Here, I read my essay, Groves of Green, published in the Australian literary journal, Koru.
I tell how an ancient tree, the metasequoia, and a scientist nudged me away from the rim of grief and back to reality.
I suppose I should not bury the lede – there is some news – I have been recognized as one of the “top 25 Brand Builders” of 2017 by Leading Women Entrepreneurs, a New Jersey organization founded by start-up queen Linda Wellbrock. The story of the honorees is being reported by NJ BIZ and NJ Advance/Star-Ledger and will soon appear in New Jersey Monthly. Brand builder, you might ask? I will explain. But first let’s back up.
A friend told me the other day that she puts in extra effort to keep regular tabs on me because I am always in the midst of change. First, she says, I was a journalist (at The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.) Then, she noted, I worked in communications at Princeton University, first as a science writer and then as director of communications at Princeton’s Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL). Now, she said (her tone growing a bit exasperated) I’m an author and public speaker. And, and (she said “and” twice to make sure I heard as I am a noted daydreamer), I teach journalism and public relations at Rutgers University and, in the fall, will also be teaching at the legendary St. Benedict’s Prep High School in Newark. (60 Minutes piece: https://www.sbp.org/60Minutes )
Harumph, she said. What’s with all this change?
Funny. Where my good friend senses change, I respectfully disagree: I’d like to say I see continuum and growth. The information environment in which we all are swimming is in constant flux. I don’t want to live in a vacuum. I want to respond to my environment.
Like anyone else, a combination of hard work and luck gave me some career victories. In my case, they included getting a job at a daily newspaper straight out of college, earning my first front-page spot at a major daily for a police story that went from being routine to obscene, being assigned the science beat at the Ledger, landing a coveted job at Princeton, winning a management position at PPPL, getting a short story published, writing a novel, and learning from great colleagues so I could teach at Rutgers and St. B’s. Each one has led naturally to the next challenge. It’s all connected. That’s how I see it, anyway.
The best public speakers, according to one of the all-time experts, the late Dale Carnegie, are those who speak from a deep well of experience. They stand before their audience with the confidence of someone who has lived their subject, experiencing accomplishments and mistakes, proud moments and embarrassments, in times exciting and deadly dull. They have worked with geniuses, wits, pranksters, curmudgeons, martinets, lazy lumps, backstabbers, braggarts, sweethearts, gentle souls, cynics, and skeptics. Far from being a plain bolt of fabric, their worklives are tapestries, wildly and luxuriously emblazoned, sturdy to the touch.
I also enjoy talking about my mistakes, especially to my students because they look so surprised. Either they can’t believe I was that stupid or they can’t absorb the idea that I would own up to it. Indeed, there were the times I could have done much better, the times when I was blinded by knowledge rather than being set free by it, the time I believed in a journalistic subject so much I couldn’t see his deception, the times I was lax about my own safety, and the hours I wasted dreaming about winning prizes when, in the end, work is never about that.
I am, therefore, super honored about the award from the Leading Women Entrepreneurs because someone else nominated me without my knowledge and because it places me in a company of woman who I admire and who have achieved so much. I am being honored for my efforts as comms director at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory where both the DOE and the University allowed me the privilege of building a comms team of wizards to newly produce a dynamic website, a newsmagazine, multiple social media accounts, both internal and external e-newsmagazines, and multiple other offerings. The idea was to encourage the plasma physicists and engineers and other employees of the Lab to tell the incredible story of fusion energy and convey its importance to the public. And, I’m proud to say they did and that the effort has continued.
Instigated by my brilliant colleague, Robin Gaby Fisher, I have also introduced public relations to the journalism students at Rutgers University in Newark. Fisher, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist-author I worked with at the Star-Ledger, is now leading the journalism program at Rutgers-Newark. In addition to hiring me to teach various journalism classes, she has also urged me to introduce the program’s first PR courses. My students are flying high with this knowledge and gaining great internships.
As for me, I plan to continue walking the journalistic and communications path that strikes me as exciting and consistent, at least to my eyes!
— Kitta MacPherson
I knew this day was coming. I had to.
As a science journalist, I have covered many of the major milestones in modern molecular biology. And there have been some doozies. Standing in the East Room of the White House, where Teddy Roosevelt boxed and President Lincoln’s body once lay in state, I watched President Clinton in June 2000 as he stood with scientific rivals Francis Collins and Craig Venter and announced that humankind had deciphered the human genome. Cracking the code of our genetic blueprint, we knew, would lead to much more. Since that event, I have written of other milestones, including the dazzling possibilities of human embryonic stem cells and the strangeness of cloning.
On Tues., Feb. 14, an advisory panel convened by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine issued a game-changing announcement: It would, with some caveats that allow for more research and discussion, support genome editing, more commonly known as germline engineering. This powerful new tool makes precise alterations to an organism’s genetic material. Everything I have written about molecular biology has pointed to this day. And yet, this is a moment I have dreaded because it will require so much of us as a society to get it right.
What’s the big deal, you might ask. Gene therapy, the alteration of the genetic material of somatic cells to treat disease or disability, has existed since the 1990s. The big difference is this: Somatic cells used in gene therapy are non-reproductive, meaning any change made in the person’s genome would not be carried over to his or her descendants. On the other hand, the germline genome editing that is the subject of the report results in genetic changes being inherited by the next generation.
The report, “Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance,” wisely stated the challenges ahead:
(The technique) “raises concerns about safety and unintended effects. It has also been argued that this degree of control in human reproduction crosses an ethically inviolable line. These discussions move the conversation about genome editing beyond individual-level risks and benefits toward significantly more complex deliberations that touch on technical, social, and religious concerns about the appropriateness of this degree of intervention.”
As a firm believer in science, I can see the advent of germline engineering as an opportunity of wonder, underscoring the power of research. Prospective parents who carry disease-causing mutations would be able to ensure that their genetically related offspring would be born without the burden of an inherited disease. And there are thousands of inherited genes that are caused by mutations in single genes, the committee noted.
As a career journalist who has taken to heart the role of bearing witness and safeguarding the public trust, I can smell danger. The technique not only raises concerns about harm to the subjects and genetic changes that are unforeseen. The science also makes possible the prospect of designer babies, that is, for those who will be able to afford them, as well as other eerie sci-fi scenarios.
But we shouldn’t lose our cool just yet. In the U.S., laboratory scientists are presently unable to consider conducting germline engineering research due to a Bush-era prohibition designed to limit stem cell research. Federal funds, which support most of the biomedical research conducted in this country, cannot be used for research in which a human embryo is intentionally created or modified to include an inherited genetic modification.
The concern by the committee, however, is that other countries, such as China, do not limit researchers with such prohibitions. All the more reason, the committee said, to establish a standard. While there is a need for caution, the committee recommends that germline editing research trials be permitted. Risk-benefit analyses will be necessary. And, such research could only be conducted for “compelling reasons and under strict oversight.”
One of the most important aspects to consider going forward, the committee said, is the crucial role of the public in the process of applying societal values to the risks and benefits of germline engineering. The committee concluded:
“…broad participation and input by the public, along with ongoing reassessment of both health and societal benefits and risks, should be a condition for moving clinical trials forward.”
We live in a country run by people who willingly ignore the solid, data-backed conclusion of most scientists that climate change is real. Entire science agencies have been gagged from speaking with the press and the public. This is a topic that calls for a national effort.
Can I be blamed for worrying about how we are going to thread this ethical needle?
— Kitta MacPherson
“Memories are chemicals. Tiny tag teams of proteins and neurons. Electrically charged gobs of ectoplasm. Researchers at the University of California have watched memories, mere specks, hatched live in the brain cells of sea slugs…”
So begins my essay, “Son of Memory,” in the Fall Equinox issue of Mused Literary Magazine issued today about “eidetic” or photographic memory — a specific type of memory some neuroscientists believe to be genetically based.
My story is at once scientific and personal. It’s about a family member and the moment he — and the rest of us — discovered he possessed this trait. It’s taken me a long time to be able to write about it.
Our parents were intellectuals and raised us to be as such. We were never allowed, though, to show off about any particular talents, mental or physical. If we had any gifts, our job was to stay beneath the radar and use them for good purposes “Never let them know how good you are until it’s too late,” could have been a family motto.
I understand now that writing about something doesn’t mean you are showing off but more that you are examining an event, the way you might study a fossil you find on the floor of a forest.
The concept of eidetic memory is still debated by neuroscientists. But, if you lived as I have, seen what I have seen, and knew what I know, you probably would be less disposed to argument. I’m just sayin’…
— Kitta MacPherson
I am beyond excited to say that an excerpt from my novel, “Mad Hatters and Glow Girls,” has been published in the Summer 2016 issue of The Copperfield Review.
The Copperfield Review was founded in 2000 by Executive Editor Meredith Allard as a way to create an online home for readers and writers of historical fiction. Since then, The Copperfield Review has been featured in Writer’s Digest, Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market, Killer Startups, Duotrope, The Los Angeles Times, and Las Vegas Seven Magazine. It was named one of the top sites for new writers by Writer’s Digest and it has received the Books and Authors Award for Literary Excellence.
According to the journal’s website, “In every quarterly edition, The Copperfield Review publishes the very best from up and coming as well as established authors of historical fiction. The editors are proud that CR has been the first publication for many talented new writers from around the world. Each edition features new historical short stories, historical poems, and history-based nonfiction articles.”
The literary magazine’s new imprint, Copperfield Press, published its first anthology of historical fiction in November 2015.
— Kitta MacPherson
First we had the idea.
Then, like Neo in “The Matrix,” we took a leap of faith.
We called our friends. We charmed and cajoled them. We bribed them with offers of coffee and wine.
In the end, 26 people in January 2015 signed on our FB page to join the Sourland Mountain Writers Circle. Now, about ten “regulars” meet monthly in an enchanting cottage in Somerville constructed by the husband of one of our members. (This wonderful person also builds and tends a fire for us in the cooler months.) We have just published, via Amazon’s Kindle, the first anthology of our work: The Fall 2016 Sourland Writer Review. (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01LVXVEGL/ref=pe_385040_118058080_TE_M1T1DP#nav-subnav)
The endeavor can be traced to a friendship between me, who you could describe as a journalist with a book dream, and Julia van Middlesworth, a petite, eccentric, and brilliant fiction writer. We became friends in January 2011 when we found ourselves, though normally capable, mature adults, as clueless newbies in Fairleigh Dickinson University’s low-residency MFA program. The friendship endures because it was forged with the fire of midnight brainstorms, gut-wrenching public readings, and the anxiety-producing effort involved in meeting the high expectations of our wonderful faculty. We worked our way through short stories, long-form non-fiction, research papers, style analyses, book reviews, and theses. The program is such a gift to people like me. Through twice-yearly residencies in Madison, N.J., and Wroxton, England, as well as much on-line workshopping with mentors and classmates, the program makes it possible for working stiffs to maintain their jobs and meet financial responsibilities while pursuing authorship and a terminal degree.
Upon graduation in 2013, I found that I missed my professors and the camaraderie of the poets, fiction and non-fiction writers I had met. When I asked Julia if we could sustain the momentum by starting a writing circle, she jumped at the idea and suggested we hold the monthly meetings at her house. We had, after all, learned the principles of workshopping from our FDU faculty mentors. Now we could implement the techniques of discussion and constructive criticism to advance our aesthetic ideals and further our writing careers.
There are limitless good things I could say about the exceptional talent and dispositions of the Sourland members, who, in addition to Julia and me include: Helen Branch; Jessica Brokaw; Victoria Evans Brand; Jin Cordaro; Elizabeth Jaeger; Steve Kahofer; Vibha Rana; and Regina Toth Wackerman. I’ll keep it simple – it’s a talented bunch.
Julia is leading another effort with Sourlanders and some others to launch our own peer-reviewed literary journal, the Sourland Mountain Review. The magazine, which will feature selected writers of fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry, will tap into the fascination with the unordinary that seems to mark so much of New Jersey life. We will be releasing the Review sometime this fall.
My short story, “El Balo,” will appear in print in the May/June 2017 edition of Down in the Dirt magazine (v143, released 6/1/17) and can be accessed online here:
(Find my name, “Kitta MacPherson,” among the writers’ list alphabetically organized on left, and click on it. Then click on “El Balo” under my name.)
The story is inspired by the life of a person I knew who grew up in the mountains of Vera Cruz, Mexico, in the middle of the last century. I also wanted to honor the custom of child heroes, a theme that runs deeply throughout Mexican culture and lore.
SUMMER REVEAL: OBESITY AND BODY IMAGE
I sliced through the water of my suburban New Jersey condo complex’s crystalline lap pool this weekend. I sucked the sticky air. I expelled my breath under the surface and gurgled chubby, wobbly bubbles. The two-step breathing rhythm I employ for the breast stroke comforts me with its regularity.
Back and forth I went. Ten full laps! A great beginning for me to summer and efforts to exercise more.
Weirdly, however, I had the pool to myself most of the time. At one point, an elderly woman ambled across the shorter span in a path perpendicular to my track. She did not see me; I pivoted right to avoid colliding and kept swimming. The staccato sounds of splashes and happy shouts from the recreation pool mixed with the steady hum of soft-voiced parents in conversation. On this, my first visit to the pool complex, I had expected to see hundreds crammed into the area, like the municipal pools I frequented when my children were small. Instead, I spotted far less — about 25 people, a number that included swimmers and anyone else.
Within the space of the past week, two people who don’t know each other have informed me that they would never consider swimming in public. One person, a heavy-set neighbor, told me during a parking lot conversation that he had never once entered the pools in the 25 years he has lived here. “Swim?” he said. “No.” Another person, a close friend who I would not describe as overweight and who I know men find very attractive, looked at me in shock when I invited her to my pool. “Not on your life!” she said. “I have no intention of ever appearing in a bathing suit anywhere!”
What’s going on here? Swimming, whether it’s dipping your feet in the shallows of the ocean, or easing into a lap pool, is a joy of life. It’s refreshing. It’s fun. It’s a great, low-impact form of exercise. How could anyone deny himself or herself that experience?
For one thing, we have been experiencing a rise in the number of overweight Americans since the mid-Seventies. No one is sure what is causing the trend. Some say the food we eat is too fatty, salty, processed or laden with high fructose corn syrup. Others say modern life – sedentary, competitive, workaholic, overscheduled – could be causal factors. Perhaps technology, such as television and video games, is key. Contrarians point to the notion that a highly successful public health effort to stop cigarette smoking over the past few decades may have turned itself inside out, causing ex-smokers to obsess about food instead. Some have gone Biblical, attributing the rising obesity statistics to gluttony and sloth.
On one key point, however, the experts are sure: Once a person gains weight, it is nearly impossible to lose it and keep it off. And the diabolical corollary to this is that the difficulty of losing weight is directly proportional to the extent of pounds gained. Translation: It is much harder for a fat person to lose weight than it is for a lean person to do so.
In addition to alarming health statistics, Americans also must deal with a common inner demon – poor body image. Nearly no one is skinny, toned, busty, ripped, tan, thick-haired, or blonde enough.
Daily, we immerse our minds and bodies in a soup of digital media, an onslaught of data directed at our senses, much of it highly visual. We exist in two worlds – the real and the virtual. In the online universe, where we spend an increasing amount of time, images of fat people barely exist. When they do, they are often objects of ridicule, shamed by cowardly anonymous commenters.
What we mostly see in digital regions are people who, in novelist Tom Wolfe’s words, are “starved to perfection.” There are no lumps or sags or cellulite-addled thighs. There are no Dad bods with beer bellies, and no wrinkles. Full-figured Americans, who now represent a healthy proportion of the population, earn meager representation in cyberspace. I am not arguing against good health. Standard medical practice dictates maintaining a healthy weight, though the definition of that term is elusive. The height and weight charts many physicians use are outdated and do not take into account a variety of body shapes and muscle densities.
How can we end this proclivity for shaming people about their bodies? Is it really any person’s business what someone else looks like? Why are we so affronted? We know that scapegoating is common to groups and a fixture of social media. Parents have been the latest targets, demonized for being human and looking away from their active kids for a moment or for being unable to discern danger in the shallows of a human-made lake fronted by sand and beach chairs.
When did it happen that we got sucked in to believing we are not good enough for the impossible expectations set first by the movie, TV, and fashion industries and now by the all-encompassing digital world? When did we stop distinguishing between reality and fantasy? Why is my neighbor embarrassed to swim? From whom did my friend learn that she did not meet the bar for public display?
I know what it’s like to be overweight. I’m happy to say I am now losing some pounds I gained while attending to a family illness. With the help of some people who love me, I have finally met with success. Like many, I have made myself miserable over many years struggling with notions of body image. I look at old family photographs of me as a college student wearing a swimsuit. I look fine. No one but me would know that the young lady pictured saw herself then as too fat to wear a bikini. When I was a young mother, aerobics classes helped me work off the baby weight from multiple childbirths and I ventured into the world of wearing a two-piece. Still, I worried I was not thin enough to pull it off.
Like my college self, I’m back now to the one-piece suit, but for practical reasons – it is much easier for lap swimming. No parts shift or peel off in the water. Why do I swim when others stay away? I do it because swimming makes me happy. While it’s still a struggle, I’ve beaten back the self-doubt that’s been present for so long. I choose to no longer worry about whether I live up to strangers’ expectations.
I get angry when I learn that people cannot enjoy a healthy, fun activity because others are judging them. And I wish I could return to the past and tell young Kitta that she is perfectly okay the way she is. Let’s give it a try, shall we? Let’s go easier on ourselves. And let’s stop stealing other people’s joy.
— Kitta MacPherson
Getting into the Flow
The sages, that is, writing colleagues such as Robin Gaby Fisher, Brad Parks, and Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts, say you must write 1,000 words a day to free the mind and stir up words, images, and associations.
Deadline demands over the past few weeks have forced me to adopt this pattern. I had thought the approach might be a little too pat, a little too forced. I was wrong. I am beginning to see the power of this practice as the past comes alive in my mind. The flow of content and words engendered by practice is real.
As someone who is in middle age but feels compelled more than ever to tell stories, I am moved and encouraged by a comment made by Max Perkins, Hemingway’s great editor. Perkins’ remark was included in a post on ScienceWriters today : “I think, in truth, that the best writing of all is done long after the events it is concerned with, when they have been digested and reflected upon unconsciously, and the writer has completely realized them in himself.”
People close to me know that I have been writing a memoir on my life with my late husband, Walter Lucas. I have been working on it for some time. About 30,000 words of text, in fact, forming six chapters were the basis of my thesis for my Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Non-Fiction from Fairleigh Dickinson University, completed in 2013. Part of my problem has been that, in order to describe certain scenes the way they really happened, complete with sensory details, I have to “go back” to those moments. When I revisit those periods, its saps me, drains me. After, I am sickened by the memories, nauseated and depressed. Even the happy memories are painful to conjure.
A few weeks ago, I realized something important that changed matters for me. Near my writing desk in a dresser, I have stored dozens of folders with pieces of the story. I have Walter’s diary, the contents of which he shared with me when he was alive. I have legal pads from his desk with outlines for legal arguments from cases when he practiced law at his firm, Lucas & Marose. There are other private things. I have many medical records from his extended hospitalization in the intensive care unit at Morristown Memorial Hospital, where he died in August of 2004. Scanning the papers one night, it came to me that the files represented Walter to me — that in a way they allowed him to still be with me. If I were to finish the book, I would have to put the files away. And then he really would be gone.
This fear is the factor that was actually holding me back. Now that I’ve looked at it for what it is, the anxiety has ebbed. As Max Perkins noted, perhaps I needed time and distance, because the words are there now, in my head. True love is one of the world’s great gifts. Love can’t be uprooted and stolen from you. The feeling lasts forever.
— Kitta MacPherson