It’s the Best Corniest Time of the Year: Our Love Affair with Christmas Romance TV Movies

The holiday season means gatherings, food and cheer. But it also means allowing ourselves to be “corny” (dictionary definition: predictable, clichéd, stereotyped). We see cars with antlers affixed to their hoods. People wearing santa or elf hats or bright and loud Christmas sweaters. Singing out loud to Ella or Bing, or even the undeniably grating “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas”. CORNY.

But starting last year, my family kicked it up a notch further during the holiday season. My daughter Sophia discovered the delirious corn-fest that is the Christmas Romance movie season (much of which can be found on the Hallmark channel ). It started innocently with The 12 Dates of Christmas: “Mom. You’ve GOT to watch this one”. We watched together (it is a fun holiday romance version of Groundhog Day) and had so much fun that one led to another and so on. And this year, the entire family has gotten into the act including husband Pat and 12 year old Theo. There is a lot of talking to the screen and eye rolling at the contrivances,and ultimately, a lot of  corny enjoyment.

If you have not yet had the pleasure of seeing one of these Christmas romances, I will try to summarize for you. The basic plot of most of the movies is that the protagonist (often a hard-charging young career woman) has “forgotten the true meaning of Christmas” and through some plot twists and turns,  has a “come to Jesus” moment (see what I did there? Christmas? Baby Jesus?) and turns his/her life around.

Some of the typical tried and true Christmas romance plot devices:

  • Having to spend Christmas in a small town filled with endearing characters. Typically these are delightful Midwestern villages that are contrasted with the heroine’s stark and empty life on one of the coasts. Kind of like Eva Gabor’s character in Green Acres, the heroine is initially a fish out of water, but the love and values of the small town grow on her as she spends the holidays there!
  • The hunky guy. In some of the variations, he lives in a small town, but don’t think he is some bumpkin! He is smart but laid back (sometimes having left a high power career behind), has some cool business (an inn perhaps) and helps the heroine to see the true meaning of Christmas. In some of these variations, the hunky guy contrasts with the guy the heroine is currently with–the WRONG guy, usually a fiancée who is inattentive, unsupportive and (GASP) not as cute or charming as the hunky guy. In other variations, the hunky guy IS the hard charger and the spunky heroine has to teach HIM the true meaning of Christmas (see Looks Like Christmas).
  • The elevator kiss. This is a classic, often used in the city versions of Christmas romances. The heroine and hunky guy (whom she may not have even met yet) are in an elevator together. The elevator jerks to a sudden stop which of COURSE throws them together, which of COURSE means they have to start making out. Elevator resumes functioning and the two of them find themselves smoothing out their clothes and hair, and then, thinking about THAT KISS for the rest of the movie. For the uninitiated, The Christmas Kiss is THE gateway elevator kiss movie.
  • If there is no elevator around to change someone’s life, a couple of other variations for “life changers” are: Santa or an angel granting a wish (like in Christmas at Cartwright’s), inheriting a time-consuming but ultimately wonderful family business (like in Christmas Land) or being knocked out (as a doctor, this is probably my least favorite plot twist because the reality of concussions is not usually so pretty).
  • The villainess. Often the boss of the heroine who is beautiful, smart and successful but brittle and superficial. A real Cruella (and unreformed hard charger), she even often steals or takes credit for the heroine’s hard work (e.g. plagiarizing her design sketches in A Christmas Kiss!). In some of the variations, the villainess is the girlfriend of the hunky guy. But after one elevator kiss with the heroine, the hunky guy starts to shift alliances!
  • The true meaning of Christmas. This is often the third main character in these movies. Likely for the broadest of appeal, “the reason for the season” (birth of Jesus) is rarely spoken of in these movies, so there tends to be a humanist message of love and family, e.g. people are more important than things, life is meaningless without loved ones to share it with and that taking time to celebrate with loved ones enriches our lives.

If all of this sounds very retro, it IS! These movies are often kind of mash ups—Scrooge meets Working Girl. As a life-long hard charger and feminist, what is funny is how much I enjoy them along with my feminist daughter.

Perhaps this is because, family is so important to us and we DO live in the Midwest. But more likely it is because it allows us some time to be corny and just suspend disbelief (and believe me, you need to do so with some of these plots) and escape from the day’s stressors.

It also been funny to see the progression of my engineer husband, who typically is more into science fiction, as he has blossomed from irritation to enjoyment to addiction. Last night for example, as he came in 10 minutes into “A December Bride”, he plopped down on the couch next to me and said, “Fill me in, what do we have here?”. And I got him up to speed quickly (“Hard charger. Left at the altar by her fiancée for her cousin who are now getting married. Now pouring herself into her job. Has to fake a new relationship so she can hold her head up high at the wedding. Meets new hunky guy…..”).

What can I say? It’s the best corniest time of the year!! Happy Holidays!





kales@umich.eduIt’s the Best Corniest Time of the Year: Our Love Affair with Christmas Romance TV Movies
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Garden Lessons

Garden Brigade at work

Garden Brigade at work

This spring we decided to plant a vegetable garden for the first time. We built (or should I say husband Pat built after I ordered it online) the container garden in April– which for non-Michiganders means we put our container garden together hunched over outside while being pelted by freezing rain.

Our container gardener, out of the box and set up. Freezing rain not included.

Our container gardener, out of the box and set up. If you look closely, you can actually see the freezing rain we were working in!

Once the danger of frost was past (which in Michigan means midish-May), we planted a combination of small plants and seeds and waited. It has been a joy to watch our little patch of earth grow. Theo, my 11 year old son, and I have formed a “garden brigade” that checks out the garden every morning, looking for changes and spotting potential candidates ready for picking.

A few lessons to share from our garden:

#1. It’s worthwhile to go out on a limb. We planted the usual suspects in the garden: peas, tomatoes, lettuce, etc. But, we also planted some less typical vegetables because Theo was excited about them: Brussel sprouts, broccoli and artichokes. While the broccoli still hasn’t born any heads (and I am not sure ever will) and we seem to be growing Brussel sprouts mainly for the deer’s pleasure, the artichokes were a delightful surprise. Beautiful to watch growing, and tender and delicious in the harvest.

Artichokes and beets

Artichokes and beets

#2. Quality and the experience (and not quantity) matter. While I would love to say that we haven’t had to buy veggies at the store all summer, our garden is more like a beautiful vegetable “boutique”: a gorgeous tomato here, an artisanal zucchini there so far. But the joy that Theo gets in picking each jewel when it’s ready has been worth all the hard work. Here are some of the delights we have enjoyed:

  • Buttery lettuce in multiple salads
  • Lots and lots (and lots) of kale chips
  • Fried zucchini
  • Pasta with fresh tomatoes
  • Artichokes with lemon butter

#3. Sometimes no matter what you do, others will come in and reap your harvest. It really is inevitable. Despite deer spray (some spicy weird-smelling concoction), motion-triggered night lights, and 2 “garden owls” (that only seem to scare Theo who has dubbed them “really REALLY creepy”), critters literally ate all of our peas (chipmunks: I am talking about you) and have been nibbling our sprouts (Hi deer!).

Dinner guests, literally eating and running.

Dinner guests, literally eating and running.

#4. When all else fails, you can start over. Today, Theo and I noticed that something was burrowing into our beets (after the deer had come in and eaten most of the leaves off). We decided to cut our losses, harvest the 7 medium beets we had and call it a day on beets (Polish chilled beet soup will be on the menu soon!). In their place, we planted green onions and spinach. We’ll see how those do.

It is this “garden lesson” that I cherish perhaps the most. So many times in life we struggle and struggle to make something work and sometimes the hardest, but best path we can take is to start over. Move on. And what the garden teaches us is that it will pay off. Maybe not in the “crop” you were thinking about and hoping for, but something different but still wonderful.

Starting over. Fingers crossed for green onions and spinach.

Starting over. Fingers crossed for green onions and spinach.

kales@umich.eduGarden Lessons
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I’m getting too old for this— or am I?

Confession: I am a homebody. Sometimes I feel like I could live the life of Emily Dickinson, the poet who lived in seclusion and later in life, rarely left her room. I am not that extreme, but I do love a good “home day”. Tending my garden, creating projects for myself (latest is redoing my kids’ treehouse as a hideaway for me! Stayed tuned for the treehouse blog post!), playing with the dogs. My husband Pat is the same way. One of our favorite things is saying to each other on a Friday night: “Do we have anything this weekend? No? Oh, Thank God.”

But occasionally, usually about 6 months in advance, I get inspired to go to a concert. When I was younger, I went to a lot of concerts, even seeing the band Rage Against the Machine while pregnant with my first kid. In my 40’s that tapered off, and now, we rarely go to concerts of bands we like. But, I have been pretty obsessed with Florence and the Machine for the last year (a “kick” as Pat calls it) and when tickets went on sale over the winter, I was in. Pat bailed out early. “No thanks.” But my girls (19 and 16) were on board.

Fast forward to Saturday, after a whirlwind week including an overnight trip to Boston to give a lecture at Hah-vaard, I was feeling pretty reluctant to leave the house. I said to Pat, “The next time I mention going to a concert, remind me that I am 51 years old”. Pat wore a smug smile at the thought that he had anticipated this for himself, “that’s why I said I didn’t want to go”. The thought of being “too old” kept coming to me all day as the concert approached. Thoughts like “I could have just enjoyed the music at home”. “It’s going to be crowded”. “Parking is going to be a nightmare”. “The venue is so far away”. “I might be disappointed at how she sounds live”. Old fart thoughts.

But guess what? The concert? Ended up being AMAZING. Florence Welch is a sublime performer (in a diaphanous blue dress in which she appeared naked underneath no less) and held the large crowd spellbound. Her voice was strong and, if anything, she and the rest of the band somehow sounded better live (including the harp!). My daughters and I had a blast dancing and singing in the open air venue into the night. And guess what else? There were lots of people my age and OLDER there. One guy in particular looked about 70 and knew every word to the songs of the opening band (Of Monsters and Men). He inspired me as he stood and danced without a care. My old fart thoughts fell away. I came home so glad that I got my butt out of the house Saturday and when I got home, I decided to take back what I had told my husband earlier.

My beautiful and fun girls at the concert.

My beautiful and fun girls at the concert.



I was there. And I got the t-shirt.

I was there. And I got the t-shirt.

The next morning when I awoke to find out about the unspeakable tragedy in Orlando and the lives lost, I found myself remembering Florence exhorting us to love each other and “lift each other up”. Love and unity.

Today in clinic, one of my patients who is in his 90’s came in and greeted me by telling me that he had fallen recently and hurt his hip. “In your house?” I said. He replied, “No. I was dancing at a gathering on vacation and whirling around. Everyone wanted to dance with me because they were so excited by someone my age still vital. I lost my balance and went down…Then I got back up and danced the rest of the night….I would do it over again in a heartbeat”.

I will go to concerts. And I am sure I will feel that avoidance building up and I will fight it. When the old fart thoughts come, I will fight them thinking of the singing guy at the concert and thinking of my dancing patient. Let the music play.

It turns out I am NOT too old for this.

It turns out I am NOT too old for this.

kales@umich.eduI’m getting too old for this— or am I?
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Five things I learned at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

The fam (minus Tasia who is at college) at Hogsmeade

The fam (minus Tasia who is at college) at Hogsmeade

1. With age, comes motion sickness.

I grew up in Hershey Pennsylvania. Aka “Chocolate Town” and home of Hershey Park. I had a “park pass” as a kid and could ride every ride with the best of them. Never any hint of motion sickness. First experienced at Disney’s Mission: SPACE (aka Mission: NAUSEA) 2 years ago, I attributed my motion sickness to a pre-ride burrito, washed down with a margarita. I didn’t upchuck, but was told that I “didn’t look so good” after the ride by my kids. Going into the Wizarding World yesterday, I was a little apprehensive because of my Mission: SPACE experience. I’d been warned by a 40- year old physician friend that she had spent the afternoon in the Harry Potter urgent care with an IV in her arm after the “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” ride provoked hyperemesis themeparkium (aka theme park ride non-stop puking). I went into the ride yesterday with a “that was her, this is me” attitude. About 2 seconds into the ride, I found myself praying for a quick end (in whatever form it came). The kids tell me that I was screaming so loudly that everyone around me was laughing. And I was screaming not because I was scared of dementors, but because I was terrified I would barf all over everyone. I. AM. NOT. EXAGGERATING. I woke up today and have nearly lost my voice. I WAS SCREAMING THAT LOUDLY AND THAT LONG.

Yeah. It turns out there is a reason for these signs. They are so funny when you are young. Not so much now.

Yeah. It turns out there is a reason for these signs. They are so funny when you are young. Not so much now.

Hey Dummy! Yeah you! We put this sign here for a reason.

Hey Dummy! Yeah you! We put this sign here for a reason.

2. Some things are as good as you imagine.

And by “some things” I mean Butterbeer. Ever since first reading the Harry Potter books to our firstborn (now 18 and a freshman in college) when they first came out, I have imagined Butterbeer to be utterly delicious. When my husband and I stumbled off the “Forbidden Journey” (and yes, he felt the same way I did after the ride– AWFUL), the kids ran off to ride the “Flight of the Hippogriff” (“ha ha. Daddy and I are fine. You guys just go ahead. No, really, we can sit this one out”). And fortune ran us smack dab into the Butterbeer truck. You can bet your sweet muggle buns, that we didn’t let our nausea stop us. The Butterbeer was DELICIOUS! And I believe that it did “settle our stomachs”. I actually ended up drinking 2 during our time at the park.

And dreaming of how I would make it at home.

And how it be even more awesome with some alcohol in it.


Those smiles are for real.

Those smiles are for real. Check out Pat’s Butterbeer mustache.

3. The kindness of other people can be stunningly beautiful.

Normally, at a themepark (or any other tourist attraction), you prepare yourself to see the worst of humanity (screaming at the kids, tantrums, marriage-threatening spats). And that’s just in my family. But true kindness when you see it can be breathtaking to behold. Waiting with my son to have an audience with Spiderman after we ventured out of the Wizarding World, the crowd nearly mutinied (led by yours truly) when Spiderman told us he had to “go for a few minutes” (something about joining Captain America and Storm on motorcycles or something). When he came back he was so AWESOME and kind to EVERY child. He made each of them feel like they were the only one in the world. One boy who seemed to have a disability hugged him like there was no tomorrow; I looked over and his mom was crying. She said “You are his absolute favorite”. ‘Spiderman’ didn’t hurry him or speed him (or her) along. My husband noted “That’s one of hundreds of kids whom that guy sees every day, but for THAT kid, that’s his one chance to meet Spiderman, maybe in his whole life. And the great thing is that the guy who is playing Spiderman gets it”. I thought of that mom and that boy and how he will remember that interaction with his hero for years to come. We could all be more like ‘Spiderman’.

This guy is winning at life.

This guy is winning at life.

4. I have a tendency to “rose-colored” glasses.

After we got off the last ride of the day (the adorable Minion Mayhem ride), I said to my daughter Sophia and her friend Gavi who is traveling with us, “That was really fun!”. Gavi said to me, “Who are you kidding? You were screaming ‘OH BOY. OH BOY. THAT’S ENOUGH’ for the ENTIRE ride!!”. Truth be told, this one nauseated the crap out of me too with the flying and swooping and careening around. But once done, I was glad I had done it because it was fun to experience it with my family, even though my stomach again threatened to blow. I don’t know whether it is good or bad, but when something is over, I tend to try to draw the positive from it, forgetting the negative parts. Dr. Helen “Pollyanna” Kales.

5. There is a mindfulness to intense travel experiences that just can’t be beat.

Our day at the Wizarding World and Universal was intense and exhausting. My husband got us up at 6 freaking thirty in the morning because it was “early admission” from our hotel into Diagon Alley. He moved us with military precision to the two main Wizarding World rides via the Hogwarts Express so that we could get there before the crowds did. We stayed in the park until closing at 8 PM, hitting all the rides that the kids were excited about AND having a great dinner at Mythos (“Rated #1 theme park restaurant in the World!” screamed the sign. And it was very good.). Gavi’s phone app told her that we’d walked almost 8 miles during the day there. In reflection today, it almost feels like a mental palate cleanser. I had gone to the Wizarding World preoccupied with an issue from work, feeling angry, disrespected and ruminative. But in focusing on the getting what we needed to do yesterday in the intensity of the moment, I emerged feeling mentally refreshed and refocused. I have often had this feeling in doing yoga or other mindfulness work, but it struck me that such intense travel experiences are this way as well. Forced out of my routine and typical thinking and response patterns, I dropped the rumination and angst because I needed to concentrate on the matter at hand (e.g. how to get from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade before the crowds descended on the park). And the shared experiences and family teamwork, left me with a sense of what is really important to me.


Gavi points out the sign that got us. Reminded us of Elf’s “World’s Best Coffee!”. But it WAS good.

My husband said to me this morning (apparently he has the same #4 tendency as me), “That was great. Let’s go back in three or four years”. Yes. With some Dramamine.


kales@umich.eduFive things I learned at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter
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Sometimes old dogs are good sticking with old tricks

We just returned from a week with my parents in Florida. At 80, they continue to amaze; fully independent, active, and enjoying life. But there are changes. My mom’s ankle is now giving her trouble. She visited a specialist who took one look at her X-ray and solemnly pronounced his best medical opinion: “your ankle is all whacked out.”

kales@umich.eduSometimes old dogs are good sticking with old tricks
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Bocce with Beth

If I didn’t know my Thea (Aunt) Beth was real, I would think that some writer had made her up as “the favorite Aunt” character in a cozy novel.  Warm, sweet, loving, full of hugs.  Visit her condo in Florida (2 doors down from my folks’), you get a piece of chocolate, a deconstruction of the last Downton Abbey episode, and a lowdown on all the best spots to hit in the area for boutique shopping. 

kales@umich.eduBocce with Beth
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