Totally Paused

(December 20, 2023) Listen to audio here.

When did making a full stop at stop signs become optional? I see cars rolling through a four-way stop in my neighborhood every day when my husband and I walk our dog. If we aren’t right at the intersection, I may quietly quote the character Dionne from the 1995 eminently quotable movie Clueless and say, “Hello, that was a stop sign?” Then I smile as I remember her friend Cher’s reply from behind the wheel, “I totally paused.” As if that makes it okay.

But if we happen to be waiting to cross the street in the yellow-painted crosswalk—yes, there is an elementary school a block away—and the driver rolls through in front of us, I will probably holler, “STOP SIGN!” That often gets their attention.

Rolling through a stop sign, which some call a “California stop” (haha) is never okay. It’s unsafe. It’s illegal. If a cop sees you, the ticket will cost you at least $238. Regarding stop signs, the California driver’s handbook is clear: “Make a full stop before entering the crosswalk or at the limit line.” The vehicle must stop moving.

Tesla ignored all this when it programmed cars testing the full self-driving feature to roll through stop signs. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration put the kibosh on that, requiring Tesla to recall and reprogram nearly 54,000 vehicles in early 2022.

When I was teaching my daughters to drive, I insisted they make a complete stop at stop signs, where the car bounces back a bit after stopping. I didn’t find that recommendation in the DMV handbook, but it’s a way to make sure the wheels have stopped moving. I still do it.

Stopping at stop signs has become so unusual that if I’m a pedestrian ready to cross at an intersection and drivers do not breeze through in front of me, I will smile and wave to express my gratitude. It’s delightful to be reminded that fellow humans can indeed show common courtesy by following the rules of the road.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan

The Singular They Is Here to Stay

(April 10, 2023) Listen to audio here

I smiled recently after signing on to Zoom, and not only because I always look forward to my Saturday morning online qigong class, a product of Covid stay-at-home times that I hope is permanent. No, the screen read: “Host has joined. We’ve let them know you’re here.”

There it was: the new and to me, improved version of the pronoun “they”—singular, gender non-specific, and perfectly appropriate. As a reader and writer who pays attention to such things, I’ve watched as the default singular pronoun morphed over the decades from the supposedly neutral, though always masculine “he,” to a clunky “he or she,” which was followed by the even more awkward and rarely used written form “s/he.” When I listened a while ago to a nonfiction audiobook published in the 2010’s, I heard multiple mentions of “him or her,” “his or hers,” “her or his,” alternating “he’s” and “she’s,” etcetera. It was distracting. Use “they” already!

And people have been, in both written and spoken English. Here is a letter to the editor from a doctor, writing about mental health: “I always felt less anxious about the patient when I hospitalized them.”

And an op-ed recommending priorities for California’s next senator: “They should protect the needs of our struggling working families …”

In a story about the arts: “… the actor who gets the job by pretending to possess a skill they don’t.”

Pay attention, and you’ll notice it everywhere.

Young people were first to embrace the singular they. Its acceptability arrived at about the same time as stating a person’s preferred personal pronouns. Though that is a separate issue, still, you don’t have to consider gender or preferences when using they. It’s universal, and also works nicely with pets and other animals.

I know there are those who resist this change. (My husband, for one.) But I say, embrace it. As I read in a New Yorker article about the English language,“… griping about changes in grammar and usage don’t age well.”

The singular they is here to stay.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.



A New Day for Hearing Aids

(November 2, 2022) Listen to audio here

Perhaps you heard: hearing aids are now available over the counter. This is making hearing devices more affordable and accessible to millions of Americans who have mild to moderate hearing loss. I expect it will also lead to improved technology and even lower costs.

I’ve worn prescription hearing devices, what I call my ears, for more than ten years. The features have improved enormously: now I can stream podcasts, audiobooks, news and music directly into my ears via Bluetooth. TV too, even while sound is muted on the set. My adult children won’t be walking into our house in the coming decades and be blasted by TV volume, as I was with my parents. My hearing is so bad (thanks for that, too, Mom and Dad), I qualified for one of those state-sponsored landlines. I never got one; now I hear just fine on my cell phone through my rechargeable ears, as long as people don’t talk too fast. I can follow most conversations in person, though masks are still a bit of a challenge.

Untreated hearing loss in older adults can lead to cognitive decline: memory loss and even atrophy of the brain. Social isolation is often another consequence of poor hearing. This is a matter of public health.

I’m hopeful consumers will take full advantage of the new policy, which should normalize and de-stigmatize wearing hearing aids. There is a lot of information—expertise, ratings, and testing—available online. The best way to begin is with a basic hearing evaluation to find out how much help you need. Try to get personal assistance, either online or at a retail outlet. Also, decide which features are important to you. There’s a wide range of options and prices. Whatever you choose, be patient. Hearing aids take time to get used to.

I admit, I do appreciate the quiet of my factory-installed noise-cancelling headphones when I take my ears out at night. But as I approach my eighth decade, I’m determined to care for my hearing health, and I encourage my fellow Baby Boomers to join me.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.


A Giant Tribute to Vin Scully

(August 8, 2022)  Listen to audio here

I was five years old, already a sporty girl with three brothers and a father who’d been a fan of the L.A. Angels of the Pacific Coast League when major league baseball came to the West Coast, in 1958. I have warm memories of evenings spent listening with Dad to Dodger games broadcast out of a four-foot high piece of living room furniture, the family radio. And on that radio was the voice of the best teacher a kid could ever learn from, Vin Scully.

Scully, who died last Tuesday at the age of 94, was a storyteller. He’d invite listeners to “pull up a chair” and join him for a game of baseball, where he might describe catchers as “wig-wagging” signs out to their pitchers. The game didn’t have to be exciting for it to be entertaining. But when something momentous did happen and Scully was behind the microphone, his call and personal reaction to history were often just as noteworthy: Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series; Hank Aaron’s home run in 1974 to surpass Babe Ruth’s record; Bill Buckner’s error in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series; and a call I listened to on the transistor radio under my pillow in 1965, Sandy Koufax’s fourth no-hitter, a perfect game. The transcript of Scully’s call of the 9th inning reads like a perfect first draft, and ended with a signature Vin move: stepping back so the radio audience could hear the cheers from the crowd. He had the timing of a great performer. The broadcast booth was his stage.

I was reminded by the many tributes to Vin Scully that he also worked in television, and sports other than baseball. But to me he was a radio guy—broadcasting for the ear, not the eye. He dignified the sport of baseball for 67 summers as a Dodgers announcer. He’s probably the reason I prefer listening now to my San Francisco Giants broadcasters on the radio—in the kitchen, under my pillow, or at the ballpark.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

Daylight Time vs. Standard Time: Dueling Perspectives

(March 24, 2022) Audio on KQED 

[dd] Hey Cyndi, did you hear that the Senate passed legislation to make Daylight Saving Time permanent?

[CC-L] Yes! I’m all for it. Finally no more fumbling the day of the change. More light!

[dd] Well, we’re definitely seeing more light in the evenings now …

[CC-L] And as our mutual friend Mark says, he can now ride his bike after a day of teaching. His wife’s long commute home after work is safer.

[dd] But winter morning commutes could be in the dark—when people are waking up. If we have Daylight Time in January, it’s nearly 8:30 AM in San Francisco at sunrise. We shouldn’t ask kids to ride their bikes to school when it’s pitch-black.

[CC-L] You have a good point that it’ll be darker on winter mornings, but I still think we’ll have more daylight when people need it. If we stay on Standard Time, the sun sets in January a bit after 5 here. So it would be hard for folks like Mark to bike after work.

[dd] I work from home now, but I still need light to wake up. We tried the “ditch Standard Time” experiment in the 70’s. It was so unpopular, it didn’t last a year!

[CC-L] What bothers me is having to change clocks twice a year. The clock in my car is never right and it’s hard on the whole family when we change. It’s dangerous.

[dd]  It is! The American Academy of Sleep Medicine agrees that the U.S. should eliminate seasonal time changes. But they say to adopt year-round Standard Time. It’s more in sync with humans’ circadian rhythms.

[CC-L] I’m actually okay with permanent Standard Time. Just stick with something! It will make it easier for the rest of the world, too. We confuse our friends in other countries, and meetings have to be adjusted when the U.S. changes time twice a year.

[dd] I hadn’t thought of that. I’d be fine with year-round Standard Time. I hope the House will analyze carefully this so-called “Sunshine Protection Act.”

[CC-L] Maybe Congress will compromise, as you and I have, and settle on Standard Time.

[dd] I hope so too! And I loved our debate. I found it refreshing, especially in this increasingly polarized world. With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

[CC-L] And I’m Cyndi Chin-Lee.

Debbie Duncan and Cyndi Chin-Lee are longtime members of a Palo Alto children’s books writers group.

Talking to Strangers

(October 28, 2021) Listen to audio here

One toasty morning a few months ago I went to the market looking for ingredients to whip up one of my favorite hot-weather dishes: a feta, mint, and olive oil spread for gluten-free toast. I found feta, but where was the mint? I wondered aloud to my husband. “I know,” replied a woman nearby. “What are you making?” I was delighted to tell her about this simple spread we had learned about from Gus, the owner of a Greek restaurant in New York’s Greenwich Village, and share with her Gus’s non-recipe recipe.

I left the market happy and with my mint, realizing right away how much I had missed talking with strangers in a year-plus of living through a pandemic. I hadn’t even tried since early on, when a woman in a different market shouted “Get six feet away from me!” as I came around the corner of an aisle. I got it. In those dark pre-mask, pre-vaccine days, I was a stranger who could be carrying a deadly virus.

But now most shoppers in the Bay Area have been vaccinated, and masks are the social norm. Conversations have resumed in lines at farmers markets. When I walk my dog in the neighborhood, I no longer have to do the COVID shuffle to keep a safe physical distance from others in our path. I can stop to let strangers pet her. That makes everyone happy.

Social science research confirms that talking to strangers enhances mood, and makes us more empathetic. People often underestimate how rewarding talking to a stranger can be. Yes, it may push us out of our comfort zone, but that’s a good thing for our mental health and well-being. And as I can see from those who ask how old my puppy-like mini Aussie is, it’s also good for the people we talk with.

One-time strangers may even become friends. I met my pal Firoozeh at the San Jose airport at 6:00 one morning nearly 20 years ago, when my mom and I were sent to the wrong gate. What a fortunate turn!

So go ahead: reach out and talk to a stranger today. I think you’ll be glad you did.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

Three Good Things

(June 19, 2021) Listen to the audio version

When the pandemic hit, lockdown began, and I found myself at home every evening, I decided to be more faithful about writing in a journal. Unlike the diaries I’ve kept off and on since third grade, however, I gave my pandemic jottings a focus, one I learned from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. It’s called the Three Good Things practice: simply write about three things that went well that day. It could be as simple as enjoying the first cantaloupe of the season, or as memorable as receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. What I soon learned was that the practice makes me look for good things as my day progresses, and thus improves my happiness. It also helped me deal with those nights in the past year when I worried about my adult daughters—working on the front lines or out protesting racial injustice, or simply unable to come back inside the family home. We all missed hugs.

Now that everyone in my orbit has been fully vaccinated and California is opening up again, I wondered if I could try the Three Good Things exercise on 15 months of restrictions. With the obvious caveat that I wish COVID-19 had never been inflicted on the planet, are there certain aspects of lockdown life I’d like to see continued?

Well, yes. I hope senior shopping hours join early bird dining in our culture. What a privilege for us oldsters! I’ve gotten to know a few of the workers I see in the 7 AM hour every week. We’ve been through a lot together. Those stores are keeping my business.

I’m also now committed to wearing a mask when shopping indoors or while outside in a crowd. I like not getting colds or the flu. It took months, but I finally have a defogging method for my glasses, and masks that fit and keep me and those around me healthy.

Years ago a friend and former co-worker always asked, “What’s the purpose of this meeting?” Now after months of meeting only online, I know I’ll consider whether a gathering or project must be in person. KQED even makes it possible to record Perspectives from my dining room table. You can’t beat the commute!

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

Update Your Priors!

(May 12, 2021) Listen to the audio version

About a year ago I read an article about a term used by epidemiologists and statisticians: “Update your priors.” As I understand it, update your priors means changing your beliefs based on observed evidence. Since then I’ve watched as the pandemic became a series of updated priors.

Take masks. They were in short supply when COVID hit, so we were advised not to use them unless we were medical professionals or felt sick. I donated a box of N95’s to my local hospital that I’d bought during wildfire season. Pretty quickly, though, evidence piled up showing that wearing a mask is one of the most effective means of reducing coronavirus transmission, especially indoors. Mandates followed. Yet certain Americans stuck with the no-mask advice even during those painful months and waves of deadly infections, and blamed officials for changing guidelines. Now the CDC has decreed that those who are fully vaccinated are free to ditch the mask outdoors … in most situations. Update your priors!

Last May I was afraid to touch the handle on my mailbox and constantly washed my hands. I also took my shoes off after grocery shopping, and felt guilty about not wiping down those groceries. Then scientists concluded that the primary mode of COVID transmission is airborne. Ohhh. Another update was called for when it became clear that a person didn’t have to feel sick in order to have COVID or spread it. Asymptomatic transmission? That was novel!

Updating your priors requires flexibility, an open mind, and a willingness to revise beliefs as evidence warrants. It argues against making judgments that are immovable. Now when I learn more about an issue or a person that makes me feel as if I should change my mind, I say “Update your priors!”

It’s why I’m allowing my environment to become, well, a bit less sterile now that I’m fully vaccinated. It’s safe to be social! And because the outside world has lots of good bacteria that strengthen the immune system, perhaps that handle on my mailbox isn’t so scary after all.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

Every Shot Tells a Story

(April 8, 2021) Listen to the audio version

Hear that? It’s the sound of floodgates opening for Californians ages 16 and up to sign up for COVID-19 vaccines. Just as I’ve been grateful the past year to live where masks are the social norm, I’m delighted we Bay Area residents are second only to metropolitan Seattle/Tacoma in our eagerness to be vaccinated. Yes, that makes it harder to secure a coveted appointment, but it also means we will achieve herd immunity that much faster and be able to climb out of this pandemic.

I’ve been a sucker for vaccine selfies since December, when I cried at a picture of my RN daughter smiling after getting her first vaccine at the Florida hospital where she cares for COVID patients. I also love vaccination stories, especially those that show perseverance.

Storytelling in the face of obstacles is at least as old as the ancient Stoics, who believed that storytelling can help avoid negative emotions to a setback—a setback such as spending hours refreshing a computer screen or returning to a pharmacy night after night for a potential leftover vaccine dose. To do this like a Stoic, think about the story you will want to tell years from now.

Storytelling is useful for kids, too. My vaccination story involves getting the oral polio vaccine after church at a community clinic at my elementary school. I was eight. I’d already had a polio shot, but the Sabin vaccine was on a sugar cube! The only instruction was not to eat for an hour. Lunch wasn’t for a while, but we did stop at the market on our way home. Mom and Dad gave my brothers and me 10 cents for a treat at the drug store. I bought Pez candies. Then I ate one from the Donald Duck dispenser. It tasted just like the sugar—OH NO I WASN’T SUPPOSED TO EAT I’M GOING TO GET POLIO AND DIE. I was horrified.

I never told my parents, who I realize now probably shouldn’t have tempted us with candy money. I never got polio either, only immunity from it. But I did end up with a good story.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.


(December 11, 2020) Listen to the audio version

I’ve never been one to make New Year’s resolutions, but every December I do like to record what I’m grateful to have at the end of the year that was not part of my life in January—say, a new friend, a product, even a recipe. For many of us, 2020 won’t be associated with positivity, though I sure appreciate my new weighted blanket and wonder why it took me so long to discover the deliciousness of shakshuka, a North African/Middle Eastern dish of peppers, onions and tomatoes.

This December I’m thinking about words, and how many new and repurposed words and expressions have become part of the vernacular because of COVID-19, the disease caused by this novel coronavirus. The Oxford English Dictionary couldn’t come up with a 2020 Word of the Year: there are too many! Merriam-Webster settled on pandemic. That term wasn’t new to me—my great aunt Bea told me about the 1918 flu pandemic when I was a child to explain why she developed Parkinson’s disease. I knew the perils of a pandemic before living through one.

How about masks? In Before Times, facemasks were in operating rooms, dentists’ offices, Asia, and perhaps here during wildfire season. Now I have a stack of masks by the front door and in the car. Mask up! say signs on the back of busses.

Yet masks aren’t enough to keep us safe, as we also need to practice social distancing. I prefer to call it physical distancing. Whatever, stay six feet away from anyone who does not live with you, or who is not in your pandemic pod or bubble. These behaviors, and early stay-at-home orders, were supposed to flatten the curve.

Or not, because Americans have shown to be the worst at following advice of public health experts. Some so-called covidiots attend superspreader events. Smaller, community spread has added to the surge we’re now experiencing and the need for more people to quarantine and kids to continue distance learning. Will we achieve herd immunity through vaccine or illness?

Please let it be by safe and effective vaccines. I hope that next year vaccine is the obvious Word of the Year, as it leads us to good health and better living in 2021 and beyond.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.