s ironic that the five individuals appointing its members, the mayor and city council, outnumber men, three to two.

San Marcos is not alone in North County in its male-dominated city planning. There are no women on the five-member Encinitas commission, one woman on Escondido’s seven-member group, and two of seven commissioners in Vista.

Carlsbad is the lone exception, with four women out of seven.

The San Marcos city website explains, “The planning commission is responsible for evaluating and making determinations on a variety of land use matters for both long-range and short-range planning.”

Given the importance of the city’s land use decisions, adding women would make the commission more representative of the 96,847 residents, the majority of whom are female.

According to the 2018 U.S. Census estimates, the tally of city household ownership shows, while 61% of all city households are owner occupied, 45% of women own the homes they live in, compared to 38% of men.

Research in the business world suggests having more women involved in group planning can improve the value of its decision making.

In a September 21, 2017 article in the business magazine Forbes, (New Research: Diversity + Inclusion = Better Decision Making At Work), Erik Larson, the founder and CEO of Cloverpop, a leadership consulting firm, writes, “According to the research, teams outperform individual decision makers 66% of the time, and decision making improves as team diversity increases. Compared to individual decision makers, all-male teams make better business decisions 58% of the time, while gender diverse teams do so 73% of the time.”

In my fifteen years as a university administrator, I learned how diversity on campus committees reduces groupthink, where the loudest voices, rather than the best decisions, can carry the day.

The need for more inclusive representation and better decision making suggest it's time for term limits on the San Marcos Planning Commission.

Monday, February 3, 2020

What Patrick Mahomes and I Have in Common


As I watched 24-year-old Kansas City Chief’s quarterback speaking to the press about his team’s miracle come-back to win the Super Bowl last night, hearing commentators remarking on his achievement at such a young age, I was reminded of my own youthful rise.

Unlike Mahomes, of course, I did not have the size or talent to achieve my dream of a career in professional basketball. No matter how many pushups I did daily to get stronger, no matter how many times I hung by my arms from overhead playground bars to make me taller, I could not grow to match my dreams.

As kids, my older brother and I participated in pickup basketball games, where I would be the last one chosen, called “Little Riehl,” after my older brother, “Big Riehl” got the call to join the team.

But what I don’t have in common with Mahome’s athletic ability, I do share with him in achievements at an early age, beginning with skipping the fifth grade. That didn’t turn out well, since I missed everything about fractions.

Being the youngest in each grade through high school had its challenges, including some bullying in my first year in junior high school, where my father had just been appointed principal.

I’ve have been unusually young in every job I took. My first salaried position, upon graduating from college at 21, was as head basketball coach at Sequim High School on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. I was only three or four years older than my players. That was brought to my attention on one occasion when a school janitor where we were scheduled to play an away game, looked at me and said, “I can’t open the door to the gym until your coach arrives.”

When I was appointed Director of admissions at Western Washington University at the tender age of 28, I encountered the same misunderstandings from admissions applicants and their parents visiting campus. When I greeted them in my office they often thanked me for talking to them, but asked if they could speak to the director.

Okay, I’m no Patrick Mahomes, even though I, too, found myself in positions often reserved for older individuals. What separates us is not only his athletic ability. It’s the respect he gets from his older teammates, showing his extraordinary leadership skills.

That’s an achievement I can only envy and admire.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Enrollment Mismanagement Plagues Palomar College


After a campus visit, a state-funded agency, the Fiscal Crisis Management Assistant Team (FCMAT) issued its November 8, 2019 report, describing Palomar College’s financial position and management practices. The news wasn’t good.

The report gave the school’s Fiscal Health Risk Analysis a 44.5% rating, indicating its probability of insolvency in the near future. According to FCMAT, in two years the school will have drained all its reserves, forcing it to borrow $6.5 million from an external source to stay solvent.

Here’s but a sample of what FCMAT found.

--The college has not provided clearly written and articulated budget assumptions, supporting revisions, to the board at least quarterly.

--After eight years in the position, the chief business officer has recently been “separated from the office.” An interim appointment has been assigned.

--The managers and staff responsible for the college’s human resources, payroll and budgets do not meet regularly to discuss issues and improve processes. With no formal documentation in meeting minutes to show communication about the personnel budget, one board member says the report reveals the offices are not on speaking terms.

--The college does not have a comprehensive enrollment management plan. Enrollment projections and assumptions are not based on historical data, demographic trend analysis, high school enrollments, and community participation rates. They’re based only on goals developed in master plans using prior year actuals as a baseline.

In a December 18, 2019 San Diego Union Tribune article, Palomar College Puts President on Paid Administrative Leave, Paul Sisson writes: “Craig Thompson, president of the faculty senate, said opening satellite campuses in Fallbrook and Rancho Bernardo simultaneously put too large a drain on resources. Thompson said a decision to increase hiring, which brought 40 additional teachers onto Palomar’s rolls last year, contributed to faculty dissatisfaction with Blake’s leadership.”

Not long after Oside News published my November 16, 2019 article, Palomar College President Not Ready for Prime Time, I discovered The Palomar Files: Candid News about Palomar College, a campus blog with postings from two faculty members: the English Department’s Dr. Rocco Versaci and the Math Department’s Professor Shannon Lienhart.

The credibility of these two can be measured by their combined 50 years of teaching at the college and the stellar ratings they get from their students, which can be found at ratemyprofessors.com.

In his post, Finding the Leak, Dr. Versaci graphed the college’s total revenues and expenditures over the last several years, pointing to 2017-18, the year the college opened its two educational centers in Fallbrook and Rancho Bernardo, when expenditures began to surpass revenues. He writes, "Using these short-term revenues, the district made long-term expenditure decisions based not on data, but on hope. Despite the fact that there was plenty of evidence that the District’s enrollment goals were not being realized, the expenditures continued to increase unabated as though the temporary fixes would continue indefinitely."

In her post, A Half-Truth is Not the Truth, Professor Lienhart writes, “Three months after Palomar College President Joi Blake opened the North and South Education Centers simultaneously, the school issued a news release, declaring, ‘Enrollments are up across Palomar Community College District, as fall semester numbers exceed expectations at Fallbrook’s North Education Center and the South Education Center in Rancho Bernardo.’ 

“The numbers, however, tell a different story. Enrollment was predicted to grow by 7% in the year after centers were opened. But instead of growing enrollment, the college suffered a 1% decrease that year.”

It’s hard to believe Palomar College has no comprehensive enrollment management plan. I don’t know much about school finance, but I learned a lot about enrollment management from my 14 years of experience at Indiana State University and Cal State San Marcos, where responsibility for enrollment planning and management was in my job description. My enrollment management teams included representatives from the faculty, as well as the offices of business and student affairs. My goal was to keep the campus community informed of enrollment projections and our success or failure in meeting our targets.

At its December 17, 2019 meeting, Palomar’s Governing Board received a call from California Community Colleges Chancellor Elois Ortiz Oakley, who informed them that the worst case scenario for dealing with the school’s financial crisis would be for the Community College Board of Governors to assign a special trustee to oversee the college’s operations, replacing Palomar’s board until the college regained solvency.

Would the three of the five board members who’ve supported President Blake’s administration see the irony in that?

Stay tuned.

Friday, January 17, 2020

How California Rates Schools: Color Me Blue

Twenty years ago the California State Legislature passed the Public Schools Accountability Act, leading to the creation of an Academic Performance Index. Each year, every public school was to be assigned an API score, ranging from 200 to 1000, to measure its success. Proficiency in English and Math, based on standardized test scores, were the primary measures of a school’s API.

The goal of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, passed by Congress, was for all school children to become proficient in English and Math by 2014.

After the failure of both of these well-intentioned efforts, the California State Board of Education has teamed up with the California Department of Education to launch still another plan to measure the quality of public schools.

School ratings have been expanded to include absenteeism/suspension, graduation rate, college/career readiness, and English Learner Progress. The California School Dashboard and System of Support uses a rainbow of colors to show student progress in each of those areas.

The ratings begin at the top with blue, followed by green, yellow, orange, and red. Colors are assigned for the entire school, as well as for each subgroup of students by ethnicity, socioeconomically disadvantaged, disabled, and English learners. A group with fewer than 30 students is colored gray.

In a December 12 article in the San Diego Union Tribune (Annual state ratings assign colors for how schools, student groups performed in several categories), Kristen Taketa writes, “Some critics of the dashboard said it’s harder to compare school performance because there isn’t a single, summative rating. Steve Green, director of assessment, accountability and evaluation in the San Diego county office of education, said the dashboard helps people see an overall picture of a school, just as a doctor looks at more than a patient’s blood pressure when evaluating how healthy they are.”

That got me to thinking about how my primary doctor, might use those same colors, rather than lab reports with strange sounding names, to rate my condition.

Judging from the numbers I’ve seen after past checkups, here’s my own assessment: After years in the orange to yellow zone, my Cholesterol, thanks to Lipitor, has risen to a healthier green. I’ll assign green to my eyesight, too, with the help of reading glasses. I’m most thankful that my weight and blood pressure have both remained in solid blue.

Now, if I could only persuade Kaiser Permanente to give me yearly color-coded reports, I’m sure it would help me feel better about myself and spur me on to even bluer well-being.

And that appears to be the goal of the California Dashboard, to make students and their schools feel better about themselves. But let’s be real. We know the meaning of those colors. They match the A-F grading system. Students know that, too. Let’s take a look at the California Dashboard’s College/Career Readiness category for the San Marcos Unified School District.

There are 21,000 students, from kindergarten through adult, enrolled in San Marcos schools. Thirty-nine percent are classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged, either qualifying for free or reduced cost meals, or they have parents or guardians without high school diplomas. The Dashboard has assigned this group to Orange, a grade of “D” for being prepared for college or a career.

Getting away from the single-score API is a good thing. But replacing it with color coding student groups and the school overall hides the reality that student success in the classroom can largely be predicted by groups  what happens to them before they enter the classroom.

Rather than coming up with new ways to judge schools, it’s time to recognize that schools alone will never be able to leave no child behind.  

Saturday, December 7, 2019

AMAZON and UPS: A Failed Marriage


It was a dark and stormy night at the Riehl’s a couple of weeks ago, when Karen told me her ancient computer keyboard had been misbehaving. I suspected it only needed dusting, but unable to find our compressed air canister, I ordered a new keyboard from Amazon. It arrived the next day.

A few days later, I ordered a four-pack of Falcon Dust Off Electronics Compressed Gas Dusters. Amazon wouldn’t sell me just one. Buying four online was easier than driving to the nearest CVS store to pick one up.

Judging by how seldom we use them, our four new keyboard dusters will last longer than both of us. I must have inherited my security issues from my father. At my age, Dad wore a belt, plus suspenders.

Two weeks after my order, Amazon notified me that my package could not be delivered. I was told to check with UPS to find out why.

According to the UPS website, the package had been delivered on December 3, at 9:42 AM to “San Marcos,” left at the “front desk,” and “Lanny” signed for it. Deliveries by Amazon have always been placed at our front door, accompanied by a friendly knock.

Our Château Lake San Marcos is a gated community, so I assumed the delivery truck driver left the package with the concierge in the château’s office. But that was not to be. No package there, nobody named Lanny to sign for it. I called UPS but could not reach a live person. A recorded message told me the package had been delivered.

Out of desperation, I called the nearest UPS store. Brianna (not her real name) told me they didn’t get the package and that nobody named Lanny worked there. She suggested I try the city’s other UPS store. There was no package or Lanny there, either, but Savanna (not her real name), gave me a number to call, assuring me they could help.

Upon calling the number she gave me, I was greeted by an electronic voice, urging me to try for a free Royal Caribbean Cruise vacation by answering a few questions. Taken aback by this UPS gimmick, I did not answer the questions truthfully. What they learned about me is I’m under 25 and don’t like vacations. Not to my surprise, I was congratulated for winning the free cruise, except for a nominal $65 per person boarding fee.

I was then greeted by a human, who gushed, “Welcome to Royal Caribbean Cruises! This is…” It wasn’t a UPS scam after all. I hung up, figuring Savanna had given me a wrong number. At this stage, I was unwilling to concede an error on my part.

Karen suggested I try calling the retirement community next door to see if my package had been dropped off there. But Vanessa (her real name) politely informed me there had been no delivery, no Lanny on their staff.

Alarmed by my heavy breathing and reddening face, Karen told me to abandon my quest, forget about the $16.99 I paid for the canisters, and take to my blog to write about the experience. It would be therapeutic.

But, before following her advice, I took a last look at Amazon’s website, where, under “continue to customer service,” I found, “have us call you right now.” There was a space for me to enter my home phone number. Under it was a button titled, “Call me now to talk to a specialist. We will call you immediately.”

Yeah, right, I scoffed to myself, as I typed in our number and pressed the “Call me now” button. Before I could count to three, (I’m not kidding here), the phone rang with a live person on the other end.

She knew all about my order, including the claim that it had been delivered. After I explained how hard I worked to find the package, she gave me a full refund. She told me, if the package eventually reaches our door, I could keep it with no charge.

And that’s why I do my shopping at Amazon and hope for a UPS divorce.