Un bien viaje a Mexico

January 26, 2015 at 10:35 pm (Uncategorized)

Last August, Mom took the incredible risk of “winning” a time share in Mexico. A “risk” because Mexico seems scary to the uninitiated. She indeed won that gamble.

Mom, Abby, and I are just about to board an Alaska Airlines flight home, to Portland, from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Many frijoles mexicanos y tequilas later, we are sun- and fun-sated as a threesome who just had the privilege of spending six very relaxing days at the Raintree Vacation Club on Vallarta’s Marina, in Jalisco state.


We mixed it up a little: We’d take the bus 30 miles from “our” resort into town, wondering with every very significant tailbone-jarring bump how the bus-jalopies didn’t break down with each additional kilometer traveled. We wandered the narrow, cobblestoned streets — festooned with children and very dark-skinned, wrinkled older ladies plying tourists with chiclets, as well as farmacias, myriad hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and exposed rebar — jostling against local folks and fellow tourists, most from the U.S. and Canada, as well as other Spanish-speaking countries. (I couldn’t tell from their accents from which other parts of the Spanish-speaking world they hailed, but I was aware of one couple from Barcelona and two girlfriends from Monterrey, south of the Texan border.) After hours in town, trying our best to bargain with tienda-keepers and enjoying different sabors of guacamole and moles — as well as fresh-made corn tortillas with beet juice added to them to create an eye-catching pink snack — we’d hail an always-waiting taxi and return to our suite in less-jarring fashion.

Street donuts for sale, regular and chocolate!

Street donuts for sale, regular and chocolate!


Apartments next to and on top of an eatery, with the uniformly dressed wait staff at the ready.


In the States, it seems there’s a stereotype about the type of American who’s happy to drop out by dropping into Mexico — it’s lifestyle, its people, its culture, its language. After but a week in one town I am really in no position to comment on the stereotype, but this is my blog, so I will. The stereotype seems quite accurate. Of the gringos we saw, they all were very, very tanned; had very unruly hairdos; walked in the very languid manner of the locals; wore Mexico’s beautiful silver; and looked back at us like the tourists we are and the natives they’ve assumed to have become. After a week in a place that runs on “island time,” I can see the appeal, but it’s a lifestyle that appeals to me only for the limited time we had.

And yet…was I wrong to note, too, that the vast majority of the locals were — dare I say it? — happy. I wasn’t sure if they really were, considering most of them cater to English-speaking tourists, who, let’s face it, aren’t known worldwide as the creme de la creme of folks.

Always happy to make some "quacamole casa."

Always happy to make some “quacamole casa.”


Serenaded — whether you want it or not — at Pipi’s, at decibels similar to those of a plane taking off.


And so I asked a few of them. One young man, Horacio, a security guard on the beach adjacent to the resort (whose main job seemed to be keeping the hawkers from moving onto the property itself and chatting animatedly with his fellow seguridad colleagues) did confess to me that he often experiences boredom. Not surprising. How much fun — or active — would it be to secure a resort area from your fellow countrymen trying to make their own pesos on their bargaining-required and cheap items like cigars and sarapes, as well as those fashioned from silver and abalone shells? I queried our taxi drivers, too, about their lives (about which they were very forthcoming, including one middle-aged man who told me he is jealous of his deceased wife because she now is with Cristo and he just has to wait here on earth for his time). These men (I did not see one woman at the wheel of any vehicle for public transportation, including shuttle and charter buses) talked (rather than complained) of health issues in their families and their very high costs but, frankly, otherwise seemed very content to loll around until they had a driving job and to talk to any and all manner of passengers. They all wanted to know about my family and excitedly told me of theirs — brothers, sisters, parents, wives, and especially children. And entire families indeed strolled everywhere together. Again, it’s a stereotype of the culture that it’s very family oriented, but what I observed shored up that stereotype as truth more than probability.

And then there’s the bargaining. We entered Mexico with 13.7 pesos to the dollar; we left with 14 pesos to the dollar. The dollar is strong south of the Rio Grande. And yet, I suppose one must bargain, though it seems very unfair to do so (plus it really tests my ability to do math in Spanish; my math already is compromised in English). And 13 is really a hard number to multiply and divide by. But wait! Is that a calculator I see rushing to my assistance! Yes! Every single beachfront hawker, store employee, and store owner had a calculator at the ready and wielded them with as much speed and agility as U.S. teens do their cell phones. Whether I’m right or not, it did seem that bargaining was a requirement; the couple times I was happy to just pay my pesos for a couple special keepsakes and gifts, the slightly surprised retailers looked at me curiously, raising an inquiring eyebrow. What fun we all had with the games, especially the ones that got longer and longer; the more time spent bargaining and saying “Gee, I just don’t know,” the more compliments we received — on our looks, our youth, my Spanish (at which point we KNEW they were putting us on). While I characterize here bargaining as game-like and thus fun, actually I found it stressful; I was very wary of cheating the retail professionals out of very important pesos they needed for their healthcare or other key items (like calculator batteries) and/or coming across as the Ugly American whose reputation precedes by kilometers and centuries.

Driven only by men, jalopy-buses like these jar your tailbone and make for a great ride (but not very often).

Driven only by men, jalopy-buses like these jar your tailbone and make for a great ride (but not very often).

Would I return to Puerto Vallarta? We got this question a lot, not just from, say, the hotel employees who wanted our every moment to be rico y bonito, but also from the snowbirds who were often north of 70 years old, ubiquitous, and very happy to regularly inform us, “We’re here for six weeks and come every year! Isn’t it wonderful!” Our vacation was incredible; we three ladies bonded as this mother-daughters trio has been very lucky to do little by little over the years, and we relaxed and laughed tons and enjoyed terrific food…and very smooth local tequila. But so much of our version of vacation struck me the same way life does in Palm Desert: Its languid quality exists in a bubble of beauty, outside of which is a reality lit up by the harsh rays of the sun, for those who choose to look at what exists in the patches of light.


Sunset in Vallarta Marina.

Sunset in Vallarta Marina.


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Blast From the Past: An essay from 2004

January 16, 2015 at 3:30 pm (Uncategorized)

This piece was written in honor of Congregation Neveh Shalom’s Foundation School’s 50th anniversary; in it, I reflect on just how wonderful and important preschool is, mainly for the moms of preschoolers. And that was the impetus for the theme of this piece; my own mom couldn’t wait ’till I — when I was 2 — was out of the house, under someone else’s care, for a little while. This essay was published Jan. 15, 2004.

“Mom and daughter get great Foundation”

By Jenn Director Knudsen
Special to the Jewish Review

Fifty years ago the Foundation School at Congregation Neveh Shalom opened its doors to the benefit of a group of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds. Twenty-nine years ago the school made a minor change and benefited someone arguably more important: my mom.
Nikki Director approached Foundation School Director Leah Rubin—then in her first year, today in her 30th year in that position—and asked (begged?) if the school also would open its doors to 2-year-olds.
A stay-at-home mother, Mom needed a break from, you guessed it, me. Even today, she talks not-so-wistfully of my toddler days. “Strong-willed”; “difficult”; “defiant” are words used to describe me that fall easily from her lips as a look of barely contained tension briefly passes over her face.
That’s funny, mused Rubin during a recent interview. She says she only remembers me at age 2 as “precocious” and “very verbal” (ostensibly because I used the word “mucous” correctly in a sentence). She—along with one of my first morahs (teachers), Jeanne Newmark—decline to remember that I may have been a royal pain in the tuchas. Good thing Mom’s memories run deep.
In 1974, 20 years after Rabbi Joshua Stampfer established the first “Jewish nursery school,” according to Foundation School literature, a most-likely frazzled and worn-down Mom sought salvation through her personal friend, “Morah Rubin.” (In today’s less-formal society, she’s also known as “Morah Leah.”)
Rubin said Mom asked her, “Have you ever thought about a class for 2s?”
Rubin asked Stampfer, got the go-ahead and then put the onus on Mom: If Mom could convince eight families their 2-year-olds should attend preschool, an inaugural class would be formed.
Apparently, Mom wasted not a nanosecond to get me off her hands, even if only for a few hours each week. Within a week, eight (perhaps equally frazzled) moms agreed to send their terrible twos to school.
“She was looking for a social experience that would be stimulating for you,” Rubin said of my mom. Yeah, right.
Now that I’m the mother of a 2-year-old myself, I know better.
Mom needed a break; she needed someone else to negotiate with me for a while; she wanted someone else to hear an endless string of “NOs!”; she desired another loving soul to change my dirty pants.
Fingerpainting? Frolicking in a sand-box? Eating Play-Doh? “Let someone else deal with it,” she must have crowed.
And the Foundation School listened. And word caught on: within a year, two full classes of 2-year-olds enrolled, helping to fill the school to capacity in four years with 85 students, ages 2 to 5.
“It was a pioneering project to have a program for 2-year-olds,” Rubin said. No doubt.
My own daughter, Alyssa, entered a class of seven other 2-year-olds last fall. Rubin thinks it’s special she is the first 2-year-old of a legacy to attend Foundation School. It is special. But it’s also something much more to this mother: a break.
One year ago, my husband, David, and I shopped around for preschools. We were expecting our second baby, and both agreed that despite my best efforts as an at-home mom, I couldn’t possibly offer my own “strong-willed” toddler everything she’d need.
Though we have an interfaith household, we took one tour of the Foundation School and we both were sold: it would provide the best, most nurturing environment for our curious, chatterbox, busy child.
And once the school year began in September, we realized our initial impression was right. Alyssa loves preschool.
After a few rough days of clinging to us at drop-off, she took to her morahs (all three of them…that’s three teachers for eight 2-year-olds, get it?), her peers and the activities offered at school.
Someone recently asked me if I could simplify my busy life by having someone else take Alyssa to school and pick her up. My response was quick: No way.
It is one of the biggest joys in my life right now to watch my daughter sail into her classroom, barely deign to glance over her shoulder to offer a “bye-bye, Mommy” and behold her beaming face at pick-up.
And she’s learning so much. She’s moving from parallel play to interactive play, her vocabulary has expanded by leaps and bounds, and she’s met her first imaginary friend. (However, sharing is a skill she is still working on.)
She’s also learning a bit about her Jewish heritage.
In fact, recently, while she and I were choosing a can of food to bring to school for tzedakah, I explained in simple terms the basic meaning behind the concept of giving.
She looked contemplative and receptive for a moment, met my gaze and announced, “I don’t want to go to tzedakah.”
Oh. I guess there’s lots for her to learn.
But I was so proud. As is her Mimi, my mom.

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Recent documentary review from Reed College’s magazine/blog

January 16, 2015 at 2:29 am (Uncategorized)

Here http://www.reed.edu/reed_magazine/sallyportal/posts/2014/film-focuses-on-enigmatic-psychologist.html is the link to it; to avoid clicking, just read on. And thanks! — Jenn

Sallyportal: Madly Blogging Reed

Film focuses on enigmatic psychologist

Psychologist, veteran, holocaust survivor, and jazz fanatic Frank Wesley ’50 is the subject of new documentary by David Bee.

Like a jazz movement, the new documentary “Frank’s Song” by Portland filmmaker David Bee, is at times languid, at others staccato, and sometimes a little drawn out.

Truth is, it’s a tall order for any film to capture the protean life of Frank Wesley ’50, who survived the holocaust, worked in the shipyards, became an influential psychologist and author of many books, and still, at the age of 95, cuts a distinctive figure in the Hawthorne district of Southeast Portland.

Frank also is obsessed with jazz. The grizzled, diminutive, always-smiling nonagenarian is often caught on camera sitting in a chair, clutching and absentmindedly repositioning his brass wind instrument, much like a father with an infant. That is, when he’s not blowing into his sax with everything he’s got. “Jazz doesn’t let me die,” he says in his accented, soprano English.

Bee, the director, says in a recent interview, “The whole piece is conceived as an extended jazz song.” Frank’s riffs, such as “Stormy Weather,” “Satin Doll,” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” bebop throughout the film.

Born in Silesia, Frank learned English through American jazz aficionados. He recalls with affection the Louis Armstrong performance he attended in Atlanta, not long after he escaped his native Germany and the Buchenwald concentration camp, where the Nazis murdered 56,000 people.

Frank came to Portland in 1941 to work at the Oregon Shipbuilding Company, and the local jazz scene was perhaps the reason he stayed. Or maybe it was his proximity to verdant Vernonia, where he built a small, utilitarian cabin. It includes an underground hidey-hole for himself and some food rations, should the Nazis return to get him.

And yet, in 1944 he enlisted in the U.S. Army and returned to Germany to help liberate the very same camp he’d had the fortune to escape.

This turn of events is not fully fleshed out in “Frank’s Song,” nor are the reasons behind his pursuit of a Ph.D. in psychology, a subject about which he wrote and taught for decades. In the film—cut from more than 85 hours of sometimes herky-jerky footage—his profession is only mentioned in passing.

Nonetheless, the film succeeds in conveying Frank’s singular approach to life. Friend and unofficial caretaker Dr. Andy Mones recalls in one scene how Frank once came into his emergency room seeking treatment. Frank wasn’t the doctor’s usual scared and weary patient. Quite the opposite, Mones says: “In an ER, who hangs out and smiles and whistles a song?”

The film drew 200 people to a screening at Portland’s Hollywood Theater in December, and soon will run at the Oregon Jewish Museum-Center for Holocaust Education and other venues—a fitting tribute to a free spirit.


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2014 in review

January 14, 2015 at 4:36 am (Uncategorized)

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 640 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 11 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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