The Sound and the Fury


This spring, I began hearing cars slowing down as they passed my house.

I quickly came to the conclusion that my “Outsidah” column was getting so hugely popular with Ipswich Chronicle readers that my legions of fans were actually seeking out my humble house on outer Linebrook Road, slowing down as they drove past, staring in awe at the place where “The Outsidah” lives, and muttering things like “I didn’t realize there were homo sapiens west of Route 1!” and “How does he stand it out here?” I remember doing something like this years ago, driving reverently past Groucho Marx’s house in Beverly Hills, and somewhat more recently, Al Boynton’s place on High Street.

But then the stubborn winter snow finally melted, and I was able to walk out across my front yard for the first time since Christmas; it was only then that I discovered why cars have been slowing to a crawl in front of my house.

As winter gave way to spring, two colossal potholes opened up — each of them longer than a standard car tire, and wider too — and exactly as far apart as your front tires. So it’s impossible to miss them without some serious maneuvering. But if you maneuver to the left, you’re immediately confronted with another crater in the other lane; and if you swing to the right, you’re up on my neighbor’s well tended lawn.

Accordingly, if you’re sharp-eyed enough to see what’s coming, you hit your brake — accomplishing what can be called, ironically, a “quick slow” — and crawl through the moonscape like a massive, drunken beetle. Your vehicle, switching suddenly and unhappily to low gear, makes a groaning sound which wafts up through the front windows of my house, making me think I’m more admired than I really am.

Please understand: The pothole gods have done their best. Those faithful Day-Glo-vested gents who spread the black goo and roll it flat, slow-mo artisans of tar, recently filled the potholes in front of my house. But then came winter’s final wrenching, and gaping chasms opened up in the road, turning it into a colossal rotten log, too corroded for even Robin Hood and Little John to balance on.

There are other drivers on my street, of course, who aren’t sharp-eyed enough to see what’s coming — or they’re among that very rare breed of drivers who exceed the Linebrook Road 25 mph speed limit. So I’m minding my own business, well inside the cocoon of my house, when I’m suddenly jolted by a thunderous whump, as if some helicopter pilot attached a cable to a dumpster and lifted it into the sky and for some insane reason dropped it onto outer Linebrook Road. But no, it’s not a dumpster being dropped from the sky onto Linebrook Road; it’s an eastbound Ford F150, driven by a good ol’ boy from New Hampshire, doing about 40, hitting the potholes in front of my house. If I’m quick enough looking out my window, I can see the driver spitting tobacco juice into his own lap and spurting cuss words as he hunches over the steering wheel and struggles to keep his rig on the road.

Different makes and models make different sounds in this pothole minefield. I’ve found that a Jeep Grand Cherokee makes a kind of thoink, your basic Toyota Camry makes more of a thurpk, and just about any Volvo goes whong.

I am negotiating with Skillman’s to set up a mobile car repair operation at the corner of Linebrook and Randall, which I believe truly has the potential to make both of us rich.

If the car repair thing works, next I’m thinking mobile physical therapy.


As the deadline for this column approached, the pothole gods were reportedly making their way toward Doug Brendel’s outer Linebrook home.


There Now, That Wasn’t Too Bad, Was It?


Did we make it? Is it over? Winter, I mean — is it really gone?

I’m one of those despised winter-lovers — I appreciate the snap of cold air slicing into my nostrils in the morning, like an ice pick made of actual ice. This is what happens after you live more than two decades in the Arizona desert: You go a little silly for chilly.

But then came the winter of 2014 — and even I could be found hunched in my hoodie on Hammatt Street, arms rigid with hands jammed in pockets like a Lego man, staggering to stay vertical on the patchwork of sidewalk ice, muttering bad words to myself. Crazy cold, wretched wind, endless weeks of freeze-by-night, thaw-by-day, the temperatures hovering just close enough to 32°F to keep slathering fresh layers of frozen glare onto everything in sight, turning our driveways into slalom runs and our snowbanks into solid-ice Himalayas. Winter in New England is lovely, that’s been my mantra since I moved here. But this year, the lovely Lady Winter made herself a damnable wench.

Yet lo and behold, we appear to have survived. It’s time to survey the damage, catalogue our losses, and start concocting stories for our grandchildren that will make this winter out to be even worse than it really was.

It seems hard to believe that a scant eight weeks ago, my wife and I were standing in two feet of snow on our roof, using a pick-ax and a shovel to hack at an ice dam over our daughter’s bedroom. When we finally descended, exhausted and sore, we looked up to survey our work, and saw the forgotten shovel, standing at a forlorn angle in the snow on the roof. We looked at each other, silently flipping an imaginary coin to decide which of us would climb back up there and retrieve it.

“Screw it,” I finally grumbled — and the shovel stood there the rest of the winter, a stalwart, ever-present reminder of just how miserable our misery was.

It never occurred to me to take down our tree swing; it’s made of tough fabric and sturdy dowel rods, hanging on a stout, reliable rope from a great limb of our grand sugar maple. But after one of this winter’s insane 50-mph tempests, I looked out the window to that familiar place, only to see nothing but empty air. Astonished, my eyes searched in every direction, from my neighbor’s snowed-in chicken coop to the igloo-like tombstones of the cemetery next door. The swing seemed to have simply vanished, like a massive blue-canvas pterodactyl, into the wintry night.

Then I happened to glance toward the sky — and there is was. The swirling squall had flung the swing directly up, into the branches of the sugar maple. Then, driving it this way and that, it tangled the pieces in absolutely as many twigs as possible. I thought about getting out the extension ladder. Then I thought about getting out the apple-picker. But then I shivered in the biting cold — and there was really only one thing left to say.

“Screw it,” I grumbled — and the swing hung there, a sprawling, wrinkled carcass, the rest of the winter.

We put out a lovely earthenware birdfeeder last autumn, beautifully glazed in Van Gogh golds and blues. Over the winter, the snow piled high, then higher, until the feeder was entirely engulfed. I knew our charming work of art was safe, in the same way that saplings stay alive under the snow, only to emerge like proud little soldiers in the spring.

Eventually the thawing began, and the mountains of backyard snow began to recede. Finally the day came when the birdfeeder poked its pretty head from out of the dirty whiteness of winter. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The brilliant, smooth blue and gold glaze had cracked and broken off in the cold, leaving nothing but a dejected, roughhewn clay vessel to scowl at me accusingly.

I thought of trudging out through the snow to retrieve it. But no.

There was really only one thing left to say.


Your Attention, Please: This Is an April Fool’s Column


Happy April Fool’s Day!

The official closing on my beloved antique house on outer Linebrook Road took place this past week; we’re moving to Wyoming.

We’re going to be cowboys.

We handed over the keys to the new owners. Chicken farmers. From Rowley. With a pet fisher cat.

See what fun April Fool’s can be?

Of course this is all an April Fool’s joke, because in reality, I could never leave Ipswich. Especially not now. This would be a terrible time to leave Ipswich. Why? you ask.

First: There’s a hot selectmen’s race under way, with four people (so far) vying for two available seats. This is the Ipswich equivalent of Survivor, although without the nudity, thank heaven. I would hate to miss this.

Next: There’s the school budget override. The battle over this Article on the upcoming Town Meeting warrant is being played out in letters to the editor (some crisp and concise, others not so), and snarky Facebook rants (some in need of auto-correct, some more amusing without it), and slurred lectures at the bar in the Choate Bridge Pub (complete with finger-wagging). All over town, you can hear the metallic kreek! kreek! kreek! screeching of nervous voters screwing their wallets closed to keep from somehow, God forbid, contributing to the Town’s future. If the townspeople fail to support the schools, and young adults of Ipswich decide to locate elsewhere instead of raising their children here, I imagine coming back from Wyoming to visit Ipswich, 20 years from now, and having a moment of panic where I gulp, “Wait — am I in Saugus?”

Finally: There’s spring. I would miss spring in Ipswich. Spring in Ipswich is a wonderful thing. It’s entertainment. You don’t need cable. You don’t need Netflix. All you need is to look out the window. A neighbor straps on cleats to navigate the ice between his front door and his mailbox, only to sink up to his ankles in mud. A pretty woman in very fine workout gear is happily running her Rottweilers when a sudden snow squall sends her sprinting for the sanctuary of someone’s side-yard chicken coop. A squirrel jumps from a tree limb, aiming for a bird feeder, then finds himself blown by a 45 mph gust into the clapboards of your garage. Spring is awesome.

If this were not an April Fool’s joke, and this was in fact my final “Outsidah” column — which assumes, of course, they don’t need an “Outsidah” in Cheyenne, Wyoming — then I would finish by saying what an honor it has been to be a part of this community; and I am really sorry about the lawsuit which necessitates my sudden departure; and my apologies to anyone who never understood the secret coded messages I built into my previous 147 columns; and to that waitress in Swampscott: Please, forgive me, but the answer is still no. And finally: I hereby bequeath my catch-and-release clamming license to Nat Pulsifer.

However, this was all just an April Fool’s joke. Let me repeat: This was all a joke. Please don’t bump into me at Zumi’s and ask, “When ya leavin’?”

Also, just to be clear: I will be hanging onto my catch-and-release clamming license.


Pat McNally Deserves Whatever He Gets



Friends, Townies, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come not to bury Pat McNally, but to praise him.

Patrick James McNally is retiring from the Board of Selectmen. It’s a historic event. Pat has been an Ipswich selectman for 24 years, and a Planning Board guy for 8 years before that. That’s almost a third of a century of service. He’s served our town 8% of the entire time we’ve been a town. Who could blame him for finally taking a breather?

And he has paid a steep price. He arrived in Ipswich as a cute, young, healthy family man with curly hair. In these long years of leadership labor, his youth has slipped away. Now, on chilly days, he has to wear a hat to keep his head warm. He is a bachelor again, and none too happy about it. He was even taken down by a nasty illness which put him in a prosthetic leg. (Probably not the result of foul play by a political opponent, but who knows?)

Worst of all, in my estimation, is this: In these 32 years, he has spent more than 20,804 hours in meetings, conferences, and phone calls on matters of importance to the Town of Ipswich. Taking time out for sleep, this is the equivalent of more than three and a half solid years of meetings. This is cruel and unusual punishment. Especially because of some of the people he had to sit in these meetings with.

I confess to my personal friendship with Pat. It wasn’t long after I arrived in Ipswich that an election campaign got under way, and he was the only candidate for selectman I hadn’t met personally. I was still euphoric about living in a small town, so I fearlessly contacted him and asked him to meet me for coffee. This is something you would never do in Phoenix, where I lived before, because there are two million people there, and how could a politician drink that much latte? It’s also something you would never do in Chicago, where I grew up, because any meeting with a politician has the potential for a St. Valentine’s Day massacre.

Pat graciously agreed to meet me. We sat in the front window at Zumi’s. He was pleasant and unpretentious. He took off his leg. We talked about Ipswich, about where it had been, and where it was going. Pat was so comfortable, and so in love with this town — this was so clearly who he really was — that I guess I fell in love with him.

It was Pat’s eighth campaign for the Board of Selectmen. The race was closer than most. He took Precinct 3 by a single vote. That, I am happy to report, was my vote.

Since that day, Pat has quietly helped me, and helped two of my children, in moments of need. And we’re not in some special category. He has helped many. This is the kind of guy he is.

I appreciate how Pat looks at the merits of a case, and proceeds accordingly. I remember witnessing a contentious Town Meeting debate about recalling elected officials. Pat was clearly annoyed; he argued for the motion to be rejected, in favor of further scrutiny by the Government Study Committee. Town Meeting affirmed his view. But he ended up listening to the arguments, then helping to craft the bylaw — and stood up at the next Town Meeting to personally pitch the recall statute.

He told me nearly a year ago that he would likely not run again. I pleaded with him to reconsider. But his mind was made up. He wants more time with his grandchildren, whose toys litter his deck. (That’s grandson Emmitt in the photo.) He wants more time on his motorcycle, which I completely disapprove of. He has already spent almost half of his entire life in official service to the Town of Ipswich, and now he’s ready to enjoy the town the way the rest of us already do, in large measure thanks to him. The performing arts center, library, and Town Hall, the open space, the environment-friendliness, the recycling, the wind turbines, the clean beaches and flourishing clam flats and the list goes on — this is stuff Pat McNally voted for, and worked for.

Henceforth, if you see a bald guy on a motorcycle zipping through town and laughing maniacally, don’t call 911. Don’t hide your children and draw your blinds. It’s only Pat. He’s harmless. He deserves to be free.

My apologies


My apologies to “Outsidah” blog followers. Posting errors today, so you’ve been bombarded with stuff you didn’t ask for. I’m still trying to master this WordPress blog thing. Hang in there with me!



Take the Ipswich Pothole Quiz


Sure, you think you know Ipswich potholes. But now we’ll find out just how much you know.

Truth or Myth?

1.     The Essex County Cartographers’ Society is developing a map of Ipswich which differentiates between potholes, sinkholes, craters, cavities, caverns, caves, chasms, canyons, dips, depressions, basins, bowls, holes, hollows, indentations, ravines, rifts, gorges, gaps, gullies, and gulches. (This is a myth. Such a map could be created, but there is no Essex County Cartographers’ Society.)

2.     A pothole officially becomes a sinkhole when something sinks into it. (Myth. To become a sinkhole, the pothole must swallow something worth $250 or more, and appear on YouTube.)

3.     Potholes can be avoided by driving more slowly. (This is truth. However, many potholes are obscured by puddles, so you also have to avoid puddles. Also, if there are simply too many potholes and puddles for the wheels of your vehicle to avoid them all, go for the puddles, thereby decreasing your chances of injury to vehicle or vertebrae. After all, not every puddle hides a pothole. Thank heaven.)

4.     Potholes are formed by water seeping through cracks in the asphalt, then expanding as it freezes, which enlarges the gaps and weakens the pavement. (This is truth elsewhere, but a myth in our town. Ipswich potholes are actually dug out in the middle of the night by people from Newbury who are desperately short of Plum Island landfill.)

5.     The potholes in this town are a nefarious plot by chiropractors and car repair people, perhaps inspired by the nuns at the end of The Sound of Music sabotaging the Nazi vehicles. (Myth. We already know who digs our potholes. See #4.)

6.     There’s a pothole on Linebrook Road you can see on Google Earth. (This is a myth. It’s on Randall.)

7.     Our pothole guys, exhausted and despairing after this endless winter of thawing and refreezing, have given up and gone to Florida. (This is a myth. According to the Town website last week, the Department of Public Works “is currently in the process of performing pothole repairs throughout Town. We will be focusing our efforts on the main roads and working our way back to local roads.”)

(Bonus item: Our potholes are being left in place deliberately, because of a twisted public-policy decision. This is a myth. DPW Director Rick Clarke did not wake up one morning toward the end of autumn and say to himself, “Hey! Great idea! We could make Ipswich like Beverly!”)

8.     You can report potholes to DPW through the Town website, or by emailing DPW Clerk Michele Young via (Truth.)

9.     Michele Young’s inbox is full. (Myth.)

10.  If two cars approach each other on Mile Lane where potholes on both sides leave only a single vehicle width available for driving, the car approaching from the north has the right of way. (This is a myth. The right of way belongs to whichever driver has more nerve, and/or better insurance.)

11.  The pothole guys are working as fast as they can. (This is the truth. There are only so many pothole guys, and only so much pothole-repair equipment, because there is only so much money in the pothole-repair budget. If we had twice as many pothole guys deploying twice as much pothole-repair equipment, our potholes would be filled twice as fast. Of course this would require twice the budget. Perhaps an override? As John Adams or someone almost certainly said, “Let all complain about potholes except those who complain about taxes.”)

12.  A nine-year-old in full Pee Wee football gear disappeared into a very large pothole on High Street. (Myth. It was a Volkswagen.)

Let me know how you did on the quiz!