KQED Perspectives

Perspectives are two-minute opinion pieces broadcast every morning on KQED-FM in San Francisco as part of NPR’s Morning Edition. As a regular contributor to the series since 1997, I’ve expressed my opinion on a wide variety of subjects, from how to address families with different last names to how I feel about being married to a man who drives a Suburban (and the follow-up, how we got rid of it responsibly). Below are my most recent Perspectives. The KQED archive has audio back to 2002. (Search for Debbie Duncan.)
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Takotsubo


(October 12, 2015)  Hear the audio version
               It was a hot September night a few weeks ago, the evening after construction noise had kept my family awake beginning at 2 AM. When the decibels rose at 9:30 PM, I went out to investigate.

Klieg lights illuminated the site across the busy street behind our back fence for all-night digging by a huge tractor-like jackhammer. I managed to get the workers’ attention. “What are you doing?” I hollered. “People are trying to sleep over here!” They got off the tractor and went to confer with co-workers. I took pictures with my cell phone to send to the police. When I turned around to walk home, I got a sudden pain in my right jaw. I stopped. I’d read recently that women’s heart attack symptoms could be different from men’s. Was jaw pain one?

Yes, it was. By the time I had a blood test in the ER an hour later, my cardiac enzymes were 300 times normal. I was having what’s called stress-induced cardiomyopathy. I had a heart attack even though I exercise every day, eat all my fruits and veggies and have normal cholesterol. (I am on medication for high blood pressure, which is why I went to the hospital without ever having chest pain or shortness of breath.) After a night in the ICU, my new cardiologist’s suspicion that this was stress-induced was confirmed by an angiogram. He saw ballooning of my heart muscle. My arteries are “pristine.” This was not my grandfather’s heart attack.

Japanese doctors identified this type in 1990 and called it Takotsubo. It wasn’t even recognized in this country until 2001. Ninety percent of Takotsubo patients are female. It’s usually triggered by a sudden, stressful event to a woman who is already dealing with stress or sorrow. In my case, it was probably my brother’s recent death. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy is sometimes called broken-heart syndrome. Although it can be fatal, I expect to recover in weeks.

In the meantime, I’ve signed up for mindfulness-based stress-reduction class at the hospital. And when workers return for overnight noise-making, we close the windows.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
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Losing Your Place


(August 5, 2014)  Hear the audio version
            Sometimes a gym is more than a place to work out. Mine, the Page Mill YMCA, is a mile down the hill from my house in a far-from-fancy facility in the basement of a Palo Alto office building. This low-cost gym has developed quite a community in its 35 years—hosting everything from racquetball tournaments to classes for those with Parkinson’s or recovering from cancer treatment, as well as TRX, spin, Zumba, Tai Chi, yoga, etcetera. The teachers are terrific. Members have donated generously to YMCA summer camps in underserved communities, food and backpack drives, and the like. They’ve formed lunch and dinner groups. At least a quarter of the members are 65 or older. I’ve made friends of all ages in my 6 AM bust-our-buns total body resistance workout. It’s the sort of exercise the lead Alzheimer’s researcher at Stanford has said can improve cognitive function.

Unfortunately, this facility is set to close October 1st, when the lease expires. The first time members were informed that the gym’s future was in any jeopardy came in a June 24th letter. The Y’s reasons for the closure, which are changing weekly, have raised suspicions and hackles. Thousands of comments have been posted on local news sites. Hundreds—mostly older people—showed up for a dinnertime meeting at a Palo Alto church to hear from Silicon Valley Y executives, and for them to hear from us. Managers still say the decision is “irreversible,” but that hasn’t stopped members from forming a save-the-gym task force and coming up with creative ways to continue operating. This is Silicon Valley, after all.

We Baby Boomers are getting up there in age. We want and need a reasonably priced gym for our physical, mental and social well-being, one we don’t have to commute more than half an hour to get to. The entire community loses when the needs of any sector are ignored.

We who work out want very much to work this out. Places where we can indulge the modern value of personal health and fitness plus the old-fashioned value of a caring community are not easy to find around here. Let’s hope a way can be found to keep what we have.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
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Another Brandon

(May 15, 2014) Hear the audio version

Perhaps you’ve heard that the San Francisco Giants have three players on the team this year named Brandon. Their lockers are next to each other’s. They’ve turned some nifty Brandon-to-Brandon-to-Brandon double plays. Dodger Stadium celebrity P.A. announcer Justin Bateman even referred to the Giants’ shortstop as “Another Brandon.”

I know what it’s like to have a common name: Deborah was one of the top-ten baby girl names every year of the 1950’s. There were five Debbies in my second-grade class. Twenty-five percent of that class was a Debbie/Debby … including the boys! There was another Debbie Duncan in my high school. She didn’t show up for detention, and my geometry teacher blamed me. I’ve memorized my medical record number, as there are four Deborah Duncans registered at my HMO. My brother David Duncan’s name is even more common.

According to the Social Security Administration, Deborah dropped out of the top 100 names right after I graduated from college. It’s now #797. William, my husband’s classic, non-decade-, or even century-specific name, is still going strong at #5.

Also common now among baby boys: names ending with the letter “n”—not just Brandon, but Aiden, Ethan, Jalen, Jayden, Mason, Morgan, etcetera. Thirty-six percent of 2012 newborn boys’ names ended in “n.” I see a New Yorker cartoon caption about that in the future, a variation of the one a while ago with a class picture of Michael, Jennifer, Michael, Michael, Jennifer, Jennifer … and so forth. (Michael was the #1 boy’s name 1961-1998, Jennifer for girls, 1970-1984.)

Coming up with a name for your baby is fun, but also challenging. Daunting. I fretted over it three times. Unless you’re Gwyneth Paltrow and can get away with calling your child Apple, you’re probably going to want a name that won’t encourage teasing. It should also be a name substitute teachers can pronounce, but that isn’t so trendy there will be five of them at their trigonometry table. My daughter Molly could tell you that.

With a Perspective, I am Debbie Duncan.

 
 
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I Wish I Didn't Know That

(December 20, 2013) Hear the audio version 

I was still in my jammies one morning in September when I received a chirpy “Your 23andMe Results Are Ready!” email from the Mountain View personal genetic testing company. A couple of clicks and password led me to a chart showing health risks identified by the spit test I’d sent in. Scanning quickly, I saw that I had more than three times the risk of developing celiac disease. No surprise there, as my daughter has it and I already knew I’d given her the gene. The report said I’m also at risk for other autoimmune diseases. I knew that too.

What set my heart racing was the Alzheimer’s Disease risk line. Did I really want to see that result? 23andMe asked.

Huh. My husband didn’t get that prompt.

Did I? Why, Pandora, I asked myself, would you have paid $99 if you did not want to open the box? I know you’d hoped to find out you didn’t have an Alzheimer’s gene. Now what are you going to do?

Of course I kept going. The next page looked like a terms-of-service agreement, and I read it just about as carefully before agreeing. Turns out I do have one copy of the APOE4 variant, which is “associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s.”

Oh.

Was I the sort of person the FDA was thinking about when, two months later, it sent a warning letter to 23andMe ordering it to discontinue marketing DNA test kits because they’re medical devices? That saliva kit certainly led to medical results that I still can’t decide I’m glad to know. Through my own research, I learned I can substantially lower my risk of developing Alzheimer’s by exercising. So I’m even more diligent about taking brisk walks in the foothills and going to the gym twice a week for resistance training. But would I have benefitted from an across-the-table genetic counselor? You bet. My $99 didn’t cover that. If we’re going to be the genetic pioneers 23andMe says we are, it’s important to remember that the 21st century wilderness can be overwhelming, calling for more than a simple Internet connection.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
 
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Gluten Free-for-All

(July 25, 2013) Hear the audio version

Have you been hearing the term gluten-free more lately? Well, I have, and I don’t think it’s only because my daughter was diagnosed with celiac disease 21 years ago, and therefore follows a strict—and I mean strict—gluten-free diet: no wheat, barley, rye, or contaminated oats … ever. Even a crumb makes Molly violently ill. Long-term exposure could give her cancer. As her activist mother I’ve been promoting awareness about gluten and celiac disease for more than two decades. I thought it helped keep Molly safe and healthy.

Now I’m not so sure. Gluten-free is no longer an obscure food restriction; it’s a full-fledged fad and diet trend. Celebrities trumpet the supposed weight-loss properties of going gluten-free. It’s baloney. There are thousands more gluten-free products available than 20 years ago, but few would be considered “diet” fare. Even restaurants have jumped in. Ironically, that has made it harder for celiacs to go out to eat.

Why? Chefs used to come to our table when Molly ordered her meal. Now almost all servers know about gluten, but they underestimate its seriousness for celiacs. Awareness has led to complacency. In the last year Molly has gotten sick after eating at restaurants she used to be able to enjoy.

A national pizza chain promotes its gluten-free pizza, but it’s not safe for celiacs because of cross-contamination: all pizzas are made in the same kitchen and sliced with the same knives. Talk about exploiting a trend! As Dr. Stefano Guandalini, president of the North American Society for the Study of Celiac Disease said, “A product is either gluten-free or it is not.”

After extensive pressure from the celiac community, in February the FDA sent to the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs a new set of rules dictating what foods can be labeled gluten-free. Yet nothing has been done about it.

Which is is too bad, because after the gluten-free bandwagon pulls out of town, there will still be millions of true celiacs in this country who could use the government’s help staying safe and healthy. It’s time to act, Mr. President.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
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Sweet 16

(March 29, 2013) Hear the audio version

              So, how are your March Madness brackets looking this week? A little wobbly? Mine are good: Stanford and Cal are still standing. So are Baylor, UConn and Notre Dame. “Ohhh,” you say. “You’re talking about the women.”

You bet! I’m always amazed when women who promote women’s causes all year ‘round and also like basketball often ignore the NCAA women’s tournament. This is not the basketball I played in high school pre-Title IX, wearing a ridiculous red jumper over a long-sleeved white blouse and not crossing the center line, as I was a forward and not allowed to play the entire court. (Only “rovers” could do that.)

Take the undisputed star of women’s college basketball, 6-foot-8 Baylor senior center Brittney Griner, with a 7-foot-4-inch wingspan and a 60.8 percent field-goal percentage. She ranks first in the NCAA among women and men in blocking shots.

Stanford’s Chiney Ogwumike, a junior forward and Pac-12 Player of the Year, helped hand Brittney’s Bears their only defeat of the season. Layshia Clarendon, a senior at Cal, led her Golden Bears in scoring and earned Pac-12 Scholar Athlete of the Year honors. Perhaps she’s why President Obama picked Cal to make it to the Final Four.

These young women and their teammates are actual student-athletes. According to ESPN, the 64 schools in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament combined to graduate 90 percent of their players. The men’s teams? Only 70 percent. Women don’t jump ship after a year or two to play for the NBA, as many students at elite university men’s programs do. Less turnover means athletes have more time to grow together as a team. It’s also fun for fans to see players mature through their college careers. And though I bleed Cardinal red, I’ve loved watching the emerging success of women’s basketball in Berkeley.

So if you’re fine with a crapshoot, go ahead and stay in the men’s pool. But my (imaginary) bets are on the teams on the way to the Women’s Final Four in New Orleans. You’re welcome to join me.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
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Big Game in October?

(October 19, 2012) Hear the audio version

Debbie:            Erin, you ready for Big Game this Saturday?

 

Erin:            We bleed blue at our house. GO BEARS!

 

Debbie:             Well, I’m not. Scheduling Big Game in October … It's like—

 

Erin:            —moving New Year’s Eve to the 4th of July because the weather’s better?

 

Debbie:            Exactly. Big Game tradition goes back to the 19th century …

 

Erin:            … when it was called the Thanksgiving Game.

 

Debbie:            Because it was usually, and traditionally, played around Thanksgiving …

 

Erin:            … until this year.

 

Debbie:            Now it’s all about TV, and the lure of revenue that comes in to both Cal and Stanford from broadcasting games …

 

Erin:            … with student-athletes as “products” …

 

Debbie:            … and universities as “brands.”

 

Erin:            Meanwhile, alums, students and other fans of the Blue and Gold—

 

Debbie:            —and the Cardinal …

 

Erin:            —right. All of us who buy the tickets and cheer in the stands …

 

Debbie:            … must go along with the money-counters who run big-time college sports.

 

Erin:            And accept a crazy Pac-12 Conference schedule.

 

Debbie:             Twelve schools!

 

Erin:            Four of which are nowhere near the Pacific.

 

Debbie:            Which meant Stanford had three home games—half the season!—before students returned for the school year.

 

Erin:            I’d like to say that it bugs me that random athletic programs get paid big bucks for those pre-season away games. Whatever happened to playing for the love of the game—

 

Debbie:            —between longstanding sports rivals? Giants—Dodgers …

 

Erin:            … Cal—Stanford. I even have a favorite game, a favorite PLAY.

 

Debbie:            Here it comes ...

 

Erin:            “ … the most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heartrending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football!”

 

Debbie:            Thirty years later I can finally say it: I’m glad I was there for the Play. Though I still say his knee was down.

 

Erin:            NOT. I'd wish you Luck this year but he's a Colt now. And we're in our new stadium ... Our house.

 

Debbie:             You do remember the last Big Game—2010—in the old Memorial Stadium? And we still have the axe.

 

Erin:             Don't get me started. Instead of rock-paper-scissors, we should play bear-tree-axe.

 

Debbie:             Let's just agree we're looking forward to another exciting finish.

 

Erin:             May the best brand win! With a Perspective, I’m Erin Dealey. Go Bears!

 

Debbie:            And I’m Debbie Duncan. Beat Cal!

 
 
 
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School Daze


(August 13, 2012) Hear the audio version

                 I’ve never been lonelier than on my first day of school in a new town. No matter how many times my dad’s job changes during the boom years of the Southern California defense industry made me have to start over in a new school, I never got used to looking out into a blur of unfamiliar faces at lunchtime, telling myself, “I will not cry. I will not cry.” Then before my sophomore year of high school my family moved across the country to Connecticut, where kids seemed to speak a different language. They carried “pockabooks” rather than purses, and met in the foyer—was that the same place as the “foy-yay?” I wanted to go home. But where was home?

These feelings come back to me vividly, painfully at the beginning of every school year as I think about my fellow new-kids-in-town. Perhaps the new kid’s mom or dad is in the military, and he’s done this many times before. Maybe Dad is a high-tech exec, or Mom’s a physician or professor and the family moved to Silicon Valley as the promised land. Or it’s entirely possible, especially this year, that the new girl’s parents lost their jobs and then their home to foreclosure and the family had to move in with grandparents, or other family members or friends.

They’re all facing the first day of school as a new kid. It’s scary. I hope they meet with kindness, and maybe make a new friend today. I’d like to tell them that it will get better as the year goes along. It did for me, even after those tearful beginnings. Also that my expert status as a new kid in town made it easier to adjust to new jobs as an adult. I expected to do something stupid that first day, though walking into the third floor girls restroom to find out it’s actually a smoking lounge happened only once, thank goodness. More than anything, I hope someone asks the new girl or the new boy to sit with them for lunch.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 

 

 
 
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Audiobookish

(July 17, 2012) Hear the audio version

Heard any good books lately? If you’re like me and addicted to audiobooks, you know we’ll have lots to talk about, compare, recommend to one other. Though my family used to listen to Books on Tape while driving to Tahoe, it wasn’t until I got an iPod that audiobooks became a regular part of my life—classics, best-sellers, kidlit, what have you. I listen for about an hour a day while I walk in the Peninsula foothills. I’ve laughed out loud to Tina Fey reading her memoir, Bossypants, and strained to hear Jacqueline Kennedy’s breathy voice over the clinking of ice cubes in her cocktail glass as she speaks with historian Arthur Schlesinger. It took Jim Bouton more than forty years to record his baseball classic, Ball Four, and he still laughs at his old jokes and sexist stories.

The narrator doesn’t have to be the author for me to love an audiobook. I was so mesmerized by Tim Robbins’s reading of The Great Gatsby, I immediately listened to it again. Anne Hathaway brings at least two dozen characters to life in her stunning performance of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I’m drawn to favorite narrators the way other people wouldn’t miss a certain actor’s movie. For years my youngest went to sleep every night listening to Jim Dale read Harry Potter. When I learned Bahni Turpin was one of the readers of The Help (along with Octavia Spencer!) I had to hear it even though I’d read the book two summers ago. I can’t wait to step out the door at 6:00 every morning and listen to that recording.

If I cross paths with my friend Charlie, we take off our headphones to share what we’re listening to. He introduced me to Mark Bramhall’s reading of Wallace Stegner’s novels of the West. Angle of Repose kept me hiking from May and into June. Next on my playlist: The Big Rock Candy Mountain.

What books would you like to walk with, cook or sew with, or if you’re careful not to be too distracted, drive with? They’re waiting for you at the library, bookstore or online. Have a listen!

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.
Books I keep on my iPod:
Anne of Green Gables, read by Arika Escalona, the best Anne on audiobooks
The Great Gatsby, read by Tim Robbins. This version includes letters and is so, so good!
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, performed by Anne Hathaway. The voices she does! 
Books I highly recommend and will listen to again sometime:
Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein's amazing book of friendship during World War II.
Angle of Repose, read by Mark Bramhall. Like Anne Hathaway, he's a genius with voices.
The Big Rock Candy Mountain, another Wallace Stegner gem read by Mark Bramhall.
The Help, read by Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer. My friend Markie, an actor and fellow audiobook fan, encouraged me to get this one. She knows her stuff—I just love it.
The Watch That Ends the Night, a novel of the Titanic read by a brilliant cast of dozens. This book shines in audiobook format, even though it may be hard to keep all the voices—including John Jacob Astor, a Lebanese refugee and ... the iceberg—straight. So do as I did and buy the book as well!

 

 
 
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Life Without Gluten

(February 7, 2012) Hear the audio version

 Twenty years ago this month I first heard the word gluten, as in, “Ask your daughter’s doctor to check for gluten intolerance.” It came from a colleague of my husband’s down south in response to our pre-Internet SOS call for ideas why our 20-month-old daughter was wasting away before our eyes, and the eyes of the 54 physicians who had studied her malady over the previous three months. A biopsy taken four days later confirmed that Molly’s malnutrition was indeed caused by undiagnosed celiac disease. Right away she went on a gluten-free diet: no wheat, barley, rye, or (in those days) oats. Corn and rice were her grains of choice. We were told she’d never be able to have pasta, pizza, or decent-tasting bread, cakes or cookies.

But she would live. Food was, and still is her medicine. That’s one of the few things that hasn’t changed for celiacs in the last 20 years. Yet I refused to doom my kid to a diet of mushy pasta and doorstopper bread. I went to work finding and developing recipes the entire family would enjoy. I incorporated into my baking new whole-grain flours, some of which were old-world: sorghum, amaranth, brown rice, quinoa, teff, flax, buckwheat. Mercifully, gluten-free products started showing up on supermarket shelves, not just in specialty stores. Gluten-free bakeries opened. Restaurants offered gluten-free menu items. And gluten-free products were the hottest trend at last month’s Fancy Food Show in San Francisco!

Yet for Molly and the other one in 133 Americans who have celiac disease, or the even larger percentage of the public with a degree of gluten intolerance, gluten-free is not a fad, trend or choice. “Cheating” puts celiacs at increased risk for developing other autoimmune disorders and even cancer. Any cure for celiac disease, such as a pill containing an enzyme to break down the protein in gluten, is proving more elusive than we thought 10 years ago. But it shouldn’t continue to be so difficult for doctors to diagnose celiac disease—many adults still suffer symptoms for years.

It’s not a scary diagnosis. And there are some pretty tasty gluten-free brownies out there.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.
 
 
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eTaxes - It's time for Internet retailers to charge sales tax

(October 24, 2011) Hear the audio version

Remember when online shopping began, back in the last century? What convenience! No more having to schlep to the mall in the rain, or search for a parking place on El Camino Real. With a click and a credit card, we had what we wanted delivered to our doorstep. Even better, there was no sales tax! That newfangled books site up in Washington State, as well as scores of now-defunct dot-coms argued “This is new. Give it a chance. Don’t impose a tax.”

In 1992 the Supreme Court ruled that a business must have a physical presence in the state in order to be required to collect sales tax. But Amazon, that Washington State book/now-everything gargantuan online retailer, has acquired “affiliates” in California and other states. Because online shopping has matured.

And it should be taxed. It isn’t fair to other retailers that online merchants can offer what is essentially an across-the-board discount by not charging sales tax.

I say that as an author and publisher who now sells books online. When I sold physical copies of my books, I held a California State resale license and collected and paid state sales tax.

Now my eBook is being sold online tax-free. I don’t like that. The issue of taxing Internet sales is in limbo, after California struck a deal with Amazon to postpone collecting sales tax until next September. That gives Amazon, traditional retailers and Congress time to work together to pass a federal online sales tax law. Two bills have already been introduced, including, most recently, the Marketplace Equity Act co-sponsored by Peninsula Democrat Jackie Speier. I wish her and her Republican co-sponsor all the best getting even a level-the-playing-field tax bill passed by the current Congress.

In the meantime, I’ll be voluntarily contributing 8.25% of my sales to my local school district. And I encourage other online sellers to choose their worthiest public beneficiaries—state parks, libraries, whatever. Because it’s not often we get to designate where our “taxes” go.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.
 
 
 
Say What? I have congenital hearing loss. Hello, health care reform
(April 8, 2011) Hear the audio version

One morning last summer I was sitting at the kitchen table while my daughter looked into the refrigerator. “How was writers group?” she asked.

“Grapefruit’s not in season, sweetie.”

She turned so I could see her better. “Mom. Get those hearing aids.”

Oops. Several months earlier I’d finally, at age 56, had a hearing test because, well, for some reason I’d been asking her, or her sisters, or their dad, or quite a few other people to repeat themselves when I hadn’t known exactly what they’d said. But I was managing: I’d gotten really good at reading lips, which I also used while watching TV. Radio was no problem - when I wore ear buds. I didn’t mind sitting up front at writers conferences or workshops. And most of my work is in front of a computer screen anyway.

Still, a hearing test showed I didn’t have typical age-related hearing loss, where one doesn’t hear high and low pitches. “You don’t hear the sounds in between,” the technician told me. “It’s congenital. You’re a perfect candidate for hearing aids. Better sooner than later,” she chirped.

But hearing aids, especially the digital kind Huey Lewis wore on the front of the magazine she gave me and came in pretty colors, like orange, cost about three thousand dollars per ear. A hefty price not covered by insurance.

At least not then. Between the time I’d first looked into it and checking again in the summer, health reform had passed. My insurance company informed me they would now pay for hearing devices, as long as I went to a preferred provider. Thank you, Democratic Congress and Mr. President.

I call them ear mics because it’s like having little microphones in my ears that allow me to hear everything. I’m able to participate in the spoken world, not just that on the page or screen. But my ear mics also make me hear sounds I’d rather not: my dog’s toenails on the floor, unnecessary traffic noises, conversations behind me in a restaurant. So now I choose when to wear my ear mics. And like other items still being debated on the floors of Congress, I’m extremely grateful for the choice.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
Torture, San Francisco Giants Style
(October 1, 2010) Hear the audio version

You may have noticed an outbreak of orange clothing lately. And orange-clad strangers high-fiving one day, then gloomingly shaking their heads the next. Or perhaps screams of delight or horror emanating from your neighbor’s TV room. The cause? Pennant fever.

The San Francisco Giants - often good, seldom great and never a World Series champion - are in the final weekend of a classic pennant race. The daily drama of clutch home runs (from a team built around pitching), painful missed opportunities (usually late in games), and inexplicable theatrics that mean hopeful victories or sleep-depriving defeats - well, it’s the drug baseball fans crave. But what gives a season-ending pennant sprint real meaning for teams like the Giants is the tantalizing, just-out-of-reach promise of a World Series ring. The great New Yorker writer Roger Angell once said that “Baseball . . . means to break your heart. . . It’s the losing, in all its variety, that makes winning so sweet.” Remember the unbridled joy of Red Sox fans when Boston won the World Series in 2004 after 86 years of frustration? Yankee fans never have that - they expect their men to steamroll to another championship.

This year’s Giants have taken the agony of pennant fever to ridiculous heights. Their broadcasters have captured the club’s m.o. in one word: torture. The team that used to win with Barry Bonds bombs and dominant pitching is now all about pitching and bleeding out just enough, and sometimes not enough runs. Even victories can be excrutiating.

When I write fiction I keep in mind there’s no story without conflict, and the pace needs to pick up near the end of the book. The Giants could not have scripted this season’s ending any better: a weekend series at home vs. the San Diego Padres, who’d occupied first place for months until the Giants caught ‘em three weeks ago in their home park. The two teams flip-flopped daily at the top until this week, when the Giants inched ahead.

So after six months and 159 games, it’s comes down to the final three. Today is Orange Friday. Pennant fever’s in the air. There’s still time to catch it.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

And as we know now, the Giants won it all and became the 2010 World Series Champions. I watched the final game with other fans in San Francisco Civic Center Plaza, and cheered from the front row on Market Street at the parade. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

 
 
Don't Call it "San Fran"
(July 26, 2010) Hear the audio version

Has this happened recently to you? You’re on a flight bound for San Francisco, and the pilot comes over the loudspeaker and announces you will be arriving in “San Fran” at such-and-such a time? Or you read a tweet asking about the weather in “San Fran?” (It’s summer. It’s foggy. Why do you ask? And if you want to save characters in your 140 limit, use the letters “SF.” It’s shorter.) Even some recent transplants call their new home “San Fran.” At times like these I’m reminded of the old Herb Caen header, “Don’t Call it Frisco,” and want to shout “Don’t call it San Fran!”

Where did “San Fran” come from, anyway? I blame Southern California, or SoCal, as they like to call it. SoCal is where “the I-5 meets the 405 on the way to the PCH in the O.C.” I grew up in Orange County, not the “OC,” the title of a TV show, for heaven’s sake. I wrote to the author of an (otherwise) terrific book for young adults set in a near-future San Francisco, complaining about his characters hopping on “the BART.” THE BART??? He acknowledged the error and said he’d written the book while living in Los Angeles. I knew it! There’s no hope of Northern California breaking away from the South, but must we allow them to invade our language?

“NorCal” doesn’t grate on me as much as San Fran or a “the” tacked onto every freeway or form of public transportation. It’s used in youth sports leagues. My daughters tell me there’s another term teens are using: “the Bay,” instead of the “Bay Area.” Well, if someone told me she’s “from the Bay,” I’d be tempted to ask if she’d toweled off when she got out of the water. Or: Are you amphibious?

Newspapers, long may they live, still use Calif. for our state instead of the unkind-to-look-at, dreadful-to-pronounce two-letter abbreviation, capital C, capital A, which is really appropriate only on snail mail. It was invented by the U.S. Postal Service for its address-reading machines, and to make room for ZIP codes on envelopes.

San Francisco is a mellifluous, historic name. It honors our state’s cultural heritage. Don’t decapitate it. Don’t call it San Fran.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
Good Night, Ladies: College women, not ladies, play basketball
(April 2, 2010) Hear the audio version

The NCAA women’s basketball Final Four is set. Here are the teams: Stanford Cardinal, Oklahoma Sooners, Connecticut Huskies, Baylor Bears. Pardon me - make that the Baylor Lady Bears.

Baylor is the one “Lady” team left in this year’s tournament. Despite what you may have heard, Stanford has never been the Lady Cardinal. Connecticut’s women are Huskies, not Lady Huskies, as they are inexplicably referred to by some sportscasters. And that’s the problem with having a few throwbacks from a bygone era in sports. Universities that continue to use “Lady” in their team names - all Southern schools, I might add - are devaluing the athleticism and equality of not only their own female student-athletes, but of all women’s teams. If I start hearing or reading about the Baylor Gentlemen Bears or Tennessee Lord Volunteers, I promise to rethink my case.

I played basketball before Title IX, so I know we’ve come a long way. Forty years ago, Greenwich High School had a boys gym on one floor of the 1925 brick school building and a girls gym on the other. Yet in 1969, the girls teams were not allowed to practice in our own gym after school; the boys varsity and junior varsity squads laid claim to both. So we girls ran across town through the snow to an elementary school for our practices.

We wore ridiculous red jumpers over white blouses for uniforms. It was the last year of six girls on a court: two forwards, two guards and two “rovers.” Only rovers were allowed to cross the center line. Apparently we were athletic enough to run a mile to our practice arena, but not to the other end of the court in a game.

Spend five minutes this weekend watching women’s teams in the Final Four, and terms such as aggressive, athletic, strong, intense, fast, powerful and physical come to mind. Ladylike? Probably not. These young women are serious, competitive athletes, and deserve to be treated - and referred to - as such.

So how about a chorus of “Good Night, Ladies?”

 
 
Team Dad: I'm grateful to them, and I'm grateful to my father for planning so well for his old age
(November 23, 2009) Hear the audio version

My father always believed in planning ahead. He made a list of the hymns and scriptures he wants at his memorial service back in 1976. In 1996 he drafted his obituary and added it to the papers in the blue metal box labeled "death," even though, according to the obit., we won't need it until until 2015.

Perhaps because his own parents, who were born in the 19th century, lived well into their 80's, Dad planned for decades of retirement. He and Mom often said they didn't want to be a burden to me and my three brothers. Thanks to several good jobs, a healthy 20th century California real estate market and some timely investments, Dad should be able to live out the rest of his years in the Assisted Living complex he and Mom chose and planned for. (Barring another economic collapse, that is.)

Since I was the only adult child living nearby, Dad began turning his financial and legal affairs over to me about three years ago. First he introduced me to his accountant, then his banker. I knew we were doing the right thing the morning we had an appointment with his lawyer to sign papers giving me Power of Attorney. Dad suddenly didn't know where the office was as he told me to drive round and around what turned out to be the wrong block. Before Mom died, she asked me to deal directly with their doctor and help them make medical decisions. Now I make all of Dad's appointments, pay his bills, his taxes and deal with the nurses who manage his daily tasks. I am my father's guardian.



But I couldn't do this without Team Dad. He chose his professional advisors wisely while he was still able. I call on them often. And Dad was smart enough to bring me on board when he did. He's too proud to admit he has dementia, but he knows. And it doesn't matter because he planned ahead for this possibility. Every time I visit Dad, I thank the nurses for taking care of him. What I don't do often enough is thank him. This Thanksgiving week is the perfect time to start.



With a Perspective, I'm Debbie Duncan.

 
 
What were City officials thinking when they ordered the clearcutting of dozens of trees in Palo Alto?
(October 9, 2009) Hear the audio version

While I was minding my own business and working at home last month, the City of Palo Alto Public Works Department chainsawed 63 trees on three blocks of California Avenue, the city's "other downtown." That's right: people working for a city named after a tree purposely mass slaughtered dozens of shade-providing holly oak trees on a street of shops, restaurants and a hotel. Within two days a vibrant shopping district of mostly independent, small businesses looked like a strip mall. Or a moonscape. Drivers turned onto the street and thought they were going crazy, because it looked so different.

I didn't see the results of what I now call the California Avenue chainsaw massacre until the following Sunday, when I walked across El Camino to the farmers market - shaking my head, catching my breath. Farmers reached for hats they hadn't brought as they sold their produce in the hot September sun.

Apparently some merchants and building owners complained about the oaks, and someone thought they should be removed en masse. And quickly. The city has a "beautification plan," and replacing the oaks with red maples - so California can look like Vermont? - was in the plan.

Yet the Public Works Department ignored a 14-day waiting period before chainsawing, and most merchants and Palo Alto and Stanford residents are livid. The owner of the cobbler shop says the tree removal led to the most depressing week of her life. Business is down 10 percent at the used bookstore since the trees came down; soon, the 21-year-old shop may close. Everyone, especially those who enjoyed dining al fresco, misses the shade. The City Manager apologized for the poor communication. But not for the massacre? The ugliness and un-greenness of it all?

Thankfully, cooler heads are making their voices heard. A group of citizens invited an independent arborist to recommend what sort of trees the street should have. City officials then scheduled a public meeting to discuss replanting. Perhaps there should be a variety of trees. Plant some now, some later. And never let those chainsaws have at it again.

With a Perspective, I'm Debbie Duncan.

 
 
What I had to do when my father became a danger behind the wheel
(April 10, 2009) Hear the audio version

My grandfather gave up driving the day he found himself going the wrong way on a one-way street. Yay, Grandpa! Unfortunately, my father refused to stop driving voluntarily, even after three crashes and several near-misses in a six-month period. My mother and I pleaded with him. I said I would make sure they were able to get wherever they needed or wanted to go. But he wouldn't listen.

Of course I knew driving meant more than transportation to my father, as it does to every 16-year-old itching to get his license. Driving means independence, freedom, responsibility, adult behavior - things Dad stubbornly clung to in spite of his age-related failings. Though I understood and sympathized with him, a car is a potential lethal weapon, one he clearly was no longer able to control responsibly.

So I turned him in.

That's right. I reported my own father - who had taught me how to drive - to the DMV. I didn't tell him. I just filled out a form I found online, a "Request for Driver Re-examination," with boxes to check for specific examples of Dad's behavior behind the wheel. I also described the crashes he never reported to his insurance company, the turns in front of oncoming cars, the rolling through stop signs and red lights. As an immediate family member I was able to request confidentiality. My hand shook as I signed the form.

The process took about three months - first an "interview" at one DMV office, then a behind-the-wheel examination at another. That was a very short test. Afterwards he was unhappy and I felt guilty, but no one was maimed or killed. My brother took the beat-up car. I hired a (much-younger) friend of Dad's to take him out shopping every Saturday. They also go to lunch like old frat brothers. I started accompanying both of my parents to the doctor. Mom and I so appreciated that time together in the last six months of her life. And Dad - he actually thanks me now for driving. I tell him he's very welcome.

With a Perspective, I'm Debbie Duncan.

 
 
The remarkable women of Pooh Corner
(February 24, 2009) Hear the audio version

When a mother dies, the need to be mothered doesn't go away. After my mom's death a year ago, I was fortunate to find a surrogate for all things maternal in a most unusual group of women: her college friends, affectionately known as the Pooh Ladies, as in Winnie-the-Pooh.

Housing was tight at Pomona College during World War II, so in the fall of '44 Mom and six other sophomores were assigned to live in a dorm basement. Someone decided to spruce up the cement walls and steam pipes by christening the area "Pooh Corner." Each woman took on the name of a character from A.A. Milne's children's books. Mom was Rabbit, and remained so for the rest of her life - always trying to organize everyone, and collecting dozens and dozens of rabbits. Pooh Corner stayed Pooh Corner until the dorm was remodeled years later and the basement became a laundry.

I grew up calling my friends' mothers Mrs. So-and-So, but I was on a first-name basis with the Pooh Group. Some of their daughters became my own friends. What a gift for a girl with three brothers! The Pooh Ladies were my mother's primary support group for more than six decades, meeting once or twice a year for Pooh retreats, and always available on the other end of the telephone line.

Especially in those early weeks after Mom died, I called Marylee when I wanted to talk to a mother who knew my own better than anyone. Katie took Mom's place as head cheerleader about my writing. She sends me notes that make my day. And Helen is my email buddy and fellow political junkie. As a bonus, her daughter Sara and I have rekindled our childhood friendship.

The Pooh Ladies' retreat last spring coincided with my birthday - the first for all of us without Mom. So Kanga and Pooh and Eeyore and Tigger and Owl and Piglet - my wonderful 83-year-old surrogate mothers - called to wish me many happy returns of the day. Rabbit may be gone, but her love, support and friendship live on.



With a Perspective, I'm Debbie Duncan.

(Many thanks to KQED's brilliant engineer, Howard Gelman, for helping me get through the taping of my most emotional Perspective ever.)

 
 
Slow medicine: an emerging trend in geriatric medicine
(July 21, 2008) Hear the audio version

Like many baby boomers, I've been helping to care for my parents just as my kids are leaving home. Some older people, like small children, require a lot of medical care. Bones break, systems fail after eight or nine decades of use. The inclination is to do anything possible to fix whatever's broken. After all, we have modern medicine. We did that for my mother for most of the last year of her life, until, while lying in the ICU, she looked up at her favorite surgical resident and said clearly and with a sound mind, "Enough. No more operations. Take me off life support and let me go home to die." Which Mom did, with dignity and the chance to say goodbye to those she loved.

Now I'm trying to care for my dad with my mom's wisdom. It hasn't been easy, especially after Dad had a heart attack. The chaotic pace during a four-day stay in our local, high-tech university hospital made me dizzy. Eventually, however, his daily report changed from "lousy" to "pretty good, thank you."

That's when the time came to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n the specialists eager to perform follow-up tests and procedures. Some geriatricians call it slow medicine - that is, the practice of not doing everything we can just because we can, and because older people can pay for it, for they're covered by a great government-funded universal health insurance program, Medicare. Dad's internist, a perceptive physician I've worked with the past year, prefers to call it "thoughtful medicine." What are the real goals? The benefits? Side effects? Potential harm? Why subject Dad to a complicated procedure if we could not - or would not - do anything about what we might find out? What if doing so caused new complications? Deciding not to do something is a decision in itself. Dad, after all, is feeling "pretty good." We need to listen to him instead of focusing on how long we might be able to get him to live.

My father's 83. He's slowing down. When I take him somewhere he'll tell me to run along ahead of him. "Nope, Dad," I say. "I'm right here beside you, all the way."

With a Perspective, I'm Debbie Duncan.

In loving memory of my dear mother, Lavon Elaine Johnson Duncan, July 24, 1925 - February 15, 2008. I miss her every day. She was my biggest fan.

 
 
I ain't gonna work on Maggie's Farm no more
(June 9, 2008) Hear the audio version

My youngest is graduating from high school this week. Thus it is, to borrow a phrase from a wonderful commencement address by Adlai Stevenson, the last of my springs. For many - and perhaps most parents, this would be a melancholy moment, filled with musings about the impending empty nest and laments along the lines of "I can't believe my baby is graduating!" But for me it's Hallelujah, hooray, and pass the cabernet! Or as Bob Dylan put it, "I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more."

I have been a public school parent for 18 years. Though I'll always be grateful to my daughters' teachers for providing a solid education, I will not miss waking my child up early for school when I know she needs more sleep. I won't miss observing a morning meltdown over a missing stamped first draft of an English paper, or having to track down the elusive ingredient for a final Spanish project. Like her sisters, my youngest will face academic and personal challenges in college. I'll hear about some of them via cell phone or email. But I won't have to witness the daily struggles. I've done that. I'm still relieved my daughters survived middle school mean girls, high school expectations and college entrance exams and applications. My classic stress dream of finally finding my high school math class the day of the final (it was up the down staircase) is occasionally replaced by my nightmare of the power going out in our house the night before SAT's, and everyone oversleeping.

I miss my kids when they go off to college. But if they're doing well - wherever they are - so am I. I don't need to hold on to my children to feel good as a parent. In fact, if I've done my job right, I'll work my way out of a job as my daughters become self-sufficient, independent adults, the sort of grown-ups I'd want to have as friends or colleagues.

So I don't expect to be sad on this final graduation night. I will congratulate my daughter and her high school friends for their remarkable tenacity and achievements, and look forward to the next phase of all of our lives.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
Ever wonder what it's like to be on the other end of that phone line during election season?
(January 28, 2008) Hear the audio version

If your phone is ringing a bit more frequently this week before the California primary, well, I'm sorry. No, I have nothing to do with those annoying, intrusive, is-anyone-on-the-other-end-of-the-phone-line? automated political phone calls. I am, though, proud to be an old-fashioned campaign volunteer who makes hundreds of telephone calls a week to identify supporters and get them to vote. It's a tough job, but if I don't want the campaign I'm working for to resort to those ridiculous robocalls, I'd better get on the phone myself.

I've been calling voters in California, Iowa and Nevada from my kitchen since early December. I became used to Iowans hanging up on me somewhere in the middle of, "Hi, my name is Debbie Duncan and I'm a volunteer for the-" I don't take it personally. Only about 15 percent even answer the phone (Nevadans more readily than Iowans or Californians, whatever that means). I usually get an answering machine. That's fine. I don't want to bother you if you don't care to talk to me. If you do answer and don't want to hear my pitch, a simple "No, thank you," or "I'd rather not talk politics on the telephone" will get me to mark "Refused" on my computer screen, and keep at least one campaign from calling you again. My 17-year-old daughter calls from the campaign office where the caller ID is the name of the candidate. Someone she called answered the phone with another candidate's name. That got the message across - efficiently and with humor.

But what really keeps me punching those telephone numbers is finding that occasional golden needle - a voter who wants to hear why I'm supporting my candidate and not another, or who has been waiting to be asked to volunteer, or who just has a question and an open mind. I made friends with a mom in Iowa whose son was recently injured in Iraq. I helped another woman answer a question she was debating with her husband when I called - and then they both promised to support my candidate. I spoke to a native of Trinidad who thanked me for looking up her caucus location. These are citizens who, like me and I hope most listeners, want to participate in the democratic process at its most basic level. And that's a good thing.

With a Perspective, I'm Debbie Duncan.

I can write here what I could not say on the air: OBAMA '08!

 
 
Does "going green" mean giving up treasured holiday traditions?
(December 13, 2007) Hear the audio version

My husband and I have worked out our "who does what" responsibilities quite nicely over 26 years of marriage and raising three daughters: he does most of the grocery shopping, I shop the farmers markets, he does the dishes, I bake the gluten-free bread, he takes the kids shopping for our Christmas tree . . . make that used to. Year before last, with two daughters on their way home from college and one husband on a business trip, I decided it was my time to pick out the tree. It is, after all, my favorite Christmas decoration. I love the smell of the tree and the ornaments I take out every year, and the light it brings into our home in the dark of December.

I chose to avoid pricey lots on the Peninsula and tried something different. That Saturday, my youngest and I drove over the hill and through the traffic to Half Moon Bay and a Christmas tree farm. Of course I had no idea how difficult it would be to saw through a tree trunk. Molly and I took turns for an hour and had gloriously sore muscles to show for it the next day. We dragged our tree to the stand where a stocking-capped helper put netting around it and tied it to the roof of the car. That part was easy. And I know the tree was cheaper than Bill normally paid. So, Molly and I went back last year . . . and chose a skinnier tree.

After spending much of this year trying to be "greener," I worried I was making a big environmental boo-boo. Perhaps a fake tree would be a softer touch on Mother Earth than hacking a tree from the land and sticking it indoors for a few weeks, then depositing it curbside - to be recycled. But still . . .

Happily, I don't have to go faux. Most fake trees come from China. We know the reputation those imports have earned this year. While fake trees can be re-used, they are not recyclable. My tree farm tree is only a 13-mile drive away, while the fake tree has a 6,000 mile voyage. Plus, I'm supporting a Bay Area farmer, and I can see for myself the smaller trees planted to replace those we take away. I did buy new LED Christmas tree lights this year, and vow to put fewer presents (all "wrapped" in reusable bags) under this year's tree that will smell just like Christmas.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
Just call me the Halloween Scrooge
(October 31, 2007) Hear the audio version

It's Halloween, and boy, am I looking forward to . . . Thanksgiving.

I hate Halloween. There - I've said it. I didn't even like it when I was a kid and never knew what I was going to "be." Throw on some old, oversized clothes and pretend to be a beatnik - again? What a fraud! And it wasn't as if I could whip up something on the Singer. I failed sewing in Home Ec. When I had my own children, they looked to me for costume ideas. Uh-oh. We went the catalog route for several years. I was in BIG trouble if I hadn't ordered the princess, or pirate outfit in midsummer, when all the "hot" costumes were still available. My children's elementary school had a costume parade every Halloween. Talk about pressure!

And speaking of "hot," a walk down the costume aisle of Target or Long's offers the narrowest range of possibilities for adult females who care to dress up for Halloween: French maid, "Deluxe bunny, "sexy witch" . . are the people making these costumes aware there was a feminist revolution forty years ago?

Lots of people lament the sugar overload on Halloween, but what about kids who can't have the candy? Halloween is the worst day of the year for those with food allergies, because candy is teeming with common food allergens - nuts, wheat, milk, soy, you name it. My gluten-intolerant daughter never knew what to say: "Trick or treat, but is it gluten-free?" Poor kid: we made her hand over 90 percent of her candy to her sisters. And school is a mine field of poisons on Halloween - parties in elementary school and "candy grams" in my daughter's high school. She'll stay home today, rather than be sick for the next week.

If you are like many and enjoy this "holiday," go ahead. Drape spider webs from your balcony, dress up as Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld - now that's scary.

But if you're like me and feel like turning off the porch light and hiding in a back room to read a book, know you are not alone. If you want to talk about the book, well, we could have our own Halloween party. But please, no costumes. Or candy.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
Who's on first for the San Francisco Giants this season? (With apologies to Abbott and Costello.)
(April 3, 2007) Hear the audio version

D: Molly, you're a Giants fan.

M: Yeah, Mom.

D: So today's Opening Day.

M: Yep.

D: Back in the 60's -

M: - the old days.

D: Right, the old days. San Francisco Giants fans knew who'd be on the team every year.

M: Who?

D: Mays, McCovey, Marichal, Cepeda, and an Alou -

M: - or two or three.

D: Right. But these days fans need a cheat sheet to know who's on first.

M: Richie's on first.

D: Rich Aurilia?

M: Yep.

D: But Richie's a shortstop.

M: Except when he's on first. Omar's at short, Ray-Ray's on second, and Pedro's at third.

D: Hey! I know them. This isn't so hard -

M: - except when Klesko's on first.

D: You said Richie was on first!

M: Except when Sweeney's on first.

D: MAKE UP YOUR MIND, MOLLY! Who is on first?

M: Lance Niekro?

D: The Giants have FOUR first-basemen?

M: Yep.

D: I don't get it. It wasn't that long ago when we needed only one first-baseman, the great J.T. Snow.

M: We HAVE J.T. Snow.

D: Then why do the Giants need anyone else on first???

M: J.T. retired, Mom. He's a coach. And broadcaster.

D: Okay. Who's in left?

M: Barry.

D: Barry Bonds?

M: Yep.

D: For one more year?

M: At least.

D: Okay . . . Who's in center?

M: Dave Roberts.

D: The guy I call the jackrabbit, who ran around the bases for the Red Sox to come back against the Yankees in the '04 playoffs? He's a Giant now?

M: Yep, and he's batting leadoff. He should get ON first a lot.

D: When he isn't playing center.

M: Yep.

D: I like it. Who's in right?

M: Randy Winn.

D: But he's a center-fielder.

M: Roberts is in center. Winn's in right.

D: Who's pitching?

M: Barry.

D: You said Barry was in left!

M: Barry BONDS is in left, Barry ZITO is on the mound.

D: Barry Zito the A's pitcher?

M: No, Barry Zito the Giants' pitcher.

D: He left the A's -

M: - and signed with the Giants.

D: Good! So who else's gonna help the Giants win games this year?

M: LOTS of guys: Matt Cain -

D: - who's your sister's age.

M: Yep. And Noah Lowry and Bengie Molina and Todd Linden and Kevin Frandsen.

D: Got it. I hate to ask this, but . . . any of them play first?

M: Uh-huh.

D: So who's on first?

M: Kevin. When it's not Richie or Ryan or Mark or Lance -

D: Molly!

M: What?

D: Let's just get on the train and go to the ballpark.

M: I'm ready!

D: With a Perspective, I'm Debbie Duncan.

M: And I'm Molly Duncan Stone.

D & M: Play ball!

 
 
What do drops in breast cancer rates mean to me?
(January 18, 2007) Hear the audio version

I was fixing breakfast when I heard the news about the dramatic drop in breast cancer rates from 2002 to 2003 - 7 percent nationwide, 11 percent in California. Turn up the radio, stop the presses! After years of attending memorial services for our friends, holding our mothers' hands during their chemotherapy treatments, and wondering "Who's next?" or "Will I be that one in eight who gets it?" there was an actual decline in breast cancer incidence - the first since 1945. The hypothesis? Millions of women stopped hormone replacement therapy for menopausal symptoms in 2002 after a national study concluded that it slightly increased breast cancer risk. Stop taking hormones, and the fuel supply for certain tumors is cut off. This could explain the higher-than-average breast cancer rate, and subsequent drop, in places like Marin County, where more women have access to health care, and hormone therapy was standard - until four years ago.

Fortunately, I'm not one of the thousands who took hormones and also developed breast cancer. I'd be mad as hell if I had, even if the relationship between the two isn't yet confirmed. Doctors were far too eager to prescribe hormones for what is a normal, natural change in women's bodies.

I take breast cancer seriously, and personally. It killed my aunt. My mother has had two kinds of breast cancer. So when my younger cousin was diagnosed with it three years ago, I consulted the oncologist I credit with keeping my dear mother alive. She recommended I begin taking tamoxifen, which blocks estrogen. So long menstrual periods, hello hot flashes! Suddenly I knew quite well why women had asked for hormone replacements. But . . . I've decided to live with that space-heater feeling that suddenly comes over me. So have millions of other post-menopausal women who, ten years ago, might have been on hormone replacement therapy. Be patient with us. We're trying to stick around so our children can take care of us in our oldage.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
It's election season, and with it the return of "robo-calls"
(October 24, 2006) Hear the audio version

The calls returned in September, after a mere two-month reprieve. I swore after the June primary that I'd try to have our telephone number removed from voter registration lists, but did I get around to it over the summer? Nope. So this election season we are once again treated to answering the telephone to hear a pesky recorded political phone call, also known as a robo-call. Is the election over yet?

Ever since that glorious "National Do Not Call Registry" went into effect, most of the phone calls my family receives are wanted, appreciated, and have a live human being on the other end of the line. When the telephone rings I immediately wonder if the call's from one of our daughters away at college, my parents across town, a friend inviting me to lunch or a ballgame, or perhaps an editor who wants to buy my book. So even though I would love to talk politics with Bill or Hillary or Al Gore or "United States Senator Barbara Boxer," I do not appreciate answering the phone to their taped political pitches, even if I do agree with their candidate or cause. (That is, of course, why I'm on their lists.) These calls are nothing less than a one-sided invasion of my work and personal privacy. I can't even tell the callers I don't appreciate it, because no one is listening. So I hang up.

I cannot believe these calls work. But I'm one who also can't fathom that all those Viagra, stock-tip, lottery-winning, mortgage offers, and eBay and PayPal account suspension notices caught in my spam filter every day get any response either. My niece the Washington lobbyist assures me robo-calls are a cheap and effective tool, especially close to election day. Even if only a minute percentage of the electorate pays attention, they pay off.

Yet I'm so annoyed, I'm tempted to vote against whatever they are supporting. And if people like me are successful in removing our phone numbers from voter rolls, we're limiting future opportunities for political discourse with candidates and causes-many of them local-that still use real, live callers. Hello? Is anybody there?

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
Has it been a while since you heard "You're welcome"?
(September 12, 2006) Hear the audio version

"Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. No, thank you." Everywhere these days, on the airwaves or on the street, a virtual ping-pong match of thank yous concludes every conversation, while the simple, elegant, and correct reply, "You're welcome," has gone the way of the Betamax. "Enough already, thank you very much." It's time to rescue "You're welcome" and return it to its humble but rightful place in polite discourse.

Talking heads are among the worst offenders. They're usually experts on the topic under discussion, so it's their job to speak eloquently and knowledgably. By parroting "Thank you," what exactly are they thanking the interviewer for? I don't know. Does false modesty prohibit them from replying "You're welcome"? Then to be honest, they should say, "Aw shucks, thanks for asking my opinion."

Or . . . has the "Thank you" echo become a mindless habit? Clearly, it has already spread beyond the broadcast media. I've caught myself repeating "Thank you," even though I object to it. Every week I thank the people who thank me when I buy organic lettuce, heirloom tomatoes, crispy apples, and other goodies at the farmers market. I am thankful they grow this delicious produce that feeds and nourishes my family. Maybe I should smile and reply, "Thank you for coming to market," or "See you next week." More thoughtful, less mechanical.

Repeating "Thank you" also invites that silly, repetitive gratitude loop that's in danger of ending with "No problem," just to terminate the dialogue. [Gasp!] Oh, no, not that! "No problem" is the other increasingly common response to "Thank you," especially among young people.

"You're welcome" won't come back unless you and I bring it back. And in the process, we will be setting a good example for our language-challenged media.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan. Thank you!

 
 
Who's more nervous about the driver's test: the 16-year-old, or Mom?
(August 14, 2006) Hear the audio version

I could feel every beat of my racing heart as my 16-year-old daughter pulled the little red Jetta back into the DMV parking lot. The girl right before Molly had failed her behind-the-wheel test. Her father was in the middle of a long and obviously spirited discussion with the DMV examiner. How about Molly? I knew, in spite of my thumping heart, that she was a good driver - I'd spent dozens of hours in the car with her over the last six months. She's careful by nature. She'd even practiced driving around downtown Redwood City - not our normal stomping grounds, but now the neighborhood of our nearest DMV office. Yet anything can happen on those tests. We'd heard about one particularly tricky curb on the Redwood City route.

I stared at the back of the car, and waited. Finally Molly opened the driver's door, got out, turned around, and gave me a thumb's up with a smile. Whew! My youngest would be a licensed California driver. Today. Cross that milestone off for our family.

Now I could switch gears (so to speak) and start worrying about her being out on the road by herself. And by herself she will be, thanks to California's graduated license program. For a year Molly can't have passengers under 20 in the car with her, unless they have a note from a parent - a rather odd stipulation, but one we employ for driving the neighborhood carpool to the high school. Molly also can't drive after 11 at night for a year. I approve. More crashes happen late at night. Experience behind the wheel helps avoid those accidents.

Driving is dangerous, and some California roads and freeways scarier every year. If Highway 17 were a roller coaster ride, the amusement park would be ordered to shut it down in a week. I never stop reminding my kids that automobiles are lethal weapons and crashes happen in an instant.

But I can't, and I don't want to put Molly in bubblewrap. California is a car culture whether I like it or not. And I trust that the Department of Motor Vehicles knew what it was doing when it granted her a California drivers license.

"Drive carefully, Molly."

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
How does one recycle an SUV responsibly? . . . or, The Suburban Goes Bye-Bye
(April 26, 2006) Hear the audio version

Back in '94, when gas prices were low(er) and I had three children under the age of 10, my husband had what he thought was a good idea - to buy one of those SUV behemoths, a Suburban. His was only the second in our part of town, but soon there were more - many more - and they were EVERYWHERE, with their tall, tinted windows blocking my view in parking lots and on the freeway, as well as in my own driveway.

I quickly became an SUV basher. True, ours took the five of us and our gear to Yosemite and Tahoe in one vehicle many times, and came in handy when family or friends moved and needed help hauling their stuff. But more days than not Bill drove it all by himself to the office or on local errands. And then he started working at home. He knew we needed to dispose of the darn thing, but . . . how does one get rid of an SUV responsibly?

It was too big to stuff in the recycling bin. Bomb shelters aren't in vogue - at least at the moment. Nor could it be genetically reengineered into two normal cars. This winter, a dealer offered to buy it for $4000 and sell it for ten. But then it might end up in the hands of someone who'd drive it solo, barreling down the highway, cell phone in hand. That could also very well happen if we donated it to a nonprofit that would have it auctioned. Ideally, we wanted it used by someone who actually needed an eight-passenger truck.

As luck would have it, a speaker at a fundraising breakfast had the perfect answer. "We need a replacement for our van." Eureka! So last month the old Suburban found its new lease on life, as a workhorse for an organization in San Jose that helps teens in trouble to make healthy decisions. It's already putting in full days ferrying young people to their community service projects, job interviews, and retreats out of the city. The director, staff and peer leaders are thrilled with their new set of wheels, which they've christened Chuck the Truck. We're kinda happy about it, too.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
A good night's sleep (which is impossible when a child has sleep apnea)
(March 15, 2006) Hear the audio version

My 13-year-old daughter looked horrified when she came into the kitchen one morning. "I emptied my dresser drawers again last night," she said. "All my clothes are in the middle of the floor." And she didn't remember doing it.

That night after Molly went to sleep, she ripped a stack of old photographs to shreds. Then she tore the posters off her bedroom walls. She didn't remember that either. I was as terrified as she. I didn't know if we needed a doctor - or an exorcist.

I started with medicine. An overnight sleep study at Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic showed that Molly stopped breathing about 23 times an hour. Diagnosis? Severe obstructive sleep apnea. Tearing her room apart made perfect sense to the pediatric sleep specialist. He told us it was a behavior that has been misinterpreted throughout the ages.

Sleep apnea is more common in children than parents realize, and is easily missed by pediatricians. Sleepwalking can be a symptom, as is snoring. Delayed development is another. Some children are thought to have ADHD, when really they're suffering from chronic sleep deprivation. My daughter was getting an average of six bad hours of sleep for the 10 hours she was in bed. Many kids are cured with what the docs call "T and A" - tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy. Yet Molly still had apnea after they yanked her tonsils. We stopped her sleepwalking by waking her up 30 minutes after she went to sleep, but that didn't cure the apnea. For that she needed to go to bed hooked up to a CPAP machine. A full night's sleep meant she wasn't sick all the time. Or tired. She also grew half a foot in the first few months. Finally, early last summer she was able to have surgery to move her jaws forward and out from blocking her airway. Now a high school sophomore, she sleeps well.

Parents often think their child's sleeping problems end when the baby sleeps through the night. Not always! Thankfully, we no longer live in the Middle Ages, and there are wonderful resources available from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. As we learned, all sleep apnea sufferers aren't middle aged and overweight. Some are 85 pounds and struggling to stay awake in algebra class.

With a Perspective, I'm Debbie Duncan.

(Note: please send me an email if you have questions about kids and sleep apnea. I'm happy to help.)

 
 
Taking care of the caretaker (or, what happens when Mom gets sick?)
(November 21, 2005) Hear the audio version

Last Sunday I did something unusual for me, the mother of the house. I took care of myself. This is how it happened: the night before I'd been suddenly stricken with a nasty ailment. When I crawled into bed I felt like a cartoon character at the North Pole: my teeth would not stop chattering. Every bone and muscle ached. I lay awake most of the night, shivering and listening to the transistor radio under my pillow.

So on Sunday I dozed on the couch while meals were prepared and eaten. I missed my volunteer stint at the bookstore. My husband took our teenage daughter to her soccer game. She had an assist on the winning goal without my cheering her on. The dog didn't go nuts without his daily walk. In short, my family and the community carried on quite nicely without me.

I'm not used to putting myself first. I'm the mom, after all, who knows best how to toast the bread, who keeps track of orthodontist appointments and the whereabouts of P.E. clothes and wake-up times and how to put on the dog's new collar. Like so many mothers, I consider myself indispensable, even though: a) I am not; and b) my husband is perfectly able - and willing - to take on the tasks I always assume for myself. Some feminist! I'm acting like it's 1955, not 2005. And as an active member of the sandwich generation, I also help take care of my parents. So when I was in charge of their move to a retirement home in August, I thought I didn't have time to be sick and delayed going to the doctor until I required massive doses of antibiotics, two days in the hospital, and weeks of recovery before I felt like myself again.

Too bad it took a hospital stay to make me change my ways. It was only then that I realized I'd been setting a pretty poor example for my daughters by always putting everyone else's needs far ahead of mine. But it's hard to overcome the instincts I swear are imbedded on that second X chromosome. I'm still learning. That day on the couch, though, was precisely what I needed. By Monday I was able to get up and make my daughter's chai tea just as she likes it. My husband fixed her breakfast and lunch.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
The incredible shrinking summer
(August 22, 2005) Hear the audio version

If you see a school bus tooling around town today, it's probably not a test run. That's because school starts this week for thousands of Bay Area children. And I must say that my 15-year-old and her friends are having trouble mustering the enthusiasm for going back to five straight days of seven periods of academic classes while there's still a month left of summer.

I realize that the real crises in American education are more along the lines of crumbling school buildings filled with too many kids with multiple academic, behavioral, and language challenges. We should be ashamed that the U.S. has one of the highest high school dropout rates in the industrialized world. But in my household, the early start date has been the thundercloud over my daughter's head since the summer finally began in mid-June. She never even had a chance to get bored! Unstructured time - daydreaming, exploring - has no place in the day planners of contemporary children, especially middle and high school students bound for college. With the school year now extended over ten full months, my child and her classmates will have precisely one weekend, after finals in January, without homework. Our district only pretends to pay attention to the alarm bells sounded by Stanford lecturer Denise Clark Pope's Stressed-Out Students Project. A school calendar that begins two weeks before Labor Day is guaranteed to compound the stress.

All public schools in this No Child Left Untested era have become so obsessed with standardized testing in the spring that many feel the need to begin preparing their students early. In August. The school start date has been creeping up for the last several years, but finally, it's reached the tipping point of annoyance among families who want their summers back. Tourism-friendly California legislators may want to take a look at laws already passed in four states that curb early back-to-school dates.

In the meantime, rather than enjoying the dog days of summer and going back on the more reasonable and traditional day after Labor Day, kids and teachers will be sweating it out in the classroom these weeks, trying not to dwell on opportunities missed and pleasures foregone in the incredible shrinking summer.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
What does the Salinas libraries' crisis say about funding for basic services throughout the state?
(May 3, 2005) Hear the audio version

When the Salinas City Council voted to close its three public libraries after tax measures failed in November, a firestorm of protest ignited. Shut down the libraries in John Steinbeck's hometown? Why, that'd be like moving the Golden Gate Bridge to Lake Havasu! Libraries are the heart and soul of a community. And if Salinas, a city of 150,000, can close its libraries, then it could happen anywhere.

Libraries are as basic as tap water. They shouldn't have to beg for funding, city by city, county by county, year to year, as they do now. Poor communities need libraries even more than wealthy ones - their residents depend on public libraries for books, computers, tutoring and other programs. The Cesar Chavez Public Library in Salinas has a popular after-school homework center. Board up the library, and you know where those kids will be left - the street. How dare we let that happen?

Well, thanks to an outpouring of public support and private donations to the Salinas libraries, it won't - at least not this year. Cesar Chavez will remain open for a grand total of 10 hours a week. The library named after native son Steinbeck only eight. Eight hours??? I bet the Governor's children don't line up hoping for their library doors to open. So why should the child of a farmworker or a teacher? Is civic responsibility totally a thing of the past?

I sure hope not. I hope the situation in Salinas has sounded alarm bells heard by all. Programs necessary for a civil society demand adequate funding. California should make library funding a state priority along with schools and fire and police, and, I guess, prisons. These basic services should not have to rely on initiatives or special taxes or lobbying or bake sales for their very survival. The people of this state - citizens and immigrants - need our libraries to be open and thriving. Not just my library, but yours and hers and those 100 miles down 101.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
No matter what Punxsutawney Phil says, Groundhog Day always means six more weeks of winter to me
(February 2, 2005) Hear the audio version

Today is Groundhog Day. You may have heard already whether Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow when he emerged from his burrow. If he did, legend has it there will be six more weeks of winter weather. If the little critter does not cast a shadow, spring will come early. The notion that weather conditions at the outset of February predict what will follow dates back centuries, to Northern Europe. German immigrants who settled in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania brought the shadow/no shadow custom with them. In 1886 they designated a groundhog named Phil the official prognosticator. A group called the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club vigorously promotes this dubious holiday and contends that Phil, who sees his shadow about 90 percent of the time, has never been wrong.

Out here in California, I don't need a groundhog to tell me we're only halfway through winter. My body relies on the sun to set my mood and energy, and alas, el sol is still too low in the sky for my liking. I begin every February wishing I could skip it altogether - the rain, fog, cold. I long to escape to Australia. I diagnosed myself with SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, even before it had a name. It's a depression that creeps up on me around the end of September and keeps me down until March. I can't stop it, even when I know it's coming. What I can do is stand in front of my "full-spectrum light box," a two-feet long, one foot high bank of bright lights I have perched on my kitchen counter every morning. People come into my house and ask, "What the heck is that?" and I tell them it's drug-free therapy for my winter blues. It's probably also cheaper than Prozac.

When the sun does come out, I make myself take long walks to soak in as much of it as I can. As winter drags on I also rely on snippets of hope that spring is on its way. My favorite expression of the month is "Pitchers and catchers report to spring training." I watch for the first wildflowers in the foothills. And I'm grateful that unlike other forms of depression, mine will end with the season. But long after Groundhog Day.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
Are high school seniors just another package?
(December 13, 2004) Hear the audio version

What a stressful time of year! Not the holidays - college applications. We boomers who had babies in 1987 are now parents of 17-year-olds who all seem to be applying to the same 200 selective colleges and universities. In Palo Alto, where a 4.04 weighted GPA is only in the top 30% of the class, it's the same 20 schools. And to be successful, word has it that an applicant must have good - make that great - grades in difficult classes, including several Advanced Placement courses; solid scores on SAT's; passionate, deep involvement in more than one activity; a talent or special skill that will stand out from the pack; plenty of community service "hours"; and, preferably, work experience. This, not in a lifetime but before the age of 18. And before tackling the actual college applications, including those critical essays.

The stress my daughter is feeling now comes from her cutthroat environment, not from her dad and me. And that's where our family separates from the pack. We don't care where she goes. Almost any college in the country has more to teach than any student can learn in four years. She has friends whose parents insist they apply to the Ivy League, or Stanford or Cal. Many families in the Bay Area "outsource" the college application process to high-priced independent counselors, hoping that will give their children an edge. But I don't want someone telling my daughter where to find her passions or what to write about in her essays. I'd like her to figure that out for herself. And I have good news for parents whose instinct is to resist packaging: my oldest followed her own path in high school, and is now a sophomore at the only university she applied to. Her sister, who still has 19 schools on her list, spent more than a month crafting a fresh, original personal statement she has every reason to be proud of. I'm content to sit on the sidelines and offer help when asked. And ask she does, for this crazy process has actually brought us closer. After she filed her UC application from the kitchen computer, she invited me to lunch.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
Are touchscreen voting machines ready for the big test in November?
(August 18, 2004) Hear the audio version

My friend Molly was the first to use the new ATM at the bank next door to our office in 1979. "It's so cool," she said. "You almost feel like you don't have to record it in your checkbook!" For 25 years I've appreciated the convenience of being able to get cash on Saturday mornings for the farmers market, and deposit checks without standing in a teller line. The ATM worked wonderfully ­ until the bank installed new, touchscreen models. Last week the machine took my deposit envelope and then wrote on the screen: "Your request cannot be processed at this time." No receipt, no money, no nothin'. Fortunately the bank was open. Unfortunately, it is against federal law for the teller to retrieve the envelope and return it to me, or deposit it in my account. Two days, two visits to the branch, and four hours on the phone to customer service later, I was granted "provisional credit." The head teller's advice? "Don't use the ATM. This happens randomly, at least once a week."

Oh, dear. Touchscreen ATM's are related to touchscreen voting machines, which, in an over-reaction to the hanging chad fiasco in Florida, will be inaugurated en masse across the nation in arguably the most important election of our time. Will random voters this November 2 see "Your vote cannot be processed" on their touchscreen voting machines? Or "This ballot is provisional pending an investigation?" Bravo to Secretary of State Kevin Shelley for insisting on corrections to the security of electronic voting machines in California, and for requiring polling places to offer a paper ballot alternative. Florida's Governor Jeb Bush apparently has no qualms about the technology, despite computer crashes and lost - then found - discs from the 2002 gubernatorial primary, and his own party's recommendation that Republicans vote absentee.

My bank sent a letter informing me that "a hardware failure occurred during (my) transaction." No kidding. So I'm going back to banking the old-fashioned way: with a teller. And I'll be casting my ballot the old-fashioned way, too: on paper. Isn't progress wonderful?

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
Family meal planning made not-so-simple
(July 6, 2004) 

I must confess I wasn't thrilled when my 17-year-old daughter recently announced she was going vegan—that is, eat only plant-based foods. This is a child who decided in kindergarten that she wouldn't eat meat, but she's never especially cared for vegetables. For years it seemed she lived on cheddar cheese, sourdough bread, applesauce and plain chow mein. I asked her how she planned to get protein. "Nuts, tofu and soy milk," she said. She promised to take her vitamins. Then she cheerfully went off to the grocery store, and I decided our family of five is themost difficult to feed. 

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Because I had known young women with eating disorders who had grown up with mothers obsessed with food and body weight, I had decided that food wouldn't be an issue in our house. That worked, until my youngest was diagnosed 12 years ago at age 20 months with a gluten intolerance. Food suddenly became a huge deal, as wheat, barley and rye (mostly wheat) had given her a severe case of malnutrition.

I learned to cook gluten-free. And vegetarian, as one by one my three daughters gave up meat. I stopped eating it too. But when my husband was recovering from a bleeding ulcer, he had to load up on beef. So he started making most of his own meals. Then his doctor wanted him to go light on the carbs. And now our oldest has gone gluten-free, even though her symptoms aren't as nasty as her sister's.

We don't get invited out anymore.

Our refrigerator doesn't have room for seven different kinds of milk.

And yet . . . bumping into each other in the kitchen as we prepare three, or perhaps four or five dinner entrees has its advantages over the old query, "What's for dinner, Mom?" I'm glad my kids know how to feed themselves. And while we're clearly pretty far out there on the fussy-eater spectrum, I bet it's unusual, especially in this season of Atkins and South Beach diets, for a family of five not to have any dietary restrictions. Those who do are welcome at our dinner table any time.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
Why is celiac disease so hard for primary-care doctors to diagnose?
(December 8, 2003) Hear the audio version

My 13-year-old daughter nearly died of malnutrition before she was two. She looked like a starving baby on the Nightly News: bloated tummy, stick legs, blank facial expression. After watching our child waste away even after 54 doctor visits, three hospitalizations and 17 blood tests, we heard from a friend down in Southern California about gluten intolerance. I mentioned it to our doctor-of-the day, and for the first time a physician stepped back and looked at our child instead of her chart. "You know what?" he said. "She does look like a sprue kid." Bingo! Five days later she was diagnosed with celiac disease, sometimes called celiac sprue. All she needed was a diet free of the gluten in wheat, barley and rye. 

I wish I could say that delayed diagnoses such as my daughter's went out with the 20th century. Sadly, that's not so. Most physicians still believe celiac disease is rare, when in fact research confirms an incidence in this country of one out of every 133 people. It is a chronic, genetic autoimmune disease that can show up at any age. Doctors have been taught it's difficult to diagnose because not all celiacs have obvious gastrointestinal symptoms. Some are just horribly fatigued, or short in stature. But a simple blood test for celiac antibodies is a safe and accurate screening device, and should always be considered for patients with a bloated stomach and signs of malnutrition. Last week I met a newly diagnosed teenage celiac who looked like a concentration camp victim. It had taken her more than six weeks to be referred to a gastroenterologist, who tested her immediately.

Of course there are physicians who diagnose celiac disease even before their patients become seriously ill. But when doctors don't consider it, then we as patients and parents need to insist on the screening test if we suspect gluten intolerance. Untreated celiac disease not only makes a person feel crummy, it can also lead to diabetes and other autoimmune diseases, as well as cancer. People deserve to know if their food is poisoning them.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
Is Early Decision a college admissions racket that should be broken?
(November 18, 2002) Hear the audio version

This month Stanford and Yale took a bold step forward in the college admissions game by abandoning their Early Decision programs, which require students who apply in November and are accepted in December to attend those universities. Beginning next year, students applying early to Stanford and Yale will still find out in December if they've been admitted, but they'll be allowed to apply to other colleges, and won't have to decide which school they will attend until May.

Any parent of a college-bound high school senior knows all too well the tremendous pressures these kids are facing. Early Decision offers students who know - or who think they know - precisely which college is right for them the chance to apply early, find out early, and coast the rest of senior year - if they get in. Savvy students and their parents, as well as college counselors at privileged high schools also figured out a few years ago that applying Early Decision gave a student better odds, sometimes much better odds, of admission. So what's wrong with that? Not everyone has in-the-know parents or counselors, and many, perhaps even most applicants need to compare financial aid offers. The policy is, in a word, unfair.

Early Decision helps colleges increase their yield rates, or percentage of admitted students who enroll. That makes them look better in those all-important rankings. But it also has increased the panic rates among students, some as young as 16 who feel compelled to make decisions they should not be asked to make yet. Junior year is stressful enough without having it be the last year of grades that count for college admissions. Students denied admission in Early Decision are understandably devastated, then must turn around and scurry to meet other application deadlines. And why are elite colleges encouraging senior slump to start before Christmas? Let these kids grow up - learn a little more in school and about themselves and what their goals are for the next four years. They'll make better choices, and make better college students wherever they decide to go.

So I applaud the decision by Stanford and Yale, and hope other schools soon follow their lead. And this Stanford grad thanks the University of California for never bowing to Early Decision in the first place.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

P.S. Nevertheless, my daughter Jennifer applied Early Decision to New York University last week. She is sure that's where she wants to go to college, and she, uh, has in-the-know parents. As I said, it's unfair, but she'd be stupid not to go for it knowing what she knows.

 
 
How fair are the SATs?
(October 9, 2002) Hear the audio version

This Saturday my daughter will be one of thousands of Bay Area high school seniors sitting down to take a three-hour test that may very well determine where they will go to college. The SAT is alive and well and influential as ever, even after the University of California threatened to drop it. That probably won't happen, because the College Board, which owns, operates, and promotes the SAT, not wanting to lose the largest single recipient of SAT scores, listened to UC System President Atkinson's criticisms and will be eliminating analogies and adding a writing sample for students beginning with the high school class of 2006 - plenty of time, the Princeton Review boasts, to develop a test-prep curriculum.

The SAT is like socialism - fine in theory, not so good in practice. I can understand why college admissions officers would like to know how well their applicants perform on a standard test taken by all students. Fair enough. But the reality is that the SAT is not fair, and I'm not just talking about the test questions themselves, which have been criticized as biased. I'm referring to access-access to pricey test-prep classes that teach the "secrets" of the SAT, or to the wide variety of "services" offered by the College Board. Want to see your scores a week early? That'll be $13 - have a major credit card handy. Need to rush your scores to colleges and scholarship programs in time to meet fall deadlines? That'll be $20, plus $6.50 for each report. Think the computer made a mistake scoring your test? (You mean that's a possibility???) Fork over $25 for to have it hand-scored. You can also pay $12 to see a copy of the test you took - helpful before taking another $26 SAT.

But you'd better sign up early, or risk being assigned to a test center 20 or 30 miles from home. While you're at it, hope you don't get a proctor like my daughter had last spring, who didn't explain the instructions and told one girl to take the test while perched on a stool. That is not fair.

I applaud the growing list of colleges and universities that have made the SAT optional. I hope the University of California continues to consider it, or at least give more weight to fairer measures of aptitude and potential.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
Why are many Bay Area high school students not taking a break this summer?
(July 17, 2002)

As a parent of a 17-year-old who attends a viciously competitive Peninsula public high school, I know all too well how high the college admissions bar has been raised. The stat's are scary. Take UCLA, where the average high school GPA for students admitted to this fall's freshman class was 4.23, when honors and AP classes are graded on a five-point scale. At Berkeley it's 4.18. Stanford could have filled its freshman class five times over with students who had GPAs of 4.0 and higher. When top-tier schools are this picky, the bubble of applicants gets pushed down and other, formerly less selective colleges become much more difficult to get into as well.

An article in the New York Times more than a year ago noted that some colleges are realizing they've inherited a generation of burned-out young people. Still, their admissions offices continue to tell students to take as rigorous a high school curriculum as possible, which means loading up on honors and AP classes. (That is, of course, how students get above a 4.0.) They are also expected to excel outside the classroom - sports, music, community service - which takes time, and get good scores on SATs, which requires preparation. No wonder these teenagers suffer from sleep deprivation, caffeine overload, and stress-related illnesses during the school year.

And are they getting a break this summer? Not likely. Some are off on expensive "save the world" resume-building programs. Others have signed up for almost-as-pricey SAT prep classes. My daughter and many of her friends are taking a required senior course, Economics, in summer school so they'll have more time to tackle those honors classes and college applications come fall. She is also taking an evening photography class at the community college. The school she's most interested in specifically recommends enrolling in a college course the summer between junior and senior years. But more than that, this class allows her to pursue her passion for photography. Passion doesn't show up on those University of California GPA and SAT charts, but for me, it's what I want most to see in my daughter, and what I hope will survive through this crazy college application year.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
It's not business as usual this Christmas.
(December 10, 2001)

I'm having a really hard time getting into the Christmas spirit. Usually I haul out the Christmas CDs and decorations the day after Thanksgiving, but this year I just couldn't. I wasn't ready. I especially wasn't ready for Christmas shopping. The ads, the catalogs, the displays in stores I could not avoid were from a different world, a pre-September 11th world. Hadn't anyone been paying attention? Thousands of people died that day merely because they went to work in a certain building, or boarded a certain airplane, or tried to rescue others. Landmarks collapsed that Tuesday along with the sacrosanct notion that we here in America were safe from foreign attack. As much as I look back on last summer with wistfulness and nostalgia, there's no going back to that time. I can't. I won't. I shouldn't.

Our lives must change, or we will fail to honor those who died on September 11th. Rampant consumerism isn't patriotic, it's irrelevant. What better time than these December holidays to think about what's really important - life, family, friends, love. Safe journeys. A song. A touch. A new year beginning January 1st, and with it prayers for an end to fear at home and war abroad.

I'm not proposing abandoning gift-giving entirely this year, but I am suggesting we think seriously how to make it appropriate to the world we're living in today. The immediate impulse of millions after September 11th was to give to those in need, and we all know that giving is good for the giver as well as the receiver. Let's marry gift-giving to the great American traditions of philanthropy and voluntarism. Yesterday my 16-year-old daughter brought home two cards from the Giving Tree at her high school. She'll be buying a jacket for a five-year-old and a toy car for a six-year-old - Bay Area children who want and need those items more than I need a new sweater. That's the spirit.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
How about starting high schools later in the morning?
(October 9, 2001)

One night soon after my kids went back to school, I peeked into the darkened room of my high school freshman. It was 10:30 p.m. "I can't go to sleep, Mom," she said from her bed. "It's too early." Her older sister, a junior, was in the kitchen studying for a math test. She knew she wouldn't be able to fall asleep before 11.

My daughters don't function on Hawaiian Standard Time in order to be obstinate: research shows that the sleep hormone, melatonin, doesn't kick in in teenagers' brains until at least 11 p.m., and won't shut off till 8 a.m., when their bodies have supposedly had enough rest. By 8:00 in the morning my daughters have been up for an hour and a half, my 16-year-old having driven them both to school for a 7:55 start time. They're lucky if they get seven hours of sleep, not the nine they need, and sometimes struggle to stay awake in school.

It's enough to make this Bay Area family want to move to Minneapolis. Yes, Minneapolis, where high schools have been starting at the more reasonable hour of 8:40 for the last four years, resulting in significant improvements in mood and attendance, and a slight upswing in grades. Students get about five more hours of sleep during the week than they used to, and are happier and healthier because of it. Teenagers like it, parents like it, teachers like it.

But the school superintendent in my district told me last year he wouldn't consider a later start time. Why? Because of athletics. "Some students already have to miss afternoon classes on game days," he said. But what's more important, I ask now that the data is in, extra-curricular sports programs, or education? Even coaches in Minneapolis decided that the benefits of well-rested athletes outweighed any scheduling drawbacks.

South Bay congresswoman Zoe Lofgren agrees that teenagers need more sleep for optimum learning. She's introduced a bill that would make it easier for high schools to start after 9 a.m. - 9 a.m.! - by providing federal grants to cover the costs of changing the hours. Wake up, Bay Area educators: it's time for teens to sleep.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
What's your name?
(December 14, 2000)

At an art-supply store sale one recent morning, a woman called out, "Hi, Debbie." I looked at her, smiled, and thought, I know you, but I have absolutely no idea who you are.

"Hello," I replied.

"How are the girls?" she went on. Uh-oh. She not only knows my name, she knows I have daughters. Is she a mom from one of their schools? I had an image of her at a play-doh table.

"Fine, thanks," I replied. "Isn't this a great sale?"

What was I saying? Why didn't I just ask for her name and how we knew each other? Of course it's what I should have done right away. But I didn't, and the more she talked ("I hear your husband is retiring!"), the more embarrassing it became for me to admit I'd forgotten who she was. I moved on to the calligraphy aisle.

I stared at pens and racked my brain: Who is she??? I've always been proud of my memory. My high school friends are amazed when I recall their birthdays. But after living in the same town for 26 years and knowing people from work, school, soccer, theater, volunteering, what-have-you, I sometimes feel as if the file folder in my brain for Bay Area names and faces is crammed full and jumbled up. I only make matters worse by adding new people all the time -- and by getting older.

We met again in picture frames. "Are you still writing?" she said.

"Oh, yes." Looking for clues I asked, "And how about your work?"

"Now that Nathaniel is in eighth grade, I have more time for my art."

Eureka! Well, I didn't have her name yet, but if she has an eighth grader and I have an eighth grader, then I bet her son and my daughter were in school together. The file folder in my brain may be a mess, but I've kept rosters and directories from all my kids' classes and schools.

When I got home I checked in my file cabinet, and sure enough there she was: Nathaniel and Allison were in a toddler class together in 1989.

Those awkward 15 minutes convinced me always to ask if I don't remember someone's name -- and to keep saving those rosters. And when I see her at the sale next year I'll remember to say, "Hi, Karen."

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
Who says baseball is just a guys' game?
(September 8, 2000)

Back in the summer of '62, the Giants and Dodgers were battling for first place in the National League. I was a nine-year-old (ahem) Dodger fan visiting my grandparents the weekend of a critical three-game series between the two rivals. "Can I bring my transistor radio to dinner?" I asked on Friday night.

Grandma looked up from a bubbling pan of chicken and dumplings. "Yes, I suppose so."

An hour later I was licking gravy off my fork and listening to Vin Scully describe the mud between first and second base at Candlestick. "Why would Maury Wills want to steal second?" Grandma asked. "Isn't that illegal?"

I laughed. "No, but the Giants are trying to make it hard for him to break the stolen base record. That's why they've watered down the field."

After dinner I answered more of her questions while we watched the game on TV. Grandma was a quick study, and a converted fan by Sunday afternoon. Unlike my mother, who was too busy raising my three brothers and me to follow baseball, Grandma had time, and patience. Baseball gave her something to look forward to each day. She'd also experienced many disappointments in her 66 years, which is why she was the first to console me after the Dodgers lost to the Giants in a tie-breaking playoff series. "Wait till next year, Debbie." She knew there would be a next year. I wasn't so sure.

Grandma lived to enjoy 33 more seasons of baseball, and, like me, switched her loyalties to the Giants when we moved to the Bay Area. She was the one to carry a transistor radio with her on summer days.

I have three daughters, but only my youngest likes baseball. I managed to get two tickets to a game at Pac Bell Park for Molly's tenth birthday in June. She got to run the bases. A few weeks later the phone rang after one of the Giants' comeback victories. It was my mother. "Did you see J. T. Snow's home run?" she said. "He's my favorite player, you know."

So it seems another generation of females in my family has been pulled in by premium players and pennant possibilities. And Mom didn't even have to start out by liking the Dodgers.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

Note: I wrote this in August while crossing my fingers that the Giants would still be in the pennant race (they were about three games out of first). The day this Perspective was first broadcast, the team was coasting after a nine-game winning streak and sitting 8 1/2 games on top of the National League West. And on the day of the Sunday rebroadcast, my friend Rick gave me his tickets so my dad and I could enjoy a perfect afternoon of Giants baseball in the Arcade (right field) of Pacific Bell Park. I also saw them win Game 1 of the playoffs, but oh, that was all there was to be, as the Mets won the next three games. As Grandma said, "Wait till next year." Since then I saw Barry Bonds break the single-season home run record (numbers 71 and 72, September 28, 2001) and hit quite a few other homers, including 660, which tied his godfather, Willie Mays. I've also been able to entice Giants right-fielders Reggie Sanders and Jose Cruz J. to throw warm-up balls up to me in the Arcade. And Molly is about as big a fan as I am!

 
 
How can a school make a tragedy less traumatic for students?
(June 21, 2000)

One Sunday morning in May my husband read an item out loud from the newspaper. "A Palo Alto music teacher was murdered in her home."

"Who?" I asked. Our nine-year-old looked up from her toast."Kristine Fitzhugh."

"Oh, my gosh," Molly cried. "That's my music teacher!"

"I'm so sorry, sweetheart," I said, holding a sobbing Molly in my arms. Only two days earlier Molly had told us her favorite music teacher had chosen her as one of the soloists for the spring concert. Molly and I recalled meeting Mrs. Fitzhugh at Kinko's one day last fall, where she and I talked about our children and how important music is in our lives.

And now her life was gone. It's amazing, but she was the first person in Molly's tiny universe to die. I shall never forget my first encounter with death. A sixth-grader was run over by the bus in front of our school one Friday morning. I saw the pool of blood. And I didn't sleep at all that night. But on Monday none of the teachers even talked about Leslie Duff. I couldn't stop thinking about her and I never got over her death.

I didn't want Molly to be that traumatized, so I called the school psychologist. She invited me to come to school on Monday. While it was a long and tear-filled day, it was a day that was done right. Molly's teacher explained to the children what we knew about Mrs. Fitzhugh's death. She and the psychologist and the principal listened to the students' questions and concerns. STAR testing was cancelled for the day so the children could write lovely remembrances. Their substitute music teacher led a recorder rehearsal. I read a book aloud to the class. And by the end of the day there was a letter ready to go home explaining the tragedy and how parents could help their children.

Molly and her classmates will never forget their music teacher. Yet I also believe they will remember the adults at their school who cared enough about their emotional well-being to get them through those difficult days after her death. And for that I will always be grateful to the staff at Nixon Elementary School and the Palo Alto Unified School District.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
What's it like in limbo?
(May 22, 2000)

Several Sunday nights ago my husband, Bill, developed some worrisome symptoms. I took him to see our doctor at 8:30 Monday morning, and by 2 he was in the hospital, on IV's and preparing for the first of two blood transfusions. On Tuesday a gastroenterologist told me Bill had a bleeding ulcer -- or stomach cancer. The odds were 50/50. Bill came home on Wednesday, and on Thursday afternoon we saw our family doctor. "We don't know yet if it's cancer," he told us. "We may have to wait another week."

A week??? I couldn't believe it. Here we are at the beginning of the 21st century. I can send e-mail to the other side of the country and hear back in ten minutes. One-hour photos have been standard for years. So why does it take up to nine days for a pathology report? Nine days that seem like ninety because they are spent in limbo? "It's a process with results that require careful interpretation," the doctor explained.

Bill and I tried not to alarm our three children about his health. It was late at night when he was awake figuring out if there would be enough money for me and the girls if he died. So many of their friends' parents are divorced, and we've always assured them Bill and I would never split up. We have control over that. But suddenly I couldn't be certain I wouldn't be a single parent after all. I felt like crying every hour at the thought of my daughters becoming young women without their father's gentle, yet strong male influence. I knew I'd be devastated without him. My daily walks with our dog, instead of being a time of inspiration and rejuvenation, were when I imagined the worst.

And if Bill did have cancer, I wanted to know so we could schedule surgery and any other possible life-saving treatments. But we had to wait. And wait.

The GI doctor called one week after the biopsy. "It's not cancer," he said. I cried then, too -- tears of joy.

I'll be listening to NPR even more closely for news that faster tests for cancer have been developed. I just know it can be done. Dante may have described limbo as the place between heaven and hell, but I spent seven days in limbo: It's hell.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
Will teenage fashions be all that different in the new century?
(February 10, 2000)

A few months ago my high school freshman and I went shopping for shoes for the Homecoming dance. "These would be perfect, Mom," Jennifer gushed, picking up a pair of strappy silver sandals perched atop three-inch platforms.

"You're crazy," I said. "They'll kill your feet, and you'll be lucky not to fall off and break your ankle." I knew this, of course, because twenty years ago I suffered through my cousin's wedding wearing an almost identical pair of platforms. Why in the world were they back in style again? Would anyone who wore them once ever purchase another pair?

Well, the answer to that last question is yes, if it's for her daughter's first formal. I gave in. I'm pleased to report that Jennifer did not break any bones, but her feet started to hurt in the school parking lot. Memo to self: save those shoes as a warning for the next generation.

My three daughters are coming of age at the beginning of the twenty-first century -- not yet the world portrayed in the Jetsons cartoons, but one that is more high-tech every year. Still, fashions will continue to be recycled in this third millennium, and teenagers will find new ways to make their parents shake their heads and say, "I can't believe you're wearing that." I froze my knees and thighs below my mini-skirts as I walked to my Connecticut high school. This winter Jennifer and her 12-year-old sister, Allison, go off to school in midriff-baring tank tops. (When did bra straps become a fashion statement?) Their 9-year-old sister, Molly, wears bell-bottomed jeans with flowered embroidery. I had a pair of those, too -- in high school. "What clothes will our kids be wearing?" wondered Allison out loud the other evening.

I smiled, imagining a day when rap and hip-hop are played on the World Wide Web oldies station and my children's children sit in front of computer screens wearing virtual tank tops and mini-skirts. In that scene, platform shoes are definitely not in the picture.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
Are you feeling surrounded by Sports Utility Vehicles?
(November 1, 1999)

Five years ago, my husband came home with a . . . Suburban. Yes, one of those mega-ton vehicles that occupies more than half a neighborhood street. I'll never forget the first time I saw it in our driveway (it takes up more than half of that, too). "Oh, my gosh, it's a, a, (looking at the writing on the back) a TRUCK! What in the world do you need a truck for?"

"So we won't have to take two cars when we drive to Tahoe," he explained.

"But sweetie, we could rent a big car once a year."

Bill's was only the third Suburban in our part of town, but soon there were more. Many more. As I witnessed the SUV explosion in the Bay Area I concluded that they are, in a phrase, socially irresponsible vehicles (call 'em SIV's). They gobble gas. They pollute. And when the articles began to appear about the dangers they pose to cars in collisions, I exploded, too: "That doesn't even count the number of times they cause wrecks because they always seem to be next to you when you want to change lanes or in the parking lot when you pull out, and their tall, tinted windows make it impossible to see around them."

"So how do you really feel?" Bill asked.

I drove the monster for two days recently while my car was in for service. How embarrassing! I kept running over curbs and wasting time looking for places to park. Heaven forbid I park next to a car. It's bad enough to share a driveway with a Suburban. I found it nearly impossible to drive one safely and responsibly.

I had hopes that the popularity of the new Volkswagen Beetle would signal a sea change in car size preference. No such luck. I shudder when I contemplate the fall debut of Ford's Excursion, which the Sierra Club calls the "Ford Valdez."

What can those of us who drive at ground level do to stop this insanity? I suggest guilt. A campaign with the slogan "Friends don't let friends buy tanks." Spouses, too, need to do their part. I may tease Bill about the vehicle he still adores, but he knows I'm serious as well. This will be the last SUV to call our house home, because seriously, SUV's are a 90's excess that should come to a screeching halt in the two-thousands.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
Looking for something to do with your teenage son or daughter these summer evenings?
(June 2, 1999)

Attention, parents of teenagers: I want you to read aloud to your child this summer. That's right, read to your 14, 16, or even 18-year-old. Today's teens were born before "twenty minutes a day" of reading became a mantra for parents of young children. Neurological research tells us that babies' brains develop better when little ones are read to. Teenagers' brains are also developing; exposure to rich language and intriguing stories helps them mentally and spiritually.

Everyone enjoys hearing a good story. But what to read? Anything. Pick out a book you liked as a teenager. Ask a librarian or bookstore staffer for a recommendation. Read a best seller. Read poetry. Read a play. When Robert Pinsky was named Poet laureate, he confessed that he still read aloud to his adult daughters. Begin tonight. Don't ask questions. Just read.

Children are robbed of the joy of reading when they are only reading books for school -- for homework, to meet a requirement, to please someone else. Even children who already read for fun deserve to be read to. It's a wonderful way for teens and parents to connect. No one can stay mad for long when they're enjoying a book together. If it's an especially entertaining story, teenagers will often grab the book to finish on their own. That happened in my household the last two summers when I read Philip Pullman's fantasy/science fiction thrillers, "The Golden Compass" and "The Subtle Knife," with my older daughters. At the end of this school year I read J.K. Rowling's best-selling Harry Potter books aloud to my nine-year-old, and on many nights her 14-year-old sister migrated from the homework table to the edge of the couch. "Don't stop reading NOW!" they cried at the end of an exciting chapter.

"But you have to get up early tomorrow for school," I replied. Well, now that it's summer we'll have the luxury of reading "just one more chapter" many times over. Reading aloud is indeed a luxury, and also a simple, inexpensive gift every parent should bestow upon a child -- and teenager.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
Where are the people in "the homeless"?
(March 19, 1999)

I cringe every time I hear news stories about "the homeless," and not just because I wish I could wave the magic wand that would provide a warm and comfortable home for every person who wants one. No, what I'm talking about is the expression "the homeless." Also "the poor" or "the needy." In my mind I always complete these incomplete phrases with the word "people," because it's homeless people we're talking about, not homeless dogs or rats or canaries. They are men, women and children. Families. They have faces and names, probably living relatives, most likely dreams and goals -- even if it's only for a warm bed and a good meal. "Homeless" or "poor" or "hungry" describes their situation in life, it's not who they are.

I can't help thinking that when we leave off the word "people" when referring to persons who don't have a home, we are allowing ourselves to ignore -- at least partially-the problems these people face every day, of finding shelter or food or help for their physical or mental well-being. Make them nameless and they won't be as much of a burden. Maybe someone or something else -- "the government," "the church," "the rich" -- will help "the poor" until they don't need any more help.

But of course that won't happen. Each of us as individuals must do our part to help in whatever way we can and feel is appropriate, whether it be donating time, money, or "things" that are of more use to others than they are to us. As parents we need to teach our children not to ignore poverty, but to work to eliminate helplessness and despair.

Words are important -- and powerful tools. Adding the word "people" when we talk about persons who are homeless or poor or hungry is a simple, subtle change to our way of speaking. Yet it also might lead to a more humane way of thinking about homelessness and poverty as we move into the twenty-first century.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
California's new governor wants parents to "assume greater responsibility" for their children's education???
(January 14, 1999)

The afternoon Governor Davis gave his inaugural address challenging California students "to raise their sights and lift their performance," I was in the homework trenches with my three California students -- third grade, sixth grade, eighth grade. And it wasn't a happy scene.

I am a product of California public schools during the so-called Golden era of the 1960's. Yet when I was in junior high, I had time to read novels, listen to the radio, talk on the phone, even watch TV, as well as complete my homework on my way to college at Stanford. My daughters have no such free time. The handbook from their middle school states that the average time spent each day on homework in seventh and eighth grade should be one to two hours -- total. But since my eldest began seventh grade, she can count on a minimum of an hour of math plus an hour of Spanish homework every day. Those two hours, as well as the daily work required for English, science, and social studies do not add up to only one to two hours of homework, no matter what kind of math you use. I hear it gets worse in high school.

Even more alarming is how much these students are expected to learn on their own. My husband and I spend hours each evening tutoring our daughters. My friends do the same. Yet what about the students whose parents or guardians aren't able or willing to help them? I worry about the education they are missing out on.

Governor Davis, if you and the state legislature are serious about restoring California's schools to greatness, you should lengthen the school day and add a few weeks to the school year. Kids need more time to learn in school so that their outside time can be freer -- for sports, theater, music, being a kid. Maybe even reflecting on what they learned that day. And while I know there would be objections to this idea from state teachers unions, I beg of individual teachers to consider the alternative, of having their students sink further behind the rest of the country.

I cheered when I heard about the governor's intention to weed out bad teachers. It is long overdue. Inferior teachers should not be allowed to continue in the classroom and expect parents to do the teaching for them.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
Are all-girl schools the answer to the challenges faced by young women?
(June 23, 1998)

The news from the American Association of University Women that single-sex education is no better for girls than coeducation caused quite a stir among parents this spring. Since 1992 we had been relying on an earlier AAUW report that said girls were shortchanged by coed schools, especially in math and science. We also knew of Mary Pipher's "Reviving Ophelia" and Peggy Ornstein's "School Girls," best sellers about the loss of self-esteem many girls face in adolescence. All of this evidence had caused even life-long public school advocates, including me, to consider girls' schools for our daughters.

I remember well the pain and conflicts of adolescence. In seventh grade I told my mother, "The boys wouldn't like me if I ran for student body president." That didn't keep me from doing well academically, though Chemistry was a struggle. I wasn't discouraged from technology -- my father even thought I'd make a terrific mathematician. I just preferred arts to sciences.

So it came as no shock when my first daughter, now in seventh grade herself, was especially verbal. She talked earlier than most boys, and when she learned to read, that was a snap, too. Her father and I helped her with her "math facts" (as they are called) in elementary school, but she would rather have been reading or on the stage. When the time came to consider applying to an all-girl school for sixth grade, she would have nothing of it. I told her I expected her to show the same assertiveness to her teachers and the boys in her classes. Indeed she has.

Her two younger sisters have a knack for math. Still, my current fifth grader did not want to apply to a traditional girls' school or to the new, technology-oriented middle school for girls. I didn't push, but part of me still worried, are we doing what's best for her?

I think so. Parents should be aware of educational research, but they shouldn't let so-called expert opinion -- fluid as it is -- outweigh parental instinct about individual children. We should also consider the societal implications of abandoning public schools, where most girls -- and boys -- are educated. Better, insist on gender-fair instruction and equal access in all subjects: math, science, and even English and drama.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 
'Tis the season for holiday cards. Were you confused about how to address them to families with different surnames?
(December 24, 1997)

It's the end of Christmas card season, and my annual frustration about the way many of the envelopes are addressed to our household. (For the record, my name is Deborah A. Duncan. Debbie Duncan, for short. I am married to William E., or Bill Stone.) Cards come to:

Mr. and Mrs. William E. Stone
The Stone family
The Stones
or, the one that really gets to me: The William Stones. Sorry, but only one William Stone resides here. (Bill's uncle and namesake is six feet under in Peoria.)

I am not a Stone any more than Bill is a Duncan. I like the name Debbie Duncan, and chose to keep it -- legally, professionally, socially, totally when Bill and I married sixteen years ago. "But what about the kids?" (We have three.) They have their father's last name with mine in the middle. They go by all three names, except that the school district's computer is unable to handle a complete middle name. I complain that if Martin Luther King were registered in Palo Alto, he would show up as Martin L. King, and his teachers would call him Martin King. Our oldest has decided to hyphenate.

More than two decades after Ms. came into the lexicon, confusion reigns, even though lots of moms have different last names than their children -- nine out of twenty in my second-grader's class, for example. Yet some people still fail to recognize us. Or they get the last name right, but use "Mrs." My mother is Mrs. Duncan! I hold out hope that by the time my daughters are adults, it will finally be fully acceptable to be Ms. Yourself instead of Mrs. Somebody Else.

Before next holiday season, please consider the Debbie Duncan guide for addressing families with different surnames:

Ms. Deborah A. Duncan
Mr. William E. Stone (formal)
Debbie Duncan and Bill Stone (informal)
The Duncan & Stone family (not much harder to write than The Stones)

Don't write off those women who have chosen not to change their names. Continue to write to us, but please address us properly.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 
 

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