Repeat After Me: “Four Tea Bee”

It would be outrageously inappropriate to be enthusiastic about a disease, especially a disease that kills more than a million people a year — so when you hear the phrase “for TB,” it’s not because someone prefers tuberculosis to COVID-19.

And since Tom Brady defected from the glorious New England Patriots dynasty to the losingest team in the history of the NFL, if you hear the phrase “for TB” here in Massachusetts, it better not be someone admitting that they’re still rooting for that aged turncoat pretty-boy huckster quarterback. Some New Englanders may actually be “for TB,” but who would risk a pummeling in a sports bar by saying so out loud?

No, if you hear the phrase “for TB” here in Ipswich, you’re hearing it wrong. It’s not “for TB”; it’s “40B.” It’s almost certainly a reference to the controversial Massachusetts state law mandating each town to offer at least 10% of its real estate as “affordable” housing. Affordable housing is an issue almost as complicated and contentious as the pandemic or the Patriots.

On top of which, 40B is a clumsy law. In a town that hasn’t met the 10% threshold, 40B developers can designate 20% to 25% of their units as “affordable” and get around a town’s zoning regulations. This means they can erect massive developments in otherwise quaint, charming New England locales. (Think “Bruni World” on 133.)

40B, then, is a subject better left alone by any sensible columnist.

So let’s dig in.

Ipswich can’t avoid this touchy subject at the moment, because it’s on the Warrant at our upcoming Town Meeting. Why? Because Ipswich set up an “escape hatch” some time ago: A developer who doesn’t want to set aside 10% of their project as “affordable” can give the Town of Ipswich a chunk of money instead — money that goes into something called the Affordable Housing Fund. What happens to this money, and who decides where it goes, or when, who knows?

We’re making progress toward the 40B goal, of course. When I first arrived in Ipswich, more than a decade ago, our Town leaders were assuring us, “We’re almost there.” And hey, I just realized this: I can actually track our Town’s progress on 40B by reviewing our Town leaders’ assessment over the course of each year I’ve been here:

  • Year 1: “We’re almost there.”
  • Year 2: “We’re almost there.”
  • Year 3: “We’re almost there.”
  • Year 4: “We’re almost there.”
  • Year 5: “We’re almost there.”
  • Year 6: “We’re almost there.”
  • Year 7: “We’re almost there.”
  • Year 8: “We’re almost there.”
  • Year 9: “We’re almost there.”
  • Year 10: “We’re almost there.”

This is heartening. We’re a 386-year-old town. We clearly value consistency.

On the other hand, it would be disturbing to imagine that Ipswich is actually trying to keep low-income people out. So, yeah, maybe we need to finally get past “almost there” and get “there.”

40B may be a blunt instrument, but the goal is worthwhile: The goal is making a place for people with low incomes. When we get to 10% affordable housing, we won’t have to let Godzilla developers plunk down massive Soviet-style developments in the heart of our historic town. We’ll be able to provide affordable housing for those who need it, and welcome them with open arms. The way we’ve welcomed the Polish, the French, the “outsidahs,” down through the years. Not to mention, in recent years, the refugees, the Ghanaians, the Somalis, the doesn’t matter where you’re froms.

So when our socially distanced Town Meeting happens on Saturday, October 17th, at 9 a.m., we can vote against the “payment in lieu” loophole — by voting YES on the citizens’ petition, Article 18.

Of course, if you really do want to keep low-income people out of town — if you really do  want to let developers pay to keep low-income people out of town — if you really do  want to keep saying “We’re almost there,” but in reality, we’re okay with keeping our affordable housing inventory below 10% — yeah, go ahead and vote no.

Which, I guess, would be sort of like voting for TB.


Doug Brendel responds to his readers, both those who agree and those who disagree, on Instagram @DougBrendelIpswich and on Facebook via Facebook.com/DougBrendel.


This helpful letter appeared in the Ipswich Local News to answer the question about the Affordable Housing Fund.

That’s Why They Call Them Kids

You’ve seen those signs in people’s yards, right? “Goats to Go.” Maybe you haven’t noticed them, because after all, we are in an election season, and you may have a tendency to tune out yard signs. “Goats to Go” could be just another clever slogan recommending removal of whoever’s in office at the moment.

But no. “Goats to Go” is about actual goats. According to their website, they’re a family-owned-and-operated service based at Great Rock Farm in Georgetown, Massachusetts. When they deliver goats to your place, the goats gobble up your poison ivy, weeds, and perhaps anything else goats eat. Got any old clamming boots you don’t want to add to a landfill?

For best results, the website says, bring the goats in before Labor Day, to catch the bad vegetation during growing season. During the long, lazy Labor Day holiday weekend, I found my under-utilized brain pondering other ways to make use of the Go-Goats.

Which led me to thinking about Muldoon. Yes, I mean Ipswich Local News founder and editor John Muldoon. To my twisted psyche, the connection between Muldoon and the goats is obvious.

Give me two minutes; I’ll sort this out for you.

In his other life, John Muldoon is a teacher. A college professor, actually. Because he’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant (and not just because he has to decide whether to run this column or not), he could teach just about anything. But one of the courses the college has him teaching is Introduction to Computers. I’m old enough to remember when computers were actually “introduced,” but that was so long ago, I’m amazed that there’s actually still a course called Introduction to Computers. Yet there is — mainly for elderly people who have finally had enough of the pandemic lockdown, enough of their grandchildren not being flown in from Topeka to visit them, so they’ve finally caved in and decided they have to learn to Zoom.

This semester, John Muldoon’s professional challenge is teaching seniors, who are technically freshmen, how to use that strange machine they’ve been avoiding since before Jimmy Carter was an ex-president.

Ironically, Professor Muldoon has to teach his aged pupils online, which means as they arrive for class, they’re struggling to use the very machine he’s supposed to be introducing them to.

“This is a mouse. No, not an actual mouse. The mouse moves the cursor. No, there’s no actual cursing. Until Facebook. Now if you hover over the link — no, Martha, please, stay seated. It’s not actual hovering.”

The harsh truth is — and I hope nobody tells the college, because Muldoon needs the paycheck — this class is really unnecessary. We have children. Seat any three-year-old in front of a computer and they’ll grab the mouse, log in, launch the app, curse the cursor, whatever you do on a computer. I know this to be true. I’ve asked a three-year-old for computer help. In my experience, they’re awesome. And they’re cheap.

The solution for our beloved senior citizens is not Introduction to Computers. The solution for our beloved senior citizens is “Tots to Go.” The Goats to Go business model is perfect here. Especially as pandemic-era restrictions begin to ease, and working parents try to figure out how to return to their actual away-from-home workplaces, Tots to Go can offer a valuable social benefit: keeping your toddler occupied, while helping some confused grandma re-tweet conspiracy theories.

Yes, I realize some helicopter parents will be uneasy about this approach to daycare — and nervous about possible prosecution under child labor laws. They’ll come around once the kids’ wages are high enough. But until we can develop a big enough workforce to meet the demand, we simply go back to the goats. Goats are intelligent, they learn fast, they adapt well to new situations — so a session or two of Introduction to Computers, with Professor John Muldoon, and I think they’ll be good to go.

Grandma, meet Maisey.

“Why, hello, Maisey!”

“Maaaaaah!”


Doug Brendel is an aspiring business development consultant living on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Follow his nonsensical stuff here at Outsidah.com. Or check out his sensical stuff at NewThing.net.

It’s the humidity, stupid

It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.

Especially after one of those little mid-August midday thunderstorms. Or one of those hours-long soaking rains like Ipswich got this past Saturday.

I went outside and nearly died.

I wouldn’t have been the first.

Official Ipswich historian Gordon Harris has written that people died in a New England heatwave a century or two ago, but this is implausible. It wasn’t the heat. Heat is survivable. It was the humidity. Humidity kills.

I’m no scientist, but I can pretty much tell you how humidity works. Humidity is expressed in percentages. I understand percentages. If you have 50% humidity, for example, the math is easy: Half the air you take into your lungs is actually water. In 80% humidity, which is not uncommon in New England in the summer, you’re breathing in 8 parts water for every 2 parts air. This is not healthy. In 100% humidity, you can take a couple deep breaths and drown. Human beings were not intended to live in high humidity.

Other creatures are better suited to this brutal feature of New England’s summertime weather scene. A wild turkey hatched seven little ones and took up residence in my backyard. She has been strutting back and forth across my property for a few weeks, her babies looking like little velociraptors auditioning for a Jurassic Park movie, but with no hope of getting the role, because they’re so cute. In Saturday’s long downpour, the turkey family carried on business as usual, the mother’s coat of feathers appearing slimy-slick with rain. She was obviously unperturbed by the humidity, because turkeys clearly have little gills in their beaks that filter out the 8 parts water, and only let in the 2 parts air.

Of course I only observed the turkeys while barricaded behind a closed window at the back of my house, because, as I said, humidity can be deadly for humans.

I’m afraid many New Englanders labor under false perceptions about the science of our region’s summertime weather. Take thunder and lightning, for example. My wife Kristina works as a summer-season ranger at the Crane Estate, where she is often involved in hustling people away from open spaces and into the protection of their vehicles when lightning threatens. But the statistical chances of being struck by lightning are minimal. The danger of thunder is far greater. A sudden, unexpected, particularly sharp clap of thunder can make a person jump, and depending on your level of fitness, this jerking motion can snap your spine. Lightning could be crackling all around you and never harm a hair, but you could be paralyzed by the thunder.

Also, if you own a dog or a cat, a thunderclap can send them streaking through your house in a panic. They can dash across your feet or your lap, their claws ripping through your skin, leaving you to die from loss of blood, or rabies. When a thunderstorm is predicted, don’t attempt to comfort your pet by taking them in your arms. This is futile. They are hard-wired for thunder panic. It’s best to lock your pets away, and put in your earplugs.

New England weather is brutal, and not just in the wintertime. Between the humidity and the thunder, it’s a miracle that enough of us survived to populate the Northeast. But Native Americans apparently taught the early white settlers to deal with the most dangerous climatic extremes, and thank heaven they did.

Now we face grave new threats. Coronavirus, we now know, can be spread by droplets. What are droplets? Humidity, basically. Also, if you cough or sneeze, you “aerosolize” the virus. What is a cough or a sneeze other than a small, personal thunderclap? All the same principles apply.

(Also note that turkeys do not get COVID-19. Why not? Because of the gills.)

I know these days, there are many science-deniers out there, and I fear for them. Please, people, keep yourselves safe — from the dogs and the cats, and from the thunder.

And whatever you do, don’t breathe the water.


Doug Brendel lives in fear on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts. His wife, who got A’s in science, scrupulously and consistently refutes his scientific observations.

A sign of the end time

Well, it came.

I don’t know how to feel about it.

I could grump that I’m old, or rejoice that I’ve lived this long.

I got my Medicare card this week.

I don’t understand it all, actually. The card says I have Part A and Part B, both. Maybe if I live long enough, I’ll get the other 24 letters of the alphabet. I hope at some point I’m writing to tell you I got Medicare Part T.

On the other hand, it would be scary to get Medicare Part Z, wouldn’t it? Like, that’s the end. Call the undertaker.

The card itself — the long-dreaded Medicare card? I thought it would be fancier. More solid. At least plastic. But as far as I can tell, it’s nothing more than a dumb old business-card-sized rectangle of paper. Yeah, it’s heavier than newsprint, but it’s not even as sturdy as the stuff they used to stick behind photographs when they mailed them to you, I mean back when we made photographs, I mean back when we mailed things.

Laminate it, maybe? Zip down to Staples, in Danvers, and let them preserve it like a valuable specimen under what amounts to see-through hot-glue? Actually, yes, it’s legal, and doable; but the government website advises that lamination might render as “unscannable” the official number on your card. And this being the 21st century, scanability is everything. (I understand there’s an app now that can scan a leaf and tell you what kind of plant is growing in your garden. If you can’t scan your Aquilegia canadensis, then forget about those lovely columbine in your garden. They’re toast. Maybe they’re columbine-flavored toast, but they’re toast.)

I shudder to think of the ways a plain old paper card could be despoiled. I look at even my sturdy Institution for Savings debit card, only five measly years old or so, and it’s battered like a veteran of foreign wars. Imagine having to use my cheap paper Medicare card in an ATM. It would be like feeding toilet paper instead of dollar bills into a Coke machine. You’re not going to get your Coke.

The official Medicare webpage, MyMedicare.gov, says I can replace my card if it’s damaged or lost. I just sign in to my  account and print an official copy of my card! To me — someone who grew up in a world where you practically needed Simon & Schuster to produce a coloring book — this advice seems quite cavalier. If I can print my own official Medicare card, what did I need the government for in the first place? They could have just texted me my official number, right? When I go to the doctor, I show the receptionist my number, they plug it in to their computer, and voilà! No need for me to carry around a cheap paper card at all. It’s not safe to entrust government paperwork to a doddering old chump, which is what I feel like when I look at this dang card.

Yes, I’m exaggerating, of course. I’m still quite young and vital. Still charming and attractive. Feeling pretty good about myself, actually. After all, what about the hearing aids, the bifocals, the TMJ night appliance, the arch supports, the thyroid medication, the stool softener, the acid reflux, the testosterone deficiency, the sexual dysfunction, the tendonitis, the sciatica, the high blood pressure, the high cholesterol, the hernia surgery scar, the nose hairs, the ear hairs, the pot belly, the memory loss, the farting, the bad breath, and the man-boobs is there not to love?


Doug Brendel lives on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, next door to a cemetery, to make it simpler when the end comes. Follow his shenanigans at Outsidah.com, and his serious work at NewThing.net.

Hare-Brained Scheme

“What’s embarrassing,” the raccoon said, “is how easy it is.”

He didn’t seem to have the slightest hint of shame.

“How easy what  is?” I asked.

“This racket,” he replied scornfully.

Here he was, at Dragonhead, my esteemed historic 203-year-old property — sitting on my own chair, at my own pub table, in my own backyard, on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts — and flicking the ashes of his grass into my grass.

“It’s a cinch!” he snickered, taking another drag on his joint. “Teaching deer to pick locks and get into vegetable gardens.” He snorted with derision.

I remembered our last conversation, a couple weeks ago, when I first found him in my backyard, taking a break between his classes. “I’m teaching deer to break into vegetable gardens!” he said then.

I looked across toward my neighbor’s property, where they’ve built a fortress-like fence around their tomato plants.

“Have you seen that lock?” the raccoon hooted. He reached for his beer. “And I use the term ‘lock’ advisedly.” He took a gulp.

I took a deep breath and tried to present my most ominous persona.

“I’ve seen that lock,” I announced. “I don’t think you can teach deer to unlock such a lock.”

“It’s a hook!” the raccoon cackled, sounding strangely like Wallace Shawn playing Vizzini in The Princess Bride. “It doesn’t even take a raccoon to teach a deer to unlock that kind of lock!”

The raccoon burped a little.

“But I’ll take their money!” he screeched, and then guffawed with delight.

I tried to get my bearings. “What kind of a strategy do you—?

The raccoon bounced down off the pub chair onto my lawn, waving me off with a tiny dismissive paw. “Please,” he snarled. Then he turned to me and began to demonstrate, as condescendingly as possible, acting out his words.

“Nose,” he announced, lifting his nose to show how a deer would do it.

“Hoof,” he continued, blithely lifting his paw, as if flicking a garden-gate hook. 

“Even TONGUE!” he cried, sending out his awful little raccoon tongue. It curled grotesquely. I had to look away.

The raccoon strutted around a bit, in his GAS blazer — Garden Access System. On his back was a cartoon of a frightened zucchini, and comic-strip lettering: “Who ya gonna call? GARDEN BUSTERS!”

“It’s ridiculous,” the raccoon snickered. “The deer are begging  for classes. I can’t believe any species is so desperate for vegetables. Blecch! But our switchboard is swamped.”

He turned to me and squinted in amazement. “And it’s all stuff they could do on their own!” Then he sang a line, lifted from The Wizard of Oz: “If they only had a brain!”

I hardly knew what to say. 

“Even rabbits are trying to get into our classes!” the raccoon boasted.

I was non-plussed. “How does that work?” I asked.

The raccoon exhaled and frowned. “It doesn’t. No prehensile tongues.” It seemed the life had gone out of him. “Plus, they’re short,” he said, pulling on the last of his joint. “A rabbit would have to hop up to reach the hook and knock it out of its latch. We paid a couple dozen student bunnies from Salem State to participate in a controlled experiment, but it was ugly. They get enough thrust, their momentum is good; but their noses are so small, and their faces are so soft and fluffy, when they make impact — well, let me put it this way: This winter I’ll be selling rabbit-fur gloves, cheap.”

I shuddered. “That’s pretty cold, don’t you think?”

“Eh,” he sneered, “they signed a release.”

He threw back the last of his beer. “What size you need?”


Doug Brendel lives on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where the deer and the jackelopes play. Follow him for laughs at Outsidah.com, or for real at NewThing.net.

Hug at Your Own Risk

I am all for social distancing, if that’s what it takes to get me a hug from Pat McNally.

Let me explain.

If we socially distance diligently enough, eventually we will not have to focus on social distancing. The whole idea of doing this is that we won’t have to keep doing this.

So social distancing will ultimately get us back to normal, right? Which for me means greeting a friend at the Ipswich Inn and giving them a hug. I realize this isn’t a typical New Englander thing — I’m not originally from around here. In the South, where I was born, it’s very different. If you give a self-conscious nod to a dear friend on the street in Ipswich, Massachusetts, you get maybe, MAYBE, a nod in return. That’s all. If you’re in Deepstep, Georgia, on the other hand, you get a massive bear hug. Coronavirus be damned!

So yeah, since I moved here to Ipswich, I have tried to turn the hugging thing down a notch, just so my friends won’t be quite so creeped out. But after months of social distancing, here’s where I’m at: A hug from anybody besides my wife would be awesome. 

My friend Pat McNally, the legendary selectman (from the days before they became selectpersons), is originally from upstate New York, where hugging is apparently somewhat more acceptable as a standard form of greeting. I surmise this because Pat and I have, I admit, on occasion, hugged. When I meet Pat for breakfast — and he’s always there ahead of me, because he’s an awesome athlete, and he needs nourishment — he gets up and gives me a great big hug. After the hug, I would say, to be honest, the breakfast itself is anticlimactic.

So yeah, in the meantime, we all do the social distancing thing. I get it. Six feet — two yards. (If you’re from Canada, please maintain a distance of 1.8288 meters — and good luck getting back across the border. Or, if you’re a cartographer, 1.136 thousandths of a mile; map not drawn to scale.) But mentally, let’s face it, this six-foot distance is taxing to continually calculate. I’m six feet tall, so I might have a built-in advantage: If you and I are talking, I can imagine lying down, and if there’s enough space for me to stretch out between you and me, then we’re far enough apart to have a conversation safely.

On the road, however, it’s more complicated. Say you’re on a bicycle. You’re exposed. Your exhales are going all over the place. And if someone in a car is passing you, and their window is open, and they happen to be exhaling, you could get splattered with their coronavirus-laden globules, and you’re at risk.

Which I guess is the idea behind the latest thing: the six-foot safety pole.

Yes, I actually saw a bicyclist this week with one of those skinny poles that stick up from the back of the bike and there’s a flag on top so drivers can see you from a distance — except that this guy had it sticking out from his bike sideways, to the left, forcing traffic to give him wide berth.

Which I thought was brilliant, from a safety standpoint — You keep fast-moving vehicles a safe distance from your own slow-moving vehicle. But also, maybe this bicyclist has hit upon something of value for all of us, even when we’re just walking around: a 6-foot safety spear sticking out from a harness. Or from a sort of codpiece. I haven’t worked out the details yet.

Any kind of 6-foot distancing gear is going to keep Pat McNally off of me. So I’m not happy about it from a hugging standpoint. But yes, in terms of not catching COVID-19, it’s good.

Here’s hoping the whole COVID thing ends soon, and we can go back to being uncomfortable about hugging, because we’re New Englanders, and hugging is just icky.


Doug Brendel lives in a 203-year-old house on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where visitors have been banned until hugging is allowed. Follow Doug’s antics here at Outsidah.com, or his serious work at NewThing.net.

Your vegetable garden is doomed

“Help ya?” said the raccoon, a miniature salesperson.

I was surprised, I confess, that he was sitting there, casual as heck, at the pub table in my backyard, leaning back in my deck chair, sipping an Ipswich Ale he’d apparently brought with him.

“Help ya?” he asked again.

I guess I just stood there and gaped at him, silent and slack-jawed, because after a moment or two he leaned forward in my pub chair, put his little raccoon elbows on the pub table, and squinted at me as he said: “You seem to just be standing there gaping at me, silent and slack-jawed.”

Eventually, I snapped out of it.

“What are you doing in my backyard?” I asked, “sitting at my pub table, under my umbrella?”

The raccoon’s little white eyebrows jumped upward in surprise, lifting his little black mask momentarily and settling it back down on his little raccoon face.

Your backyard?” he replied. “I had no idea.” He turned to scan my beloved acre of Massachusetts wilderness, just off outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich. “I thought this was the woods,” he said.

I shifted uneasily from one foot to the other. “Well, we’re letting this grow up naturally.”

The raccoon took a drag on his joint. “Geez.”

I took a deep breath of my own, but of oxygen. “So, you’re in my backyard, sitting at my pub table. What are you doing here?”

“My mistake,” he replied. “I’m on break, between classes.”

“Classes?”

“Deer classes.”

“Deer classes?”

“Yeah, classes for deer.” He took a quick hit. “You didn’t hear all that noise last week from the people next door?”

“Huh?”

“Machinery noise. Geez, don’t you pay attention to what’s going on in your neighborhood?”

“Uh,” I responded, “in the summer, the vegetation grows up thick between the two places, so we can’t see over there. But come to think of it, there was a lot of noise from the property next door. Some kind of machine, I guess.”

“Yeah,” the raccoon sneered. “That machine noise was a post hole digger. Your neighbors were setting up a fence around their garden.”

“So?”

“So they’re trying to keep the deer out of their precious vegetables.”

“Yeah? And?”

And,” the raccoon answered, “capitalism responds.”

“Sorry,” I sighed, “but I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

The raccoon smiled a wry smile and took another drag. “You know raccoons,” he began, as if giving yet another weary lecture to yet another ignorant human. “You know raccoons can get in and out of anywhere. Those supposedly impenetrable garbage bins? It’s no challenge for us to break into one of those. We find the garbage. No problem.”

“And your point is?”

“The point is, those are teachable skills,” the raccoon said.

He took a gulp of his IPA.

“Honestly, why some species want to break into vegetable gardens — that’s beyond me,” he continued. “Vegetables! Ick. Gimme a nice, juicy, rotted carcass of cod. Or a discarded cat food can. Chicken bones. Anything! Not vegetables!”

He shuddered, then seemed to recover.

“But whatever. I don’t care. If deer want to get into a fenced garden, I can help them. I’m a raccoon.”

“So you’re offering lessons?”

“Offering?” the raccoon snarled. “The deer are practically stampeding me! Everybody wants GAS — that’s what I call it. It stands for Garden Access System.”

I couldn’t help but wonder about one thing.

“Don’t raccoons use their little fingers to pick locks and remove hinges and stuff like that?” I asked. “I mean, deer have hooves, not fingers. How do you…?”

The raccoon chuckled. “You have no imagination, homo sapiens,” he sniggered. “Deer have something raccoons don’t have. Something a raccoon would kill for. Something that can pick a lock in record time with astonishing precision, if properly trained.”

“And that would be…?”

He leered at me and smiled a wicked smile.

“Prehensile tongue!”


Doug Brendel lives in the wilds of outer Linebrook in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where raccoons and deer roam wild and free, and barriers between animals and humans are meaningless. Follow Doug’s commentary on life in small-town New England at Outsidah.com, and his humanitarian work at NewThing.net.

I’ve Had Enough — Except for the Cheetos

So we’re not technically locked down anymore. We can go out, here on the North Shore, in our masks, and get a table on the deck at the Ipswich Inn; we can pick up Chinese for takeout from Good Taste; or we can sit on Central Street or Market Street behind enormous safety barricades, known as “Jersey barriers,” that make Ipswich look like, well, Newark.

But so much uncertainty still lingers. The world is discombobulated. The Ipswich Public Library isn’t open. The aisles at Market Basket are still one-way. I’m still attending church on Facebook Live: host, cup, click, like.

Even for someone perfectly suited to lockdown — I’ve always worked from home, and all the other people in my household are introverts, social-distancers by habit — the pandemic finally takes its toll. You may love your wife, but enough is enough. Our youngest, newly graduated from Ipswich High School, has not been a problem-teen, but three months of overhearing Zoom classes and binge-watched Brooklyn Nine-Nine and you fight the urge to kill your offspring.

Under such circumstances, the slightest annoyance may flare into what seems like an outrageous crime. That other person’s insignificant tic or trifling twitch or harmless routine that never bothered you before? Now you’ve been observing it at close range for about a hundred days, and it’s becoming clear that you were an idiot for never loathing that person before — not to mention their repulsive little habit.

So when we three Brendels found ourselves standing around in our kitchen, in casual conversation, and our daughter opened a bag of Cheetos, we didn’t realize we had set the stage for cataclysm, but we had. Before the pandemic, Cheetos could come and go at our house, and hardly anybody would take notice. This week, we exposed the ugly truth: Cheetos are not just Cheetos. Cheetos are not just a harmless “much-loved cheesy treat,” and “fun for everyone!”, as their website claims. Cheetos are a kind of poison that cruelly seizes people’s brains and odiously alters their behavior and tragically fractures families.

I’m sure the heartbreaking scenario was not unique to us, but at our house, this is how it went:

  • Family member #1 opens said bag of Cheetos and begins munching. Conversation continues.
  • Family member #2 casually moves toward said Cheetos and reaches out to take some.
  • #1 pulls said bag away, clutching it like a beloved stuffed animal.
  • #2 objects.
  • #1 observes that #2 didn’t ask politely. “Say please”; you know the drill.
  • #2 observes that a spirit of generosity should prevail in this family, and not only should anyone be free to dip into said bag of Cheetos, #1 should have offered said Cheetos automatically, because that’s what nice people do.
  • Family member #3 can’t resist this debate. #3 now observes that #2 often takes food without asking, even at the dinner table.
  • #2 hotly denies this.
  • #1, who hates conflict (but loves Cheetos even more), observes that #3 “loves to argue” and should never have said that part about the dinner table, even though it’s true.
  • Then comes the cussing. Something that was cooking on the stove is now bouncing off the ceiling. There’s stomping and pacing. There’s weeping and gnashing of teeth.
  • #2 roars something about “Who paid for those Cheetos, anyway?”
  • #3 roars something about “Oh, so THAT’s what this is all about!”
  • #1 roars something about something — it’s impossible to be sure what, with all the roaring.
  • Whatever was cooking on the stove is not going to be fit for human consumption, I can tell you that.

Yes, the storm blew over. The next morning, we were all laughing about it. But I notice nobody’s turning their back on anyone anymore. Too many sharp objects and blunt instruments in this house. I, for one, am taking no chances. Always sit facing the room; be sure you have a clear path to an exit. Who knows how strong a Cheetos grudge may be, and how long it lasts? 


Doug Brendel lives in fear of his life on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Follow his pointless exploits here at Outsidah.com, and his meaningful exploits at NewThing.net.

You want my mask? Over my dead body

Belinda Luscombe, great writer. Or at least she was.

Now, she’s written a Time essay about mandatory face masks, and how frustrating they are because they hide your smile, and how hard it is to communicate clearly without the ability to express a smile, because there are so many situations where you need to smile in order to communicate anything.

What nonsense.

Ms. Luscombe (I used to call her Belinda, but no more, because her smile thing has made me so cranky) says a smile is shorthand for any number of messages, and she misses being able to communicate that way.

Wrong.

I say, good riddance.

Certainly, yes, here in my hometown of Ipswich, we practice all the various Belinda Luscombe smiles. For example:

Yesterday, on a downtown Ipswich sidewalk, I encountered my bright, intelligent friend Larry (that’s what I’ll call him, for his own protection) in a face mask of his own. From behind my mask, I did one of the smiles Ms. Luscombe misses: an honest “What a delight to see you!” smile.

I hadn’t seen Larry, who happens to be a member of my church, in two and a half months, except in a tiny square on my laptop screen during the parish’s weekly Zoom meetings. (I do love that painting on the wall over his left shoulder. It may be one of KT Morse’s pieces; I’ll have to ask Larry about that.)

But now, on the sidewalk downtown, I couldn’t help but notice that Larry seemed to be aimlessly wandering the sidewalks, bending this way and that, peering down at something mysterious and unknowable, on the pavement under his feet.

“Are you okay, Larry?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied, with a crazed look in his eye, “I’m tracking Camponotus pennsylvanicus!”

I was too stunned to ask what Camponotus pennsylvanicus means.

“Carpenter ants!” Larry crowed.

I shivered. We’ve struggled for a decade against carpenter ants in our 200-year-old home on outer Linebrook Road.

“I was so bored, under lockdown!” he cried. “I had to get out! I had to find some purpose in life! I’m tracking carpenter ants! THEY MUST BE ANNIHILATED!

In a moment like this — when you’re saying “Haha, Larry, you’re so funny!” but thinking “This guy is dangerous!” — it’s a good thing to be behind a mask. Smiling requires the use of facial muscles, and when you have to force the smile — when you’re constructing the smile to cover up what you’re really thinking — it takes even moremuscle power. Some of us in Ipswich are perpetually exhausted, and this is why.

But now, with mandatory face coverings, we can relax. In Ipswich, our masks are actually improving our intra-town relationships. When you offer some absurdly stupid complaint about Article 12 on the upcoming Town Meeting warrant, I don’t have to smile that helpless fake smile. I can glower at you.

My mask does my faking for me.

Ms. Luscombe, if you lived here on the North Shore, you might have a different feeling about your face mask. Smiling is a pain.

After this pandemic, when face coverings are finally no longer required, I think I’m keeping mine on.

Inside his home on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, Doug Brendel is a perpetually cheerful fellow. Otherwise, not so much. Follow him, regardless, at Outsidah.com. And his charitable work can be accessed at NewThing.net.

Clam Up

I have not lived in New England very long, and here’s evidence. Only this weekend did our family, for the first time ever, attempt to steam our own clams.

I assume just about every family in New England steams their own clams, right?

This process was a complete mystery to me. My total experience with steamed clams was getting in line at Woodman’s in Essex, and then when I get to the front of the line, I plunk down my credit card and say, “Steamed clams, please,” and it’s $40 or so for three pounds of them.

But the pandemic lockdown changes everything, and at this point you’re looking for new culinary amusements, or you’ve gone savage, or both; so when Ipswich Shellfish announced a three-day “pop-up” sale, I decided it was time to buy some live clams and kill them.

I got a five-pound bag for $20. Math was my worst subject in school, but it wasn’t difficult for me to calculate the difference between the $4 per pound I was paying for live clams vs. the $13.33 per pound I used to pay to have Woodman’s kill them for me. Little did I know what Woodman’s goes through to kill those clams.

First, according to SimplyRecipes.com, you filter them. You get the sand and grit out of them. Because sand and grit is apparently what they’ve been eating all their lives. And when you eat them, you don’t want to eat the sand and grit. Of course, you don’t filter them yourself. You trick them into filtering themselves, by leaving them in salty water overnight, and changing the water periodically. It’s like having a newborn baby who needs a diaper-changing every few hours, but this smells worse.

After the filtering, I was free. I have no skills or experience in the kitchen, so my wife and I agreed in advance that she would handle the actual cooking part of the process. Thank goodness, because the SimplyRecipes plan calls for you to start with “a tall, large pot”; and forgive me, but as a total rube in the kitchen, I have no idea what qualifies as a “tall, large pot.” Then you place “a steamer rack at the bottom of the pot.” I would have just been standing there with a dazed expression on my face, but my wife immediately recognized this term: “steamer rack.” The only problem is, if you’re not steaming clams every day or so, as I assume a typical New England family is, then even if you know what a steamer rack is, you’re scratching your head and muttering, “Where the heck is that steamer rack?”

Which is complicated by the fact that a 203-year-old house has innumerable nooks and crannies, some of them a century old and still undiscovered by the current owners. Many of these nooks, furthermore, and perhaps even more of the crannies, are located in our kitchen. We have cabinets that disappear around corners, a pantry with a secret passageway, drawers that don’t open unless you don’t want them to, and at least one cupboard which I believe connects to the neighbor’s mudroom.

So my wife set out in search of the steamer rack. In my role as sous-chef, I quietly left the room, to spare her the embarrassment of being stared at. Over the next few minutes, I heard a considerable assortment of clanks, clunks, clangs, and bangs as she removed and replaced various kitchen things. When it finally got noisy enough that I thought she might be in physical danger, I timidly returned to the room. She wasn’t there. Well, part of her was there. But the top parts of her — head, neck, one arm, one shoulder, and most of a collarbone — had disappeared into the floor-level cabinet under the silverware drawer. The part of her I could still see was half-kneeling, half-sprawled on the wide-pine floor, her legs twitching as she grunted and stretched and reached into the catacombs.

“Honey,” I ventured gently, “are you okay?”

From somewhere in the darkness under our house, I heard the echo of her voice, and her words gave me hope that we would indeed dine on steamed clams.

“Found it!”


Doug Brendel lives on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where he mostly keeps out of the kitchen. Follow Doug at Outsidah.com and NewThing.net.