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.”


“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?”


“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 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.


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.

Turn back and you’re dead

Author’s note:

Ipswich town historian Gordon Harris will be bent over his iPad, hand to head, frowning, trying to figure it out. 

Ipswich icon David Wallace, as he settles in at his private abode after his hours-long 100th birthday gala, will be scratching his head over the question.

Thoughtful longtime Ipswich commentator Chuck Kollars will peer out from his top-floor turret overlooking Central Street, pondering, deliberating, musing, calculating.

Ipswich history buffs of every variety — and there are dozens of varieties of the species Ipswichius historicus (“Ipswich history buff”) — will want to know, years from now, exactly how to frame the extent of the pandemic lockdown.

How will we describe this extraordinary season, to our grandchildren, and generations beyond?

Well, here’s one way. Tell your grandchildren:

When the frequency of Outsidah columns about mask-faced shopping at Market Basket dropped to fewer than once a month, it was over.

I believe this is a perfectly rational measuring stick because — well, let’s face it: Until this thing is over, what else is there to write a column about?

* * *

My big excitement this week was catching the husband of a high-profile Ipswich realtor going the wrong way at about the Lucky Charms.

I did not challenge him, however. I was tempted — and truth be told, on an earlier Market Basket shopping expedition a week or two ago, I forgot myself and swung around mid-aisle, only to be confronted by a young woman scowling from behind her face mask and pointing a bony witch-like finger to show me the way. The terror of this moment stuck with me, and inclined me to be gentle with the realtor’s husband going the wrong way in the cereal aisle.

It is not an easy life these days. Now that all the Market Basket aisles are one-way, if you miss the kitty litter, you can’t just turn around at the Ziploc bags and head back. You have to push on down to the end of the aisle, go left, hang a U-turn, and come all the way back up the seltzer aisle. At the end of which, you hang another leftward U-turn, hoist your kitty litter onto your cart, and — no, no, you can’t just back up and zip toward the produce department. Technically, you have to do that whole Ziploc bag aisle again, and hang a left again at the end of it. Then, if you don’t want to roll down the entire Poland Spring aisle again, you have to skip that aisle and go on to the bagels and peanut butter aisle — which, sad to say, is one-way going the wrong direction. So you’re back in O.W.H. Which stands for One-Way Hell.

At some point before I die, I hope to see the phrase One-Way Hell in a Gordon Harris Ipswich history post.

Our family patterns have shifted as well, in this extraordinary season.

In the old days, when I brought the groceries home from Market Basket, I quietly put everything away, or perhaps my wife Kristina or our daughter Lydia Charlotte heard me banging cupboard doors and came to help me.

Now, it’s nothing so casual.

Now, the moment I return, a seismic shift occurs. With the closing of the back door, our 203-year-old house shudders, the womenfolk sense it, and they come scuttling to the kitchen. Opening the groceries is entertainment now.

Look! You found plums!

Look! Buffalo Pretzel Crisps!

Look! Cool-fresh persimmon-flavored dental floss! 

Mom! It’s unwaxed! Awesome!

Then begins the Great Putting Away.

All the grocery bags get dumped onto our “kitchen island” (not a very colonial-era feature, but don’t blame me; some previous owner installed it), so we find ourselves observing a circular routine. The Market Basket one-way floor plan has taken over our home by osmosis. I grab something out of a grocery bag, move to the place where it belongs (fridge, cupboard, shelf, elsewhere), deposit the item in question, then continue in the circular progression. Grab something from a bag on the island, put it away where it belongs, swing around the island. This must be how Robinson Crusoe put away groceries with Friday.

And God forbid you get to the cupboard with something still in your hand that should have gone into the fridge. Whatever you do, don’t turn around and try to make it right.

“Dad! Go AROUND! We’re going LEFT!”

Doug Brendel is locked down on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, except when he’s at Market Basket in Rowley. Otherwise, he’s doing humanitarian work at NewThing.net.

Why We Exercise Indoors

The idea of cardio is to keep your heart rate up. I learned this from my personal trainer, JEN TOUGAS, AT PERSONAL BEST TRAINING STUDIO IN IPSWICH, MASSACHUSETTS. Not that I’m getting a rake-off, certainly, from any new business I bring her way. It’s simply a fact that before I started seeing JEN TOUGAS three times a week, some six years ago, I thought “Cardio” must be an Italian magician with really shocking tricks.

So now, during this interminable lockdown, I’m trying to put in my required hours of weekly cardio, but of course without the luxury of the recumbent bicycle or the treadmills or the rowing machine or the spin bikes at PERSONAL BEST TRAINING STUDIO, from which I assure you I get no rake-off.

The cardio solution I’ve settled on — at least when the weather is acceptable — is to speed-walk the trail at the Essex County Greenbelt’s Echo Reservation. It’s close to my house on outer Linebrook Road. Which means it’s like in an alternate universe for people who live on Argilla.

I’ve discovered that I can speed-walk to the Echo trailhead (dodging speed-drivers on outer Linebrook Road), then speed-walk the Echo trail itself through one corner of the 33-acre reservation, then turn around and speed-walk back the way I came, and when I get home, I’ve done as many minutes of cardio as JEN TOUGAS would have forced me to do in person, but without having JEN TOUGAS to complain to in person. (That’s JEN TOUGAS, PERSONAL BEST TRAINING STUDIO, IPSWICH, MASSACHUSETTS.)

But since the idea of cardio is to keep your heart rate up, you can’t pause to chat with a friendly acquaintance who happens to greet you on the way. You have to raise a hand, in a friendly version of the old German Nazi salute, and keep speed-walking.

Fortunately, if you keep your face mostly tilted toward the path in front of you, you won’t step on anything deadly. Like a snake, for example. Yesterday I was tearing through the Echo Reservation woods when I came upon a most disturbing obstacle. Stretched across the path was a loathsome snake.

It was one of those chilly New England days when the sun only comes out for a few moments, to tease you, and then hides like a shy schoolchild behind a grayish cloud. At the moment, the sun was cutting through the trees, making a bright, wide parallelogram on the path, and this serpent appeared to be spread out like an old-time movie starlet between films, but without the sunglasses, or the bikini.

I stopped short.

I am no fan of wildlife. I don’t even like my cats. And as far as I can recall, from stories my older cousin told me around the campfire, snakes bite you and poison you and kill you.

So I was certainly not going to fling myself over this snake and give it a chance to leap up and sink its venomous fangs into my ankle. What am I, a fool? I never had to dodge snakes at PERSONAL BEST TRAINING STUDIO IN IPSWICH, MASSACHUSETTS, did I?

Thoughtful, calculating person that I am, I paused. I looked down at the snake. I tried not to look terrified, so the snake wouldn’t be motivated to strike me and kill me and swallow me and I would show up on YouTube screaming as I died, like Quint being consumed by the shark in Jaws.

I tried to remember the children’s rhyme, but childhood is so long ago, and it’s all so confusing. What was I taught?

“Yellow touching red: You’re dead.” Right?

Wait. “Blue against yellow kills a fellow.”

Or maybe it was: “Green touching black: safe for Jack.”

This was a mostly black snake, with some stripes. And a snide look on his face. “Black striped sneer, be filled with fear”?

I couldn’t decide what was true, and what was fake news.

All I knew was that my exercise regimen was stalled out. If I was keeping my heart rate up, it wasn’t because I was speed-walking. It was because I was standing paralyzed over a vicious, slimy, writhing monster, and adrenaline was pumping through my system, screaming a simple, life-saving message: Speed-walking would not be enough; I needed to RUN.

The snake was unperturbed.

Then came the question, with a hiss: “What are you staring at?”

I hardly knew what to say.

“Move along, homo sapiens,” the snake sniggered. “Your shadow is wrecking my tan.”

I obeyed.

Doug Brendel lives on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, which is basically the wilderness. For something more redeeming than the Outsidah’s nonsense, follow Doug’s humanitarian charity at NewThing.net.

Mickey and Minnie’s Market Basket Monorail!

Yes, I took my life in my hands and made a trip to Market Basket

Of the three people who live in our household, I’m the oldest, which is to say I’m the one deepest into the at-risk demographic; but we decided I should be the one to risk infection because I have the most life insurance. If someone in our family has to die, let the deceased at least do one final good deed: a grocery run, and a cash payout. Of course money doesn’t replace a loved one, but it can ease the pain for those left behind, who must, before very long, decide which of the surviving family members will mask up and go out for toilet paper.

My wife and daughter and I assembled an enormous shopping list, not only because we were low on a lot of First World essentials — Ding Dongs, for example; and do NOT let yourself run out of Orville Redenbacher’s, whatever you do — but also because I didn’t want to have to do this again anytime soon. I normally love going to the Rowley Market Basket, because it’s essentially the Ipswich Community Center; it’s where I see all my pals. But with coronavirus stalking the North Shore, you never know if the cute neighbor behind that homemade mask is actually an agent of the Grim Reaper, wittingly or un.

Ah yes, the homemade masks. The governor of Massachusetts has issued guidelines for people to wear homemade masks in public. Because the governor is a Republican, I hoped I might be exempt, but my wife insisted that I comply. Then I reasoned that I couldn’t comply because I had no idea how to make a mask, but she had already studied up — which is to say, she scrolled through Facebook — and she assured me that she could make me a mask in no time at all. Soon, I was wearing my own handkerchief, stretched across my nose and mouth and anchored in place with hair ties wrapped around my ears. (Not as simple as it sounds, when you wear hearing aids. The hair ties pressed the little machines painfully into the back of each ear. It felt as if by the time I returned from the grocery store, I might have achieved a de facto cochlear implant.)

I had been holed up so long at Dragonhead, our big red antique house on outer Linebrook Road, I was unprepared for the new regimens of life in COVID-world. Arriving at Market Basket, where happy hordes typically swirl in and out at all hours of the day, I was astonished to find something I had never seen there before: a line of people waiting to get in. To comply with occupancy guidelines, Market Basket had stationed a guard at the door, who was admitting just one customer at a time, only when some other customer emerged from the store. (The guard when I arrived was only a sweet young girl; I’m sure I could have wrestled my way in. But you never know if the crowd is going be with you or against you.) 

To encourage shoppers to comply with social distancing guidelines while waiting in line, management had laid down bright red stripes of tape, six feet apart, on the sidewalk. I started somewhere down toward TJ Maxx and began quietly, slowly easing toward the Market Basket entrance, one red stripe at a time. It was like Disney World on a busy day, except for the six-foot gaps, and when you finally got to the front, it wasn’t Space Mountain.

Inside, it was more “Small, Small World”: cheery music over the p.a. system, and you can only go one way. There’s tape on the Market Basket floor now, directing traffic. You better be prepared to select your Yoplait first, your Irish Spring Speed Stick later, and your fresh bok choy last, because if you miss something and have to go back, you can’t turn around. Market Basket is a massive New England roundabout now. Keep driving till you see your exit, and good luck.

I was heartened to see that I wasn’t the only person in a homemade mask. Perhaps seven or eight out of every ten people were sporting nose-and-mouth coverings, some of them quite innovative. I saw masks made from tube socks, masks made from plastic two-liter bottles, masks made from — well, masks: a kid’s Halloween Spidey costume, repurposed. My very funny friend Andy Kercher, who works in the bakery, was wearing a white bandanna on which he had painted a fabulous Howdy Doody smile; the lips moved so realistically when he talked, for a moment I thought it was just Andy’s regular face, but with lipstick.

Checkout? At Market Basket, checkout is now something like airport security. It’s not the old days anymore, when we searched for the slowest cashier and bagger and chose a different line. Now, everyone gets in the same line, starting all the way back in the rutabaga — standing six feet apart, of course, according to more stripes of red tape — and you snake your way past the ice cream cases, where I can assure you there is very little ice cream, because this is a product people are desperate not to run out of in an apocalypse. The checkout line moves haltingly toward the front of the store, till you finally get to the point where a designated Market Basket employee chooses a certain checkout lane for you, and waves you into it. Yes, you have 1:14 odds of getting that ultra-sluggish cashier-and-bagger team. It’s a little bit of Vegas, right here in Rowley.

Still, in spite of all the inconveniences and adjustments, I do believe I’ll go back to Market Basket. Not anytime soon, of course. But eventually, it will be necessary. There may be a pandemic, but I’m certainly not gonna let us run out of Cheese Doodles.

Doug Brendel lives on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, less than seven minutes from the nearest Market Basket. Follow his commentary on life in small-town New England here at Outsidah.com. Follow his family’s humanitarian work at NewThing.net.