I Rest My Case

I have been known to complain, from time to time.

Like, continuously.

For 60 years or so.

I think I picked up this approach to life as I was growing up in the Chicago area. I perhaps observed that there’s a lot wrong with the world — Chicago does have that pesky reputation for murders, for example, so you can see how a kid might acquire a negative perspective — and I instinctively felt it might be helpful if I commented. Not just on the murder rate, however. On everything.

I never liked to think of my temperament as a “complaining” temperament. I have always tended to frame it in more justifiable terms. I had “a keen sense of right and wrong.” I had a “sharp mind,” an “acute sense of justice.”

At worst, I was willing to confess to a “prosecutorial personality.” Prosecutors are professionals, see. With college degrees and government paychecks. Some go on to become district attorneys, or Dick Tracy. Or politicians, even.

In any case, I complained. About traffic, about the temperature, about the cat. About the idiosyncrasies of my clients, about the scarcity of my favorite coffee, about the size of the type (not to mention the choice of font) on the microwave buttons.

When we got a new cat, I complained that the new cat wasn’t more like the old cat.

When we left Scottsdale, Arizona, and moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts, I had the audacity to complain about the twisty roads (“Didn’t these people ever hear of master planning?”). If the Town demonstrated a reluctance to embrace some newfangled approach to an issue (say, putting up signs to point visitors to the Riverwalk), or if my neighbors offered a less-than-thrilled response to a thrilling opportunity (say, the donation of the Silverman tree sculpture downtown), I was occasionally known to grumble. When a coyote killed the cat I complained about before, I complained about the coyote.

For the most recent half of my life, the one person on the planet who has borne the greatest brunt of my complaining habit is my wife. She is naturally even-tempered, longsuffering, and quiet. She did not grow up in the Chicago kill zone, where you had to form opinions as a self-defense tactic. She grew up in a family where people, to this very day, calmly observe, and patiently listen to each other, and then — if necessary — diplomatically express a well-reasoned point of view, for consideration only.

So the day finally came (inevitably, I guess) when she let the truth slip.

“You complain,” she said.

I was aghast. I had never tuned in to this charming detail about myself.

And you know how it is, in that moment when somebody criticizes you, how your brain flashes through a million rationalization and justification options. She’s just having a bad day. She remembers something I did in 1997, and she’s blown it all out of proportion. She’s comparing me to her “nice” brother. Or George Clooney.

But then I realized what really happened: I must have recently developed this unpleasant habit. Just in the past few weeks, right? Months, at the most?

No. As it turns out, I’ve been complaining since before the wedding. Unfortunately for her, that was a third of a century ago.

And then, there’s the worst moment of all, when that person who’s criticizing you offers the KILLER EXAMPLE. Which she did. As follows:

We met in community theatre, all those years ago, she directing, me acting. When Kristina founded the “Castle Hill Productions” theatre group for The Trustees at the Crane Estate in Ipswich, she of course directed, and I of course acted. But last winter, with various family schedule conflicts, we agreed that I would not be involved in her next production. I attended the opening-night performance, of course, and saw her before the curtain.

And I pointed out a problem with the temperature in the room.

And I pointed out a problem with that noisy antique clock on the wall.

And she pointed out that she had made it through the entire rehearsal schedule — eight glorious weeks — without listening to my complaining.

Yes, it’s automatic. I complain.

And so, today, I acknowledge my sin. I also commit to reforming. I will not complain to my wife. I will not meet you for breakfast at some North Shore eatery and ruin the meal by complaining.

Perhaps I cannot realistically commit to never again complaining. But I can make a solemn commitment.

I will isolate my complaining. I will keep it under wraps. I will only let it out here. As “The Outsidah.”

And you, dear reader, will experience it, in all its glory.

What? You don’t want to hear complaining? Why ever not? What’s wrong with you? People are so sensitive these days. It’s impossible to write anything without being criticized. It wasn’t like this in the old days. I don’t know why I even try….

 

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Doug Brendel lives a sweet, sunny life at Dragonhead, his (viciously named) home on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Follow him here at Outsidah.com, and follow his even more prosecutorial daily blog at ComplicatedEnglish.com. For Doug’s more significant pursuits, visit NewThing.net

 

From Bugs to Eternity

I’m really worried about the bug spray people.

For one thing, they’re risking their lives. After all, North Shore residents have been instructed to stay inside during the spraying, to avoid breathing in the poison. But the sprayers are out there, and even with special training, you can only hold your breath so long. Maybe they wear gas masks, I don’t know. I hope so.

But beyond that, they’re going to be exhausted. In Ipswich, for example, the Town’s Public Health Department announced on Thursday that the spraying would be conducted “starting at 6:45 p.m. and ending when the temperature drops below 56 degrees Fahrenheit.”

But with our recent unseasonably warm temps, those crews could be trapped out there for days on end. If the overnight temps only get down to 57 or 58, you’re going to see bleary-eyed workers driving around for days. If you see Town trucks zigzagging unsteadily, stay clear, whatever you do. These guys can’t be held responsible for their driving.

Eventually they have to run out of bug spray — unless, to fulfill the 56-degree cutoff rule, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts sends in helicopters to refuel the trucks while they keep working, like those aerial tankers that stick a mosquito-like probe into an F-16 in flight. That should be something to see! Except you’re not supposed to be outside till they’re done spraying. To be safe, wait for the video on Facebook.

During the crisis — I mean the spray-truck-driving marathon — please respond with compassion. If you happen to look out your living room window and you see a spray truck careening down the road, occasionally crossing the center line or clipping mailboxes, be a good citizen. Wave the driver over, take a deep breath, run a few sandwiches out to the crew, and hurry back inside. If you hold your breath through it all, you’ll probably survive. And you’ll be keeping our intrepid bug spray people alive, to spray another day.

Thank you, and God bless America.

_____

Doug Brendel lives locked up in an airtight antique house on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich. Follow him here at Outsidah.com by clicking “Follow,” and at EnglishIsAComplicatedLanguage.com.

 

No Exit, Right This Way

Post-Its

“Feed the cats.” “Scoop the litter box.”

This is not rocket science. It is barely any kind of science. (Zoology, maybe, if you squint.)

So as my wife and I planned to go out of a town for a couple days, it didn’t seem unreasonable to ask our friend Vicki to come over once a day and do feline-maintenance duty.

This being New England, however, it turned out to be a tangle of complications.

Problem #1: guiding Vicki through the house to find the cats, the cat food, the litter box, and the compost bin where that disgusting used litter winds up.

Not easy.

Our house is 202 years old, except for the parts that are 222 years old. It seems Mr. Timothy Morse Jr. built a more or less normal Federal-style two-over-two house in 1817, and then decided to drag a 1797 barn from somewhere over near Rowley and attach it to the back of the house. Then someone — either Morse or a subsequent owner — decided to cut up the 1797 part of the house into two floors and various rooms and innumerable twists, turns, nooks, crannies, and whatever you call spaces that are even smaller than a cranny.

It would have been complicated enough under normal circumstances, but then, as we prepared to leave town, things got complicateder. Our water heater decided it had labored long enough — I believe it may have been the oldest continuously operating water heater in America — and it died a cruel death. So we arranged with some trusty professionals to come in and replace it. They would do the work while we were gone.

Our cats are of the indoor-only variety, and the workers would be coming and going through a variety of doors, so we had to isolate the cats by closing them into the downstairs guestroom and the stairwell to the second floor. This meant Vicki would have to come through the back door, close it behind her, choose the correct door to exit the mudroom, turn left in the kitchen, take the cat food out of the pantry, locate the passageway that leads toward the guestroom but doesn’t quite get you all the way there, choose the correct door (No! Not that door!), and navigate a sharp right through a dark nook (or is it a cranny?) through the door into the guestroom.

And there’s no turning back, after this point — I mean literally, because the door to the guestroom locks behind you, for lack of a latch on the opposite side. (Geez, I keep meaning to fix that.) So you feed the cats in the guestroom, and scoop the litter box, then leave (with the little paper sack of gross stuff) through the other guestroom door, which is the only way out, but which is almost impossible to open because it sticks, so you have to pound with your fist at a certain place on the door, and if it opens, you find yourself in the entryway of the 1817 part of the house, where you go through another door into the living room, and please be sure to close it behind you, and then cross diagonally to the passageway that leads you back into the kitchen, but on the opposite side from where you came in. And you’re not anywhere close to the compost bin yet.

Good luck.

There was no good way to explain it all — a fact which I have just now demonstrated — but my wife has spent four years as a tour guide at the Crane Estate, so she knew just what to do. She reverted to that sure-fire failsafe mistake-proof apparatus deployed by generations of pioneers: Post-It Notes.

When Vicki arrived, she found Post-It Notes on various walls and doors, with directions indicated in both words and arrows: “to cats” (arrow pointing straight ahead), “to cats” (arrow pointing left), “the way out,” “fist here” (X marks the spot), “other way out” (with not one but two arrows, one to the right, one turning the corner), “to compost” (bent arrow starting straight but veering left), and as a bonus, “recycling” (arrow pointing straight down).

We returned, after a total of about 72 hours, to find Vicki huddled in a corner, emaciated and quivering, nibbling Meow Mix. The cats were lounging on the guest bed, chewing gum and snickering.

The friendship is over, but the new water heater is working just fine.

 

———-

Doug Brendel lives mostly in the 1817 part of his house on outer Linebrook Road. You can usually find him at (arrow pointing straight ahead) (bent arrow starting straight but veering left) (X marks the spot). To follow him more easily, click “Follow” here at Outsidah.com — and check out his even simpler blog at ComplicatedEnglish.com.

 

Chateau de seared rack of lobster, please — and hold the popcorn

This is why we can’t have nice things. Can’t go to fancy places. Can’t live an elegant, high-class life, even secretly using a 20%-off coupon.

This is why the Brendels are doomed to be ordinary people.

Because even on that rare occasion when we’re gathered in a superb high-end restaurant, enjoying the exquisite cloth-napkin ambience, and the unctuous attention of the servers — multiple servers, not just one! — we can’t restrain ourselves from descending into an unseemly family argument over the most mundane and inane of topics.

Like popcorn.

I’ll tell you, reluctantly, how it happened, and then you can judge for yourself.

Our actor-daughter Lydia Charlotte (who arrived in Ipswich as a “rising second-grader”) just finished an intensive summer college program, for which she earned her first three college credit-hours, plus an award for stage combat. (Do not mess with her, or she will fake kill you.) To celebrate her triumph, we took her to a painfully expensive restaurant in Boston’s newly trendy Seaport neighborhood. (Yes, I had a 20%-off coupon.)

Now comes the hostess, seating us.

Now, verily, the busser, delivering designer water.

Now, very soon thereafter, the server, inquiring as to what beverage each of us might like to imbibe.

The drinks, the appetizers, the main course, the utter finery of it all. Dahling, it’s perfectly exquisite!

But we couldn’t quite make it through the entrée.

If the swarms of staff had cleared our plates and moved us on to dessert just a few minutes earlier, we might have avoided the ridiculous row. But no.

There we sat, the last few bites of our Atlantic cod and 8-oz. filet with butter-poached lobster tail languishing on our Priya china with lovely roses featured on swirls of white and gold porcelain. We were chattering about the usual meaningless stuff of our lives — that smell in the car, those spiders in the pantry, the inconvenience of that rainstorm. And then the conversation turned to that deadliest and most dangerous of topics.

Popcorn.

Not just popcorn. I mean: how to salt the popcorn.

I was trying — I was really trying, as the head of the family, to keep a lid on things — I wanted the Brendels to make a good impression on Boston’s ultra-elite restaurant scene. But before I knew it, it was out of control.

It turns out that, if you’re a Brendel, one of the most important things in the entire universe is how and when you salt the popcorn.

So if this subject somehow comes up during dinner — regardless of whether you’re consuming aragawa-style imported wagyu strip loin or a Dairy Queen burger — you have to fight it out, and fight to the death.

Here’s a bowl of popcorn. Do you salt it and then head to the TV room? (These are First World problems. How many people on the planet have a TV room?) Or do you salt it, and then shake it— SHAKE IT: THIS IS THE CRITICAL DETAIL — and then salt it again?

It seems obvious to me, a person with an Associates of Arts degree from a university in Missouri, that you absolutely have to shake it and then salt it again. Otherwise, the salt doesn’t get down to the popcorn that started out under the surfacewhen you began this process. This way — SHAKING IT — you get salt to the rest of the popcorn in the bowl.

But of course, there are those other folks — who apparently don’t have the benefit of an Associates of Arts degree from a university in Missouri — who cling to the delusional view that the salt only sticks to the pieces of popcorn that happen to be scattered across the top of that little popcorn mountain in your popcorn bowl. These folks (the paranoids, I would say) imagine that if you shake the bowl, all the salt you already distributed bounces straight to the bottom of the bowl, where it does you no good.

And this debate is complicated even further if someone at the table takes a fresh bowl of popcorn and sprinkles soy sauce over it (as I do, because some demented person 25 years ago suggested it, and I liked it). Salt clings to soy sauce. You sauce it, you salt it, you shake it. You sauce it again, you salt it again, you shake it again. Popcorn is elementary, my dear Watson.

I hate it when my wife sounds like she knows it all. She is so ignorant about popcorn, I’m tellin’ ya.

And what does a 17-year-old know about life? Especially about popcorn.

But of course, it’s embarrassing when you’re having this argument over a fancy dinner, and the maitre d’ comes over to make sure you’re okay. I was afraid for a moment that my daughter was going to fake kill me.

So, yeah. This is where my life winds up.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

 

 

Doug Brendel does better when he says at home on outer Linebrook Road, and scrounges from the cupboard and the fridge. Follow him here, at Outsidah.com, by clicking the “Follow” button — and for more punishment, follow him at ComplicatedEnglish.com, where he has the audacity to comment on other people’s writing every single day.

 

Grab and Go — to Jail

I know you were alarmed, when you got the news, but I’m here to put your mind at ease.

There is hope. There is a way forward. Do not despair.

Life as we know it on the North Shore is not at an end, and Ipswich residents in particular — even though they may be feeling hopeless at the moment — actually still have a future.

I’m talking about the new rules handed down by the Ipswich Select Board about parking in the Town of Ipswich.

You will survive, I’m sure; but your future will need to be adjusted on two significant fronts.

#1: At the Ipswich MBTA lot, parking will now be available 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays for Ipswich residents only.

You Ipswich folks think this is good news? I’m afraid not. This means war. Or it could. Let me explain.

The Ipswich train station parking lot is not your ordinary parking lot. It is one of the very few Town-owned commuter rail parking lot in the MBTA system. Most North Shore train station parking lots are owned by the MBTA. But in Ipswich, the lot is owned and operated by the Town.

So the fact that anybody and everybody has been free to park in the Ipswich train station lot free of charge all these years is only due to the largesse — let’s not call it negligence, let’s call it generosity — of the Town of Ipswich.

While the MBTA has charged for parking in other towns — as much as $4 per weekday (Newburyport, Hamilton) or $2 per weekday (in Rowley) — Ipswich has continued to give away its prime parking real estate.

Since as many as 30 of the 100 Ipswich station parking spaces have typically been taken by non-Ipswich residents each weekday, it appears that the new rules will help Ipswich folks enormously.

Unfortunately, however, this also brings us to the very real possibility of neighboring towns responding with “revenge rules” (kind of like other countries introducing anti-American tariffs because our President introduced anti-other-country tariffs).

So what happens if Rowley, for example, starts charging Ipswich residents $4 to park at Market Basket? If you’re only dropping in to buy a bag of ice and a can of sardines, your grocery bill just tripled. If Boxford sets up toll booths and makes me pay a dollar just to get over to Georgetown, I’m gonna run up quite a bill.

But the Ipswich train station parking lot is the not the only site affected by the rules newly handed down by the Ipswich Select Board.

Here’s #2: A “two-hour parking restriction” beside the bank on Depot Square.

I’m uneasy about being forced to park for a minimum of two hours, aren’t you?

I don’t think I’ve misunderstood this. As TheLocalNe.ws report confirms, two-hour parking is being enforced.

Look at how this is going to impact your daily life. Let’s say you want a lox and bagel at Jettie’s. You find a prime parking space across the street — beside the bank, on Depot Square. You go in, you order, you chat with some friends, you get your food, you eat, enjoy your coffee, chat with some more friends — but then you’re done, right? It’s maybe 45 minutes, max. There’s no way you can spend two hours at Jettie’s. (If you spend two hours at Jettie’s, you’re using it as an office, and you ought to be down Market Street at Gathr. Come on. Stop taking unfair advantage of a bagel place.)

But as I understand the Ipswich Select Board, if you don’t spend two hours at Jettie’s, as you drive away you’ll be pulled over by the Ipswich police.

I’m telling you, this is serious. Minimum-parking-time rules are a slippery slope. What’s next? Minimum-spending rules? You park on the south side of Depot Square in Ipswich, you have to spend at least $20 in Market Street businesses or go to prison.

And if Ipswich enforces this two-hour parking rule, how could you blame Rowley for exacting revenge by requiring you to spend at least two hours parked at Market Basket? I happen to see a lot of my friends at Market Basket, but I don’t think even a social animal like me could do two hours. Under such an oppressive law, I would have to leave my car at Market Basket and hike to the bar at Spud’s. Depending on the time of day, who knows what a disaster this could turn out to be?

I’m afraid we’re at a fragile moment in North Shore history. I pray that cooler heads will prevail. I pray that surrounding towns will not pass revenge laws against Ipswich. I pray that I will be able to park at Market Basket free of charge, and leave whenever I want.

Amen.

 

 

Doug Brendel lives on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, where he charges guests $4 to park on his driveway. Follow him here at Outsidah.com, and sign up for daily emails at ComplicatedEnglish.com.

 

Goats Solve Everything

My friend has a problem.

For generations, her family has owned one of those little islands you see when you look out there. You know, out there. Those Ipswich islands? One of those is hers.

It sounds elegant, sophisticated, even millionairish to own an island, but the truth is more complicated.

Because of the island’s location — in that ultra-protected zone where the land oozes into marsh and the marsh morphs into ocean — my friend has been absolutely prohibited from erecting any structure on the island.

So she’s paying property taxes on a completely unusable island.

Options?

Maybe a “glamping” tent — you know, one of those huge luxury pop-ups with all the comforts of home. It’s big, it’s waterproof, with mosquito-net windows and doors, even a watertight floor. You add a nice rug, some bean-baggy cushions, a table, some LED lamps, maybe even a chandelier — voilà! Chez Atlantique.

Only one little problem: The island is absolutely covered in poison ivy.

This, however, is, I think, one of those magical moments when it actually helpsto be an “outsidah” like me — someone relatively new to Ipswich and the Cape Ann area — someone who spent three decades in the Midwest and then a quarter-century in the Arizona desert before moving here. Sometimes you need someone without centuries of New England customs and assumptions baked into his brain. Someone who can think outside the ZBA, and bring fresh, maybe even shocking new perspectives to practical problems.

The first suggestion I made to my island-owner friend was very simple: GOATS. Put goats on the island, to eat the poison ivy. As any of the now-popular goat-rental businesses will tell you, goats will eat anything, but probably most important to you, if you have poison ivy on your property, is that they eat poison ivy. (To them, I guess, it’s like low-grade jalapeño. A special treat, if you’re in the mood for Mexican food.) You can rent a goat, or goats, for some number of days, tether them to a stake in the middle of your poison ivy patch, and within a few days, you’re delighted to find that your property-value kryptonite has disappeared.

Of course, my friend’s island has the disadvantage of being an island. Which means it’s surrounded by water. If goats were seals, no problem. They could swim to the island and start chowing down. But because goats have legs and hooves instead of those funky webbed flippers, they’ll need to be transported to your island. Which leads to my second brilliant idea: BOATS FOR GOATS. This could be a money-making enterprise for anyone who owns a boat. Your potential customer base includes everyone in the world who owns an island overrun by poison ivy.

My friend remained unconvinced. She reminded me that tides come and go, and her island can be nearly submerged at high tide. As the ocean rises, a tethered goat will be a sitting duck — well, not literally a sitting duck, because ducks float, but you get the idea. A tethered goat in the midst of a rising sea would be in serious trouble.

I was undeterred. Such challenges only inspire new sparks of genius. I countered with another brilliant innovation: FLOATS FOR GOATS. Cute little water wings that strap on around the animal, with a springy elastic tether to keep the goat safely connected to the island yet capable of breathing oxygen even on astronomical-high-tide days. Casually drifting on the surface of the Atlantic on a sunny summer day will hardly feel like an inconvenience to a hard-working goat. I think after word gets out, goats will actually vie for astronomical-high-tide duty.

And when the weather turns ugly: RAINCOATS FOR GOATS.

See? Every problem has a solution.

 

_____

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Live and Let Roast

“No lives were lost.”

A wise New Englander once told me that this is the New England way of gauging whether you should be retroactively upset about an event, and then, of course, deciding, “Eh, no.”

Speaking of which: The Great House on Castle Hill was closed this past Saturday because of the heat wave — an extraordinary move by The Trustees, who own and operate the Crane Estate, and make, I assume, truckloads of money on house tours. My wife Kristina was a costumed tour guide there for four years, and our daughter Lydia Charlotte has now followed in her footsteps, and I can tell you from my vantage point of personal observation that those costumes are multi-layered and not designed for survival in a 95-degree heat wave. So I think The Trustees made a good call. The calculation probably ended up like this: Thousands of bucks made, from tours? Or millions of bucks lost, in a wrongful-death lawsuit? Plus, just imagine the bad press: a chambermaid in her black 1929-era uniform, sprawled prostrate on the imported parquet flooring of the Great House lobby, with EMTs trying to revive her, and John Muldoon of NorthShoreLocalNews.com flitting about, snapping photographs.

But yes, it’s true. In the end, no lives were lost. (Unless somebody died of heatstroke on Crane Beach since this was posted, and now you’re sitting there reading this on your device and saying to yourself, “Of all the impertinence!”) It was, however, quite hot.

It was so hot, I saw a squirrel in our backyard negotiating with a blue jay for time in the birdbath.

It was so hot, the wrinkles in my skin smoothed out.

It was so hot, I took a tall glass of iced coffee out onto our screen porch, then went inside to go the bathroom, and when I returned, it was espresso.

It was so hot, the National Belligerence Review downgraded the Ipswich Watchdogs Facebook page to “mild.”

It was so hot, asphalt melted, and a number of North Shore potholes filled in on their own.

It was so hot, there was a clambake on Crane Beach without anyone lighting a fire. Clams were seen on the Rowley flats opening tiny umbrellas and guzzling thimbles full of beer. (Those should be really yummy clams, once the red tide has passed.)

It was so hot, George Blanchette reportedly offered frozen bagel cubes at Jettie’s in Ipswich as a lifesaving measure — which actually worked great in the coffee, and may set off a whole new iced-bagel-coffee craze. Stay tuned.

It was so hot, my mailman wore Kevlar gloves just to open my mailbox.

It was so hot, a beaver on the Ipswich River ordered a mini-fridge from Amazon, and when it arrived, he climbed inside.

It was so hot, ICE raids were suspended because government agents ran out of margaritas.

It was so hot, relatives in the Deep South texted their sympathies to family members living on the North Shore. (There were numerous misspellings, but not because of heat-related delirium.)

It was so hot, my neighbor filled her fire pit with ice cubes and suffered a head injury trying to dive in.

It was so hot, a number of my private demons returned to hell for respite.

It was so hot, the blue jay got a hundred dollars from the squirrel. There is nothing more disturbing than seeing a squirrel kicking back in your bird feeder drinking a margarita and wearing a MAGA hat.

It was so hot, enormous quantities of Down River ice cream in both the Rowley and Essex locations melted and flowed across the Ipswich line, which led to riots on Route 1 and 1A, and a number of medical emergencies, mostly Ipswich residents shocked to find their tongues glued to the pavement.

It was so hot, an enterprising monarch butterfly began selling milkweed shakes.

It was so hot, solar panels were steaming, triggering a number of calls to 911 from people who thought the North Shore was on fire, which it was, sort of, just without flames.

It was so hot, a runaway French poodle from Topsfield showed up at a barber shop pleading for a crew cut.

It was so hot, someone jogged naked through Willowdale State Forest, and instead of being arrested, they got a medal from the National Institutes of Health, even though they had no where to pin it.

Shocking, yes, perhaps. But what does it really matter? No lives were lost.

 

_____

Doug Brendel lives next door to a cemetery on outer Linebrook Road, so if the heat kills him, he won’t have far to go. Follow him while he survives, daily at ComplicatedEnglish.com and weekly or so here at Outsidah.com. (In Doug’s other life, he’s trying to help hearing-impaired kids in the former Soviet Union. Please check out his project at NewThing.net.)