(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!

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.

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.