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.


(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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.”


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.

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.

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.

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 stillhave 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!

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.


(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 Reposekept 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!