Poland and America and Kavanaugh

Poland and America and Kavanaugh

After two weeks in Poland—learning its history, speaking to as many Poles as would speak to me—I was struck with this irony: after centuries of being torn apart physically (by outsiders) the country is now being torn apart emotionally, from within.

The reason so many grown children no longer speak to their parents? The reason dinner parties turn into shouting matches?  Half of Poland believes their current government—right wing and authoritarian—is good for them; the other half believes that government is crushing Poland’s long-sought, hard-won democracy.

Returning to the U.S., I slid into the Kavanaugh hearings—and saw our own country being torn apart.

Clearly, the hearings were about more than Kavanaugh.

I will tell you what they are about for me.

I did not endure sexual abuse. But the dread that pinned me to the couch for every minute of the hearings came from a different kind of abuse: where people in power insist no one cares more than they about the institution’s values—yet go on and violate those values, for their own agenda.

I grew up in a family like that.

One brief example: My parents touted “family loyalty” above all else. Yet my mother demeaned me constantly, often in front of others. When I protested, my parents would denounce me as “disloyal.” Like all children—all powerless creatures—I wanted to stay in the system, so I ended up thinking I was wrong.  Ignoring what my eyes saw and ears heard almost drove me nuts. But it also gave me a gift: the ability to identify even the subtlest instances of people in power looking virtuous  but acting otherwise.

And this is what I saw last week at the Kavanaugh hearings.

Republicans said all the right words—“decent,” “just,” “fair”—and struck all the right poses. They pretended they were doing what we citizens grew up believing senators are supposed to do: put the very best, wisest, most dispassionate judge on the Supreme Court. But their actions showed the Republicans had another agenda.

I watched the hearings at the house of a friend, who was taking care of her 12-year-old grandson. Sam cares about soccer, not politics, but he sat himself between us on the couch and consulted his phone. Apparently, he could still hear, because the first time Kavanaugh answered a question with a sneering outburst, Sam looked up. “Hey, wait a minute! That man didn’t answer the question. Isn’t it the rule that he has to?”

Republicans had upended our usual rules—and covered that fact with a million red herrings.  They accused Democrats of “smearing” the nominee (it was clear Ms. Ford came forward on her own); of breaking rules by wanting to wait a week (when Mitch McConnell broke every mold of fairness by delaying Obama’s Supreme Court nominee for 8 months).

When Republicans excused Kavanaugh’s irate ranting by saying “He’s upset because he’s been unjustly excused,” Sam exclaimed, “That’s crazy! If everyone who thinks he didn’t do it gets to yell over people, wouldn’t courtrooms be too noisy?”

When senators all seemed to accept Kavanaugh’s apology for “answering a question with a question,” Sam wasn’t buying.  “That’s not the wrong thing he did! Why don’t they make him answer that question?”

That was the Emperor’s New Clothes moment.

But no one stood up and said what Sam had said. No one at all.

Poland and Us

The difference between us and Poland is that we are used to democracy. We think it will last forever somehow. They know different.

5. Anna etcBack in 1791, inspired by the new United States, Poland’s leaders wrote a democratic Constitution. Four years later, Poland was invaded. On and off, for the next 200 years, Poland remained occupied and oppressed.

IMG_5888“This is why our Constitution, the one written in 1997, means so much,” says Halina, a high school teacher. “It is our dream.”

The Law and Justice Party—the current government—changed that Constitution recently to give itself more powers. Now Anna, a model, says she will not talk to her father. “He likes Kaczinski! [leader of the Law and Justice Party].  Who changed our constitution! Without asking us!”

KAMIL SERIOUS.JPGKamil, a taxi driver, hates the lies the government tells.  “Lech Walesa was a hero!” he bursts out. “Now the government is saying he was nobody. How can they tell a different history from the one that is true?”

Democracy is fragile because it rests on honor. In a democracy, we are honor bound to try, as best we can, to see and say the truth.

We’ve long been used to politicians’ petty lies about money or sex. But when they lie about reality—when they say they’re searching for the truth when in fact they are doing something else—then democracy starts to fade away. Like a dream.

Arriving in Poland

Arriving in Poland

One night in early March, my husband, Warren, and I were curled up watching The Zookeeper’s Wife, a movie that tells the story of how Jan and Antonia Zabinski  saved the lives of many Polish Jews by hiding them in and around the Warsaw Zoo (which the couple ran) and finding ways to shepherd most to safety.

At that time—the 1930s—the Warsaw Zoo was one of the largest in the world and run by no ordinary couple. Jan Zabinski wrote books about animal psychology; Antonia had an extraordinary ability to communicate with creatures of all kinds (including humans). This zoo’s animal population—the Zabinskis dubbed them “Guests”—was the envy of other zoologists, including the Nazi constable posted to Warsaw.

With hearts breaking from their Guests’ untimely deaths—the Germans stole some, murdered the rest—Jan and Antonia turned to help their Jewish friends inside the Warsaw Ghetto. The odds were against them that they could succeed. But they did.

Unwilling to leave that time and place, the next night we watched Uprising, which tells how a small band of Jews fought bravely back against the Nazis—again, against all odds.

Warren and I are both Jewish. We both have been keenly aware of the Holocaust for as long as we can remember. But watching these two movies made something rise up inside me.

“Let’s go to Poland,” I said.

Warren turned to me, his brown eyes alight. (He is the best husband for me because he always welcomes the ideas that flow constantly from my brain to my mouth, many of which never happen.)  “Okay,” he said. “Let’s!”

The next day, going to Poland seemed another crazy idea—but idly searching airfares, I found two $402 one-way seats to Warsaw in late August—and nabbed them. And though August felt fuzzily in the future, I soon began planning.

Starting with Warsaw to Krakow, for a while we made giddy plans, looking at the world map in my studio. Krakow to Italy? Venice! Why not Greece? But soon, we decided this 21-day trip would be our “World War II/Holocaust” journey. Warsaw to Krakow to Prague; then, Berlin, where an equally low airfare would take us home to Denver.

And then the really fun part: dotting this journey with events. One reason I love planning faraway trips is how it makes me feel—that we are all alike, all connected, just have to reach out—as opposed to today’s world, where obstructive layers choke the most ordinary interactions. Trying to ask my doctor a simple question about my health over the phone proves astoundingly difficult. But getting train tickets for a date two months away, between two cities whose names I can’t pronounce, in currency I’m not familiar with, is surprisingly easy.

Getting both walking and tram directions between our Krakow hotel and an out-of-the-way café with rave Yelp reviews is so doable it makes me laugh out loud with delight. So does the Shabbat dinner invitation from a Warsaw rabbi I sent an email to some weeks ago.  busy-intersection-in-Krakow

I am writing this from a desk in the Polonia Palace Hotel, which is even prettier than the photos, whose staff is even nicer–and location unforeseeably fabulous: not only is it central to so much we want to see, but right across the street is a shopping mall, where, totally jetlagged, we decided to spend our first hours in Poland. Joining the fast-moving crowds, we felt the bustling, capitalistic energy that is Poland today.


A different way to see opera

Now we know: Central City Opera is an entirely different—and entirely wonderful—way to see opera.

Usually, opera necessitates being in a big city. Central City is a small mountain town (elevation 8,496’) where cozily restored brick buildings and darling bed and breakfasts line the hilly streets—and the surrounding rugged landscape reminds visitors: this was once a rough and ready mining town.

Because The Magic Flute is such a long opera, we arranged to stay overnight at Skye Cottage, a truly lovely B&B, where our utterly charming room inspired an afternoon nap.  At 6 pm, we strolled down the hill, turned right—and there was the Opera House! Everything in such pleasant proximity!

A few doors down from the Opera House, we had a marvelous dinner at the historic Teller House—then across the street to hear the (free), pre-opera talk—then back across the street to wait in the gardens surrounding the Opera House for the doors to open.

Sitting there in the dusk, in the sweetly landscaped gardens, a sense of enchantment grew—and deepened considerably when a beaming young woman walked onto the patio and rang a large gold bell. “The Magic Flute, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, will begin in 15 minutes!” she announced joyfully.


The town might be tiny, the theater might seat only 550—but productions are first-class. This Magic Flute was the best we’d ever seen: the director shaped the tale creatively, using three young boys as guides.

Over breakfast the next morning, we talked Central City history with our hosts.  It was a Gold Rush town! After gold was discovered in a gulch in 1859, more than 10,000 people rushed in to make their fortune—and Central City was born. (A young man pitching his tent on the ground with all the others was William Byers, the future founder of The Rocky Mountain News!)

By 1861 Central City was a typical Wild West town, recording 217 fist fights, 97 revolver fights and 11  Bowie knife fights. (No one killed!) In 1878, the town built the Opera House. But around 1900, mining veins showed signs of depletion; by WWII, gold mining shut down altogether. By the 1950s,Central City’s population—and that of its sister city, Black Hawk—fell to a few hundred.

Then in the early 1990s, the two towns’ fortunes rose with casino gambling.  The current Opera Company, founded in 1932, expanded—and now is renowned for world-class productions and outstanding training programs for young artists.

“Our mission is to sing extraordinary stories to … open minds to the breadth of human experience,” says Judith Grant, Chairman of Central City Opera Board.

She adds, “We stand on the shoulders of those Welsh and Cornish miners who built the Opera House in 1878 and  those…  who restored it in 1932.”

Links to the past—and investments in the future—are everywhere in this town.

You won’t ever regret coming to Central City Opera. The fresh mountain air, the feeling that you’ve gotten-away-from-it-all;  performances of the highest—and innovative—quality enjoyed in an intimate, meticulously restored Opera House …  it doesn’t get any better.


Yelapa! (Who knew?)

Yelapa! (Who knew?)

“If you take one day trip, make it Yelapa,” my world-traveler stepdaughter Debbie told us, when we set off for Puerta Vallarta, Mexico to vacation with our pals, Kathy and Jay.   

We had no idea what Yelapa was—or why you needed a boat to get to a town just down the coast. Later, we’d learn that roads had not yet been built through the jungle to reach Yelapa—and the full, fascinating story of why this was so.

Lost In Time

Yelapa is a small, sleep fishing village surrounded by mountains and tucked into a cove on the Bay of Banderas. There are no roads here, and no cars.

Trying to find Yelapa’s famous waterfall was the first indication this was not your usual tourist stop. No signs. And asking residents for directions led us in circles, where we started to understand how low-key this whole place was: modest homes, unlocked doors, laundry hung in plain view. “You’ll get there, don’t worry,” advised a native woman.


The official vibe here seemed to be: Where you are is fine. The goal is not the point.   

Finally, we found the uphill road and began the hike to the waterfall—gorgeous and tall, spilling ice-cold water into an idyllic pond. We swam and splashed for a long time. By the time we dried off, it was late. yelapa-mexico-village

Starting back, we joked about how much we’d eat and drink at the beachfront café. Soon, though, our main concern was making the last boat back. Nothing looked familiar. The narrow road wound down and around for much longer, it seemed, than on the way up. The dense foliage was now clearly jungle.

Kathy, whose favorite thing is walking someplace completely new, strode happily ahead. My least-favorite thing is not-knowing where I am going so I wasn’t happy at all. But there was nothing to do but keep going on the patterned cobblestones—and absorb a world that didn’t fit any known parameters.


Above us, houses perched on cliffs. Small dwellings—some shabby, some delightful—lined the road—and then, none at all. Steps appeared out of nowhere. Walls scribbled with advertisements.  A large sign pointed the way to a Yoga Retreat. Papers tacked to trees announced art workshops and Resident Meetings.


Out of the silence, the clip-clop of hooves. Two men on donkeys trotted by.  “Which way to the beach?” I called, but they were gone.  Giggling schoolgirls in white uniforms ran past—then disappeared into the brush.

“It’s like Brigadoon,” I joked.

I didn’t know how close I was to the truth.



Suddenly, we faced a river. But it wasn’t deep and we waded across. Exhilarated, we now saw small shops (closed), chicken coops, fields.  A woman working in one beamed at us. “Right here!” she beamed—and there was the bright blue sea, and a path to the beach.


In the early 1500s, five families came down from the mountains and settled in what became known as Yelapa.  In 1524, Francisco Cortes led an aggressive army down the coast—but Yelapa natives in feathered headdresses stood strong and told him:  We are a peaceful people. Please leave our land alone.

Impressed by their directness, Cortes left the land untouched. Forty years later, King Philip of Spain formally designated Yelapa as a communidad indigena. That order still stands.  Outsiders can rent—but they may not own or claim land.

Yelapa is one of the few places left on Earth where the original inhabitants still live, own and control their own land.


This February, we’re going back. Our stay will be enriched by knowing Yelapa’s unique history. A pocket of fairness in the jungle. We’re filed with awe—and gratitude that they allow us to share their peaceful, precious paradise.

Accommodations in Yelapa, less expensive than those in Puerta Vallarta, are unique and often extraordinarily beautiful. Besides enjoying the quiet beach and just relaxing, you can visit both waterfalls, hike, go horseback riding or snorkel. Mostly visitors appreciate living a simpler life.

Call me Ruthy

ImageI never thought I’d be one of those people who changed their name. But now I am one of those people. And this is how it happened.

About 70 years ago, minus a few months, my parents named me “Carol”—a popular name at that time—with the middle name of Ruth. As I got older, I grew less fond of being called “Carol,” but the idea of changing it never occurred to me.

I never thought about changing my life, either, although that wouldn’t have been a bad idea. Brought up by critical and unhappy parents, I arrived at adulthood with low self esteem, self destructive habits and no real direction.

Building a life around my core values was not something I knew how to do. So I pretty much lived according to others’ expectations. Of course I hit a lot of dead ends that way and had to find my real self and direction late in life—a messy, but exhilarating, process.

At age 62, I married again. To my surprise, my husband seemed fond of my middle name. “My Ruthy,” Warren would say, the warm light of love in his eyes.

“Ruthy” was what Warren’s been mostly calling me in recent years, the same time that I’ve been writing the childhood chapters of my memoir. I’ve been setting down dialogue like, “You know, Carol, you’re not as smart as you think you are,” or, “You know Carol, no one cares what you think.” My mother had a way of loading my name with terrible disdain.

The harder I worked to bring these scenes to life, the more I felt the pain of “Carol” being voiced so unlovingly.  And then there it was, my other name: Ruthy.

At first it just felt like a fun thing to say. “I’m changing my name to Ruthy.” Then one Sunday, Warren’s grown daughters came over for brunch. “Call her Ruthy for real now,” he told them.   For the next two hours, hearing these young women address me as “Ruthy” felt like second and third helpings of some exquisitely sweet dessert.

The next week, I emailed the Denver Branch of Pen Women—an unusually nice group of writers I belong to—and announced I was changing my name to Ruthy Wexler. (Denker is the name of my very patient, extremely nice, long-ago first husband.  It was time.)  Once that large group enthusiastically obliged, there was no turning back.

Except I turned out to be not so good at it.

When a friend from Philadelphia said, “I’m not sure I can call you Ruthy I’ve known you for so long as—”, I would say, “Oh you don’t have to.” Another friend gently pointed out, “It would be less confusing if your cell phone message didn’t still say, “Hi, this is Carol.’”

And it would be far less confusing if I changed my email, I realized. But a surge of resistance swamped me at the thought. This email address is what I’ve had forever! It would feel weird and strange to just drop it! And all that legal stuff, it feels so final—

Yup. I should have remembered. When you first change, there’s an empty space that feels uncomfortable.  Letting go of your past is a loss, no matter how you slice it.

I used to think that changing one’s name was a bit presumptuous, like you had no right to disturb the order of things.  That was before I understood how fully one could take charge of one’s life.

But I’m doing it.  Stay tuned. And please, send me a story about your own Late Life Journey.

Making Connections These Days


I’m always writing things down—important things—on little tiny pieces of paper. And then I lose them.

This morning, I became uncomfortably aware of how many I’d accumulated, in scattered places; my purse, on top of my dresser, in my coat pocket. Gathering them into one pile, then going through them at my desk, I saw that they all contained contact information for various persons I’d met and wanted to see again.

“I’ll email them all right now!” I thought, with a burst of resolution.

On the top piece, a corner of lined notepaper, some stranger had written “Joyce White.” I waited for my brain to make sense of it. Joyce White? I tried to recall recent excursions: a trip to Glenwood Springs, a weekend writers conference. Nothing.

Just a fluke, I thought, and proceeded to the next, brown magic marker on back of my business card. Fay Dunkin. It stirred a vague memory which refused to coalesce. Did I meet her at my local library, where I often start conversations? For the life of me, I couldn’t say.

I felt vastly encouraged when a name on the third piece of paper—Karen Frank—brought a face to mind. Together, we’d waited for the delayed train from Glenwood to Denver. I’d learned that she and her husband raised goats and missed San Francisco. I had liked her enormously.

But the next four names drew blanks, and now I had to face facts: the memory of why I’d written down six individuals’ names was gone. I felt disoriented, even a little depressed. And this was not me.

What I’m used to feeling is, age doesn’t matter, I can still do it. What I’m used to saying is, I’ll figure it out. I take Zumba; but stay for just half the class. Instead of working all day and night, like did with my first book, I now write in the morning. If I can’t nail a name or fact as easily as my younger self did, there is Google right there to help.

Except here, there was no help. I felt a loss that these potential connections would never happen.

But then I thought of a solution. After I emailed Karen Frank, I would write the others and say: “Hi, (Joyce/Barbara/ Fay/etc), I have your email right here and want to stay in touch. It was nice meeting you! How are you?”
Hopefully, the return email would give me a hint.

A few hours later, I got a message back from … Joyce White! “Thanks for writing! I really enjoyed talking to you at the Mystery Writer’s dinner … Hope to see you again and have more delicious conversation.”
Yes! The Mystery Writers Dinner two weeks ago! I’d sat next to Joyce, a delightful, fascinating woman.

The other responses weren’t as helpful. Fay wrote, “Thanks for asking! Life is good!” I still had no idea who she was, or “Langley,” who said, “Hi back. Too busy to write.”

I had to laugh. And then I had to think.

My older brain needs more structure than my younger brain did to connect the dots. But my older self—here’s the paradox—is better at making people connections. I’m finally comfortable in my own skin and thus, I’m more interested in others, more ready to feel real affection.

So I am really going to try—a belated New Year’s resolution—not to stuff little pieces of paper in my jeans and hope for the best. I’m going to carry a notebook in my purse, and when I meet someone I like, take a smidge more time to jot down some identifying data. I’ve learned: connections are precious.