Columnist’s Wife Hurtles Shrieking Into Eternity (Not)

The floor of our 205-year-old house gave way last week, and my wife Kristina plunged through it to her doom, ultimately landing on the dirt floor of our basement.

I was in the living room when I heard a cry and a crash, in rapid succession. I ran toward the sound. Turns out the cry had come from the first floor, as she began plummeting toward almost-certain death, but the crash I heard had echoed up from below, where her mangled body now lay.

My first thought, of course, was: This will be a good column for the paper! But very, very quickly, I re-ordered my priorities and ran back through the living room and the kitchen to the basement door and down the steps. I felt vaguely foolish taking the long route, when Kristina had just made this journey much more efficiently, but in any case I was soon standing over the victim, who, like Tiny Tim, did not die.

The problem in writing about this horrifying incident is that Kristina serves as my first reader, reviewing the initial draft of every piece I produce, and she feels some unreasonable need to stick with the facts. (She says I have a tendency to exaggerate, which is an utterly ridiculous suggestion, but I keep letting her edit me because I don’t want to go to prison for libel.) So far, in the piece you’re reading right now, she has objected to “plunged,” “doom,” “plummeting,” and “mangled.” She also edited out the part where she fell 125 feet, screaming.

And, picayune as she is, Kristina says that technically it wasn’t a “floor” that gave way. She was trying to repair a broken brace under the first-floor staircase landing — she’s always been the family handyman — so she had taken up the floorboards of the landing. At that point, she could look down and see that the stairs had originally continued into the basement. She could also see flooring on the top side of the basement ceiling. (What appeared to be flooring. —K.)She stepped down onto it, tested it a bit, and it held; so she proceeded to go to work.

That part of the basement ceiling, however, was actually just a covering, intended to mask the underside of the landing after the stairs were redesigned. Within a few minutes, the not-a-floor proved that it was not a floor, and Kristina dropped to the next available actual floor, which was dirt, and miraculously avoided brain damage. (Not miraculously. —K.)

Kristina also insists on pointing out that she didn’t drop directly onto the dirt floor. She owned the beloved Time & Tide fine art gallery on Market Street, and even though the gallery closed in 2012, we have kept much of the gallery gear on a shelving unit in our basement, with a tarp thrown over it. It was this mountain of stuff (not really a mountain —K.) that broke Kristina’s fall; she bounced off of it onto the floor (not really a bounce —K.), coming away with nothing but a couple remarkable bruises and a bit of a bump on the back of her head. Which proves that art saves lives. And/or: Hoarding saves lives. (Not “proves.” —K.)

My handyman always prefers to make repairs herself, on the cheap, rather than hiring a costly professional, but after barely dodging massive injury and an agonizing death (hyperbole —K.), she blew the dust off of her checkbook (exaggeration —K.) and called an expert. Ipswich town historian Gordon Harris is a semi-retired master carpenter who adores antique houses, so he was eager to help. He worked quickly, adroitly, and cheerfully, and his invoice was delightfully reasonable. (Not delightfully. —K.) Today, in a house where each vintage floorboard makes a unique sound — squeaking, squawking, moaning — the staircase landing is proudly silent. To be honest, I’m feeling a little paranoid about walking anywhere else in this house.


Doug Brendel steps lightly in his old house on outer Linebrook Road. Follow him at DougBrendel.com.

Southbound Ipswich evildoers abound

It is essentially impossible to track or contain criminal behavior in Ipswich, and thus it has always been.

At least since 1687, when Rev. John Wise went to prison for refusing to pay British-imposed taxes, Ipswich has been home to innumerable lawbreakers. People roaring past Doyon at 25 mph when the lights are blinking and the limit is 20. People insolently running lawn sprinklers during drought-driven watering bans. People secretly building walls and installing doors inside their homes without proper permitting. The list of violations boggles the mind. 

With generations of miscreants, Ipswich is the Australia of New England.

Now we see the tragic tendency toward feloniousness on County Street, where the state has closed one lane of the bridge and barred southbound travel over it. Neighbors in the area will attest that innumerable reprobates are sneaking their vehicles over the semi-crippled span. Should we be surprised? One-way — wrong way — the Ipswich way.

But it’s dangerous. And rude. And illegal. So it should stop.

Police surveillance can only accomplish so much. Our officers of the law are smart, dedicated, and mostly good-looking, but there are not enough of them to station someone on County Street around the clock.

So I humbly suggest some alternatives.

  1. Install a strip of traffic spikes across the north end of the bridge, with the usual sign — “Do not back up: Severe tire damage” — but paint over “Do not back up” and replace it with “Do not proceed southbound.” Or possibly “Do not proceed southbound, you loser.”
  2. Duck-hunting season ends next week. Employ frustrated duck-hunters. They can apply their duck-blind skills, hiding behind the jersey barriers. Give them paintball guns and have them aim at southbound tires. For second offenders, live ammunition.
  3. It’s inevitable that a number of paintball-marked vehicles will be roaming around town. Establish a bounty system so any law-abiding citizen can join in on the fun. For letting the air out of the tires of a paintball-marked vehicle, you get $4. There’s precedent for this. You get 40¢ a pound for trapping those annoying green crabs. And a second-offender southbound scofflaw is at least 10 times as annoying as a pound of green crabs.
  4. Adapt the classic Looney Tunes element: a trap door. This one, situated on the north end of the bridge, is triggered by a sensor that reads the direction you’re moving. Activate the sensor moving southbound, and you’re suddenly Wile E. Coyote, but the aquatic version, as you’re swimming in the Ipswich River.
  5. Any lobsterman can show you how a lobster gets into a trap and then can’t get out. A lobster trap is brilliant but simple, and virtually foolproof. So we build an enormous lobster trap, set it up over the bridge, and whenever someone drives into the north end of it, they discover they can’t drive out the south end of it. All they can do is eat the bait. When you finish those barrelsful of herring, bluefish, and mackerel, we’ll let you out.

Of course, there’s an alternative to these alternatives. You could stay off the County Street bridge headed southbound. You could respect the law, and other drivers, and yourself.

And spare yourself the herring.


Doug Brendel lives on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, in perfect compliance with local, state, and federal laws, except perhaps for the one about rinsing your aluminum foil before you recycle it. Follow him at Outsidah.com.

Good news/bad news from my doctor

Whatever’s going on, it’s probably not ideal when you have to call your doctor.

But when it’s the other way around — when the doctor contacts you — that can be a stressful moment.

It happened to me, last Thursday.

I was already scheduled for a routine appointment that afternoon with my primary care physician, Dr. Aimee Hromadka, in the Cable Professional Building on County Road in Ipswich. Dr. Hromadka has been my doctor ever since I arrived in Ipswich, so there is no one more intimately acquainted with my physical body, inside and out. If anything has gone wrong, or is going wrong, or is likely to go wrong, or is on the razor’s edge of going wrong, she would be the one to know about it.

She has been a superb doctor, patiently and expertly navigating the maze of my bad habits to keep me in good health. And she’s done it with a lovely sense of humor. During my annual physical, she showed me a printout of my “numbers” — good blood pressure, good cholesterol, good on thyroid and prostate, liver and kidney function. “Only one of these numbers keeps getting worse,” she observed. “Your age.”

After so much success under Dr. Hromadka’s care, I rarely feel any stress heading into an appointment. And especially not last Thursday, anticipating a simple medication adjustment that afternoon.

But I was totally unprepared for the shock of the message she sent, out of the blue, that morning.

It was bad news.

“Congratulations!” she began. “You have the distinct honor of being our final patient in our Ipswich office.”

I had seen the warning signs; I had heard the rumors. North Shore Physicians Group was planning to evacuate their County Road facilities and move into their much larger quarters at 414 Haverhill Road in Rowley.

But now — the end was so near! There was no time to prepare. It was all too sudden.

And I realized that, of course, this wasn’t just about me. The overall healthcare quotient for the town of Ipswich was about to decline precipitously. There’s also the matter of long-term decline in our town’s quality of life. Rowley already has the chocolate factory, the Market Basket, and the McDonald’s. Now they’ll have my doctor too.

Why such a move? I pleaded for answers. At this point, I received good news/bad news. The Haverhill Road facility offers many more medical functions onsite. “When I need to send you for labs,” Dr. Hromadka explained, “it’s right there.” As if this is a good thing: no delay between the moment the doc utters the dreaded term “blood work” and the moment you’re being punctured and drained. On the other hand, this will give me less time to dread the puncturing and the draining — and I’ve heard that dread decreases lifespan. The good news is that I may live longer, now that Dr. Hromadka can have me poked on the spot anytime she wants.

After the initial shock of the Ipswich location’s terminal diagnosis, I began to settle down a little. I took deep breaths and drank water and had a burger. This helped. Soon I was able to see the big picture, to find the silver lining. I live so far west in Ipswich, on outer Linebrook Road, the new place in Rowley is actually way closer to my house. Instead of spending 13 endless minutes to get to my doctor — with the possibility of a serious backup at Winthrop School or the fire station — I’ll get there in only 5 minutes. Saving 16 minutes round-trip on every doctor’s appointment, on top of what I gain by cutting back on dread, will almost certainly extend my life by several years.

Dang, now I wish they’d bailed on Ipswich years ago.


Doug lives 2,222 feet from the Rowley line. Visit him at DougBrendel.com.

Quack! There goes the neighborhood

What do you call a group of ducks? 

This is one of those rare questions you can’t simply turn over to Google. This question overwhelms Google. There seems to be no definitive single answer. On the contrary, multiple websites offer differing answers. BirdFact.com actually offers the equivalent of an honors course on the subject of duck-group names, with no fewer than 45 options. You can have a badling of ducks, or a brace of ducks. You can have a brood, a company, or a diving. A fleet, a flight, a flush. A knob of ducks, a lute, a plump. Duck groups have different names if you see them in the air or on the water or on the ground. Look, there’s a skein of ducks! A what? You know, a smeath — a sord — a suce of ducks. You mean a wobbling of ducks? Yes! Sheesh! Don’t you speak English?

These questions are critical in my neighborhood now, out here on Planet Outer Linebrook, in the western nether-regions of Ipswich, Massachusetts, because we’ve been invaded by a duck gang. I was surprised the first time I looked out my front windows and saw them waddling around on a neighbor’s grass. I was a city boy my entire life till I arrived in Ipswich, so I had limited exposure to ducks. I assumed they needed water, but the body of water closest to my house is a neighbor’s little pond about halfway between here at Cumby’s. The next-closest traditional duck habitat would be Hood Pond, a mile or so further west. But here they were. A dopping of ducks, brazenly strutting their stuff.

I shuddered, flashing back to the tough neighborhood I survived in Chicago. To me, this didn’t look like ordinary, innocent, awkward waddling by harmless poultry. This looked like stalking, the kind of quiet menace that street gangs brought to East 59th Street on the South Side of my childhood. It seemed to me that these could be murderous killer fowl, descending on outer Linebrook to have their way with us, threatening our lives and livelihoods, forcing us to pay protection. The Godfather, Part 4, but with birds.

They do look silly, on the surface — by which I mean, the surface of the earth. Ducks are designed to skim along the top of a liquid. Their dopey webbed feet are frantically cycling under the surface, but topside, they look calm and cool, almost regal. It’s all a cover-up. But on your front yard? They wobble, they move like windup toys, and not very good windup toys. They snuffle their silly rounded beaks into the grass, searching for bugs and other yummy grossities, and appear to meander aimlessly. But my Chicago experience taught me that this is not aimless meandering. This is “casing the joint.” They’re looking for control. They want to quietly coerce us, via fear and intimidation, to obey them.

The Linebrook Road ducks did all the bug-grubbing they could on my neighbor’s property, then they waddled over to mine. I stood safely behind my window, watching them extend their territory. They rooted around our forsythia, doing their best to look like regular everyday feathered friends, but I could read the evil in their hearts. “This is our home now,” they were saying. “We’ll waddle here all we want, and there’s nothing you can do to stop us. All the way from Hood Pond to your neighbor’s miserable little cesspool — it’s ours.”

The pressure is intense, and unrelentless. Every day now, I find this wedge of ducks marching past my windows, this puddling of ducks circling my house in their ominous, passive-aggressive single file.

And you know what happens next. If they don’t find the bugs they need, as they root around in your grass and unraked leaves, they start quacking you awake before sunup, refusing to let you rest until you throw bread out into the yard. Cave in to that demand, and you open the floodgates. One ultimatum after another. 

Until you have no choice but to call a butcher with a rifle.

Then, things get ugly.


Doug Brendel hides from daggles of dangerous ducks outdoors at DougBrendel.com.

On the big screen in our cafetorium today: The Muppet Election!

Is the election finally over? I mean the record-shattering, hair-splitting Massachusetts House of Representatives contest settled by a single vote out of some 24,000. Is it all over? The hand recount, the court challenge, the rulings by our rulers, everything?

Because if it’s really over, if it’s totally settled, then I’m ready to move on to the merchandising.

I’ll be opening the Every Vote Counts Museum, with an awesome exhibition featuring every one of the disputed ballots, each in its own frame under its own spotlight. Each museum guest can borrow a big magnifying glass to super-enlarge their view of the scribbled graffiti, random obscenity, and multiple Donald Trump write-in votes that complicated the manual recount. You’ll see first-hand how many ways voters are capable of failing to follow simple instructions, like “completely fill in the oval to the right of your choice.” You’ll also come face-to-face with the heartbreaking decline of our educational system, as you review the handiwork of multiple adults who never learned to color inside the lines. All in all, an emotional and meaningful museum experience.

You can visit the museum for a single modest fee (registered voters get a 10% discount), but there are also optional ticketed tours:

  • “Lawyer-licious” takes you into a replica courtroom where animatronic attorneys argue through every contested election since Gore v. Bush, but they’re singing and dancing.
  • For the kids: “Whack-a-Poll,” where each child dresses up like a judge and uses a “ballot-mallet” to club the heck out of the candidate of their choice. 
  • And our pride and joy, ideal for all ages and party affiliations: A virtual Lenny Mirra hosts our “Stop the Steal” rollercoaster ride.

Coming soon: Our museum will offer valuable workshops on important topics like “How to Fill Out a Massachusetts Ballot” and “How to Sue the Massachusetts Secretary of State.” (The “Ballot” workshop will have two separate tracks; general voters will attend “How to Use a Sharpie” while advanced voters enjoy “Better Ways to Express Your Rage.”)

In the museum gift shop, you’ll find an entertaining array of bobblehead dolls: not just the candidates and the usual Massachusetts celebs, but also the ordinary folk, the real heroes, who had to squint at the ballots, one by one, and pass judgment. Show one of these bobbleheads a mock ballot and their head will bob either “yea” or “nay.” (Tablets of mock ballots sold separately, in quantities of 24,000.)

Also in the gift shop: a precisely rendered replica of a ballot box — but slide your ballot into the slot and discover the fun truth: It’s really a shredder! So handy for home or office election fraud.

And you won’t want to head home without your commemorative “Every Vote Counts” coffee table book. This stunning full-color volume lets you relive the agony and the ecstasy of the 2022 Second Essex District race. 

For a limited time, buy one copy of the coffee table book and get a fun-filled children’s activity book free of charge. Besides coloring maps of all 5-1/2 towns in the district, and putting a sticker on their own house, that child you love will have a great time filling out an intentionally tricky ballot, and working out a maze that gets them from their own home to their proper polling place, then to court, then to court again, and finally to the State House.

As you leave the museum, we’ll give you a complimentary sticker to proudly wear home. You’ll have your choice of “I Voted,” “I Forgot,” or “I Blew It Off.”

It’s not too late to get in on the ground floor as an investor in our new Every Vote Counts Museum. And there are benefits. With a contribution of $50,000, for example, you get a lifetime supply of black Sharpies. For $100,000, I come pick you up next Election Day and drive you to your polling place.

A quarter-million and I drove you back home.


Doug Brendel lives in Precinct 4 of Ipswich, Massachusetts, 6 exhausting miles from his polling place, which may account for his ballot irregularities. Pass judgment on him at DougBrendel.com.

Ipswich? What’s that? The envelope, please

The final issue of Time magazine each year announces the “Person of the Year.” But in 1983 they named the personal computer “Machine of the Year.” And in 1989 our endangered earth became “Planet of the Year.”

These departures from tradition seem to have opened the floodgates. Last week’s POTY issue featured not only a POTY but also the Icon of the Year, Entertainer of the Year, Athlete of the Year, Heroes of the Year — this goes on and on: Invention of the Year, Breakthrough of the Year. Sometimes just one “of the Year” isn’t enough: Time names multiple books, movies, and TV shows of the year.

The outrage, of course, is that Ipswich was completely ignored.

Totally unfair. Lots of stuff deserving of recognition happened here in 2022.

So, as a public service, the Outsidah forthwith sets the record straight:

  • Bridge of the Year — County Street. Designated by government thugs as “structurally unsound,” cruelly cut in half the long way, brutally choked off on one end, this historic span nonetheless continued faithfully serving northbound traffic so Little Neck residents could get home from the beach without being forced to deploy their yachts.
  • Loser of the Year — Lenny Mirra. After a decade as a State Rep, often sneaking in via very close elections, he cut this year’s campaign too close. In a recount, he lost by a single vote out of some 24,000. Of course, if Mirra’s current court challenge puts him back in the Massachusetts House, he’ll lose his Loser trophy. (If this means yet another court challenge, so be it. We can’t let these awards be manipulated by the threat of legal action.)
  • Most-Read Feature of the Year ­— Tales From the Scanner. Every Ipswich Local News columnist was hoping to win this one, and Obituaries ran a strong race. But in the end, the people’s choice was clear. Police and fire reports discreetly omit names and other personal information, but readers can’t resist scrutinizing the descriptions in search of their neighbors, friends, and relatives. Especially relatives.
  • Impediment of the Year — Ipswich River Dam. This was a no-brainer. Yes, the dam has been obstructing Mother Nature for 100 years — there was talk of an extraordinary “Impediment of the Century” designation — but the dam nailed the award this year in particular because of a new surge of support for its eradication. Coming in a distant second was the County Street Bridge blockade.
  • Annoyance of the Year — The Drought. No matter how much rain fell, the long-parched earth kept rasping, “More! More!” Cheating on the outdoor watering ban led to a new underworld of neighbors squealing on neighbors. Landscapers got sued for so-called “evergreen” trees turning totally taupe. At one point, the river flow measured “basically zero.” The Annoyance of the Year award was temporarily in doubt, as County Street travelers noted an advantage: If the bridge crumbled while they were crossing, at least they wouldn’t drown. Some launched a movement to reclassify the drought as “Mixed Blessing of the Year,” but environmentalists pushing for “Devastating Climate-Change Evidence of the Year” balanced out the conflict, and the compromise “Annoyance” designation prevailed.
  • Impasse of the Year — Five Corners. With proposed reconfiguration and traffic lights, in 2023 this one could easily land elsewhere. Maybe where Hammatt Street and the train tracks converge at Depot Square? Get your nominations in now.

So there, Time magazine. Take that.

I’m thinking next year, we get Ipswich into the Oscars.


Doug Brendel lives on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He was named Windbag of the Year but declined the award. Follow him at NewThing.net.

“You’ll need labs”: Personality, sweat, and tears

I have not lived in Ipswich long, but I have lived here long enough to know who takes your blood.

Pity the poor phlebotomists. Appointment after appointment, they put up with vampire humor. Intrepid patients who don’t mind giving up their essential bodily fluids can actually crack Dracula jokes during the designated draining.

But not me. Phlebotomy is not a comic topic, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t get sick at a sight of blood; I get sick at the sound of blood. We can’t even use the word at my house. We randomly substitute the word personality to keep me from keeling over in the midst of an ordinary conversation.

(I’m not alone in this. I went to college with a woman who had an even more severe variety of this condition. In literature class, the prof said, “The author goes on in this vein,” and poor Becky flopped right from her chair onto the floor, out cold. God made people like Becky so that people like me have someone to pity. “Vein” “Artery”! Doesn’t bother me a bit!)

Wait, gimme a minute, please. I’m feeling a little woozy writing this.

Okay, all better. Thanks for your patience.

When I moved to Ipswich, my first order of business was to find a doctor, which inevitably means finding a phlebotomist, because a doctor will eventually order “labs.” (It’s a euphemism to keep you from freaking; you know they want a sample of the red stuff.) I found a doc in Ipswich, and made it my business to befriend the person with the needle, whom I’ll call Scarlett, not only to protect her privacy, but also to make a clever color connection.

I wanted to be sure Scarlett understood that she had my utmost respect, and that she would not be getting any cracks about fangs from me, nothing but complete cooperation, anything to speed the process along as smoothly and painlessly as possible.

And also to make sure she understood, and agreed, that I would need to lie down for this.

Yes, you read that right. I gotta lie down. Not just sit down. Lie down. Prone. Flat out. Horizontal.

I’m still remembered scornfully in the town where I used to live, out west, because on my first visit to the doctor, I tried to be a big strong boy. Didn’t confess my condition. Suddenly I was waking up on the floor, and discovering that medical professionals have a capacity for incredibly unrefined language.

So yeah, when I arrived in Ipswich and made Scarlett’s acquaintance, I was quick to squeal on myself. No surprises. No collapsing to the carpet.

And Scarlett was cool with it. The consummate professional. Sit back, this chair reclines, stretch out, try to relax, how’s your family, all done, don’t get up too quickly. Beautiful.

But here’s the thing about life. Sure, it can be beautiful for 500 milliliters or so, but at some point it changes. Accordingly, the medical practice was sold, and I lost my lovely Scarlett. And the outfit they got sold to isn’t in Ipswich. They’re in a place called Rowley.

Now, with great dread, I found myself visiting a new phlebotomist. I’ll call her Ruby.

Ruby of Rowley. 

It didn’t go as I expected.

Ruby was cheerful, energetic, not at all vampire-like, and when I told her I would need to lie down, she was completely sympathetic.

Sit back, this chair reclines, stretch out, try to relax….

Waiting for the needle, I tried to make conversation. “I can’t imagine doing what you do all day,” I said weakly.

She chuckled as she poked me.

“To me, it’s like Kool-Aid,” she said. But then her face darkened a bit, and she proceeded to make a shocking confession of her own.

She can’t handle raw meat.

“The first Thanksgiving after my wedding, I tried to prepare the turkey,” she recalled. “My husband heard me gagging and came running before I fainted.”

“You’re a phlebotomist!” he roared. “How can you have a weak stomach? Over a turkey?

Then she had to spill the whole truth. It’s not just raw meat. It’s anything that hasn’t been obviously, thoroughly cooked through-and-through.

“Deli meat,” she whispered, shuddering. “They slice it! It’s so thin and wiggly! It’s horrible!”

Ruby looked at me, her face grim, her skin ashen.

“I can’t make a ham sandwich,” she murmured. “I’ll pass out.”

I was strangely reassured, learning that my new phlebotomist has a foible. I used to be embarrassed, having to lie down to give personality. But no more. We’re equals. I may even be a bit superior. I can make a ham sandwich.

We’re going to have a Christmas goose this weekend, and I’m going to help in the kitchen. Standing up.


Doug Brendel lives in an old house the color of personality in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Check out his other life at NewThing.net.