There’s no place like home

March 31, 2013 at 1:01 am (Uncategorized)

Lest my one reader believe I find this entire Desert empire a completely soulless place, rest assured: We found a few terrific activities to do and enjoy that went well beyond sitting idly poolside and commenting on all the women who either should or should not be wearing the bikinis they parade around in. (Sorry, Hayley, for revealing your singular fun-in-the-sun activity. Reader: you should have been there when Hayley discovered the woman donning both a thong bikini AND belly button jewelry.)

I’m not going to go so far as to say this area is rich in culture or cultural activities (though it is rich); rather, with a little advanced reading and great recommendations from friends and family, we took in some impressive experiences we’d recommend to others.

On Sunday, having heard about the nearby Holocaust memorial, we went to find it. We’d been told it’s located near Palm Desert’s synagogue, Temple Sinai, so we first went there. The temple was abandoned, save for one employee setting up for the next evening’s Seder and a tutor working with a boy soon to have his bar mitzvah. The pair was polite about having been interrupted; neither, however, knew of the Holocaust memorial I mentioned. Really? Our business there done, we wished each other a happy Passover. I then whipped out my new iPhone and went to the number-one authority on the entire planet: The Google.

It noted the memorial (more here: http://www.palmsprings.com/points/holocaust/) was less than 1 mile away, so off we drove until we came to The Holocaust Memorial in the City of Palm Desert’s Civic Center Park, a beautiful, expansive public area complete with sculptures and families of turtles and white and mallard ducks, as well as lots and lots of said animals’ guano. Along a snaking path beyond the animals and their poop is the memorial. Dedicated in 1995, the Desert Holocaust Memorial occupies a space smaller than the one in Portland in Washington Park. And yet the space’s size did nothing to take away from its power. Like any such memorial I’ve visited, its presence practically forces a sense of quiet; as we and a few other tourists walked around the circular structure, it simply felt wrong to speak. In fact, we didn’t talk about our reflections on the piece until walking away from it.

It includes a wall at its entrance dedicated to the many donors who made the memorial possible, as well quotes from famous players, such as Pastor Martin Niemoller (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_they_came…), and those lesser known, like a local survivor who’d penned a macabre poem. Each panel within the circular memorial includes a placard whose haunting images — say, of Auschwitz’s infamous line from which the camp’s men and boys were separated from the women and children — come from actual photographs or film footage from that historical moment in hell. This memorial takes pains — more than some I’ve visited — to emphasize “not just” the 6 million Jews who perished in the Sho’ah, but the 12,000 Righteous Gentiles and the 11 million people targeted by the Nazis and exterminated as a result of the party’s campaign to rid the planet of ‘miscreants’ like the Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, the mentally retarded, and on and on.

Departing any Holocaust memorial always is an odd experience, as one travels from a place of quiet contemplation of the inexplicable, to ‘normal’ life. But leaving this one was particularly strange, given its setting in a verdant park studded by palm trees bending in the slight breeze under a therapeutic sun in a pure-blue sky.

I noted the Living Desert zoo and botanical gardens in my previous post; I cannot emphasize enough how terrific that outing was and highly recommend the spot to people of all ages. (Here’s more about it: http://www.livingdesert.org/)

Another adventure I recommend — though with clammy palms — is the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway (http://www.pstramway.com/). In 10 minutes, the revolving tram car (that includes open windows, what??) climbs from the desert floor — at an elevation of just more than 2,000 ft. above sea level — to San Jacinto State Park — at an elevation of more than 8,600 ft. As the brochure states, this trip up up up takes its brave (stupid?) visitors through numerous climates, mimicking those from Mexico to Alaska. While 90 degrees F on the ground, there still was snow and ice at the state park’s peak.

Some stats: Dedicated in 1963 as a result of some vision some rich dude had back in the 40s, the tram includes five tremendously huge towers at which the tram swings back and forth (white-knuckle time!) on its perpetual climb due north. Workers installed the first tower without need of helicopters to do the job; the other four towers, though, required 28,000 recon missions by helicopters carrying men and materials to the granite outcroppings that could support the feat of civil engineering. No one died in the creation of the tram. Miraculous, to say the least. (Especially considering I almost died as a mere tramway passenger.)

At the top, we exited the tram car and walked into a chilly breeze and temperatures roughly 40 degrees below those closer to sea level; we came prepared and donned our Portland gear: hats, jackets, and socks. The poor California natives weren’t nearly as cold-weather ready as were we hardy Oregonians. We spent a good deal of time at what felt like the top of the world; there, we could see all the way to the Salton Sea, some 100-plus miles away, as well as to the virtual sea of windmills that undulate along the landscape of Hwy. 10, which snakes all the way west to San Diego.

The tram brochure promised sightings of bobcats, bighorn sheep, and the like. Smarter than us gawking humans, these animals were nowhere to be found. We did spot one creature of interest. Well, there was one: a gray squirrel so nonplussed by its human interlopers than it literally was underfoot among the snacking hominids to the point of being mistaken for a house cat. Squealing kids chasing this lone (and well-fed) squirrel were chased by their squealing parents, “It’s probably rabid!!! Aaaaaaaa!”

The spinning, open-window trip down the craggy mountain was both mercifully and tortuously fast. All said, I’m glad we did it. One and done.

We also visited — wait for it — Sunnylands, the spot of the gardens created by and dedicated to Walt and Louise Annenberg. (Yes, those Annenbergs.) A garden oasis in the middle of shopping-mall hell, Sunnylands includes sculptures by Rodin and Giacommetti, as well as a living labyrinth. It being nearly Easter, we gals walked the labyrinth beneath perfectly manicured weeping trees. (Dave chose not to take part.) A sign nearby said to watch out for snakes. The likes of Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton, Gerald Ford, and a number of elderly Republican golfers all had been to this locale and had their pictures posted around the place to prove just how special and exclusive Sunnylands is. Admission was free. Can you believe that?

We return home today, after a full week in the sun with family and friends; we got special time with those we knew would be down here — Grandma and Grandpa and Tudi; the Mottern and Cohen/Durkheimer families — as well as with a cousin we’d not realized makes her home in Rancho Mirage — Alix Korey.

Personally, I hope not to return here. While beautiful in many respects and endlessly sunny and well-manicured in most parts, this Desert empire is too vacuous on many levels for my taste. Everything seems to have a veneer, a patina, rendering it all like a figment of one’s imagination. The innumerable gated communities with their rules requiring visual perfection. The complete lack of ethnic and racial diversity (save for the employees at all the resorts). The hidden Native Americans (this place once was rich in Indian people and culture).

A couple experiences to illustrate my critiques:

While visiting Scott and Agi’s parents/in-laws in Palm Desert’s Indian Ridge, I parked our rental car (a Ford, God forbid) along the curb and, after our three-hour play date, emerged from their gorgeous home to find a citation on the car’s windshield. I panicked, thinking it was a ticket for a huge sum of money. I grabbed the thing and carefully read it: Indeed, it was only a citation. For what reason could I possibly have been cited (other than I was driving an American car)? I’d parked on wrong side of street.

What? They have officers who patrol for that?

That same afternoon, as we returned to our hotel room, the phone’s light was blinking, indicating a voice mail. Thinking it was from my mom, checking in on our vacation, I dialed it up. Turns out the message was from one of the hotel’s staff, requesting that I remove from our balcony our soggy towels. It’s not OK — even in our relative ‘hood — to dry towels where other folks can see them. In fact, the kind staffer went on to explain in his overly lengthy message that each hotel room’s closet is equipped with a drying rack for just that purpose.

Really?

We four Knudsens did have a great time; we work so well together as a foursome (despite, of course, having “moments”), and we’ve come to really cherish our shared adventures and experiences. Still, in mere hours, I’ll be able to park on the side of the street to my liking and drape my towels all over the place.

Off we go: There is, indeed, no place like home.

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Passover in The Desert

March 27, 2013 at 5:17 pm (Uncategorized)

Palm Desert, that is. Actually, we’re in Palm Springs, which seems to be the slightly poorer cousin of Palm Desert, which is 30 minutes south of here. In a very risky, non-Knudsen-like move, Dave and I at last year’s Neveh Shalom auction bid on — and won — a week-long stay in a Palm Springs condo. The risky part was that while the fantastic pool (complete with two slides) was in the photo projected on the screen during bidding, the facility itself and the room we’d be staying in were not. On Sunday, upon walking into our unit here — # 3236 — Dave turned to me and said, “That’s the last time the Knudsens buy something sight-unseen.”

The disposal didn’t work, nor did the dishwasher. The A/C operates at a decibel level slightly lower than an airplane taking off. The kitchen (and bathroom) is stocked with exactly four — or less — of everything: plates, utensils, glassware. The “less” part included the one glass baking dish, the single serving piece, the two minuscule packets of dishwasher detergent. And, in the powder room, it had on hand two rolls of toilet paper and two sets of towels. How long do you think it took our family of four to race through the TP rolls?

On Monday, erev Pesach, I began preparing for our Seder for which my in-laws, Diane and Clif, and Dave’s grandmother, Tudi, would join us. The three of them had been in a rental house in Palm Desert since the first of the month and don’t return to Portland ’till early April. The girls were thrilled they’d see Grandma, Grandpa, and Tudi during our vacation and were very excited the family accepted our invitation to join us for the first night of Passover.

From Portland, I’d brought the “Seder plate” Alyssa had made in preschool at age-2; the “plate” is a round, laminated piece of construction paper that has glued to it pictures of all the items one puts on a traditional Seder plate: a lamb shank, a roasted egg, parsley, maror, charoset, and matza. Flat, it survived quite well our travels from Portland to SoCal. The matza, however, arrived a little crumbly. Funny, though, it didn’t seem to effect its taste. I’d also brought a bottle of Manishewitz, kosher-for-Passover peppermint paddies, small candles to light at the beginning of our service, an assortment of colorful kippot, and some props depicting certain of the 10 plagues that we’ve used since the girls were very young: frogs, of course, as well as Band-Aids to signify boils, and small plastic creatures retrieved from a German Advent calendar — of all things — to represent beasts.

That day, Dave golfed with his dad; us girls expected him and his family to arrive at about 6 p.m. So we spent our day at the Living Desert, billed as both a botanical garden and zoo. I feared the word ‘zoo’ immediately would throw the girls into paroxysms of “No! We’ve outgrown zoos! Zoos are for babies!” But, to my relief, they both simultaneously pondered going to a zoo in this very hot, dry, bland-looking climate and said “Yes.”

We arrived at the Living Desert at about 11 a.m., with the temperature hovering in the high-80s. Usually at places like these, I’m a huge tightwad: I’ll buy the entrance tickets but nothing else. While I did bring a bag of snacks (laden with chametz to get rid of it before nightfall), I also purchased access to the Living Desert’s shuttle and even one ticket for each girl to ride on a camel. (I did get a AAA discount on our admission tickets, however; then again, we spent about $70 in the gift shop. So, I think the Living Desert won.)

Two hours later, (thank God I’d purchased shuttle tickets), we left the place, after having had a fantastic time on the Living Desert’s grounds. We saw cattle from Africa; impossibly lanky giraffes licking trees; a sleeping jaguar; millions of native cacti and more types of palm trees than I knew existed; the very languid camel that accepts squealing children — and their parents (but not this one) — on their “backs”; owls; a Mexican snake; and damaged animals undergoing rehabilitation in the on-site hospital that we found fascinating. (The rabbit under sedation looked a tad odd; I had to keep reassuring the girls it wasn’t dead, just under heavy doses of drugs to keep it from feeling pain during its procedure. The sedated rabbit gives new meaning to the word “floppy.”)

Also, the girls had finished off last night’s pizza and quesadilla; we would return to a chametz-free hotel room.

Upon arriving back at our hotel, the Palm Canyon “Resort” (quotation marks mine), the girls readied for the pool while I began organizing our Passover meal. It was at that moment I discovered the broken disposal and dishwasher. And the dwindling final role of TP. A call to Housekeeping was fruitless; I got a voice mail (on which I left a message) but after an hour passed (while I started to prepare roasted baby potatoes, baked salmon, baked chicken, a spinach salad, and our Seder table) without response, I turned myself into the squeaky wheel. With the girls safely in the pool, I marched on down to the “Guest Services” (quotations again mine) desk and asked, “Has Housekeeping received my message?” and “Will you please come to our room to fix our ailing appliances; we’re having company tonight. Oh — and more toilet paper, too, please.”

Before returning to our room, I checked on the girls in the pool and went to the pool-deck bar to ask if they had matches; while I’d brought candles south, I didn’t think to bring matches, and the Front Desk didn’t have any (“Honey, we’re a non-smoking facility.” Whatever.) The bar back reached up high, past bottles of cheap rum and tequila and brought down a Bic lighter. “Just return it when you’re done with it.”

Set to really begin my Passover meal preparations, I then gathered the girls and we returned to our room. The maintenance folks already had come, so everything was in working order; a half a dozen extra TP rolls showed up, too.

The family arrived promptly at 6, and our Seder in the Desert commenced and went rather smoothly, save for the few moments when Alyssa wanted to “help” Hayley with the Hebrew and Hayley rebuffed the “help.” My in-laws all donned kippot and tried everything on their plates. Tudi, though, at 92 years old, takes the (kosher-for-Passover) cake. She no longer can see very well and so wasn’t able to participate in reading from the Haggadah. However, wearing a bright-pink kippah (and looking a little Pope-like, as a result), she listened to every word and asked questions, tying the service into what she knows of both the Old and New Testaments and the intersections between Passover and Easter (such as the girls searching for the afikommen and kids doing an Easter egg hunt). Hayley read the Four Questions beautifully, and Alyssa chanted the order of the service and the plagues equally well. The girls bickered throughout our truncated Seder. But that seems fitting (kinda) given Exodus has a lot to do with underlings bickering with ultimately more authoritarian forces.

“Can we have dessert now?” “No! no! no! I will not let you go [to the fridge]!”

The Seder over, I felt I could at last turn my attention to really being on vacation. And take it all in.

This entire “Palm-fill-in-the-blank-name” area seems a throwback to the 1950s, with low-slung dwellings, all safely ensconced within gates. Community after community is separate, one from the other, by walls of one sort or another; the valley beneath the brown, rocky, jagged Sierra Madres is a patchwork quilt of vacation dwellings, each one fenced off from the other. (And all close to clinics whose services range from dialysis to memory care to cardiology. Lots of Urgent Care clinics and senior centers, too, in this locale catering to the aged.)

Ultimately, the street names in this enclave say it all, naming either Rat Pack folks or something to do with the sun and paradise: Frank Sinatra Way; Bob Hope Drive; Gene Autrey Trail; Dinah Shore Lane; Avenida del Sol; Vista del Sol; Avenida Amor; Portofino. All conjure a bygone era and something ephemeral and impermanent.

Yesterday (Tuesday), I requested Housekeeping come vacuum up our matza crumbs and bring more towels. It was then I learned that all the rooms receive only one cleaning a week. Would I like the cleaning today or tomorrow? Reflecting on the layer of matza schmutz all over our green-carpeted floors, I asked Housekeeping to come the same day. We then headed out to take the Palm Springs Aerial Tram up more than 8,500 feet in the air to the San Jacinto National Park (more on that in the next entry).

We returned from that fantastic and breath-taking adventure to a very clean, crumbless room. I was grateful. But a quick trip to the bathroom revealed Housekeeping also took a quick inventory of the paper goods they’d bestowed upon us the day before. They’d taken back all but two rolls of toilet paper.

Passover, this year, is turning out to be less about the bread of affliction than the roll of affliction.

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