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.

By Annabel Monaghan

I wander around my unusually clean kitchen, killing time before I get to pick up my son from the airport. He has just finished his freshman year in college, and something that feels like relief floods my nervous system. I haven’t seen him in two months, so I try to imagine what he’s going to look like standing on the curb outside American Airlines. He’ll probably need a haircut, and 50/50 he’ll be wearing pajamas. We have different ideas about what counts as appropriate attire for air travel.

I take two sticks of butter out of the refrigerator as I try to imagine how tired he is. Freshman year in college is an exhilarating exercise in problem solving. There are standard things like Calculus and term papers, and more complex things like wanting to sleep but having to get yourself up for class. You run out of time, food points, and clean socks. You figure it out. There is so much newness to absorb — new people, new germs, new geography; I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

I pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees before I realize that I’m making cookies. I grab sugar and flour, and then oatmeal. Regular chocolate chip cookies seem wrong for this day. They are icky, like a too-wet kiss. Oatmeal cookies feel like sustenance, a solid hug of support. There’s a chance I’m overthinking this whole thing.

When the cookies are in the oven, I find myself on my hands and knees searching the back of a cupboard for a small oval tray that I haven’t seen in years. It seems like the right size for the welcoming, small enough to feel like the cookies are just for him. When I find it, it’s tarnished, so I polish it with what look shockingly like my mother’s hands.

I remember coming home from my own freshman year in college. In fact, it was the same college my son is returning from. I felt different, and not just because my clothes were so tight. I felt like I’d accomplished something, even if that thing was just having gone away and survived it. The tension in my shoulders released when I got off the plane in Los Angeles. Here was a place where people knew me and where I knew what was around most corners. We got on the freeway, not the highway, and passed In-N-Out Burger. Everything seemed to be right where I left it.

When we got home, I wanted to collapse. I knew my bed would be soft and the right size. I knew that if I sat on my mom’s sofa, I’d sink into it. The whole place felt like it was enveloping me in a welcome. And on the coffee table was a small oval tray with just exactly the right number of oatmeal cookies.

This memory nearly knocks me over as I’m polishing my mother’s tray with what look like her hands. I hadn’t thought about those cookies in 30 years, but here they are filling my kitchen with the moment I was trying to recreate. I don’t remember if I ate one of those cookies or if I even said thank you. But the thought behind them must have registered with me. It’s nice to think that, in the dusty corners, we file all that good stuff away.

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.”

By Annabel Monaghan


We seem to have bought into the idea that if we fall into bed at night completely exhausted and smelling like baked goods and mud, our kids will be okay.

Remember when that new, zealous guy started work at your office? The one who thought it would be more productive to come in a few minutes earlier and stay a few minutes later? Next thing you knew, your nine-to-five job was eight-to-six, for the same pay. I wonder if this is what’s happened to motherhood. Maybe it was just one mom who had an extra cup of coffee and decided to take it up a notch, and here we all are, a generation later — tired, busy, and tired of being busy.

It probably started with the first woman who decided it might be fun to bring a treat to the classroom to celebrate her child’s birthday. It was a nice thought, harmless even, but then it forced the twenty other moms to bake birthday treats for the duration of elementary school. Obviously, your kid can’t be the only one who isn’t celebrated.

I bet it was just weeks later that another mom decided that this treat should be cupcakes. Cupcakes: an exercise in baking not one but 24 cakes, each of which needs to be wrestled out of the tin and frosted individually. Cupcakes: the hardest possible treat to transport without calamity, so hard in fact that they’ve designed a device that is more carefully engineered than a child’s car seat to get them safely to the classroom.

The cupcake itself was enough to wipe me out, but then came the inevitable moment that a third mom decided to monogram the cupcakes with each classmate’s initials. Again, I blame coffee.

Every one of the eighteen years that I’ve been a mother, things have been taken up a notch. If mothers used to feed and dress their children to put them on the train to adulthood, we are now doing those things while the train is moving. As soon as we think we are about to catch up and toss them into the cargo car, the train speeds up. Is it any wonder we’re a little tired?

As my kids have gotten older, I’ve wondered who was the first person that decided kids needed SAT tutoring for the SAT. What if they all just went in cold? Isn’t having all the kids show up unprepared as level a playing field as having all the kids prepared?

And who was the first to decide that we need to shuttle our kids all over the country looking at colleges they haven’t been admitted to yet? If there’s another way to make the total cost of the college experience even higher, we’ll find it.

When we were growing up, there wasn’t this urgency around parenting, a fear that our kids were going to be left behind. We seem to have bought into this idea that if we fall into bed at night completely exhausted and smelling like baked goods and mud, our kids will be okay. But we were raised on nothing but food, love, and negligence, and we seem to have turned out okay.

Our mothers want to know why we’re so tired. <Why do your kids need to do so many activities? Can’t they just play in the neighborhood? Can’t they just walk to soccer? What do you mean you’re making two dinners? Just make him eat the meatloaf.>

We shrug. Things are just different now. Activities are organized. No, they can’t walk to soccer; it’s in Tarrytown. And after soccer they need to get to the Chinese tutor because kids today need to speak Chinese, or else. Also they need to be leaders at something, it doesn’t matter what. Extra-curriculars are no longer extra – they’re the bare minimum.

And I’ve recently been told that now we need to help our kids “find their passion.” How can you find someone else’s passion? Can’t we just let them do that one thing on their own?

I bring this all up because today I saw an ad on the Internet for a nine-foot wide custom-made banner that you can order to announce your child’s college choice on your front lawn. It has the child’s face and the college logo on it. Did I mention it’s nine feet wide? I don’t even know what to say. When mothers unionize, this is going to be the first topic I bring up. Let’s slow this train down.

By Annabel Monaghan

“Each of us, in our own way, is trying to do something as impossible as hitting a tiny white ball with a narrow wooden stick.”

Spring sports are winding down and the whole thing seems like a blur of driving, costume changes, and sandwiches eaten in the car. There was the requisite amount of elbow jabbing, name-calling, and bloodletting. But there were also the niceties of sports, the repeated rituals, words and actions that sort of smooth out the bad moments. Every time I see them, they give me pause; I dream of incorporating some of these niceties into my own, non-athletic life.

Like when it’s 5 p.m. and everyone in my house is starving and I’ve forgotten to defrost the chicken. A text comes in telling me that that there’s a game I forgot about in 10 minutes, and the uniform required for that game is soaking wet in the washing machine. I look at my annoyed but unsurprised teammates. I want them to shout, “Take a knee!” and then do so until I get my act together. Maybe they’d even clap as I limp off the field.

Any time I’m off my game, I wish a coach would approach the mound. I feel a wave of relief every time I see this happen in baseball. On that mound, the Little League pitcher is the only person in the world, alone with his own self-doubt and terror. Enter a calm adult to address this stressful situation and either diffuse it or fix it. The coach offers a hand on the shoulder, a few words of encouragement and a few very direct suggestions. Sometimes the coach just pulls the kid. Everyone applauds as he goes back to the dugout. He can try again another day.

I wonder if certain world leaders who are consistently throwing wild pitches ever yearn for some company on the mound. Maybe they could use a few tips or even the hard truth that they might be more comfortable in left field. The crowd would offer a supportive clap while we warmed someone else up on the sideline. (I can hear an imaginary coach whispering in my ear as I’m writing this. “Hey kid, I see what you’re trying to do. Stay with it, maybe try throwing a little more to the right.” Okay, I tell him, I’ll try.)

I also love the way parents in the stands yell nice things like “good idea!” when a kid has completely messed up. When it’s my kid who’s messed up, I want to hug those parents. Who couldn’t use someone like that following them around on the off chance she hit a parked car because she totally thought a station wagon would fit in a compact spot? Maybe afterward, as she backed out and avoided hitting the car on the other side, someone would shout, “Good eye, kid!”

The third base coach brings a little Tony Robbins magic to baseball. He calls to the nervous batter, “Come on kid, you’re a hitter!” The child rolls his shoulders back with new confidence and often goes ahead and hits that ball. Each of us, in our own way, is trying to do something as impossible as hitting a tiny white ball with a narrow wooden stick. Let’s start telling each other that we’re hitters.

Obviously there’s nothing better than Silent Sunday. I’ve rarely seen two words that are more harmoniously matched. What a joy it is to watch an entire sporting event in silence. It’s as if soccer has been temporarily turned into golf. The kids rely on their teammates and themselves, and the spectators get to mind our own business for a bit. Some of us walk away with the odd realization that screaming nonsensical words like “defense” and “offside” wasn’t really helping the team after all. Silent Sunday. I don’t know how it gets better than that.

By Annabel Monaghan

The tag says $5,000, which is exactly how much it would cost my family of five to see “Hamilton.”

I went to the outlet mall on President’s Day. I’m sure this isn’t what the Founding Fathers had in mind – our loading up on merchandise we don’t need at low, low prices. But Tom wanted to go, and I like going places with Tom, so I went along. On the drive there I vowed to come home empty handed.

You see, I’ve been to the outlet mall before. The last time I went I got really overwhelmed. There’s just so much stuff at such low prices that it’s hard to know where to put your eyes. When the fluorescent light hit the sleeve of a lavender cashmere sweater in just the right size, I knew I had to have it. I don’t wear lavender, it makes me look like a corpse, but when have you ever seen a cashmere sweater marked down to $21? It was originally $160, so I left the store with the sweater and the satisfaction of having saved $139.

I know for sure it cost $21 because it’s still in my closet with the price tag on it, a pastel reminder of why I can’t be trusted at the outlet mall.

Outlet malls are made for people like Tom. He’s a person with a plan and no ambiguous feelings about the plan. This is the major difference between the two of us and sometimes the only way our kids can tell us apart. He arrives knowing exactly what he needs, along with sizes and quantities. He transacts and then finds the most efficient way back to the car. Tom’s highly successful at the outlet mall.

I wander. I walk into a clothing store where everything is 60% off, and the salesperson hands me a scratch-off card. All of a sudden I’m on a game show. She asks me to go ahead and scratch it to see how much additional savings I’d won. 15%! The salesperson cheers. I can’t believe it. Everything in that store is going to be 66% off, just for me!

Thirty minutes and a full dressing room later, I feel like I’ve let fate down. There’s nothing I want, not one cropped top or pair of faux leather pants. A sweater is too big in one size and too small in another. I can’t make anything work, no matter how great of a deal it is. I leave the store feeling like I’ve lost the Showcase Showdown on “The Price is Right.” I was so close.

Meanwhile, Tom has his two bags full of exactly what he’d intended to buy, and he seems to be feeling anxious for me to buy something too. I wonder if shopping’s not fun unless everyone participates. Or maybe shopping’s not fun, period.

We walk by a handbag store, and I spot a brown one in the window. It’s pretty. It’s about the right size to hold a spiral notebook, but not so big that you feel like you’re hauling a high schooler’s backpack. It has some fringy stuff hanging off of the bottom that I could probably cut off. And it’s brown, making it already a better decision than my lavender sweater.

I go in to have a closer look. Bonanza! Everything in the store is 80% off. And because it’s President’s Day we get an extra 10% off. How is that even possible, I wonder. How much are normal retail items marked up in the first place if this discount still makes sense? I reach for the price tag to see just how cheap the bag is.

The tag says $5,000, which is exactly how much it would cost my family of five to see “Hamilton.” Or have our deck repaired. With my insurance, it’s the cost of three colonoscopies. And I don’t even really like the bag that much. I can’t see what’s so $5,000 about this leather rectangle. But it doesn’t matter, because I am about to get sucked into outlet mall economics.

The salesman must have registered the look on my face as I tromboned the price tag forward and back to make sure I was seeing it correctly. “It’s 80% off,” he tells me. “So it’s only $1,000. And today you get an extra 10% off so it’s $900.” Suddenly this bag is so cheap. Suddenly I’m the luckiest girl in the world. They’ve dropped this bag a whole place value. Suddenly I can’t afford not to buy it. I’d be leaving $4,100 on the table if I left the store without that bag. That’s almost enough money to take my family to see “Hamilton.”

I hate to admit that I was perilously close to spending $900 on a handbag I didn’t really like. Luckily, a woman walked in to the store wearing a pair of lime green jeans and brought me back to my senses. No one at the outlet mall was making good decisions. Well, no one but Tom.

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