IN MY OPINION....

Dec. 8, 2017

 

Chutzpah= the quality of audacity, for good or for bad. The Yiddish word is derived from the Hebrew word ḥutspâ (חֻצְפָּה) meaning"insolence" or "cheek".

As a teenager in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, I made my spending-money by babysitting. Back then, I think the going rate was 50 cents an hour---certainly not get-rich-quick money.  My babysitting services were most-popular among local Jewish Families, with such familiar last names as Baim, Sherman, Gershner, and Blau.

Young and impressionable, I observed that Jewish women were more confident, more out-spoken, than other women in Pine Bluff. Jewish women appeared to “say what they thought and get what they wanted.”  From that time on, I began noticing that every Jewish woman---from Arkansas to New Jersey, from California to New York—wore the fanciest jewelry, the most elegant furs, drove the finest cars---and had the most adoring husbands.

In the eighties, while living in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, I became friends with a young doctor named Bob, from Long Branch, New Jersey. I never tired of hearing Bob's most-unusual story.

Growing up in a poor Italian family, Bob was determined to earn money for Medical School and soon, he took the advice of a few of his more-seasoned, male friends. Barely eighteen, he signed up to be a House Boy at one of Long Branch’s Fanciest High-Rise Hotels. The Hotel catered to wealthy Jewish Widows from New York City who paid large sums to live there, year-round.

Basically, being a House Boy meant doing anything and everything requested by “The House”….meaning the occupants therein.  When Bob wasn’t attending college, taking tests, and studying, he was driving some Jewish Lady (in her car) to the hair dresser, bridge parties, shopping, and doctor’s appointments.  He also served as a Jewish Woman’s “date” for dinner, movies, plays, and sight-seeing,  It seems Bob was a favorite dance partner for the much-older ladies too, but-- most intriguing--Bob was the most sought-after House Boy when the Jewish Ladies were in need of a... bed partner.

Fascinated by his former job description, I asked Bob endless questions including,  what the job paid.  Of course it was difficult to break-it-all down for each “assignment” but… he said that working approximately 48 hours on an “average” week earned him more than 6 thousand dollars. He explained that Jewish Ladies liked to “tip” rather than pay an hourly wage. So, the more these wealthy women liked your looks, your actions, and your ability “to please” them….. the bigger the tip.

He admitted there were some major “challenges” and described one Jewish Lady in particular. The Lady was more than eighty, in a wheelchair, completely incontinent, had loose dentures, and--- despite endless cosmetic surgeries and hair implants-- resembled a grotesque old man. Even worse, because of her “plumbing problems”, she smelled like an outhouse.   Bob said it was widely-rumored she was the wealthiest woman in the building and... she tipped well to the young boys she liked best.  He admitted to spending several nights with her but refused to divulge the intimate details(I was insatiably curious). Bob only confirmed that he received five thousand per night.

I’ve always said that money can’t make you happy but--- it  allows you to be selective, gives you choices. Jewish Ladies from Long Branch, New Jersey, seemed to enjoy spending their money in entertaining ways, like: When in need of a dancing partner, they just paid for the youngest and best-looking House Boy with the best moves. When they felt lonely, they  chose the best House Boy money could buy-- to provide all-kinds of attention.  And, when they wanted a bed partner, they select the best-looking and best-equipped House Boy in the building and paid him for a “job well done.”

By the way, Bob had no problem paying for college or med school, thanks to the Jewish Ladies of Long Branch. He may not have loved his job but....it certainly loved him back.

Hmmmmm...wonder if.....in many ways....this doesn't sound a little-like prostitution?!?!?

But--- who cares!?!?!  Most importantly, Bob is now a wonderfully-trained gynecologist who has a reputation for knowing all-there-is-to-know about women.

Dec. 6, 2017

 

For years, the framed picture of a steam engine hung on a prominent wall in my parents’ house.  It featured an embroidered message: “Old Engineers Never Die, They Just Lose Their Steam.” I seldom looked at the picture; the phrase “lose their steam” was an insult to my father, R.B. (Roy) Miller.   A Locomotive Engineer, my father had a perfect record with the Cotton Belt Railroad. In fact, most of my family had a personal connection with railroads.  My great grandfather spent many years with the railroad as a carpenter and his daughter, my grandmother, worked as a secretary for forty years with the Cotton Belt. After leaving college, my brother proudly served as a roundhouse foreman at the Cotton Belt Shops until his death in 1994. The railroad put food on our table for many years. Our family had great respect for the railroad and no one was more committed to the railroad than my father. I watched him begin each day with a determined “Full Steam Ahead”.

Roy Miller (R.B. to those who worked with him) followed a strict code of ethics.  He refused to borrow anything, including money, vehicles, even tools.  My father didn’t believe in charge accounts, credit cards, and never varied from a cash-only lifestyle. He was a handsome gentle-man who dressed well, displayed classic manners, and treated everyone with respect.

 My father grew up in Missouri during the depression years.  As the oldest of five siblings, he had no choice but leave high school in the ninth grade to help his father, Amon Burette Miller, support the family. I remember the summer I was job hunting and my father mentioned a few of his more distasteful summer jobs like painting barns, shoveling excrement from out-houses, and butchering hogs (his least favorite).  All involved long hours but only a few dollars. 

He smiled when he talked about the day he was hired by the railroad, calling it the most memorable day in his young life. Oh, how he loved his railroad job!  Years later, when he retired, my father had a perfect attendance record. After more than forty-three years of railroad service, he had never missed one day of work.

Growing up in a railroad town, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, I knew the importance of limited phone conversations.   Daddy received his train orders by telephone, an important call that could come anytime, day or night.  The person calling my father, relayed orders for his next train run and was known as the “call boy”.  Within thirty minutes of the call boy’s orders, my father, travel grip in hand, was enroute to the railroad yards.

During my father’s time with the railroad, Cotton Belt Locomotive Engineers were officially retired on their seventy-second birthday.  For most engineers, after years of climbing off and on an engine; years of taking orders in the early morning hours; years of spending nights away from home…. mandatory retirement was almost a time of celebration.

But, my father had a different reaction. The idea of ending his love affair with the railroad-- made him sad. Given a choice, my father would have remained an active, Cotton Belt Engineer until the day he died.  In 1982, with his seventy-second birthday a few weeks away, Daddy spent most of his time outside, aimlessly walking around the yard he loved, looking at everything but--focusing on nothing.     

A few weeks after daddy’s birthday, after his railroad retirement was officially documented, I invited him to join me for a car ride. Several blocks from home, approaching the railroad tracks, we heard the familiar bells clanging as lights began flashing, and the automatic safety barriers dropped, blocking the roadway. Within seconds, a long freight train roared by.  I was talking, chatting about something, when I sensed my father’s silence.  Turning to look at him, I felt overwhelmingly sad. My father’s head had dropped forward as tears dripped from his chin, designing wet circles on his favorite brown gabardine slacks.  I leaned over, put my head on his shoulder, while my hand tried to catch the tears. Desperate to stop his hurt, I whispered, “Daddy, I promise, everything will get better soon.”

But, nothing got better.  In a few quick years, dementia, the uninvited houseguest, became my daddy’s permanent companion.  For me, the ultimate heartbreak came one night when the telephone rang. As if nudged by an electric prodder, Daddy struggled out of his chair, fighting to catch his balance while stumbling toward the ringing phone.  I watched in silence as my wonderful father reached for the telephone, then announced to no one in particular: “Excuse me, please.  I have to answer this phone. It’s the call boy with my orders.”

The last time we were together, Christmas, 1987, I had a nagging premonition.   When it was time to leave for the airport and return to my job in Erie, Pennsylvania, I gave Daddy one last hug. Holding him close, I told him over and over how much I loved him and promised to call as soon as my plane landed.  He cried, quietly, as he held on to me like a lifeline, tears marking my coat collar. Whispering, afraid my mother would hear, he begged me not to leave him.  It was as if he, too, sensed this would be our last time together. As the taxi backed out of the family driveway I lowered the window to say yet-another “I love you, Daddy”.  Watching his unsteadiness as he struggled to return my wave, I knew for certain…..this would be our last shared moment.

Today, as I approached a railroad crossing, bells began clacking….red lights started flashing…. and safety barriers dropped.  Sitting in my car, I stared down the track at the approaching train. Decked out with flags, streamers, and banners, a restored locomotive came steaming-- parading down the track----clickety-clack-clickety clack---moving toward some unnamed celebration.   Out of respect for the historic engine, I opened the car door to stand at attention.   The massive steam engine roared past, its train wheels clicking out its familiar sound, its steady- staccato- rhythm.  My heart pounded with childhood excitement as the antiquated train whistle blew a loud, continuous refrain.

All my life I’ve loved trains, but this train was no ordinary train; this train was special. Watching the steam engine, hearing the whistle, I remembered my father. For the first time since losing him, I felt a deep-down peace. I straightened my shoulders and stood tall, proud to remember my father’s life rather than his death.  Smiling, I pictured the embroidered message “old engineers lose their steam.”  Those words didn’t apply to my daddy--- the world’s best locomotive engineer and the greatest father.

Listening to the final strains of the steam engine’s whistle fade into the distance, I noted the remarkable similarities between this steam locomotive and my father, Roy (R.B.) Miller.  Both were classic and both would forever-be-remembered as “powerful, on-track, and full of steam!” 

Dec. 4, 2017

 

Entering a remote train station was risky; being arrested was constantly on my mind. Each time I left the security of The Wall to search for drinking water and food meant I was exposing my location.

Resting for more than a few minutes would be a dangerous luxury. I was on-the-run because… in the eyes of the Chinese Government…I was a fugitive.

 I had followed railroad tracks to this location.   Trains are the most popular way to travel in China and their train stations are well-maintained.  There, I could expect a stove with boiling water, a place to rest, and perhaps a less-obnoxious outdoor toilet.  I was so very tired.

My mileage meter showed I had completed 33 miles since 6 AM.  Judging from the sun...and my watch...it was 2:30 PM.   I had been on-the-move for more than eight hours. Pulling the camera from the safety of my backpack, it attracted the usual attention.  Each day I took as many photos as possible to document this first-ever journey.   It’s unlikely I’ll pass this way again.

 I was impressed with the spaciousness of the station and needed to take pictures quickly as more and more Chinese crowded through the door. The curious were both young and old and most were dressed in shabby, patched garments. They grouped around me to boldly stare, as I aimed my camera at the large-framed paintings on the back wall.

Suddenly a door opened and the station manager ran toward me shouting excitedly-- in Chinese--while waving his arms in front of me.  I gathered from his agitation that cameras weren’t allowed to photograph the ancient paintings. Remember, I didn’t speak Chinese and apparently, he didn’t speak English. Our verbal tug-of-war began-then ended-abruptly, as a male voice-to my right-spoke up:

“I will help you Missy Lady. I not speak it much but I write English”.  The crowds parted as a young man with only one leg, leaning on a crutch-like stick, hobbled toward me. In what I describe as “hop-scotch” English, the young Chinese, looking about twenty or twenty-one, introduced himself as Zhao Li Gong and apologized for his limited vocabulary.  I assured him that, at the moment,He was my hero and his English words were like mania from heaven.

 Grasping a small rock in his right hand (I later learned that Chinese are not allowed to be left-handed) he transformed one of the station’s plaster wall into a blackboard, scratching-out beautiful English as he answered my many questions.

 Li Gong wrote about studying long hours in high school so he could graduate with honors, attend college, and be an English teacher. But, China’s Ministry of Education rejected his applications.  In spite of having the highest grade in his high school, the Ministry of Education issued a letter, stating, “Chinese Colleges and Universities are institutes for physically-perfect students who are also highly-intelligent. Chinese students with disabilities and handicaps are not permitted to attend Chinese Colleges and Universities.”  

Touched by the story, I yearned to hug this tall, baby-faced man who, at the age of eight, had lost his leg in a bicycle accident. Because public hugging or touching is forbidden in Chinese Culture, (even between husbands and wives), I knew such a gesture would be shockingly inappropriate. So I stood, quiet and still, knowing I was in the presence of a remarkable human being.

Remembering that most Chinese enjoy posing for photos, I gathered everyone around for a picture, including train station personnel and my friend Li Gong.  Craftily, I positioned everyone under the station’s large paintings.   An enthusiastic onlooker was thrilled to hold my camera as I gave him a quick lesson in focus and how- when to click. The station manager, eager to stand beside me for the photos, seemed to forget about the station’s valuable paintings in the background. As my new friends gathered on either side, waiting for the flash, I smiled through happy tears.

Soon,after refueling my water bottles and resting for a short while,  it was time to go. The cold wind and threat of rain meant I must hurry; the tent had to be up before dark.  Li Gong insisted on leading me to the next section of the Wall, which was, at least, two miles away.    My cautious words could not discourage my amazing one-legged friend so, together, we began moving in a northeasterly direction toward the Wall.

There was very-little light when we finally reached our destination. Saying our final good-byes, my courageous friend handed me a small piece of paper with his name and address written in Chinese.   Tucking the note into my vest pocket, I promised to send him a letter.  Then, on instinct, I hugged my new friend. I wanted to reassure this overlooked talent that someday soon, goodness would find him.

 Beginning my long climb, I glanced back---one last time. Smiling bravely, Li Gong waved as he began limping home in the darkness.

 

Postscript:   In 1994, I accept the Chinese Government’s invitation to serve as the first Communication Specialist at China’s only Broadcasting Institute.  With great enthusiasm, I returned to China.

One afternoon, walking down Beijing’s crowded Chong an Street, I spotted a young man with only one leg, walking toward me. Memories from the past… from a remote train station with ancient paintings… remembrances of a young, one-legged Chinese man who wrote English on the station’s wall….merged together....I noticed the man’s crutch-like stick...could it be?  Now face to face, we looked at each other….and stopped. 

 Yes, it was my friend. At the very same time, we reached out to grasp hands.  Regaining his composure, Li Gong told me about his new teaching job near Beijing.  There, on the streets of Beijing, surrounded by curious strangers, I hugged my friend once again,  my most unforgettable friend.  It was wonderful to learn the Ministry of Education had reconsidered Li Gong's request to attend college, realize his dream and--at long-last-- he was now a teacher.

Let me back-track for a moment: After completing my Great Wall Journey , near the end of 1990,  I'd insisted on meeting with China’s Ministry of Education in Beijing. I told my story about meeting Li Gong and urged the Education Director to let the brilliant young man fulfill his dream of becoming a teacher. The Director listened, obviously interested, but remained noncommittal. Before leaving his office, I'd stressed the importance of my request, thanked him for our meeting, then left.

Shortly after the meeting, I returned to America.  I never stopped praying the Director would have a  change of heart.  Today,  I'd discovered that my prayers had been answered.     

Again, I’d connected with someone from my past, someone I’d met on my journey of China's Great Wall.  Was it simply a chance meeting or was it another important part of a much-greater plan?

By now you know….. I don’t believe in coincidences.

Sally Miller

 

Dec. 2, 2017


Menopause: The End of Femininity, The Death of Youth, The Loss of Sexual Desire---headlines that cause dread in forty and fifty year old women, every day. When undeniable symptoms strike, some women are so fearful, they put everyday living--- on hold.  

Age never dictated my agenda and birthdays are just another day so imagine my surprise when a Houston doctor focused on my age during my last routine physical before beginning my Great Wall Adventure.  He kept repeating the number, 49, trying to remind me of my age.  Then, very slowly, as if speaking to a child, he said “You are menopausal.  I want to prepare you for almost-certain physical

discomforts like...bloating, night sweats, fatigue, heart palpitations, mood swings, insomnia, and sexual apathy.

Some, if not all, these symptoms will be present for quite some time.” Aware that I was leaving for China in three days, the medical expert added, “You won’t have access to medical assistance on your Great Wall journey and you could face some life-threatening health issues. As your doctor, I am advising you to postpone your China trip for another two years.” 
 
Fve months later:  The sun was directly overhead so, after spending the morning in a constant run/walk for almost 23 miles, I took a much-needed break. Swallowing my daily estrogen tablet—America’s latest miracle drug for menopausal women--I reflected on the Houston doctor’s advice and chose to address him, out-loud:    

“Doctor-friend, I wish you could see me now, averaging 35 miles a day...on foot...over some of Asia’s most difficult mountain ranges, carrying more than 30 pounds of supplies. Sorry to disappoint you but….I haven’t had one symptom of menopause. I hope you’ll share this information with your buddies in the medical profession. Also, tell Doctors to stop scaring women about Menopause.  Rather than pills, bed rest, and warnings, Doctors should prescribe exercise, vitamins, estrogen if necessary.....but-- most importantly,  encourage women to be strong,  to believe in themselves and their abilities. If not for you, I would never have known I was menopausal."

For two years, an intense training program in Houston consumed my life.  Every day, I ran 12 miles in Houston’s heat and humidity while three days a week, I trained in Rice University’s weight room. My work-outs were closely supervised and monitored by a team of football coaches and physical fitness experts.  I felt great and confident in my ability to travel “All The Wall”.  I didn’t need a Doctor’s warning to cancel the adventure of a lifetime.  

After traveling the length of The Great Wall of China, I’m completely confident in everyone’s ability-- regardless of age-- to accomplish dreams, reach goals, and achieve success. 

It’s only when we allow others to limit us-- we limit ourselves.

Nov. 30, 2017

 

Ann and I met in Junior High School. She was pretty, had a nice figure, and wore expensive cashmere sweaters with matching skirts, jackets with fur trim, and fine jewelry.  We hadn’t met in grade school because she lived in an affluent neighborhood and attended the nearby grade school where almost-all the students were popular, rich, and considered most-likely-to-succeed.

I don’t know about high schools today but, back then, students formed little cults-or groups- much like a “caste system” and students “hung out” with their specific group.  Every morning and lunch time, these groups gathered at different sections of the school property to talk, flirt, and gossip.  It was a hurtful time for those who didn’t belong to a group. 

Naturally, Ann belonged to the number-one group….the one with the most-important, most-popular students, and the group that, for the most-part, was mostly snobs. Looking back, few in the number-one group were able to maintain their important/popular status after graduation. 

Surprisingly, Ann and I attended the same women’s college in St. Charles, Missouri. And, even more surprising, we ended up as roommates and, that’s where the surprises ended.

She spent every weekend off campus with her boyfriend, the one whose father worked for the railroad, like my father. But, rather than take a chance on some poor boy marrying his daughter, Ann’s father paid for her current boyfriend to attend an expensive college, drive a fancy car, and live off-campus in a nice apartment.  After all, Ann’s family had a reputation to maintain. They weren’t going to jeopardize their “standing” in the Pine Bluff community by letting their daughter marry a nobody with no-future… or, heaven-forbid.....marry a nobody who worked for the railroad!

I well-remember the day I walked in our shared room and found Ann sitting at my desk, reading my letters. Rather than being humiliated, apologetic, or acting ashamed, Ann just looked at me and laughed. She couldn’t believe I was corresponding with some lowly private in the Army, some poor guy from a hick town called Sherrill, who didn’t even know how to spell! I can still hear her words as she held up the small picture of my friend in his military uniform.  “My God Sally, you graduated prettiest in our class…. and you can’t do any better than this poor, skinny, uneducated loser?!?!?”

Those were the days when manners defined us. Regardless of being rich or poor, all of us were expected to use our manners….not some time... but all the time.  From birth, I’d been taught to respect people, their privacy, and their property. My grandmother, the church’s long-time Sunday school teacher, repeated her most valuable lesson year after year,  “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” and…. I never forgot.

I grabbed my friend’s photo, picked up the many personal letters my roommate had scattered acrossed my desk, and left the room. We never spoke of the incident after that day but, I never trusted Ann again. I hid my personal items and correspondence in an available locker in the music department.  I remained cordial, polite, and managed to finish my freshman year at college without controversy but that year….I lost a part of my innocence  After sharing a room with Ann for nine months, I no-longer thought of Ann as pretty.

That summer, Ann and Harry married. Of course, she asked me to sing at the wedding and--ever the pleaser-- I said “yes”. After the wedding, I remember standing at the back of the church, ready to leave, when Ann, seeing me,  stopped hugging family and friends long-enough to hand me a clumsily-wrapped package.  With a quick "Thank You" followed by a fake, goodbye wave, the new bride hurried back to join her current group.

Later, in the parking lot, I un-wrapped Ann’s thank you gift. I smiled when I saw the hand-written card from someone named James Winters, wishing Ann and Harry "Much Happiness" with their upcoming marriage.  How typical of Ann to overlook the obvious.  Someone had sent her a wedding gift she didn't like or want so--she re-taped the paper around the gift----and passed it on to me. In her haste, she forgot to remove the name of the wedding gift's sender. 

Someone, probably her mother, told her to give me something for singing at the wedding but, like many with no class or integrity, Ann didn't valued me as a person. Why would she waste time or money, thanking me with a meaningful gift?!?!?

That was sixty years ago and today, I still have the ugliest ashtray ever-created. It’s heavy, thick glass, and totally lacking in beauty. I don't smoke but, I  continue to keep the ashtray nobody wanted as a constant reminder:

"Looks--like many people-- are superficial and, with time, fade away.

Real Beauty and Genuine Prettiness come from inside. Regardless of age and time, both only get better."

Sally Miller