Bedazzling the Short Straw

Last spring, my 19 year old daughter Tasia called me about the house she and her group of 6 friends were renting for her next (sophomore) year. She had been really excited about the house (originally built in the 1880’s as a candy factory), because it was very close to campus as well as being beautiful–a cut above most of the rentals for students (which can be pretty run down) and yet, still in her budget.

Back to the call. “Hi mommy. Well, it turns out I drew the short straw. My room is in the basement.” We knew this was a possibility as each of the girls wanted their own room, and there were only 6 “upstairs” rooms, but my heart sunk. I got myself together and tried to sound positive. “OK. Well, you know us. We’ll make it great. Send me some pictures so I can see what we are dealing with.” When the pictures came, I felt even worse.


BEFORE. Pictures I received from Tasia this past Spring that sunk my spirits.


Seriously, my darling daughter was going to be staying in this pit?

Over the summer, Tasia continued to be realistic about the space, expressing some wistfulness about not having drawn one of the nice rooms “upstairs”, but moving ahead methodically in thinking about how she could transform it. I decided to kick myself in the butt (metaphorically speaking) and align myself with her attitude. We arranged to get into the room early so that we could think about our transformation.

And there was a lot to transform.

  • While the room has beautiful windows, they came with window wells full of 3 foot high weeds.
  • An ugly pipe that ran through the room with a similarly ugly piece of old grey material attached to 1/3 of it that the landlord told her “not to move” (I have no idea).
  • A closet that while spacious, looked like a little cave.
  • An entrance from the laundry room that was so foreboding it gave me chills the first time I walked through it and I promptly named it “Jeffrey Dahmer’s basement” in my head.
  • Oh and did I mention that the day we first saw it over the summer, there was a little puddle of water in the closet?
BEFORE. Outside Tasia's room. Came complete with weeds and utility ladder.

BEFORE. Outside Tasia’s room. Came complete with weeds, old piece of gutter, and utility ladder.

We worked out butts off, looking for ideas on Pinterest and Etsy. We became regulars at our local amazing resale store Treasure Mart and hit up Matthei Gardens annual exotic plant sale for succulents. Tasia worked with the landlord on the closet water problem and a contractor found a little hole that chipmunks had made causing the leak and the problem was solved.

AFTER. Windows transformed with mums planted outside and sheer curtains.

AFTER. Windows transformed with mums planted outside and sheer curtains.

AFTER. Pipe covered with neutral burlap remnant and surplus Xmas lights.

AFTER. Pipe covered with neutral burlap remnant and surplus Xmas lights.

AFTER. Ugly pipe covered with neutral fabric and pretty lights.

AFTER. Desk area.

AFTER. Closet leak fixed. Carpet tiles added. Sheer hung.

AFTER. Closet leak fixed. Carpet tiles added. Sheer hung.

AFTER. Desk scored at Treasure Mart for $50. Brass hardware shined up and drawers painted grey.

AFTER. Desk scored at Treasure Mart for $50. Brass hardware shined up and drawers painted grey.

AFTER. French bulletin board recycled from Tasia's HS grad party with fabric and ribbon remnants.

AFTER. French bulletin board recycled from Tasia’s HS grad party with fabric and ribbon remnants.

AFTER. New reading area created with repainted $17 table from Treasure Mart, decals from Etsy and the one splurge, a new loveseat from Pottery Barn Teen. Also pictured 16 year old sister Sophia.

AFTER. New reading area created with repainted $17 table from Treasure Mart, decals from Etsy and the one splurge, a new loveseat from Pottery Barn Teen. Lamp and carpet from last year’s dorm room. Also pictured 16 year old sister Sophia and YiaYia Joyce in the mirror.

AFTER. Much less creepy post with covered pipes, carpet tiles, hung "curtains" (created with canvas drop cloths, metal pipes and flanges--thank you Pinterest and engineer husband!)

AFTER. Entrance to Tasia’s room. (Note: no “before” available as it was too terrifying). Much less creepy now with fabric-covered pipes, carpet tiles, screw in cheap drop light from Home Depot, hung “curtains” (created with canvas drop cloths, metal pipes and flanges–thank you Pinterest and engineer husband!)

The process ended up being transformative for the room, but it was also transformative for us. We talked about how life deals you surprises. You can sulk or you make the best the situation and go on. And sometimes with the right combination of effort and luck, it turns out even better than you had planned. This was one of those times.

Postscript: Tasia called yesterday. They are going to keep the house for next year. And rather than redrawing straws, she wants to keep her room. She loves it.


Wall hanging from Tasia’s room (recycled from Sophia who no longer wanted it). Pretty apt, right?

kales@umich.eduBedazzling the Short Straw
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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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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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Planes, Training, and Automobiles.

Remember the 1980’s Steve Martin/John Candy movie about a businessman trying to get somewhere?  Kind of like what yesterday was like for the Kales/Gibson family.  But before we get to that, let’s rewind to Thursday.  That is when Tasia, my perfectionist, highly-organized, 16 year-old daughter entered the kitchen looking like the weight of the world was showing on her beautiful face.

kales@umich.eduPlanes, Training, and Automobiles.
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(DO) Talk to Strangers.

It’s New Years Day and it’s been an orgy of football at our house (“The one day I get to monopolize the TV all day!” says my husband gleefully.).  After watching for a while (and mostly munching on the delicious Chex mix that Patrick makes to go with the New Year’s football), I escape to my study for a break.  Surfing the internet, I come across a lovely video segment that hit me just the right way to start off the New Year.  The segment portrays a photographer, Richard Renaldi, who finds strangers on the street and poses them in warm embraces.

kales@umich.edu(DO) Talk to Strangers.
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To look good or to feel good?

As we are often reminded, the population of our country is aging.  By 2030, there will be as many older people as young people in this country.  I am 48, so by 2030, I will be one of the over-65 crowd.  Like everyone else, I want to age well.  In preparing slides for a talk to group of psychiatry residents, I came across the picture above.  Showing it to the residents always gets a laugh and some funny comments like, “looks like his head was transplanted onto a younger body”.

kales@umich.eduTo look good or to feel good?
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