By Annabel Mongahan

Pullquote: The joys of small-town life are many. Or

There’s a chance I’ve morphed into Aunt Bee.

Thirteen years ago, the first day I lived in Rye, I took my kids to the barbershop for haircuts. Looking back, it seems sort of crazy to think of haircuts on moving day, but grooming was a bigger deal back when we were urban. These days my children get haircuts mostly for safety reasons.

Anyway, a woman at the barbershop who also had two sons struck up a conversation with me. This felt new. Strangers never spoke to me in the city, unless we were safely separated by a counter and I had my wallet out. This woman told me that they were packing up their house and moving to Florida because of her husband’s work. She’d been in Rye for ten years and was looking forward to the change. It was a bit of a baton passing moment, with my arrival coming at the perfect time to fill the gap she was leaving. So I asked her, “How did you like Rye?”

“Well,” she said. “It’s a bit Mayberry.”

This didn’t freak me out as much as you might think. I was still in an information gathering stage, quietly listening and taking in my new environment in an “I come in peace” sort of way. And I’d already been given a lot of misinformation. A neighbor told me that I’d never find parking at Rye Presbyterian Nursery School. Another told me that all of the women in town were snobs. (Captain’s log: I’ve been here 13 years; I’ve found tons of parking and I’ve met three snobs.)

Rye’s the smallest town I’ve ever lived in. There’s a chance I’ve morphed into Aunt Bee. Rye is so small that I make note of unfamiliar faces, as they are the exception. Most afternoons I run into a woman at the Stop and Shop who was also on the treadmill next to me in the morning at the Y. Her name is Sarah. Her kids go to school in Greenwich. We share a birthday. I don’t know her, but information like this just rubs off between people in a town this small.

In a town this small, there’s a good chance you know everyone running for office. And they might know you too. The other day I was at a book festival and Assemblyman George Latimer walked right up to me and greeted me by name. Imagine that. For a minute, I thought, heck, I’ve arrived. Then I realized we just live in the same small town. Also, I was wearing a nametag.

Someone else might feel suffocated here. It might bother them that they recognize everyone at Ruby’s on a Wednesday afternoon. It might bother them that they can’t walk down the street crying without someone stopping them to ask what’s wrong. It might bother them that they can’t run to Jerry’s in their pajamas on a Saturday morning without seeing six people they know. Those things don’t bother me a bit.

I love raising my kids in a town where there are adults who know them around every corner. I love that we throw each other’s kids in our cars at a moment’s notice. I love knowing all of my neighbors and most of the previous owners of their homes.

There’s a comfort in all that familiarity. It makes me understand what Norm felt like walking into Cheers each day. Sure, Rye’s a little Mayberry. It makes me want to whistle.

By Annabel Monaghan

I’ve come to accept the fact that I should never say “never.” In fact, as I get older, it seems that every time I shun some activity with the words “I’d never,” I immediately go ahead and do it. Examples include getting my fourth grader his own phone, leaving my kids alone overnight, and buying a Happy Meal. Also, dark nail polish and platform sneakers. To really drive my point home: moments ago I agreed to a gruesome volunteer job that I swore I would never take again. I’m probably days away from getting a face tattoo.

Among my major “nevers” is playing games on my phone. I’ve devoted hours to nevering this never: Why are so many of my smart, tax-paying friends sending me requests to play Candy Crush in the middle of the day? I have things to do and friends to see. I’m a person who is looking to steal extra time, not to kill it. For sure, I’d never sit and play a game on my phone. The shame alone would do me in.

So I was going on about this “never” to my son earlier this summer and decided to illustrate my conviction by showing him that I don’t even have a single game app on my phone. To prove me wrong, he poked around until he found Solitaire. <Solitaire? Is that still a thing?> I tapped on the app and opened it by accident as I assured him that it probably came standard like the clock and the weather app. I mean it’s not like I would have … <Wait, I have three aces up and that red seven goes on that black eight and if I could just uncover a red queen I swear I could win this thing.>

Fast forward and this, my friends, is how I spent my summer vacation – tapping on that stack of cards, praying for an ace. I’ve gotten very little actual work done. I’ve prepared very few meals. The pile of stuff for The Salvation Army is still in my car. But I’ve worked out a complex strategy to beat a game that relies mostly on luck and comes with no prize.

I’m so ashamed. But not so ashamed that I’ve stopped playing. The thing I love about Solitaire is that it occupies your mind just the right amount. Alternating black and red cards in sequence isn’t very hard, but you do have to concentrate. It’s almost meditative, like staring at the flame of a candle. If your mind wanders over to the stack of dishes in your sink, you’re probably going to flip past the black king. Obviously, the stakes are high.

I’m hooked in such a way that I continue a game when my kids are talking to me. Staring at my phone while my children are sharing their thoughts is a major “never.” And yet here we are. Interestingly, this doesn’t bother them at all. They’re used to talking to people who are staring at their phones. In fact, I find that while I’m not staring them down with my too-interested gaze and overly enthusiastic follow-up questions, they talk a little longer than they might have.

I know for a fact that I didn’t pay for the Solitaire app, because between each game I have to sit through an advertisement for Candy Crush. I wait patiently for the ad to finish, rolling my eyes at the icky sweet graphics. Everything about it is unappealing to me. So it’s probably just a matter of time.

Along for the Rye’d

By Annabel Monaghan

Pullquote: I think my junk could use some psychotherapy.

Sometimes, when I’m busy not writing my novel, I daydream about finishing my students’ novels. My mind floods with ideas to fill in their story gaps. I dream up surprise endings and pages of snappy dialogue. While driving the other day, I decided that one of my student’s characters should have a heavy suitcase at the beginning of the novel that is lighter at the end of the novel, signifying personal growth. I am so pleased with this brilliant idea. Boy, am I good at other people’s novels.

Similarly, if you asked me to come over to help you clean up your house and organize a garage sale, I’d probably do it. It would feel productive to sort through your junk and then label everything for sale. I have a couple of folding tables and a label maker that I’d throw in my car. I bet it would be kind of fun.

So why does the idea of going through my own junk and finishing my own novel make me want to check myself into a hospital? My junk is immovable. It’s heavy with feelings of attachment, responsibility, and guilt. If I give that set of dishes away, am I ungrateful? If I give away that giant package of plastic forks and knives, am I going to regret it one day when I desperately need a giant package of plastic forks and knives? If I finish that novel, will it be trite? To be honest, I think my junk could use a little psychotherapy.

But I look at your stuff and my eyes sort it into neat piles. Likewise for your problems. Other people’s problems seem pretty solvable. “She should just leave him,” someone says. Everyone else nods in agreement, mainly because we’re not the ones who have to do the leaving. Just call your in-laws and tell them you’re not coming for Christmas. What’s the big deal? Also, you should just quit smoking. Other people’s tangles seem so easily undone.

You might notice the overuse of the word “just” in people’s friendly advice. “Just” is a real minimizer. Try telling someone they should “just let it go” and then maybe duck for cover. If it was that easy, they would have already let it go.

I bet if we all exchanged our to do lists, a lot would get done. The tasks are the same, but our relative resistance to the tasks is very different. The things that remain on my list week after week are the ones that drag me down, the ones that bring up irrational feelings of dread (call EZ-pass, schedule physical). The easy stuff that I don’t feel very strongly about gets crossed off right away.

The variable here seems to be the emotion. If only we could fake ourselves out and pretend like our to-dos are someone else’s. I could easily finish my novel if I pretended it was yours. What do I have to lose? I could call my in-laws and pretend they’re your in-laws. They seem harmless enough. I could even clean out my closet if I pretended all those crazy shoulder-padded suits were someone else’s. They wouldn’t be laden with memories and complex feelings about returning to work. Just give them away! This might actually work.

I wonder if there’s an opportunity to help each other out. Maybe there’s someone out there who doesn’t mind sitting on hold waiting for the next available customer service agent, but who really doesn’t want to write that long overdue thank you note. I’d be happy to write your thank-you note. If you want, I’ll do your ironing. But could you come over and finish my novel?

Vive La Différence

By Annabel Monaghan

Pullquote: “I’d left the hotel feeling like I’d nailed it. I’d been pleased to find a T-shirt in my suitcase that had only one hole at the bottom.”

I’ve just come back from a vacation in France, where I saw every sort of aspirational beauty. Everything is at least a little finer – the architecture, the cheese, and especially the women. I conducted an informal study of the French women, hoping to unlock the mystery of their allure. I made shockingly little progress.

Obviously, I wanted the difference to be genetic. That was my go-to theory as I watched their long legs take purposeful strides around the city. When genetics is to blame, we can consider ourselves off the hook and go back to making the best of what we’ve got. The laziest part of me pursued this theory with great hope.

Specifically, I suspected that the difference between them and me might be glandular. French women don’t get hot. Or, if they do, they give no evidence of it. On the first day of my vacation it was a warm 80 degrees. A French woman sat next to me at the café. She wore jeans, a long sleeved blouse, a blazer and a silk scarf around her neck. Naturally, she chose the seat in the sun and ordered a piping hot espresso. I scanned her face for any sign of discomfort. I scanned her brow for a bead of sweat. If this had been me, you would have been scanning my pupils for signs of dehydration.

The blazer was pure madness, but the scarf seemed worth it. The right scarf under a woman’s face is like a flattering light that she takes with her throughout her day. French women must be in the habit of grabbing a scarf along with their phones and wallets as they float out the door in the morning. For me, a scarf is for when the temperature has dipped below 40 degrees and I can feel a little cool air in the gap between my puffy coat (that I’ve thrown over my pajamas) and my neck.

On her feet were loafers. They were leather, narrow and chic with absolutely no ventilation. They were the kind of shoes that your feet would love on a cool fall day, and preferably with socks. Add this to the study — French women don’t get blisters.

I looked down to survey myself. I wore my coolest outfit – linen pants and le T-shirt. On my feet were sandals, open to airflow and rubber soled for walking comfort.

I’d left the hotel feeling like I’d nailed it. I’d been pleased to find a T-shirt in my suitcase that had only one hole at the bottom. Every single one of my T-shirts has at least one of these holes that form right where it rests on the closure of my jeans. When the holes amount to more than four, I relegate the T-shirt to exercise wear.

French women don’t have this problem, because French women go to the trouble of tucking in their shirts. That small fact might get the heart of the mystery. I’m afraid the difference comes down to standards rather than genetics. The French woman seems to have expectations for herself about how she is going to present herself to the world. For her “being dressed” means showing the world your best most together self. For me “being dressed” means not being naked.

There’s dignity in the way a French woman puts herself together, which probably explains why her shoulders are back and her head is held high. Next time the temperature dips below 70, I’m going to put on a scarf and see what happens.

Along for the Rye’d

By Annabel Monaghan

If I can help it, I don’t drive to the CVS in town. I’ve had enough altercations in that parking lot, real and imagined, to scare me away forever. I’ve been yelled at, honked at, given the evil eye. A friend of mine was criticized by a stranger, for showing too much cleavage in that parking lot. I’d be willing to say it’s our town’s spiritual black hole.

One time I knocked my wallet into the backseat with my elbow as I was parking, so I had to get out and open the door to the backseat to retrieve it. Sue me. Or, if you prefer, you can be like the lady who was waiting to park in the spot next to mine and just shout for me to get the *expletive* out of the way. Once she’d parked, she went on to explain that I was taking too darn long shutting my car door. I told her about the errant wallet and apologized for exceeding the appropriate amount of time for a door to be open next to an available parking spot. She stormed off.

The funny thing is that in this parking lot, I kind of get it. The CVS parking lot induces madness. First of all, it’s too narrow. The calmest driver has a hard time backing out and completing a turn before hitting the row of cars behind her. Secondly, no one at the CVS is at her calmest. Most people in the CVS parking lot have the flu, a kid with lice, or, worse, a baby. If you’re shopping for an ace bandage or Excedrin Migraine, you’re not having the best day. Even the lady picking up the jumbo-sized bag of Peanut M&Ms is probably nursing some kind of emotional wound. And they no longer sell cigarettes.

The lady in the greeting card aisle is completely unhinged, because she knows that soon she has to cross the street to the post office to mail it. It’s her mother-in-law’s birthday and she’s a day behind. She has no choice. She leaves CVS like a criminal, looking left and right to make sure the coast is clear. Someone with a migraine or lice is going to pop out and accuse her of using the CVS parking lot for post office parking, which is a quiet, victimless crime that will get you towed. As she hops the parking lot wall to freedom, she brandishes her CVS purchase across her chest as evidence that she’s bought something.

So I walk.

Since a Whole Foods has opened in Port Chester, I’ve been studying the intensity level of that parking lot. It’s as poorly designed at the CVS lot. It’s too narrow to easily back up without a collision, with the added handicap of having only two points of entry, which happen to also be the points of exit. People pulling into the lot are in immediate, head-on conflict with the people pulling out. I’m sure an engineer and a line painter could fix this lot faster than you can say ‘wild Atlantic salmon,’ but why bother? No one seems to mind.

In fact, the people in the Whole Foods parking lot are happy to wait. They’re happy to back up out of the entrance/exit and wait for you to settle comfortably into your parking spot and check your emails. People who are about to pay $15 for two heads of broccoli don’t sweat the small stuff. They’re on their way into the happiest place on earth, where chickens are free-range and trans fats are abolished. Someone even sent me a photo of Justin Timberlake browsing the pasta aisle at Whole Foods. That’s how good it is.

This bliss can also be found in the Jerry’s Post Road Market parking lot, a lot that is similarly treacherous and too small for the throngs of people who are hooked on chicken cutlet sandwiches. People will happily stop traffic in the middle of Boston Post Road and wait for a spot to open up. Once they’ve turned in, they patiently adjust their cars in impossible ways to allow you a smooth exit. Take your time. The nice people inside are preparing lunch for their whole family. It’s possible that the problem has nothing to do with the parking lots at all.

Along For the Rye’d

The Trouble With New Toys

By Annabel Monaghan

Pullquote: I’ve come to believe that directions to children’s games are written by people who are personally vested in my not being able to understand how to play.

Everybody has something in their house that nags at them. Maybe it’s a pile of laundry (never bothers me) or a single insurance form that’s going to take a two-hour phone call before it turns into a check. These things promise great payoffs, but first you have to wade through a little pain. For me, the loudest nag in my house is an unopened toy with a steep learning curve.

A gift to a child can feel like a liability to the parent. Worst-case scenario: the gift comes with an Allen wrench and an Owner’s Manual. But sometimes the liability is just the 30 minutes it’s going to take to read and understand the directions well enough to teach your child how to play.

I’ve come to believe that directions to children’s games are written by people who are personally vested in my not being able to understand how to play. They tend to over-explain the obvious, like “To start, place all game pieces on the square labeled Start.” And then drop lines like, “At the beginning of subsequent turns, you may trade in matched sets of cards and take additional armies based on the total number of sets anyone has traded in so far.” <Oh, okay.>  

Often while I’m poring over the rules of the game, the owner of the toy wanders off with the spinner and both of the dice. I suspect that the age at which a child can read and understand the directions to any given game is the exact age when he’s outgrown that game.

The loudest possible nag has come from the toy my sister gave my kids last Christmas. It came in a box sized to make me think she’d gotten them a Sub Zero. When we opened it, we found a large rectangular wooden box with miniature bowling pins, tiny spindles and, most curiously, six pieces of string. It was Christmas and we were maybe too busy/tired/fat to figure that thing out, so for six months it sat in my basement, a large wooden box accumulating the spinners and dice from other discarded toys.

It’s not like I have an aversion to toys. The problem seems to be the timing of the new toy’s introduction into my house. Namely, gifts come on Christmas and children’s birthdays – the days where you are least likely to be looking to fill your time with an extra little project. Those are the days when my house is as cluttered as my brain, and there’s no space in either to lay out the pieces and dig in.

But this year, on July 4th, my 11 year old and I found ourselves at home and a little bored. My husband was golfing, my teenagers were sleeping, and there was nothing on TV but people eating too many hot dogs. We decided to sit down and figure out what that big wooden box was for. As with most wooden toys, the instructions were sparse. It’s almost like if you have to ask, you probably weren’t around in the 1930s when this thing was all the rage.

I sat there with what looked like a tiny wooden barstool and a piece of string in my hand, wondering how this could ever amount to a toy. My son suggested we see if there were any instructions on YouTube. I assured him that no one who has ever played this toy knows about YouTube. But a few clicks later he found an elderly gentleman explaining just what that string was for. We quickly became experts, and then competitors, and then sworn enemies. I now admit, it’s a great game.

On some occasions, I’ve been faced with gifts where the first instruction is “download the app.” <The app?> It’s a basketball. <The app?> It’s a set of goggles. This is when my face registers defeat and the owner of the gift says, “Mom, I’ve got this.”

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