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Richard J. Riehl is a Carlsbad, California resident, retired university administrator, and award-winning columnist for the former daily newspaper, the North County Times. Contact him at richard_riehl@yahoo.com

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Of Cowbells and Dog Whistles

A famous Saturday Night Live skit, "More Cowbell," features a rock group with three guitars, a drum set and a cowbell in a recording studio operated by an egomaniac producer. Will Ferrell is cowbell player Gene Frenkle. The producer, Bruce Dickinson, is played by Christopher Walken. As the group tries to lay down its first track, Dickinson repeatedly interrupts them, emerging from the sound booth to tell Frenkle politely, "I could use more cowbell." Exasperated, he finally explains there's only one cure to his mysterious fever. "I gotta have more cowbell!"
The phrase has lingered with me through the years. It can describe those occasions when more of something leads to its destruction. The clamor of Sunday morning talk shows is a case in point. Panelists often interrupt each other, increasing their volume to support their argument. Politicians employ the strategy in quieter, more subtle ways.

Cowbell Politics involves the creation of distractions that drown out the harmony of civil discourse. Raised voices are not needed to do that. Slogans, truisms, accusations, platitudes and irrelevancies serve nicely. When I hear talk show panelists and politicians resort to it I want to shout, "You gotta have more cowbell!" 

A dog whistle operates at frequencies heard only by dogs. Dog whistle politics simply uses a more personalized cowbell. It targets a potentially controversial message to specific voters while avoiding offending those who may disagree with it. Political cowbells and dog whistles have the same intent: distract the listener from an underlying message.

I thought of cowbells and dog whistles when I watched Indiana Gov. Mike Pence interviewed by George Stephanopoulos last Sunday morning. A few days earlier Pence had signed the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The title alone suggests a dog whistle. The First Amendment declares government shall not "prohibit the free exercise of religion." Had Indiana residents lost that right?

When Stephanopoulos repeatedly asked Pence if the law would allow a business to deny service to gays and lesbians based on the owner's personal religious beliefs, Pence began ringing his cowbell, declaring many other states had passed similar laws, President Clinton had signed a federal version of it in 1993 and Barack Obama voted for one.  

Pence refused to answer whether he, personally, agreed business owners should be allowed to deny service based on their religious beliefs, ringing in the trusty, "I'm for religious freedom and against discrimination" tune.

The following day Pence doubled down in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece. But he wanted to make it clear he wasn't a bigot. "If I saw a restaurant owner refuse to serve a gay couple, I wouldn't eat there anymore." He didn't say if he'd stay for dessert. He also declared, "As governor of Indiana, if I were presented a bill that legalized discrimination against any person or group, I would veto it."

Two days later, only after facing enormous economic and political backlash, did Gov. Pence agree to sign an amended bill prohibiting businesses from denying service to gays and lesbians. In this case it appears even more cowbell couldn't cure the fever of political self-interest.     

Monday, March 30, 2015

Our Weekend ER Getaway

Late Saturday afternoon, after we enjoyed a couple of Subway sandwiches, my wife fell ill. She began to experience flu-like symptoms, with a 102° fever, nausea and the onset of chills. Weakened by her mysterious illness she was unable to walk, prompting my 911 call. The EMT team arrived at our front door in minutes. A half hour later she was in bed in an emergency room.

We could not have asked for better treatment from the EMT team. Their professionalism was matched by their exceptional courtesy. Unfortunately, Karen's experience in the ER became a sad example of a healthcare system organized for efficiency, rather than effectiveness.

Emergency rooms, of course, are invariably busy. Those with life-threatening illnesses and injuries must always come first. Karen's life was not in immediate danger. So, while we were not happy with the five hours it took to do tests leading to a diagnosis of a urinary tract infection, the "code blue" announcement we heard on the intercom reminded us of the hospital's priorities. A courteous nurse, with a fine sense of humor, who administered the intravenous antibiotic, helped the medicine go down.

Arriving home after midnight, we breathed a sigh of relief, looking forward to sleeping late the following day. But a call in the morning from the doctor who treated her began our encounter with a dysfunctional patient care system. The doctor told Karen her tests showed bacteria in her blood. He asked her to return to the ER for more antibiotics.

An hour later we returned to ER, only to learn the doctor who called was gone for the day and left no notes about Karen's diagnosis or recommended treatment. The doctor who replaced him had no clue about why Karen was there. He began asking her every question about her symptoms that had been asked and answered the night before. I told him what the doctor had told Karen that morning, as well as his diagnosis and the treatment she received. I had apparently become, without benefit of credentials, the consulting physician.

My patience ran out. I asked the replacement doctor if he could contact the other doctor. I also asked why there was no record of her treatment ten hours earlier. At that point the replacement doctor became defensive, blaming the absence of the records on some mysterious computer problem or error by the other doctor. There was no apology until I asked him for one. He promised to call the other doctor at home.

An hour passed after he left the room. That did it. We told the nurse we were leaving. We would make an appointment to see Karen's primary doctor in the morning. The replacement doctor suddenly reappeared, telling us he had spoken with the other doctor, who told them of the antibiotic order he had made but couldn't be found. Karen agreed to stay for the antibiotics.

It was then we met a nurse who made our day. Courteous and professional, she completed the intravenous antibiotics quickly, bringing smiles to our faces after a miserable nine hours imprisoned in ER over the previous 24.

Except for the doctor with questionable people skills, we were treated with courtesy, respect and professionalism by every staff member we met. Reflecting on the downside of the experience, it struck me that the primary problem with Karen's treatment is a healthcare system that treats patients as assembly-line products.

While some refuse to acknowledge the facts, Obamacare has been a great success in bringing better and less costly healthcare to millions of previously uninsured Americans. But our encounter with it last weekend shows there's a lot more to be done to improve patient care. Politicians should turn their attention to that.    

Contact Richard Riehl at richard_riehl@yahoo.com

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Remembering Mom

Mom died last week at the age of 93, two months after Dad’s funeral a few weeks after he turned 95. Although they were inseparable, fiercely loyal to one another throughout their 73 years together, they were the odd couple in temperament. Dad, seemingly untouched by grief, pleasure or pain, and Mom, freely expressing them all.

Mom was the middle child of eleven, with five brothers and five sisters. She had to drop out of school in 10th grade to help her family on their farm in Raleigh, North Dakota. Shortly after her 20th birthday Mom married Dad and moved 300 miles east to a tiny town just over the Montana state line. Eight months later my brother was born. A few years ago when I asked the two of them about his premature birth. Dad remained silent as Mom suggested with a smile, “You do the math.”

The 50’s had to be hard on mom. She hated being the little woman when that was the cultural norm. Hypocrisy and condescension were her sworn enemies. In her later years she came home from the market growling about young checkout clerks who called her “dear,” or “honey” in very loud voices. Older salesmen who addressed her as “young lady” found it the fastest way to lose a sale.

It also couldn’t have been easy for her to cope with the occasional self-important musings emanating from her highly educated husband and three sons: a high school principal, an FBI agent, a University administrator, and a judge. She may have been a high school dropout, but she quietly knew she was as smart or smarter than anyone else in the room.

Mom’s career was bringing up her three sons Ozzie and Harriet style. She listened carefully to our parish priest, who told parents they were responsible if their kids go bad. “The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree,” he warned. Those words must have echoed in her mind as all three of her overachieving sons left the church while meandering through a forest of failed marriages. A much wiser parish priest, as well as frequent prayerful chats with whom she called “the Man Upstairs,” helped Mom overcome her guilt.

She had a wonderfully irreverent sense of humor, often quoting Red Skelton’s observation about the afterlife, “Maybe the world is an ashtray and we’re just a bunch of snuffed out butts.”

Dad chose HOW GREAT THOU ART to be sung at his funeral, Mom’s choice was, SEND IN THE CLOWNS. She had a special affinity for them, collecting sketches, paintings and figurines of clowns as keepsakes. I think this may have come about from her need to put on a happy face during the exceptionally hard times in her life: Having to drop out of high school, pregnant before marriage, moving 300 miles away from her family and friends, moving repeatedly during the war years with two young sons, worrying about her brother Richard, captured in the Battle of the Bulge and held in a Nazi prison camp for a year, and her other brother Al, held throughout the war in a Japanese prison camp after his ship, the USS Houston, was sunk days after Pearl Harbor.

My fondest memories of Mom are sitting in the kitchen with her after school, drinking milk and eating her brownies as she listened patiently to the life-changing defeats and victories of a teenager wrapped up in his own world. Many years later, during my first year of teaching, I again poured out my troubles to her late into the night, long after dad had gone to bed.

You always knew where you stood with mom. She‘d tell you.

Her name was Rose Marie. Her beauty and hardiness calls to mind the Robert Frost poem I once sent her on her birthday.

The rose is a rose,
And was always a rose.
But the theory now goes
That the apple’s a rose,
And the pear is, and so’s
The plum, I suppose.
The dear only knows
What will next prove a rose.
You, of course, are a rose--
But were always a rose.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson no Mayberry, R.F.D.


Opinions flew following last night’s grand jury report exonerating police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of an unarmed 18-year-old who refused his order to stop walking down the middle of the street in Ferguson, Missouri. Wilson told the jury the teen yelled at him, “What the (expletive) are you gonna do?” after which the officer was attacked as he struggled to get out of his police car. What happened next, leading to Michael Brown’s body lying dead in the street for four hours is being hotly debated, with opinions divided mostly by race and political persuasion.

Those who disagree with the grand jury’s decision tend to agree on what led up to the tragedy in Ferguson, a city of 21,000 with a nearly all-white police force “protecting and serving” its 68 percent African-American population. It makes you wonder about the altercation between a white symbol of authority and a young black man doing what many young men at that age do, resist authority. Most agree a more representative police force, with more training on how to defuse a volatile encounter without using lethal force, might have prevented the tragedy.

It called to mind the fictional small town of Mayberry, North Carolina, made famous by the Andy Griffith Show, a sitcom running from 1960 to 1968. I imagined Sheriff Andy Taylor confronting a boy walking in the middle of the street in Mayberry. I think it might have gone something like this:
Sheriff Taylor (gets out of his patrol car): “Howdy, son. Nice day for a walk, huh? Sure glad it stopped rainin’.”

Opie: “Yes, sir. I like to walk down the street on a sunny day.”
Sheriff Taylor: “Well, you see, a car could come down this street at any time. Wouldn’t want to see you run over. How ‘bout usin’ the sidewalk?”
Opie: “I’ll just jump out of the way, sir.”
Sheriff Taylor: “Can’t let you do that, Opie. Wouldn’t want to call Deputy Barney Fife to have you locked up now. Know what I mean? How ‘bout I give you a ride home in my patrol car?”
Opie: “Gee sir, that would be swell!” (gets in the car and rides off with the sheriff).

I know, I know, that’s just a dream of a place that never was. But I wonder if Officer Wilson had a little more of Sheriff Taylor and a little less of Deputy Barney Fife in him Michael Brown would be alive and Ferguson’s Seasons Greetings overhead sign would not be hanging above police cars aflame in the street last night.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Rest In Peace Dialup Dad

I've just returned from my Dad's funeral. He turned 95 two weeks before and after celebrating with Mom their 73rd anniversary in August. The only serious illness he'd had in his life was the mild heart attack that hit him a month before he died. Four years ago I began saving Dad's emails, 323 of them in all. He didn't own a computer, relying on WebTV's glacially slow dialup connection to send and receive messages. That presented a never-ending string of technical challenges for him. His emails invariably began with "Howdie," and were mostly responses to my blogs and newspaper columns, which I called my daily rants, as well as updates on his favorite sports teams and reviews of the books he was reading. Mom's began with "Hi," and chronicled the happenings of the day.

May 15, 2010
From Mom
Hi: It's "Viking Fest in Poulsbo. We'll go for Breakfast tomorrow at the Armory, sponsored by the Lions club. It's fun to see all the OLD LIONS. Dad used to be one of them. In fact, one year he was KING LION.

May 17, 2010
Howdie: We wonder whether our machine is working because we haven't been getting any e-mail.  Please try us and see if it flies.

July 9, 2010
Howdie: Did you receive Mom's message about our dinner and waltz during the Lawrence Welk program? Her "Three little boys" were the only thing missing from our evening with Lawrence Welk!

Sep 13, 2010
Howdie: This has been an exciting weekend in Seattle. The Huskies beat Syracuse big time and the Seahawks thoroughly beat San Francisco. On Friday morning Mom had symptoms like a heart attack. They whisked her off to the hospital.

Oct 19, 2010
Howdie: Us "Ancients" from North Dakota are still low on the learning curve. You mention "Kindles." Explain, please! 

Oct 21, 2010
From Mom
Hi: In my last e-mail I wrote, "I best go see what Dad was doing under the Sink in the Kitchen." Well, the plumber arrived a couple hours later and put everything back in order.   

Feb 18, 2011
From Mom
Hi: The guy just left who had to come to fix our Toilet. Dad tried to fix it, but it wouldn't stop leaking because one of the parts (Dad put it there) was supposed to be outside the tank instead of inside the tank.

Feb 27, 2011
Howdie: You mentioned you had sent us a message. It did not reach us, so there must have been a "Glitch" somewhere.

May  27, 2011
Howdie: Did you receive Mom's letter on May 21st? We wondered because there have been problems with the mail not "Flying."

August 14, 2011
Howdie: The "Fatted calf" is awaiting the slaughter when you arrive!

August 26, 2011
We just received your message in address only----there must have been a glitch, gel (the German word for the Canadian expression, "Eh")?

September 10, 2011
I think the family philosophy had much to do with the two Doctorates and two Masters degrees among the seven of us. It was the philosophy of our parents regarding the importance of education and their insistence we must continue in school despite the financial  situation! 

Dec. 17, 2011: In response to a Christmas gift we sent to them, using the Amazon address to Dad.
I feel bad because it was addressed to me only. We both feel bad because it looks as tho it doesn't include the other person. We never do anything on our own unless the other person is included. Perhaps there was an error so please give us a report.

December 18, 2011
Thank you for  your prompt reply.  Our official address is:  Gene and Rose Riehl.  We are so happy that the matter is now settled.

Dec. 19, 2011
We are unable to bring up the Google that you mentioned. We may have to wait until Jim returns to see if we can reach Google.  We might have to see if he can reach it with his computer.

Nov. 15, 2012: In response to our concerns about his driving
Howdie: We now only drive to church and the grocery stores which is less than a mile away.  Mother is always in the car doing vigilant duties. In nice weather we walk to the church or don't go at all when the weather is bad. Thank you for your concern. We'll keep you informed if we have any problems.

July 15, 2013
Howdie: We finally were able to bring up your picture. Mom insisted it was a picture of me. It proves the truth of an old saying, "You can't tell the difference between an old stud and a young one."

Oct. 19, 2013
Will this fly?

Nov. 15, 2013, a year ago to the day of his funeral.
I now found  a way to roll the text up and down, so please send me a new copy of your rant!

Rest in peace, my Dialup Dad. May all your heavenly emails fly without a glitch, gel?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Unarmed Heroes

Our son is currently an International Medical Corps aid worker, stationed in Lebanon. Maybe that’s why we were hit so hard by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s cavalier attitude about the treatment Kaci Hickox was subjected to upon her return after treating Ebola patients in West Africa. 

For nearly 20 years Dave has been engaged in humanitarian aid work, beginning with a two-year stint in Kazakhstan with the Peace Corps. He was working in Afghanistan the day the Twin Towers fell 13 years ago. From there he spent a year in Darfur, Sudan, providing primary health care, maternal and child health, water and sanitation to a village of 13,000 in an area ravaged by war. Other hotspots have been Niger, Nigeria, and Congo. 

We hold our breaths daily as we watch the news of hostage-taking and beheadings. He’ll return to his wife and our six-year-old granddaughter at his home in London next week after six weeks in Beirut, overseeing the nine mobile medical units and 45 health facilities serving more than 680,000 Syrian refugees with health awareness sessions. 

Our family has a history of holding its breath while loved ones were at risk overseas. During World War II my uncle Al went down with his ship shortly after Pearl Harbor, during the battle of the Java Sea. He was captured by the Japanese and held in a POW camp for the rest of the war. For three years my grandparents knew only that he was missing in action. My uncle Richard was captured by the Nazis in Belgium and held as a POW for a year. Both of them returned home, but Uncle Richard spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital. 

During several of our son’s country assignments we could not communicate with him for weeks at a time. Fortunately, we have been able to stay in touch through Skype during his Lebanon assignment. 

Which all brings me back to Gov. Christie’s take on the way Hickox was treated upon returning home after her heroism in West Africa, passing it off with, “There’s been all kinds of malarkey about this. She was inside the hospital in a climate-controlled area with access to her cell phone, access to the internet, and takeout food from the best restaurants in Newark. She was doing just fine.” 

Doctors agree that Hickox has been symptom-free and incapable of passing along the Ebola virus since her return to this country. But even if she had been infectious, treating her like a pariah and not the humanitarian hero she is only shows how driven Christie is by political opportunism than responsible leadership. 

At a public event every time a speaker invites members of the military to stand and be recognized for their service I applaud loudly together with everyone else. But I also wonder if there ever will come a day when others who served this country heroically, but without bearing arms, will get equal recognition.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Class Sizes in Carlsbad Schools: Fact or Fiction?

Much has been said about class size in Carlsbad schools by candidates running for the school board. All agree they’re too large, some citing reports of classrooms filled with more than 40 students. One candidate, claiming the average class size stood at nearly 30 students compared with under 23 in all of San Diego County, cited a three-year-old report issued during the recession, before Prop 30 brought more school funding and after a -6.4 percent drop in per pupil spending over the previous 4 years (Legislative Analyst’s Office Report, February 7, 2011).

I asked Assistant Superintendent for Personnel Rick Grove for this year’s actual numbers. He reminded me of the district’s funding plan to reduce class sizes this year and next, pointing to the 23 new teachers who’ve been added since last year’s school year began. The district’s average class size alone can be misleading, he told me, because of the differences in school populations and the requirements for smaller classes to accommodate science labs and special needs students. So district-wide grade level averages provide a more meaningful picture of what students and teachers are experiencing. Here are this year’s numbers:

K-3 -- 27 (State law requires a reduction to no larger than 24.1)
4-5 -- 32
6-8 -- 34
HS --- 37

As a high school teacher many years ago I remember well the challenges of teaching English to a classroom filled with 37 hormone-happy sophomores. Yes, CUSD classes are too large. The board and administration show they are working on that. When voters go to the polls in two weeks they may want to consider which candidates are most likely to collaborate, rather than grandstand to solve the problem.