Monday, January 28, 2013

COMMENTARY: Happy 200th Birthday, Pride and Prejudice

Learning to read wasn't easy for me.  My eyes didn't want to work scanning the lines of writing.  The Adventures of Dick and Jane left me staring off into space. The first reading that captured my full attention was Dr. Seuss, aka Theodore Geisel. No surprise I am still a fan of the colorful, the whimsical, and the amusing. Make no mistake, there was wisdom buried beneath the laughter. Green Eggs and Ham taught about prejudice. The Lorax made us want to walk more softly on this earth.

Mostly after that, I just read what I wanted. My first taste of The Reading List and the classics came in Mrs. Cowden's fifth grade class. Intimidated by the high shelves of the library, I asked her for some recommendation. She handed me David Copperfield. After I got past my shock at the book's heft, I was sold. I read everything Dickens, London, Twain, and Shakespeare that library held.

Then, she handed me Jane Austen. I grew up in the Sixties and there weren't a lot of options for women. This was the first time that I read a classic written by a woman. I sat and looked at her name on cover page the tattered book (most of the books Wilson Elementary for their fledgeling library were second-hand and repaired with duct tape by Glenda Vickery, our librarian, and my Mom) for a bit and wondered. What was it like writing then?

I knew people who wrote then did so on typewriters, mostly manual. But, Jane Austen had to have written that whole book by hand. Why I never thought of the process before was something of a mystery then. I realize now part of the reason was that writing something that good seemed inaccessible to me before that moment. 

Like most of the classics, place and time are as strong a character as the people living through them. The times were vastly different for women. "Entailments" meant that the property held by the Bennet family could not pass to any of the five female daughters. When their father died, they'd be left penniless unless they found a husband. I followed the sisters' trials and tragedies with a sense of awe. Imagine just walking out in the rain and ending up gravely ill? 

You remember the Sixties Virginia Slims cigarette slogan: You've Come a Long Way, Baby. Well, indeed we had. Just looking at my college-educated Mom who taught school before she married told me that. Mom could vote, which meant she even had a say in our government. She was four years old when my Grandma got the right. She told me more than once to always make best use of my right to vote, too.

I laughed through the antics in Pride and Prejudice. And I loved the characters. But, I thought about the change in times and what that meant for me.

And I kept thinking about that as I moved from Jane Austen to the Bronte Sisters, and finally to Louisa May Alcott. Like many young women, particularly of the Southpaw nature, I had perpetually ink-stained fingers. I looked at my hand and I realized then whatever I wanted to be I was going to write.

Today, women in Afghanistan are proudly showing their ink-stained fingers because they, too, can now vote.

I viewed these pictures with tears because they made me realize that we've still got a long way to go, too. Women everywhere are fighting for the right to vote, to walk the streets safety, and to have the right to choose whether or not to keep a child foisted upon them by a rapist.

This entry is part of Courtney Webb of Stiletto Storytime and Alyssa Goodnight's 200th Birthday Celebration for Jane Austen. 

List of participating bloggers is available on Alyssa Goodnight's page at

Rebecca McFarland Kyle, January 2013

COMMENTARY: Challenger

For my generation, we marked our lives by where we were when President Kennedy was assassinated. For the next, the crash of the space shuttle Challenger was a keystone event. 

It was a cold, dry and windy day in Oklahoma City warmed by hope and anticipation.

For the first time in my career, I was going to see a shuttle launch live. I was working for the Oklahoma Historical Society as secretary to Mary Lee Boyle, the senior archivist, and we had a television set for the Oral History Program. We were all particularly hyped that Christa McAuliffe was going up as a payload specialist. Many of us followed the Teacher in Space Program that President Reagan announced two years before Challenger. Added bonus:  she was a History Major and a Social Studies teacher. Her mission was to teach the world about the new frontier.

We were all aware of the delays this mission faced as we crowded into the tiny equipment-filled office vying for a good spot to see the 19-inch color screen. We'd planned to see the flight on the initial take-off date just six days before on January 22, 1986. Nobody really anticipated trouble. It was a long time since Apollo I and NASA had twenty-four prior successful missions.

No big deal. I still had hope in my heart of going to the moon on American Airlines. Back in fifth grade, Mrs. Cowden encouraged each of us to write and get on the waiting list for moon-flight. At that time, I still had the card American sent everyone who did write.

The launch went fine. We were all cheering and high-fiving each other when the vapor plume split into two.

"What happened?" I asked. I'd come late to the party and didn't have a great view.

For a few hope-filled moments, nobody knew. Maybe this was a scheduled event. Maybe....

Then, the announcer told us the shuttle exploded. I remember tears springing to my eyes. Chris Bittle, the photo archivist, hugged me. I think Mary Lee and several others did as well. 

Christa had flown with our hopes and dreams and those were gone now.  In some ways, I suspect this was the beginning of the end for President Kennedy's aspirations for us. NASA took a long hiatus to make sure they were functional. The Columbia disaster followed and set us back even further.

All I can say is Rest in Peace--and rest in the star stuff where all life is conceived.

The seven crew members aboard the Challenger Shuttle seen from left: Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith A. Resnik, Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Ronald E. McNair, Mike J. Smith, and Ellison S. Onizuka.

To watch CNN's live coverage of the Challenger take-off, follow this link:

Challenger Take-Off and Explosion

Rebecca McFarland Kyle, January 2013

Friday, January 25, 2013

COMMENTARY: How I came to be known as the Chicken Shit Queen

Back when I worked as a Research Assistant at the Department of Commerce, I literally knew what it was like to get the ‘shit’ jobs.
My boss called me in to her office and told me she had an important assignment for me. It was my first legislative query. One of the State Representatives from the Eastern part of Oklahoma wanted a report on chicken waste recycling.
Yes, even then, Oklahoma recognized their problem. With chicken farming in the east and pig farming in the west, they were literally up to their elbows in poop.
Worse, if they didn’t do something, that poop was going to taint their groundwater and nobody could wash off their dirty elbows or whatever part was affected.
My boss didn’t want the job—so she gave it to me. Her words, not mine.
Keep in mind, I don’t object to this kind of thing. I love science and the idea of recycling something nobody wants fits my values. So, I set to work contacting the folks in the industry to find out just what could be done.
I learned about pelletizing waste into fertilizer, or fuel pellets that would burn in stoves. Much to my dismay, I learned that many chicken breeders were already re-using their birds’ waste—by recycling it into chicken food feeding it back to them. Can’t say as I’ve cared for chicken much since.
Oh, and I got samples. My office was fragrant. The upside—my nose was usually stopped up that time of year and NOBODY came in to see what I was doing.
By the time I was done, I had a neat little report with a bunch of labeled odiferous exhibits.
And a nickname, The Chicken Shit Queen.
However, I got the last laugh. Because after all those years of taking shit from the Oklahoma Legislature, I got to send some right back to them. 
Rebecca McFarland Kyle, January 2013

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

COMMENTARY: Pennies and Monet -- Some things may be in the blood

"All lovely things will have an ending. 
All lovely things will face and die;
And youth, that's now so bravely spending,
Will beg a penny by and by.

Conrad Aiken
I didn't get to know my cousin Reggi very well. She lived 600 miles away and she was several years older at that critical time when those years were most divisive. When we got together, she was the fun glamorous person I wished I could be. As one of my male cousins said to me:  "She got all the beauty. You got all the brains."

I think she had both.
Reggi fought off a rare form of Hodgkins Disease in the late 90's. We thought she was okay. Then, ovarian cancer (as a result of all the scans she had to make sure she was clear of the Hodgkins) set in. She fought long and hard, but eventually lost in 2003.

In 2006, I got the chance to visit her Mom and Dad while I was in Denver. They were living in Reggi's condo at the time. They were caring for her two cats, Alvin and Alicia, and missing her terribly.

So was I.  And yes, I wondered -- why take the beautiful one and leave me behind?
The first inkling I got that perhaps I was more like Reg than I expected was when we found a penny on the sidewalk. Of course, I picked it up. I need all the luck I can get!

Find a penny, pick it up, and all the day you'll have good luck.
Find a penny, leave it lay, and you'll have bad luck all the day.
-- Proverb
That's when they started telling me about Reggi and pennies. She saved her pennies. When she was dying, she gave her dad a single penny in a lovely wooden box with a final message. 

I do something a bit odd with my saved pennies. I bless them and toss them where someone might find them and pick them up. Figure their luck has to come from somewhere.

When I got to Reggi's condo, I realized there was more similarity than I'd expected. When I walked into her downstairs bathroom, I saw purple towels and a miniature of Monet's "Waterlilies" hung on the wall. 

Monet's my favorite painter.  His work reminds me strongly of the world I see without my glasses, blurred lines, but an explosion of rich color and sensation. There's no doubt much of this was due to Monet's cataracts while he lived at Giverny. When Monet got eye surgery for the cataracts, the clarity of his paintings improved. I love him in all phases, but that soft, misty time is still my favorite. 

I've been chasing tours of his exhibits most of my life and missing them by that much. I finally managed to see "Waterlilies" in person at the High Museum in Atlanta. I sat down and just breathed it. 

Monet never did anything easy. Despite having cataracts, he still worked at painting water in grass which is difficult to depict. He once said, "I would like to paint the way a bird sings." In my opinion, he did that and he made colors so vivid they bear his signature: 

“Color is my daylong obsession, joy, and torment.” Claude Monet

I've always wanted a Monet bathroom. I fell in love with a home in Oklahoma City that had purple fixtures in the hall bath. I knew precisely what I was going to do with that bathroom...We didn't buy the home, sadly. I sat there in my cousin's bathroom and realized that time and distance didn't separate us. Somehow we were connected.

I left my Aunt and Uncle a gift. I took every penny I'd accumulated in my suitcase-sized purse and dropped them in random places about the condo where they'd find them and feel loved and blessed. I'm going to find a print of Monet and put it in my home.
I wish I'd known Reggi better. I advise you to reach out to your friends and family if you feel that need while they're alive and make sure they know how much you love and value them. Reggie was in her fifties when she died, far too soon. 
Rebecca McFarland Kyle, January 2013


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

COMMENTARY: Sometimes your Mom is just plain wrong...

Don't get me wrong, I loved my Mom. She was a loving, wonderful woman who savored life. She worked hard to learn and impart that knowledge to me, but sometimes...the things she could come up with.  These are the ones that turned out funny.

*   Shrimp cocktails contain raw shrimp -- Mom once told me about going downtown to eat at Bishop's with her little sister, Doris Jeanne. She said, "And, your Aunt ordered TWO shrimp cocktails--and those shrimp were raw."  Yeah, that had a high ewwww factor for me as a kid.  So, I'm out on a date at a nice restaurant (Bishop's was gone before I was born) and the wait-person offers me a shrimp cocktail. My response was, "My cat might like raw shrimp, but I'm not a fan." Everyone around us heard and laughed and the poor waiter nearly dropped a tray.

Nope, Mom, those shrimp are boiled and then chilled for the cocktail--and they are delicious.

*   They cut off the heads of bodies to embalm them -- Mom used to tell the joke about the funeral director getting a complaint when a widow realized her husband had the wrong suit on. The man just picked up the husband's head and switched it with the other guy who had the right suit. I was twenty-two and got a chance to speak to the head of the Funeral Directors and Embalmers Agency for Oklahoma for a client. When I told him what Mom said, he about broke something laughing. It's a common misconception--and so's the joke.

Nope, Mom, the Funeral Director uses intravenous fluids to embalm the body after they drain all the blood out.

*   People glow in the dark when they get radiation poisoning -- Mom told a story about some women who were working at a watch-making factory. They would use their tongues to shape the brush when they were painting on radioactive paint to make the watch hands and numbers glow in the dark.  Fortunately, no embarrassing anecdote here; however, the women did not glow in the dark. Whatever they painted with the radium-infused paint did glow--such as fingernails, toenails and teeth.

The lawsuit the women filed led to a landmark decision requiring employers advise workers when they are handling unsafe materials. For the whole case, see: 

The Radium Girls

Mom, you weren't entirely wrong on this one and I give you credit for knowing about something that happened in 1917, two years before you were born.  While people who get radiation poisoning do not glow in the dark, the lesson from this is clear--don't ingest stuff unless you know exactly what it is. Pity I didn't learn that before I liked Hostess Snowballs.

Rebecca McFarland Kyle, January 2013

COMMENTARY: An unintended lesson

A-tisket a-tasket
Mac's buying me a basket

Those certainly weren't original lyrics, but my heart was in them. I was three or four and my grandpa, Estey Earnest McFarland -- aka Mac, was taking me to downtown Leedey, Oklahoma to buy me my first Easter basket.

I could have any one of the baskets at Breeze Dry Goods. I just couldn't have any of the filled ones, because they already had the candy--and Grandma and I would be making eggs. She had eggs, dye, and even a woman's magazine with patterns for rabbit ears! 

I got a green and white basket and we took it up to the counter.  Then Mac did something weird--he just walked out without putting any money on the counter.

"Mac," I stood at the register calling him back. "You didn't pay for the basket."

"I put it on my account," Mac said. "They count up everything I buy and then at the end of the month, they send me a bill and I pay for it then."

"I'm sorry," I apologized to him and the nice lady at the register.

"That's okay," Mac told me. "I'm proud that you are so honest at such a young age."

Was it the basket or the compliment that made this memory such a strong part of me?  I can't answer the question, but I can still remember the spring day, the filled baskets, the Easter grass, and later on, making pink Easter Eggs with bunny faces and ears with Grandma. 

This was the first time I ever heard about charging things. My Grandpa definitely did credit right because he paid for whatever he charged at the end of the month. He was a good man, a person who valued truth and honesty--and I knew that he valued me for those qualities.

I hope I thanked him for the basket. Pretty sure I did, but I should have thanked him for a lot more.

Rebecca McFarland Kyle, January 2013

Sunday, January 13, 2013

COMMENTARY: Happy Birthday Wherever You Are 1/13 -- any year

I wrote this 1/13/2006 for my LJ blog: 
Today, you're 28. I hope your day and your life has been blessed.

I often think of you and wonder how you are. By now, I hope that you have learned you were adopted. I hope that you're happy and secure and know that your parents chose you as theirs. I also hope that they love you and gave you everything you needed--in every way possible.

No, I'm not your biological Mother. I was her friend.

Your biological mother found out she was pregnant just as she was getting a divorce from your biological father. Learning you were coming didn't make them want to stay together. They were both just barely into their 20's and he had a previous wife and child already. They didn't get along well enough to make it work for you and they were smart enough to know that much.

For a brief time, your biological mother considered raising you on her own. She only had a high school education and no real job skills. She found an attorney who knew a couple who wanted a baby and couldn't have one. So, that's how you came to be with your parents.

I cannot speak for your mother any further than just stating the facts. I wanted you to know that there's someone out there who often thinks of you. When I first knew you were coming, I offered to help your mother raise you as best we could, but she thought adoption would be a better idea. I'm not saying any of this to defend her actions--it's not my place to do so.

In some ways, I cannot defend her. Selfishly, I miss you and I wish I had been able to know you.

You and I were connected from the first. I knew the day you were born--and without a phone call, I knew the hour. I never saw your face. Sometimes, when I have walked through crowds of anonymous people, I have glanced at women your age and wondered if it was you.

Happy birthday, dear girl, wherever you are.

POSTSCRIPT:  Six years later, I still think of you. You're 34 now. I hope your have a comfortable home and a family who loves you.  

I know perhaps you may wonder whether your Mom loved you. Truth was, she loved you enough to sacrifice her pride and give you up to someone who'd give you a better life than she could. Sometimes, that's enough. 

Rebecca McFarland Kyle, January 2013

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

COMMENTARY: Writing Blind

 Last night, I read a young adult novel by a New York Times bestselling author. The concept was good. One of the two POV characters was excellent for the most part. My issue was, her blind sister--the second protagonist.  Among the issues I had with the book were: she felt the ground (action, no sensory input) and her sister who'd taken care of her smiled at her reassuringly. Really? Someone who cares for a blind person knows they don't get visual input and one of the key characteristics of the little sister was that she knew from an early age she was in charge of her sister.

This is the case of a sighted author writing blind.  That's bad in mainstream, but young adult novels are all about teachable moments and growing empathy in the readers for the oppressed. She missed a huge opportunity to help both her sighted readers and the blind people she might encounter.  

So, how do I know about being blind? I am legally blind.  I was born with congenital cataracts and through the course of complications, I have lost the sight in my right eye and what little I have in my left is deteriorating. My next step will probably be a service animal. Through the course of eight surgeries to correct my condition as much as possible, I have spent a good deal of time with eyes bandaged and sandbagged--virtually blind. I have also had several close blind friends.  So, yes, I have paid my dues.

How do writers open their eyes to blindness? 

The best advice I've heard was from Merlin, the wizard in the movie, Camelot.

"Think like a fish. Feel like a fish. Breathe through your gills. Now, be a fish."

The problem with the first bit of advice is that it's scary.  Sight is perceived by many as the most important of the senses. Scotomaphobia is the clinical term for the fear of blindness. According to a study conducted by Pfizer in 2008 about glaucoma, twice as many people are afraid of going blind than heart disease or premature death. (1)  A wider study conducted in India showed that fear of blindness existed among 90% of the study group. (2) A third study conducted by physicians addresses the correlation between the fear of blindness and suicide. (3)

But writers have to be brave to put themselves out there. When you're shying away from a topic, that's when you really need to just sit down and write it out. Frankly, I shied away from writing this blog. I finally decided doing this was part of my dues for asking sighted people questions about driving and other activities that my vision has precluded me from doing. 

Another issue is perception. Can you imagine how many people see my white cane and don't know what it is?  One lovely lady in Atlanta thought I used the cane for dog training. Others have believed it was a fashion accessory.  I won't even get into the number of people who shout at me believing my vision issues also involve my hearing.

So, how do you get less "blind" about blindness? 

Think like a blind person.  Your eyes give you 70% of the information about your environment.  If you don't have sight, how do you accomplish the tasks you set out to do? 

Feel like a blind person.  Write what you know comes in here. That used to scare me until the amazing author Mel Odom gave a talk to a group of aspiring writers about the craft. He said this is the hardest advice--in his case, he came from rural Oklahoma and didn't feel like he'd experienced anything.  However, everyone has feelings and they can translate those into authentic writing.  Every person has had feelings of loss, inferiority, incompetence.

Become a blind person:  The safest, most comfortable way is to talk to blind people. If you don't have a local group of visually impaired persons, here are a few national organizations. Many have discussion boards and educators who'd be glad to talk to you. 

American Council for the Blind

Knights Templar Eye Foundation

A scarier way is to go blind. I don't mean damaging your eyesight, but get a sleep mask that lets no light through and try to negotiate through your home. This is actually how people with low vision in some rehabilitative schools for the blind are taught how to cope with their limitations. The reasoning of these schools is that many people with limited vision (like me) will eventually go blind. It's a tough love situation. 

If you are fortunate enough to have a "blind walk" in your area, you can be blind with a supportive group. A few years ago, Atlanta Station offered a Walking with the Blind course where groups were given white canes, taken into a darkened room, and walked through an obstacle course with a blind guide. My husband and I took the course. Both of us gained amazing insights from the program.

If you don't understand blindness, it's time to learn before you write a blind character.You owe it to yourself as an authentic author, to your readers, and to the people who live with blindness every day. 

Rebecca McFarland Kyle, January 2013

(1) 2008 Pfiser Glaucoma Study

(2)  Fear of Blindness and Perceptions about Blind People. (India)

(3)  Fear of Blindness Study Conducted by Physicians