Great Flood of 1861-62

(January 30, 2019) Hear the audio version

Quick! What was the biggest disaster in the history of the state of California? Not the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed much of San Francisco, or last fall’s Camp Fire, which devastated the town of Paradise. It was a flood, as in the Great Flood of 1861-62, when it rained for 45 days. Normal seasonal rainfall in San Francisco is 22 inches; that year 49 inches fell. Leland Stanford traveled from his Sacramento home to his gubernatorial inauguration by rowboat, as the city was 10 feet under water. It remained flooded for three months.

Entire towns in the Sierra foothills were obliterated as one storm after another slammed California. A settlement of Chinese miners drowned when the Yuba River flooded. Residents reported seeing houses, horses, poultry, cattle, barns, bridges, camps, stores, and saloons swept downstream. Hills everywhere became landslides. The Central Valley completely flooded—an inland waterway 300 miles long and 20 miles wide wiped out nearly every house and ranch. No one knows how many thousands of humans died, but at least 200,000 cattle drowned. It took one season for California to switch from a ranching economy to a farming one—when it recovered. The state declared bankruptcy following the Great Flood.

Rains like this will happen again. Geologists have determined that megafloods hit California every one- to 200 years. And that’s without climate change! We have better flood-control infrastructure now than in the nineteenth century, but dams don’t always hold, and there are a lot more people today on those hills, plains and valleys. Yet unlike the big earthquake everyone expects but cannot precisely predict, meteorologists know days in advance about these atmospheric rivers that build in the Pacific. Pay attention to the scientists. Don’t be surprised when history repeats itself. And whatever you do, if you see a flood, turn around, don’t drown.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

Harry Potter and Me

(September 19, 2018) Hear the audio version

One cool October morning twenty years ago, I ate a bowl of oatmeal by the window in a hotel restaurant in Sedro Woolley, Washington the day of my aunt’s memorial service. She had been a middle school librarian. Appropriately, I was reading a book, a new book that would change my life. I was, and still am, a children’s literature advocate. In 1998 I was promoting a book I had written about reading and kids. Joy of Reading includes lists of great books. And when I began reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I knew my book was already out-of-date. I couldn’t have been happier.

Here was an instant classic, a novel with darn-near universal appeal. What kid wouldn’t want to read about 11-year-old Harry’s escape from his evil relatives and into the wizarding world of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a boarding school in a castle where students climb through portraits to get from one place to another? Harry acquires an invisibility cloak to help him sneak out at night in order to battle the dark wizard. He plays a sport called Quidditch, on a broomstick. And one of his best friends is a girl, the brilliant and spirited Hermione Granger. I looked forward to getting home and reading Harry Potter to my eight-year-old daughter. She’s thanked me ever since.

Soon I learned that J.K. Rowling had six more novels mapped out for the series. Seven Harry Potters? I could talk about these books for years! And I have. I promoted them as family read-alouds, filled with enough imagination and old-fashioned story-telling to entertain readers and listeners of all ages. They’re a perfect gateway to books of all sorts. New Harry Potters were ushered in with midnight release parties at bookstores and libraries, where kids could find even more books. (We kidlit people are tricky like that.)

Before long the Harry Potter brand extended to movies, conventions, theme parks. A generation has grown up knowing “The Boy Who Lived.” More than 500 million Harry Potters are in print and still selling strong in 80 languages. Universal appeal? You bet.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

 

Summer in a Glass

(June 26, 2018) Hear the audio version

What does summer taste like? I thought I’d have to dig deep for my answer, because many of the foods I remember from my 1950’s and 60’s childhood summers came out of a can or a freezer pouch—peaches, green beans, even corn. To be honest, those flavors kinda blended together. So did the taste of cherries when they swam with other bits of so-called fruit in a syrupy sauce poured out of a can and called fruit cocktail. My midcentury space-age suburban family did not eat seasonally or locally.

But we did have a station wagon. And one of my dad’s favorite things to do after dinner on summer evenings was drive my brothers and me to the new Southern California drug store, Sav-on, for ice cream cones: 5 cents for one scoop, 10 for two. I had a feeling Mom didn’t approve of Dad eating ice cream, but when he was out with us, he indulged in his favorite flavor, chocolate chip. I always ordered strawberry—two scoops of creamy strawberry ice cream melting over a sugar cone.

I’d forgotten about that glorious taste of summer until a couple of weeks ago, when I tested a recipe for something called strawberry milk: cut farmers market strawberries up into a blender and sprinkle with sugar. Stir them a few times over the next hour until nice and goopy, then puree until smooth. Add good, whole milk and … buttermilk. Stir. Let the mixture steep in the fridge overnight, and oh my goodness! The result is summer in a glass. It’s two scoops of circa 1965 Sav-on strawberry ice cream eaten on a warm summer evening in the rear-facing seat of the station wagon, minus the cone. (I’ve gone gluten-free.) It’s undoubtedly healthier than its 1960’s version: it has buttermilk. I make it for myself, I make it for my family, I will make it for anyone who comes through my kitchen for as long as strawberry season lasts. Strawberry milk takes me back while also providing comfort. And I and most people I know can use a few sips of solace this summer.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

Point and Call

(May 2, 2018) Hear the audio version

Last month I read an article about an industrial safety technique used by Japan’s rail workers. Shisa kanko, or, in English, “pointing-and-calling,” reduces workplace errors by up to 85 percent. The method involves looking at an object, pointing at it, calling out the procedure, and listening to the call. Speed check? Point at the speedometer, call out the speed, hear that call, safely move on. My friend who recently returned from Japan watched train conductors sweep white-gloved hands through the air while calling out safety checks to no one in particular. Fascinating!

I haven’t been a train conductor since I spent Sunday afternoons in my grandparents’ Whittier basement running locomotives through the towns of Grandpa’s elaborate homemade train set. However, I wondered if pointing-and-calling could help me remember if I, say, locked the front door at night, or turned off a burner. How about close the garage door? I have been known to drive around the block to make sure I closed that darn door, because doing so is so rote. Now after I back out of the garage, I point at the door, punch the remote, call out “Closed the garage door!” and watch it go down. I feel a little silly, but I also don’t drive around the block anymore.

I now point and speak out loud to many of my appliances, as well as prescription bottles, my puppy’s supper dish … lots of things. By engaging multiple senses while performing routine tasks I’m increasing awareness and reducing the chance of error. Paying close attention to what I’m doing is the opposite of multitasking, which humans apparently aren’t very good at anyway. That’s why texting while driving any vehicle is so dangerous. The L.A. Metrolink train crash in 2008 that killed 25 was caused by an engineer running a red light while texting. Those Japanese rail workers aren’t even allowed to carry cell phones. Another good idea!

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

Christmas Cards

(December 13, 2017) Hear the audio version

The tradition of Christmas cards has taken a big hit from the digital age, but Debbie Duncan keeps it up because the rewards are many and unexpected.

The mailman delivered twice a day in December to my Southern California suburban home in the 1950’s. Morning and afternoon I helped my mother open hand-addressed Christmas greetings, and add the cards and photographs to our collection strung over the fireplace—everyone from my cousins in Sedro Woolley, Washington to Red the Butcher down the street.

Personalized holiday greetings and I go way back, in other words. And I’ve kept it up, though years ago I stopped assuming all of my recipients celebrate Christmas. I know they do not. We try to include a family photo. My clever, funny husband writes a letter. I address the envelopes. I realize labels are more efficient (I tried that one year), but I like to show that a human hand was part of the process. I don’t need two snail-mail deliveries a day, but I don’t mind buying Forever stamps forever in order to continue to receive those cards and letters.

Going through my torn, tattered, 20-year-old address book is an annual reminder of family and friends who have died. There’s no “delete” in my book; just crossed-out names. I have more notes scribbled in the margins than Senators put in the tax bill—notes such as referring to one family as our “misplaced Kansas relatives.” They have their same last name as my husband’s sister. For some reason one year our card was delivered to their Kansas home rather than hers. So they sent one back to us. Instant long-distance friendship! I’ve watched their boys grow up, as they have our girls. I smile every time I write to them.

This year I’ll be adding several families I also have not met. They live closer, in the North Bay. Most lost their homes in the October fires. I know of them because they had the grace to send me thank-you notes for the small gift cards I sent up to Santa Rosa when I wanted to do something—anything—to help fire survivors. They told me they belong to a Bible study group. I will wish them Merry Christmas, and remember them every year when I write their names.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

Everlasting Daylight

(August 7, 2017) Hear the audio version

While you were adjusting to the changing climate or catching up on the latest White House scandal, the state Assembly, once again, considered scrapping daylight time. After all, Arizona and Hawaii don’t have it. Springing forward in March and falling back in November is disruptive: traffic accidents and heart attacks go up, productivity dips. But … it turns out getting rid of an hour of light at the end of the day is wildly unpopular with parks and rec departments, Little League, surfers, runners and other casual exercisers, and the Facebook group “Save the Light.” Contrary to folklore, farmers don’t care one way or another.

So the latest proposal is permanent daylight time for California.

Seriously. That’s about as likely to happen as Calexit, the on-again, off-again idea for California to secede from the U.S. Did state Assembly members consider the complications before voting in favor of Assembly Bill 807 and sending it on to the state Senate?

Let’s stop for a moment. Under permanent daylight time, the sun wouldn’t rise till 8:25 AM in January when kids go back to school in the dark after winter break. Also, imagine being in a different time zone than Oregon and Washington—but only from the first Sunday in November to the second Sunday in March. Heck, most people now don’t realize it’s PDT, not PST, until November 5th.

California operates in a global economy. Do we really want to make it harder for the rest of the world to do business with us in order to have everlasting daylight saving time?

For this goofy idea to become reality, the bill needs approval by the state Senate. Then it would go on the ballot—because Californians can always use another issue to vote on. If that passed, Congress would need to approve the change. And we all know how much the U.S. Congress loves California. I don’t know whether it’s time to shake my head or laugh. I think I’ll laugh.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

Update: the California legislature failed to pass this flawed bill in 2017. Woohoo!

#MeToo

(October 18, 2016) Hear the audio version

At first I thought it was just me.

When I heard Donald Trump bragging in a 2005 videotape of being able to sexually assault women, to “do anything” to them because he was a star, my heart began to race. I had an immediate flashback to the week before my high school graduation, when the senior minister of my church groped and chased me. An ordinary school night ended up with me managing, barely, to lock myself in a room and call my parents for help.

It didn’t take long to learn I was not the only woman having flashbacks. I read, then joined the “tweet me your first sexual assaults” Twitter stream started by writer Kelly Oxford. Many of us shared stories that have haunted us for years, of teachers, ministers, family members, bosses or other co-workers, ex-boyfriends, men on public transportation, drunk party boys and the like grabbing us where they shouldn’t, of exerting their power over our bodies because they felt entitled to do so. The New York Times called the result “a kind of collective, nationwide purge of painful, often long-buried memories.” Within five days, Ms. Oxford had received more than 30 million replies.

The hashtag for these personal stories is #notokay—because every person, not just men who have wives, daughters or granddaughters, must acknowledge that sexual violence is wrong. We need to make sure our children of all genders know it.

I was more fortunate than many survivors of sexual assault. My mom and dad believed me. I left for college 3,000 miles away. I did not accuse the groper publicly, though he also never ran for president.

Let this be a moment of national reckoning on rape culture. We have an opportunity for a turning point—to use the madness of this presidential campaign to help end sexual violence. Because that is, and always will be, #notokay.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

Qigong

(September 3, 2016) Hear the audio version

A year ago I had a scary heart incident, called Takotsubo, that landed me in the ICU. Thankfully, I recovered with no long-term damage. Because Takotsubos are thought to be stress-induced, my cardiologist encouraged me to learn to manage stress.

I began by taking the eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course, which got me to start meditating. I discovered I’m not very good at silent meditation. I think too much. Yet I stayed with it, and for the first time in three years, I didn’t get a migraine two days after Christmas. Hmm. So I took another class at the hospital: Mindful Qigong. That practice has changed my life.

I’ve known about tai chi, the martial arts form of qigong, for quite a while. I used to see old people stand in poses in the oak grove outside my office on Friday afternoons. In qigong, we move as we focus on our breathing. I may have failed to finish three yoga classes in the past year, but qigong I can do. The exercises are slow and rhythmic, and have been used for thousands of years in China to preserve and restore health. My mind is quiet when I practice qigong. Nothing matters. It’s awesome.

So now I am one of those silly looking old(er) people. I drive 25 miles to get to class at the rec center by 9:00 Saturday mornings. My fellow students and I follow along as Marcy, or Sadao, leads us in a series of simple movements that both relax and energize. For me it’s like acupuncture without needles. And I can do it myself!

Every evening before bed, I follow a qigong YouTube video or DVD for 15 minutes. That’s all it takes. I’ll also stand up and swing my arms between innings at a Giants game, or in an airport lounge. I’m not shy. My heart is back to normal, I sleep better, and I have migraines under control.

Stress? Thanks to qigong, I’m getting better at it.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

Something Smells in the USA

I wrote this Perspective in the Summer of 2016. My editor thought it was too political to put on the air, but I like it so I’m putting it on my website. I was right, damn it!

It smelled like a good idea at the time.

You see, I love the scent of fresh honeysuckle. After repeated failures to grow plants in my yard, I started harvesting flowers from wild bushes in the neighborhood when honeysuckle blooms in late spring. I float the fragrant blossoms in bowls on my kitchen counter.

So when I saw honeysuckle-scented essential oil diffuser sticks at a local clothing store in June, I bought a box. That evening I immersed the reeds in the oil and turned them upside down in the vase, as instructed. My daughter emerged from her room. “Whoa! That’s strong.”

“Maybe it needs to … diffuse,” I said. My eyes watered as I carried the vial and sticks out to the far corner of the living room, behind closed doors. Alas, the overpowering, decidedly non-honeysuckle scent traveled through and under the doors. I didn’t dare leave the thing in the house overnight, so I relocated it to the garage. Next morning, it was as if I had to breathe in a toxic cloud to get to my car.

Clearly, I had to admit I’d made a mistake and dispose of the liquid. I couldn’t pour it in a sink or even down a storm drain—that flows to the bay! So I held my breath and flung the elixir onto the ivy in front of my house, where it stunk up and down the street for weeks. I was too embarrassed to apologize to my neighbors.

My honeysuckle debacle reminds me of this year’s presidential election. People are hurting. Government in Washington is dysfunctional and the middle class is disappearing. A major party nominee who has never held elective office promises, without providing specifics, that he alone can fix the problems. Trust him, he says. And that smells good to a chunk of the population, no matter what else the candidate says or tweets. Yet if enough voters buy what he is selling, will we, a year from now, have to apologize to neighbors and allies for the stinks a temperamental president has gotten our country into? That’s a risk someone who knows about mistakes at the checkout counter is unwilling to make in an election.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

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.