Drawing Inspiration From a Very Old Autobiography to Tell the ‘Superbug’ Story

By Mark Marchand

Really good writers who can explain complex scientific or medical topics are rare.

Scientists and/or physicians who are really good writers are even rarer.

Ever since Columbia University physician, biologist and oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee crafted the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,”  I’ve been on the lookout for the next breakout scientist/physician who could help us learn more about the science of our world.

Thanks to the New York State Writers Institute and the University at Albany’s RNA Institute, I recently discovered another gem. Meet Matt McCarthy, MD. He’s a staff physician (hospitalist) at New York Presbyterian Hospital and an assistant professor of medicine at Manhattan’s Weill Cornell, a leading medical and graduate school. He recently visited the Writers Institute at the University at Albany to talk about his craft and his new book: Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic.” It’s a scary, detailed look at the battle against new antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

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Dr. Matt McCarthy during his talk at the University at Albany

Like Mukherjee, who drew on his early days at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute, McCarthy delves into his work with patients at Presbyterian and medical college students to apply a personal touch in telling his story about the search for new treatments. I haven’t finished his new book yet, but the afternoon and evening he spent with audiences here in Albany revealed a lot about how and why a busy doctor and medical college teacher came to devote so much time to sharing his story.

I have always been fascinated about the creative process and the spark that launches a creative endeavor. Artists like Norman Rockwell and the song-writing duo of Lennon/McCartney are two that drew my recent interest.  I wasn’t disappointed with McCarthy’s story.

His decision to begin writing can be traced back to his days at Yale University and his short career as a college and minor league pitcher. Yes, he pitched in the minors and even wrote a book about it…but more on that in a bit. The lifetime musings of a famous statesman and inventor who helped found our republic kick-started McCarthy’s desire to read and then write, as he began his final year at Yale.

“The book that really changed it for me was the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” he explained. “Until then, I thought he was just a boring old fart. He proved to be a really provocative and interesting guy who wrote about his life in a unique way. For me, that was the first real American memoir and I’ve been fascinated with American memoirs ever since. I also started taking some survey courses (at Yale) on 19th and 20th century literature.”

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After graduating from college, the left-handed McCarthy was drafted and began his minor league pitching career at the Provo, Utah, affiliate of the Anaheim (now Los Angeles) Angels. It was there, on long bus trips through Utah, Montana, Idaho and elsewhere, that his love of reading memoirs and novels grew.

“I got that list of 100 greatest novels of the 21st century and just started reading them,” he says. “There wasn’t a lot to do, so I read a lot.” McCarthy realized during his second year in the minors that he probably wouldn’t have a successful career on the baseball diamond. He decided to return to school and started along the path to become a doctor at Harvard Medical School. But he never forgot his experience in Provo or his newfound interest in reading and, now, writing—especially memoirs. In 2009, he published his first book, a successful, revealing memoir on his baseball career: “Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit.

Memoirs continue to fascinate him. “A memoir can give you something no one else has…the writer’s story. It could be some random person, but if it’s well done it’s interesting.”

As he moved through medical school, internship and residency, McCarthy remained fascinated with reading and telling “a story” through his writing. McCarthy’s approach also continued to evolve. When he started work on his newest book, he wanted to write the history of antibiotics, but decided it had already been done. Instead, he approached the topic by telling the stories of his patients at New York Presbyterian. The result is a unique look at an epidemic through the eyes of McCarthy, an infectious disease specialist, and his patients, some of whom were facing death. e also began to adapt some of what he learned in the writing world to working with patients. Today, when he finds himself talking to a difficult, upset patient, he often steps back and employs a literary approach.

“I remove myself from the situation for a few minutes and think of the patient as a sort of character in a book,” he says. “I ask myself, ‘What is the back story here? Why are they angry?’ ” The end result, he says, is a better understanding of the patient’s reason for frustration.

McCarthy also pushes writing as a creative means for medical students and physicians to cope with long hours and difficult medical situations. “As I have found, it’s a terrific way to handle the stress we face each day.”

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I have just started to read McCarthy’s new book. I’m looking forward to learning more about how we ended up in a situation where highly effective drugs, like the battery of antibiotics developed in the 20th century, are increasingly ineffective against bacteria that have developed resistance. McCarthy takes us into the hospital and labs where he is involved in the clinical trial of a groundbreaking new drug that might have one of the answers.

Our current situation, he explains, is partially the result of over-prescription of antibiotics—especially for illness rooted in viruses, against which antibiotics are ineffective. It’s also the result of decisions by pharmaceutical companies to avoid pursuing new antibiotics in favor of other drugs that will provide steadier income streams because patients take them every day.

“But I want to make sure readers know I adopted a very hopeful approach in writing this book,” he says. “There is hope on the horizon.”

McCarthy says one source for new classes of drugs that could fight drug-resistant bacteria is in the soil around us. The ground contains thousands of microbes that many scientists believe could help us. The problem is the time and resources needed to test them.

The next time I turn over some dirt with a shovel in my backyard I might ask myself: “Is there a microbe here that could kill MRSA?”

The 50th Anniversary of Landing on the Moon – A Personal Reflection

By Mark Marchand

It’s been a half century since we landed on the Moon. It was an important moment in my life and, I suspect, for millions of others. I have spent years studying the nine-year NASA program, leading up to the Apollo 11 landing on July 20, 1969. During that time, I have read hundreds of historical records, books, and other accounts of this amazing achievement for humankind, attempting to find some sort of personal meaning. I wrote about it in this Op Ed published last weekend in the Times-Union daily newspaper in Albany, N.Y. If you get the time, leave a comment and tell me what it meant for you and where you were when it happened

Commentary in Times-Union of Albany, N.Y.

Fort Myers, Florida: More Than Just a Home for MLB Spring Training

By Mark Marchand

(Cover photo: Thomas Edison’s winter home in Fort Myers. Credit: author)

For years, I’ve been visiting Fort Meyers, Florida and the surrounding area in March, spending time watching my Boston Red Sox get ready for another campaign up north. This Southwest Florida city and the surrounding area is a terrific destination for a late-winter recreational sojourn. And it’s filled with with attractions that go well beyond the spring training homes of the Red Sox and Minnesota Twins. From nature/wildlife preserves to historical sites, there’s more than enough here to satisfy even those visitors who aren’t fans of America’s pastime. And of course there are plenty of beaches.

I recently wrote about the area for a new online travel publication called The Commoner Magazine. They posted my article at the link below. If you’re interested in potential future places to visit for vacations or road trips, make sure to bookmark the homepage for the site. They are constantly publishing great new stories on travel. Happy trails.

As always, feel free to leave comments or ask questions. I can be reached at markmarchand56@gmail.com

https://www.thecommonermagazine.com/a-baseball-fans-guide-to-fort-myers/

 

 

The creative link between science writing and art: the ‘story’

By Mark Marchand

Whether communicating about the complex world of science or using art to illustrate life in America, the “story” is what matters.

The connection between two vastly different worlds struck me a few weeks ago as award-winning science journalist  Ed Yong stood before a University at Albany audience. As he shared with listeners his approach to selecting topics and then writing articles about 21st century science, the slide he projected behind him spoke volumes: “Stories Matter.” In a world bursting at the seams with scientific data and research results, The Atlantic magazine writer argued, any journalist attempting to gain eyeballs as he/she explains a scientific topic needs to appeal to the basic curiosity of the masses through simple and effective story telling.

The author should endeavor, he added, to “Get people to care about things they wouldn’t otherwise care about.”

Science journalist Ed Yong discusses his craft at the University at Albany (courtesy of The RNA Institute at UAlbany)

A month earlier, I visited the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. During a day spent gazing at the famed illustrator’s 323 Saturday Evening Post cover paintings and other original works of art that help tell the story of 20th century American life, I listened to Rockwell himself explain his approach to painting. In a video recorded shortly before his death in 1978, he said: “I love to tell stories in pictures. The story is the first thing and the last thing.” I blogged about it.

As a lifelong student of the creative process—from music to writing to art—I had within the span of four weeks had some of my long-held beliefs about that process upheld by two immensely different but talented individuals. Embed a simple story into whatever you’re crafting and, whatever your message is,  people will be drawn to it.

Yong’s Book: We. Are. Microbes

Well, maybe about half of us, according to Yong, who appeared at UAlbany Feb. 19 as part of the New York State Writers Institute spring 2019 series. It’s a well-known fact that the human body is made up of millions of living cells, composing structures ranging from our brains to our bones. But that’s only half the story.

In his book “I Contain Multitudes – The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life,” Yong tells us the rest of the story. Beyond those living, pulsing cells lives a collection of trillions of tiny microbes that make up the rest of our bodies. These tiny bacteria, viruses and other organisms chugged along for millennia, out of sight and without recognition for the role they play in our lives. They finally achieved some recognition, Yong told his Albany audience, when Dutch microscope maker Anton Van Leeuwenhoek discovered their presence in the 1600s. A few centuries later, scientists including Louis Pasteur discovered their role in causing illnesses. This 19th-century development of the “germ theory,” however, gave microbes a bad name because they were associated with making us sick.

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Yong discusses his book at UAlbany

Later, 20th century scientists delved deeper into the microbial world and found that microbes are constantly everywhere in our bodies, and they in fact perform useful functions that help us thrive. Over 400 species of microbes live in the human gut, for example, and aid processes like digestion. They work in sync with our cells, and we should be thankful for them.

Yong’s regular stream of articles contain similar revelations. Readers of his recently learned: Why do zebras have stripes? (follow the flies…), giraffes are close to extinction, sharks can live to 400, we’re the only animals with chins, and one of my personal favorites..how wasps use viruses to genetically engineer caterpillars.

Yong stressed that the scientific and science writing community should hold each other accountable. On the day he appeared in Albany, for example, he published a piece to help clarify a wave of science headlines and social media posts predicting impending doom for the insect population across the world. He argued that while there was some validity to the claims, “it was complicated” and they were based on very limited research.

“And if insects do die out within a century that will mean the planet has become inhospitable to all life,” he concluded.

Focusing on the “how” and Leonardo

Despite Yong’s explanations of his science writing approach at UAlbany’s D’Ambra Auditorium, students, staffers, faculty and others continued to press him to further describe his process. Finally, he answered with:

“I’m almost always led by curiosity—if something makes me go ‘huh,’ I can also convey that sense to a reader.”

Yong’s process is not that far from one aspect of the Leonardo da Vinci described in Walter Issaacson’s biography of the 15-century polymath responsible for paintings like the Mona Lisa and the early scientific foundations behind manned flight. As he drew near the end of the story of da Vinci’s life, Isaacson wrote a section called, “Learning from Leonardo.” The first heading in this segment is titled: “Be curious, relentlessly curious.”

Isaacson wrote further, “…his distinguishing and most inspiring trait was his intense curiosity. He wanted to know what causes people to yawn, how they walk over ice in Flanders (northern Belgium), methods for squaring a circle, what makes the aortic valve close, how light is processed in the eye, and what that means for the perspective in a painting.”

That’s not a bad trait to emulate, and it’s writers like Yong and artists like Rockwell who help us stay curious about the world around us.

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Blog author (left) with Yong after his talk at UAlbany

Viewing 20th Century America Through Norman Rockwell’s Eyes

(Cover photo credit: Norman Rockwell Museum)

By Mark Marchand

Before he passed away in 1978, famed illustrator Norman Rockwell offered the “secret” behind how he crafted his amazing paintings: “I love to tell stories in pictures,” he explains in a biographical video at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. He adds that what he was trying to do wasn’t “fine art.” His legions of fans would probably disagree.

“The story is the first thing and the last thing,” he concludes.

A visitor to the wonderful museum dedicated to Rockwell’s life and work doesn’t really need to hear those words. Each of the paintings and drawings displayed at the museum in the Berkshire Mountains depicts a story told via raised eyebrows, dramatic facial expressions, body posture, minutely portrayed details, and myriad other cues that lead viewers to where the New -York-City-born illustrator wanted them to go. From an anxious young couple applying for a marriage license with a time-pressed public official to African-American children meeting their new white neighbors for the first time,  the visitor can unravel  a story that might take hundreds or thousands of words to explain. Rockwell was that good.

Since the museum moved from its original, cramped location in downtown Stockbridge to its expansive, more rural location a few miles away in 1993, it has opened the eyes of over 100,000 visitors annually from here and abroad. The story of 20th century America is told there through the eyes and paint brush of the lanky artist. Stockbridge was a natural location for the museum since the artist and his family lived there from 1953 until his death, Before that, Rockwell lived in nearby Arlington, Vermont.

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The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. (Photo credit: Norman Rockwell Museum)

Today, the museum regularly displays about 1,000 Rockwell illustrations, and houses over 100,000 items—including letters,  photographs, fan mail, and business documents— in its archives. Perhaps the most popular collection on display is the 323 covers Rockwell painted for the Saturday Evening Post. Nearby on the property sits Rockwell’s actual painting studio, but it’s only open in warmer months.

Many of Rockwell’s more significant works are displayed in large rooms, each painted in different color themes, which seem to bring out specific features of each painting. If they take the time, visitors can stand relatively close to some of the illustrator’s works and—depending on the angle of their head and light from the ceiling—see evidence of the actual brush strokes. On the day I visited in January 2019, I spent some 20 minutes examining hardly visible, small ridges of oil paint in a painting Rockwell did for a raisin ad. It was a magnificent piece of work.

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An example of one of the rooms in the museum, with a blue color theme

While Rockwell did some commercial work to help clients sell products, most of his work for magazine covers and other projects reflected his meticulous desire to portray real life scenes that tell a story. As a fan of the creative process ranging from music to books to art, I was amazed by the weeks, months and often years Rockwell invested in light/color studies, model selection, and other research before he put brush to canvas. Most people who work at the museum readily explain that Rockwell was rarely satisfied with his finished projects. He would often throw away a painting he had worked on for months and start all over.

One example is also one of my favorites: “The Gossip.” In the 1948 painting, Rockwell depicts the faces of 15 people in five horizontal rows, often in hilarious poses as they pass along a juicy tidbit of gossip. The exchange of information continues until it finally reaches the subject of the gossip near the end. The last verbal exchange involves the gossip target confronting the lady who started the nasty trail. Since Rockwell gave his paintings a lot of thought well beyond the visual components, he worried that any model he used to portray the object of gossip might be offended. So he used himself as the target. His wife at the time, Mary, also appears. The woman who served as the model for the gossip originator was so upset, according to museum guide Judy,  that when she saw the final product, she didn’t speak to Rockwell for eight months.

The story of this amusing illustration also reveals some of the process Rockwell used to achieve his goal. Adjacent to the finished painting, the museum displays a preliminary charcoal drawing and photograph of the models used by Rockwell.

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The final version of “The Gossip” painting

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A preliminary charcoal drawing Rockwell drew as he worked on “The Gossip”

 

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Another step in Rockwell’s process: a photo montage of the models used for “The Gossip”

In addition to depicting the simple life around him, Rockwell often drew inspiration from major events of the day. He was so inspired by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous 1941 speech involving the “Four Freedoms” that Rockwell spent two years painting four masterpieces that bring those four freedoms to life: Freedom of Speech, Freedom From Want, Freedom of Worship, and Freedom From Fear. They can be viewed here.

The four pieces were so popular they were used in efforts around to country to sell War Bonds during World War II. Today, they continue to serve as iconic yet simple reminders of the values at the core of American life. Curious about connections between Rockwell and FDR during the process of painting, I asked museum Curator of Education Thomas Daly if the two had communicated or if FDR had given Rockwell direction. The answer, Daly said after he gave a presentation on the topic to me and other visitors, was probably not! Rockwell simply latched onto the idea from the speech and ran with it. “To the best of our knowledge, FDR and Rockwell only met once,” Daly said.

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The Rockwell Museum is located at 9 Glendale Road in Stockbridge, Mass. It’s open daily from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. and an hour longer during the warmer months. Visitors planning the trip should check the website for special presentations, events, and displays: https://www.nrm.org/. Admission is $20 for adults, $18 for veterans, and $17 for seniors 65 and over. There’s no charge for visitors 18 and under, and college students pay $10. Those who sign up and pay for membership receive free admission and other benefits.

 

Driving U.S. Route 1 from northern Maine to Key West; a new book

During the summer of 2014, I embarked on a solo drive that had roots stretching all the way back to epic road trips with my family as we followed my Air Force father on assignments here and abroad. In late-June 2014, I set out from my home in upstate New York to drive the entire length of U.S. Route 1 from remote, forested northern Maine to artsy, bucolic Key West. As it snakes along the East Coast for over 2,400 miles, this famous — but somewhat ignored — highway winds through some of our nation’s most complex, congested cities before passing through the wide-open expanses of the Carolinas and down into Florida.

Along the way, the super-fast I-95 beckoned me with its lure of no traffic lights and three lanes. But I ignored its siren call.

It was an eye-opening experience. From the fascinating people I met to the sites I visited, I was left with an indelible image of what used to be known as the New World to Europeans and others who first began landing here centuries ago. From the crafty ticket scalper at the Baltimore Orioles’ Camden Yards ballpark to the Baptist minister in Aiken County South Carolina, the people I met along the way were the America I sought to see through the lens of this over 80-year-old road.

 

 

At the beginning of the trip, in Fort Kent, Maine, and at the end, visiting Ernest Hemingway’s Key West home.

When I finally returned home, I found myself with dozens of pages of notes, many recorded interviews, and hundreds of photos. I had no other choice but to sit down and write a book about the experience. That book is now available, as an ebook and paperback, on Amazon.com. If you click on the graphic below, it’ll take you to the book site on Amazon.

A major shout out to my sister-in-law Deanna Gallaro for the fantastic cover she designed for my book.

So please, come along on this ride with me….You won’t be disappointed.

 

Actions Speak Louder Than Words; Starbucks and Crisis Communications

Below is my Op Ed on the Starbucks arrest matter in Philadelphia, and how the company handled it. This column originally appeared April 27, 2018, in the Daily Gazette in Schenectady, N.Y.  (Photo credit: AdWeek)

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Starbucks Backs it Words With Actions

By Mark Marchand

Actions speak louder than words. Just ask Starbucks about the value of this old adage.

The large coffee house company is driving home a lesson many of us learned when we were young. To learn about responsibility and accountability, teachers, mentors, parents, and others employed this old saying to help us understand what we needed to do when something went wrong.  In situations ranging from merely uncomfortable circumstances with a friend or family member to a crisis that threatens the very future of an organization, we needed to know that words—regardless of how meaningful or eloquent they might be—won’t deliver a message effectively unless they are backed with actions.

Nowhere is this adage more true than in the breakneck, relentlessly competitive world of retail marketing and corporate America. Sure, go ahead and hire the best PR people and speechwriters, but don’t expect your message to take root unless the communication is accompanied by actions, some of which might cause short-term financial loss. Time and time again, the strategy has proven to deliver positive results over the long term.

The recent incident in a Philadelphia Starbucks coffee shop is a great example. After asking to use the bathroom and being refused, two African-American men were told to leave the restaurant. They didn’t. Instead, they remained, waiting peacefully for a friend. A Starbucks employee called police and the two men were arrested and removed without incident. Bystanders repeatedly asked police what the men had done wrong and of course recorded the incident with their smartphones. The videos, pictures, and news stories went viral, causing a massive crisis for the nationwide coffee house company.

It didn’t matter that both men were later released without charges. Anger at Starbucks continued to grow. Three days after the incident, the Starbucks CEO released a heartfelt apology. He admitted wrongdoing and promised to take the necessary steps to ensure such an incident wouldn’t happen again.

But where other corporations might have handled the crisis with a “duck and cover” approach, Starbucks attacked it head on. They announced last week that they will close some 8,000 stores for a half day May 29 to conduct racial bias training with employees. That’s a bold move that tells the world Starbucks is dead serious about learning from the incident and using it to change corporate culture and practices. The decision could cost Starbucks millions in lost revenue. The MarketWatch online news site estimated the amount at $12 million. In its announcement, Starbucks also said it would work with the Anti-Defamation League and the NAACP.

No one can predict if Starbucks’ words and actions will work. This incident has severely dinged the reputation of a company that previously was known for social and environmental responsibility. Those who study crisis communications know that swift responses, meaningful apologies where a company admits wrongdoing, and substantive actions to address the situation and prevent it from happening again are a sound basis upon which to begin restoring a reputation.

Reputation management shouldn’t be the only goal, though. Crises such as these—including last year’s United Airlines customer-dragging incident—highlight isolated disconnects between the actions of frontline employees and the customer-centric values companies have developed and successfully used over the years. Perhaps the poor stepchild of some company PR programs—ongoing employee communications—needs to be strengthened.

Whatever the solutions to these problems might be,  and whether Starbucks’ strategy will work over the long haul, the company has for now demonstrated that the value and truth of old adages that helped us grow to be responsible adults are still important—even for complex, worldwide companies that generate over $22 billion in annual revenue.

Give credit where credit is due: Starbucks has taken ownership of the situation and is beginning to take the right steps to fix what went wrong on that afternoon in Philadelphia.

 

Mark Marchand, a former senior manager in public relations at Verizon, is an adjunct professor in the Journalism Program at the University at Albany. He teaches crisis communications and other courses there.