An Evening With “The Outsidah”


It was my honor to close out this year’s speaker series at the Emma Andrews Library in Newburyport last night. We had a lot of laughs. I shared briefly about our charity in the former USSR, then read my 100th column from the Ipswich Chronicle, which happened to appear the same day (see previous post). Then I tried out an upcoming column, to see if they approved it for submission to the newspaper. Here it is:


You Can’t Get There From Here


If you are uneasy about reading things related to “going to the bathroom,” please, stop reading now. This is about “going to the bathroom.”

I don’t mean this biologically. I’m not talking about bodily functions. I’m just talking about walking. Starting out at the edge of your bed, which is where you’re sitting when you realize you need to go to the bathroom, and then walking, from your bed, to your bathroom.

It should be a simple matter. But this is New England.

New England is the land of blocked-off doorways. In our antique houses, with our nooks and crannies and rooms added on 180 years after the house was built, we wind up with doors where we don’t need them. Yet there’s a certain Yankee reluctance to spend the time, energy, and money it would take to make it just a plain wall, when there’s a chance that in 60 or 70 years, you’ll want a doorway there again. So it’s not uncommon to see a couch in front of a door, or a chair or a lamp or a table in front of a door — and the owners don’t even think of it as a door anymore. It’s just a wall that seems to look like a door. Yes, it was a doorway, with people actually walking through it, from James Knox Polk to Millard Fillmore, and again from Grover Cleveland to Warren G. Harding. But the whole rest of the time, it’s basically just been a wall.

There’s one room in our house where this becomes really serious business. After 200 years of nook-adding and cranny-shifting and space-narrowing and corridor-widening, our house has ended up with one tiny room which has not a single window, but four doors. From this little roomlet, you can get to the guest room, the laundry room, the living room, or a bent little passageway too small to be called a hall. The room is all doors. There is only one precious wall where you can put a piece of furniture without worrying about who will be entering, exiting, bumping, slamming, or otherwise ricocheting through.

What to do with such an odd little place? We are not big TV watchers, so we stuck our TV in here. There’s really no other use for this space. Well, this isn’t quite true. I have indeed used this odd little room for something else. A single, simple function.

I walk through it on my way to the bathroom.

I abandoned the upstairs bathroom because — I trust it’s not too sexist to say — it was overrun by females. As the only guy in the household, I took ownership of the downstairs bathroom. Getting there and back was no problem at all. Until I went out of town for a couple weeks, and my wife decided to rearrange the furniture in the odd little TV room.

So now, instead of slipping downstairs and heading straight to the bathroom, with only one little sidestep along the way — well, that sidestep is now a closed door with a brown couch standing guard in front of it.

Which means, from my bed, I cross the room diagonally, out the bedroom door, hang a right on the landing, down three stairsteps, left, seven more steps, another left, last three stairs, then a right, diagonally across the living room, into the kitchen, wide arc around the table and chairs, into the bent little passageway too small to be called a hall, sharp left, one step into the accursed TV room (making a certain gesture toward the brown couch), hang a left into the laundry room hallway, and a sharp right into the bathroom.

I am planning today to go to the bathroom on Tuesday. Packing a light lunch for the trip.

The column was approved for submission to the newspaper 🙂

Afterward, I read a few previous columns. Here they are:


The Ipswich-Rowley War 

Rowley invaded Ipswich.

It was perhaps inevitable. People in Ipswich, myself included, have been known to make Rowley the butt of various jokes. This is shameful behavior on our part, probably. Rowley is actually a fine town, and we need them, because we don’t have a McDonald’s. But still, somehow, Rowley seems to have a somewhat humorous quality. Maybe it’s the name. I mention Rowley to out-of-towners and in many cases they chuckle. Isn’t there just a vaguely odd, rolly-polly, puppy-clowny sound to the name “Rowley”?

I felt more or less badly about having this opinion — after all, someone whose name really was Rowley must have founded Rowley — until I learned that Rowley wasn’t founded by Mr. Rowley at all. It was founded by Mr. Rogers. Not that Mr. Rogers. But see how humor seems to dog this town?

History tells us that Rowley was in fact founded by a certain Rev. Ezekiel Rogers, who arrived on a ship called the John. I think it would have been more fitting for the John to land at Crane Beach, which was destined to be named for a millionaire toilet-maker. But no. Rev. Rogers and his gang of 20 families got off the John and came to Rowley.

If you’re going to start a new town, but for some reason you don’t want to name it after yourself, you might decide to name it after a place you have fond memories of. Rev. Rogers, however, decided to name this new town after the place back in England that he’d gotten kicked out of. A place called, uh, Rowley.

But now, long-lost historical records, recently uncovered, seem to indicate that residents of Rowley at some point got fed up with being chuckled at. A mob, scruffy and surly, assembled at Agawam Diner with clubs and torches. Eyewitnesses claim they were muttering threatening remarks, including “They’ve chuckled at us for the last time” and “We’re really annoyed.” The rabble milled around on the Agawam parking lot for a long time, but there was still no seating available. Finally they moved down Route 1, pausing only briefly to re-supply at Winfrey’s. Well stocked with penuche walnut-creams and almond buttercrunch, they proceeded to the traffic light at Linebrook Road.

Their strategy was diabolically simple. They planned to seize Linebrook and effectively cut the town in two. Once they had taken control of Marini Farm, they would threaten to withhold the strawberry harvest, at which point they knew the people of Ipswich would cave in and agree to express only the highest esteem for their neighbors to the north. Rowley would finally be chuckle-free.

It might have worked, but they made the mistake of attacking on a blustery Thursday, which is garbage collection day on Linebrook Road. It was very windy, and the invaders found it impossible to advance due to a large number of rolling garbage cans in the street, and no small amount of spilled garbage blowing around. One especially strong gust sent the lid of a Rubbermaid Roughneck 20-gallon sailing like a Frisbee. It struck a Rowley woman who had just popped a Winfrey’s turtlette into her mouth, causing her to swallow the entire thing without chewing. Deeply disappointed, she turned around and headed toward home — which discouraged her fellow combatants, and set in motion a general retreat. Most residents of Ipswich were unaware that an invasion had been attempted.

If these historical records are to be believed, Ipswich could be at risk of another attack. So it would be probably be prudent to knock off the Rowley jokes, people.

Come on, if I can resist, so can you.


What to Throw Away, and How

Let’s see if I have this straight. About the garbage.

We’re well into our second year, I believe, of the new Ipswich Garbage Law, and I am probably still a bit unclear on some details.

I think I understand the part about unlimited recycling. I confess, when I first heard the terms of the New Deal — “unlimited” recycling — my pulse quickened. “Unlimited” is a lot of recycling. A part of me wanted to test it, just because I could. I wanted to buy a thousand refrigerators just to put the boxes by the side of the road on Thursday morning. I love “unlimited”! I was restrained, however, by the lovely woman I turn all my money over to.

So: back to reality.

On Garbage & Recycling Day each week, Thursdays at my house, you can put anything curbside that’s recyclable. There’s one exception: flimsy plastic cannot be recycled in Ipswich. Even though it’s clearly marked as recyclable, there’s a throne room somewhere, where members of the recycling royalty have passed judgment against the bag your Boston Sunday Globe arrives in. It is perhaps beneath the dignity of Ipswich to recycle Boston newspaper wrappers.

But let’s move on. On beyond recycling, to garbage. Serious garbage. Not that wimpy recyclable stuff. Hardcore garbage. At our house, we compost everything we can — our compost heap is a turkey vulture’s delight — but ultimately there’s stuff you just have to throw out, as a guilty contribution to America’s already bloated landfills.

And here is where it gets interesting.

Under the new Ipswich Garbage Law, I can put out one barrel of garbage — not two, like in the good old days, when candy was a penny, and Nixon was considered too liberal. Then, after I’ve stuffed my plastic Rubbermaid to the max, like an enormous army-green dumpling, I can buy Town-approved extra-garbage bags for $2 each, for whatever won’t fit.

Yet even then, there are some items that can’t be squashed into the plastic bin, and no Town bag can be stretched to cover. Under the Ipswich rubbish regs, I can still put out “one large object.”

This is very generous. But it also makes me somewhat nervous.

Define large.

Define object.

“Large,” I’m afraid, has its limits. And the Town’s definition of “object” could be quite different from my own.

I need to replace my rickety old garage. Rather than tearing it down, could I just drag that wretched thing to the end of the driveway some Thursday morning and find it magically gone by the end of the day? Probably not.

Good people of Ipswich, let me admonish you: If we abuse this generous, open-ended regulation, the Town fathers could easily retract it. In this situation, I believe discretion will be the better part of wisdom. Be careful about your choice of that “one large object” you station beside your garbage can.

  • The rusting carcass of a long-dead John Deere tractor? No.
  • The cherry tree that came down in the last big wind? Probably prohibited.
  • Your mother-in-law living in the guestroom? Maybe OK. Or call dead-animal pickup.
  • Your least favorite selectman? Eh, don’t bother. Put them out by the side of the road, and someone driving by will figure they’re being offered “free to good home.” In which case, they’ll simply be relocated to a place where they’re appreciated. We elected these people for three years. Why let them off the hook?


A Primer for Ye Olde Vending Tradition

Let’s say you attend a Board of Selectmen’s meeting, and you somehow grow weary of a citizen’s query, or fatigued by a Feoffee fracas. No need to embarrass yourself by nodding off, and waking yourself with a great, loud snort. Much better to slip out into the hallway for a mood-brightening snack.

I arrived in Ipswich with a very lofty view of our selectmen, a view which, for the most part, I hold to this day. Selectmen have been solemnly governing the affairs of New England towns ever since there was a New England. So I imagined a respectfully quiet meeting room, with a long official table up front for the honorable selectmen, rows of chairs for the attending citizens. Ipswich has all of this, as it turns out.

But there’s also a vending machine.

Not exactly part of my romantic historical New England town-government fantasy.

Perhaps the idea is, if you attend a Board of Selectmen’s meeting, the town does not want you dropping dead of starvation, no matter how long the meeting goes. So just outside the door to the “Selectmen’s Meeting Room,” Room 201, there is a large, I would say imposing, vending machine.

This is not a digital-age, touch-screen, thought-activated, user-friendly device like they have at the Y. At the Y, the vending machines are totally 21st Century. There, if you’re thirsty or hungry, you barely have to form the thought — “Gee, I’d sure love some Nature Valley 100% Natural Chewy Fruit & Nut Trail Mix” — before the machine takes your money, makes your change, and provides you with the snack of your dreams.

Our Board of Selectmen, on the other hand, have a vending machine of quite a different generation. This is a historic vending machine. The kind of vending machine they had in McKinley’s day. Soldiers on leave from the Spanish-American War used a vending machine like this. For you to use the vending machine at Town Hall today, you will need a primer.

Here, I’ll help you.

1. Note first, please, that the snacks are visible through a glass window, in nine separate compartments, top to bottom. On the right side of the machine, you’ll find nine corresponding metal contraptions, each with separate slots for your nickels, dimes, and quarters. Do not be intimidated by the metal contraptions. These are simply the pieces of mechanical equipment which, in the olden days, put the “vend” in “vending machine.” Fear not. You’ll learn to operate this equipment in a moment. Without even needing extra insurance.

The price of the snack in each compartment is clearly indicated — and you don’t even have to do the money math yourself. Cheez-Its, for example, cost 60 cents. The Cheez-Its contraption has three coin slots, each with a value indicated: 10, 25, and 25.

2. Slip your coins into the appropriate slots. For modern-era citizens now dependant on debit cards and no longer familiar with coin values: Cheez-Its require one Franklin Roosevelt and two George Washingtons. (Hold onto your Thomas Jeffersons for drinks, later.)

Take care not to slide your coins into the wrong slots. Jefferson will not fit into a Roosevelt slot, but you can lose a Roosevelt in a Washington slot forever.

3. Now comes the physical-exertion stage. Attached to each contraption there’s a wheel, with a sturdy rectangular handle. Grasp the handle of the contraption in which you’ve placed your coins, and turn the top of the wheel away from you. Now pay attention; this is important: You must turn the wheel one full turn. If you fail to turn the wheel one full turn, the historic vending machine will take your money but refuse to give you your Cheez-Its. Any similarity with government operations is strictly coincidental.

4. Your successful turning of the wheel will presumably release your Cheez-Its from its little cage, and it will presumably plummet to the little snack-basement at the bottom of the machine. If you “push to open” the basement door, as the sign on the door advises, you will presumably find your snack lying there, only slightly the worse for wear, waiting for you to retrieve it.

(If somehow you’ve complied with all the requirements, but your snack doesn’t appear in the little snack-basement, you’re in luck: you can walk right back into the Board of Selectmen’s meeting and — if it’s not too late for citizen’s queries — complain to your elected officials in person.)

5. If you’re thirsty, there’s a completely different procedure to undertake: a door to be opened, a secret compartment to be revealed, and on and on. This is an adventure worthy of Indiana Jones, instructions for which would be too lengthy to include here.

Although I have not witnessed it personally, I understand that some of our selectmen have been known to use this machine personally. I don’t want to get political, so I hesitate to speculate as to which selectmen prefer which snacks. There’s probably not much shame in favoring Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies, for example. But for dignity’s sake, nobody wants to be the selectman who gets Snickers.


The Silence of the Squirrels

If you’ve ever lived anywhere besides Ipswich, as I have, then you’re familiar with Sciuridae, the common squirrel. Like me, you had squirrels in California or Connecticut or Colorado or wherever you came here from. Here in Ipswich, we mostly have gray squirrels — Sciurus carolinensis — and they’re so common, they’re part of the landscape.

But these days, I’m afraid, something’s amiss in Ipswich.

I’m talking about the astonishing spike in our number of USDs: untimely squirrel deaths.

This is not about your everyday, run-of-the-mill squirrel deaths. Of course, squirrels die. They’re not immortal. They simply — like teenagers — think of themselves as invincible. I’ve watched a squirrel in my own backyard, taking insane chances just to get into my backyard bird feeder — climbing the sugar maple, launching himself from an impossibly high branch, aiming for the terrifyingly tiny target of a birdhouse roof, striking the pointy peak of the birdhouse with such velocity that he can’t help but bounce off, scratching madly with his little claws in a desperate attempt to hang on, yet still within milliseconds plunging to the ground below, landing with a thud on the cruel New England earth. And then, yes, hopping up, looking around with a coy “I meant to do that” look, and heading back to the trunk of the sugar maple to try it all again.

I have seen squirrels going through this death-defying backyard routine again and again, yet I have never seen a squirrel die this way. Squirrels don’t die in the grass, nobly, like lions felled by hunters on safari. Nor do they spend their final days in squirrel-hospice, tended by quiet, compassionate rodent-nurses. No. They die on asphalt. They get hit by Hyundais, crushed by Chryslers, flattened by Fords, mashed by Marini’s tractor.

Thus it has always been.

Yet now, in Ipswich, for some reason, our Ipswich squirrels appear to be dying in record numbers.

You haven’t noticed?

Sure, you find a squished squirrel on the road from time to time. This is normal. But for the past several months, I seem to find the aftermath of squirrel tragedies at every turn.

I have no official numbers from our animal control officer Matt Antczak — he’s the person you call if lost cows are blocking your driveway, or a loose horse is going door-to-door soliciting oats, or you find the corpse of a deer who had too much to drink and wandered out in front of a perfectly sober driver on Argilla Road. I imagine dead squirrels are too small-time for our animal control officer. But judging just from the number of squirrel carcasses I’ve come across lately, I’d say we’re in a season of record-wrecking rodent ruination. Really.

Why is it happening? One can only speculate. If it’s not just catastrophic coincidence — and Ipswich is being papered over by stiff squirrel fur simply because we’re such lucky cusses — then what explanation can there be? Perhaps there’s some new and terrible microbe in our acorns, causing our squirrels to go stupid. But I doubt it. Much likelier, I fear, that they’re failing to look both ways before crossing, and we really need to offer squirrel safety classes at Town Hall. Maybe — and I trust this isn’t the case — they’re texting instead of paying attention to traffic.

Whatever the case, my heart breaks. For every fuzzy-tailed fellow fearlessly climbing a sugar maples and courageously dive-bombing a bird feeder, there may be another young, healthy squirrel at risk of being splattered on School Street by the Ipswich House of Pizza delivery vehicle.

I can only say to the squirrels of our town: Please, be careful. This town would be dreary without you. Here in Ipswich, let me assure you, another season of nuts awaits you.


Thank you to Emma Andrews Library for the great honor of the invitation. And thanks to all who bought books! 


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