Then There Was the One About Greenheads Dating

Stop reading.

Stop, I said.

Why are you still reading?

It’s amazing, in a way, that you’re still reading.

This is the 300th time I have elbowed my way into the consciousness of unsuspecting readers as “The Outsidah.” Yeah, 300 columns. Sheesh.

I came up in Chicago in the days when great newspapers — the Tribune, the Sun-Times, the Daily News  (R.I.P.) — featured famous columnists: Mike Royko, Irv Kupcinet, Siskel & Ebert, the complicated Bob Greene. People on the train would say, “Did you see what Royko said today?” I wanted to be Royko! I still do. Of course, he wrote 7,500 columns in his lifetime, which puts me some 7,200 behind him. If you haven’t stopped reading yet, something tells me you’re not going to last another 7,200 rounds of this stuff.

But let us pause and consider who, or what, “The Outsidah” really is.

In theory, each of my 299 previous columns has offered something approximating commentary on life in small-town New England from the viewpoint of a newcomer.

In reality, I’ve basically just sat in my bathrobe in my house in Ipswich and said whatever came to mind.

This endless slow-motion fiasco began with Dan MacAlpine. He only asked for 500 words at a time, and only once a month; but it all got out of hand. It takes me 500 words just to clear my throat. And after my lifetime in big cities like Chicago and Phoenix, I found life in Ipswich so entertaining, “The Outsidah” could have been daily. Maybe hourly. Sue me; I’m loquacious.

When the Ipswich Chronicle  merged with two other papers to become the Chronicle & Transcript, one unintended side-effect was that now, six towns instead of just one were subjected to the Outsidah’s nonsense. This gave me a vast swath of the North Shore to comment on, which was almost certainly a mistake. Instead of only a few thousand Ipswich residents squirming as, for example, I considered the Ipswich train station and proffered a proposal on porta-potty potential — which I still say is a grand idea — now there were housewives in Hamilton, widows in Wenham, and various readers in Boxford, Topsfield, and Middleton, all at risk of being rankled, or simply bewildered, by the Outsidah’s odd opinions.

Anyway, for me, it’s been a hoot.

For my readers, eh, maybe not so much.

My wife Kristina — who is an honors student in Literature at the University of Massachusetts, so she should know — observes that my 300 columns have really been just four columns ceaselessly regurgitated. There’s (1) the column about local traffic, (2) the column about local weather, (3) the column about local wildlife, and (4) the column reflecting what former Ipswich town manager Robin Crosbie called my “morbid fascination with local government.”

I don’t prefer to think of The Outsidah in such irksome terms. I would say The Outsidah has been 300 brilliantly variegated essays which have just happened to clump around four utterly captivating themes. With varying results.

For example, in these 300 columns:

  • I have interviewed a cigarette-smoking deer, a mosquito on vacation, and a grieving chipmunk widow, and eavesdropped on a squirrel-couple’s domestic dispute.
  • I’ve insulted both Rowley and Saugus so often, it’s become a contest, with prizes, and a parade.
  • I’ve been flamed (more than once) for my wisdom about right-of-way on North Shore thoroughfares.
  • I’ve publicly accused a Town Manager of stealing my garbage can. (Charges later dropped.)
  • I’ve offered major public-service reporting, like my exposé on feral chickens.

And so on. You can see how I’ve contributed to the quality of life around here, right?

It feels strange, in a way, to have 300 columns behind me. “The Outsidah” has outlasted the Little Neck controversy (during which I patiently taught non-local readers how to pronounce “Foeffees”), the perchlorate crisis (also featuring a pronunciation lesson), the endless “almost finished” construction of Ipswich’s High Street bridge (which was good for, I don’t know, three or four dozen columns), and the appearance of a bear in someone’s backyard. I’ve commented on and survived countless nor’easters, potholes, and lawn-watering bans — and weathered multiple local elections and Town Meetings — all, I’m happy to say, without losing more than a couple hundred friends. The Outsidah has had something to say about New Hampshire drivers, cell phones in church, the vending machine at Ipswich Town Hall, and dog poop.

Where else could you get all this valuable stuff?

Yes, I know, it’s been mostly silliness. There are far more important things in life than whether Topsfield wins the Chowderfest competition. So I’m going to try to have it both ways: celebrating 300 “Outsidah” columns AND doing something meaningful.

Here’s the plan:

I’m going to release a new book, Ipswich in Stitches: The Outsidah’s Greatest Hits So Far. Illustrated as always by lame cartoons, this book will feature — if not the funniest columns, then at least the least lackluster columns, of the first 300.

To launch the new book, I’ll throw a party at Personal Best Training Studio, high atop the Ipswich Ale Brewery at 2 Brewery Place in Ipswich, beginning at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 25th. You’re invited.

The new book won’t be off the press by then. But to pre-order an autographed copy of Ipswich in Stitches that evening, you can make a $30 tax-deductible contribution to NewThing.net, the humanitarian charity I lead in the former USSR. See how we’re turning this into something meaningful?

Anyone who donates $30 or more between now and March 25th can also receive an autographed copy on request — and if you’re an Ipswich resident, I’ll be happy to deliver your copy in person.

Questions, comments, complaints, hate mail, and/or snarky rejoinders will be happily received; just email 300@DougBrendel.com. Also feel free to send up to 7,200 ideas for new columns.

Okay, NOW you can stop reading. I’m done for the day.

 


Yes, Doug Brendel really does write in his bathrobe. Good luck trying to un-see that now. Follow Doug’s ongoing nonsense here at Outsidah.com, or his less nonsensical stuff at NewThing.net.

 

I’m a Quitter

 

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Tell me, would you trust this creature with your car? I can only offer one answer … YES! Dear Lord, please! YES!!

If all goes as planned, by the time you read these words, I will be within a few hours of quitting my job.

I don’t mean I’m quitting my “paying work,” as a freelance direct-mail copywriter for non-profit organizations.

And I don’t mean I’m over my “passion,” which is my charitable work with NewThing.net in the former Soviet Union.

Of course I don’t mean I’ll stop posting my snarky blogs at ComplicatedEnglish.com, where I whine about other people’s grammar, syntax, and punctuation.

And I certainly don’t mean I’m through with Outsidah.com; how could I cease offering witty commentary on life in small-town New England from the standpoint of a newcomer — when I’ve been doing it for nearly a decade, and with a minimum of hate mail in response?

No, I’m talking about a job I’ve held three times in my life, one for each kid.

I’m talking about Teen Taxi Driver.

If God smiles on me, next Thursday, I’m done.

Our third and final child, Lydia Charlotte, is scheduled to take her driving test with Triad Driving School in Georgetown, and I’m praying they taught her well. I wouldn’t know, personally, because over the course of all those hours of behind-the-wheel training that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts requires for a teen to get a license, Lydia Charlotte’s mother was in the passenger seat. I was cowering, eyes clamped shut, in the back seat.

Not that Lydia Charlotte is a bad driver. I hear from Mom that our daughter is actually quite competent. She did the whole 30 required hours of live classroom instruction, the whole 12 hours driving in the company of a certified instructor, and 6 hours observing another student driver from the back seat. (Geez! Massachusetts! Legislate much? Don’t you realize the kid in the back seat is spending those 6 hours on Snapchat?) I also attended the requisite 2-hour “content of driver education” class as Lydia Charlotte’s “parent or guardian.” (I’m definitely her parent; look how identical our scowls are.)

So please don’t misinterpret my quivering blindly in the back seat. This isn’t a matter of the driver’s skills. This is a matter of the passenger’s nerves. Seeing an automobile as a “death machine,” as I do, I have a really hard time letting anyone else drive, other than me. I’m not so delusional as to think I’m a better driver than everyone else on the road; it’s just that if I’m going to die a tragic accidental death, I prefer the person delivering the eulogy to say, “It’s almost ironic that he went this way, after a lifetime of fearing automobiles.” As opposed to having no choice but to say, “He might still be here with us today, if he had just trusted his paranoia, if he just hadn’t climbed into that passenger seat.” In any moment of crisis, give me a steering wheel to grasp. For me, a false sense of control beats actual lack of control any old day.

But I digress.

I enjoy my children. During my cumulative 4.72 million hours as Teen Taxi Driver, I’ve found them to be mostly pleasant driving companions. I’ve been Teen Taxi Driver first for Natalie, then for Kristofer, and now for Lydia Charlotte. But soon — maybe tomorrow, even, depending on how early in the day you read this — I won’t be Teen Taxi Driver, ever again.

There will be no more “I need to go to Julian’s for our project; it’s due tomorrow.”

No more “Can you take me to Mae’s party? Everyone’s going to be there except me.”

No more “Dad, wake up; your alarm didn’t go off; we have to leave NOW.” That’s the worst. Driving down Linebrook Road in my pajamas. Embarrassing.

I’m about to be free. I’m feeling almost giddy. Once I’m free, nothing can un-free me. My wife is 60. No matter how hard we try, we can’t make another teenage driver.

And what with college tuition looming, we’re too broke to adopt, so don’t even think about that.

 

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Doug Brendel lives on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where he only pulls his car out of the garage when it’s absolutely necessary. Follow him by clicking “Follow” here at Outsidah.com.

An Inconvenient Christmas

Christmas.

Humbug.

This past Sunday, the final Sunday of Advent, I got to church at the usual time, but couldn’t sit in my usual pew.

Know why?

Because there were strangers sitting there!

Strangers!

You know, those people who only go to church at Christmastime and Eastertime.

Of course I’m glad when people visit my church; it was great to see the place packed.

But maybe we should take note of the sections of pews that rarely get used the rest of the year, and designate them for the Christmas and Easter folks — maybe with a nice bronze plaque that says “Art thou a major-holidays-only kind of Christian? This is the place for you!”

I can’t tell you how disconcerting it was to experience the annual Lessons & Carols in the seventh row from the back instead of my usual fourth row from the back. It’s like that lovely song from My Fair Lady: I’ve grown accustomed to my place.

In “my” pew, I sit at a certain proper angle to a certain memorial plaque (one of the Appletons who spent years as the church’s senior warden) and a certain stained glass window (I’ve memorized the arrangement of yellows, greens, and reds). Sitting in the “wrong” pew, I’m all tsemisht, which is a Yiddish word, and I know we don’t typically associate Yiddish with the Church of England, but sometimes you just need a Yiddish word, nothing else quite does the job. Sitting in the wrong pew is confusing, it’s disturbing, it puts a crimp in my already tenuous connection to the divine.

It’s complicated enough to be an Episcopalian, having to keep track of all the sitting, standing, kneeling, crossing yourself, singing, reading prayers aloud, praying silently while the priest prays aloud — thank heaven they write out all the instructions for you every week. But to navigate all of these religious rituals in the seventh row from the back is virtually impossible for a fourth-row-from-the-back guy.

When the time comes for the Eucharist, an attendant appears and stands at the end of each pew in turn, starting at the front of the church. When the attendant clears your pew, you stand up and walk to the front of the church, where you kneel and wait for the priest and a helper to bring you the bread and the wine. This is normally a simple maneuver for even the clumsiest Christian, which would be me. But when you’ve spent years taking a certain number of steps down the aisle before you kneel at the altar rail, you have to really concentrate; otherwise, by the time you get to the front, you could still be taking the number of steps you’ve been conditioned to take, at which point you could pitch yourself over that altar rail, right into the arms of an unsuspecting acolyte. Which is going to dissipate the Spirit, I’m afraid.

Wait, let me retract something. I called them strangers. These folks who show up in church at Christmas and Easter aren’t really strangers. I think I know who they are. I believe they’re the same people who show up on the Fourth of July to spread out their blankets on my section of Crane Beach. And take my favorite table at Zumi’s. And my parking spot at Dr. Hromadka’s office.

Peace on earth? It’s doable. Try sitting over there, and we’ll see.

 

Where am I? Here? That can’t be right

I’m worried about my neighbors.

They’re looking to me for guidance, and I’m failing them.

No, sorry, I didn’t mean to mislead you. They’re not looking to me for guidance the way people often use the term guidance.

They’re not looking to me for spiritual guidance, for example. That would be unwise. I was a clergyman for 15 years, but the fact that I’m not a clergyman anymore should rule me out as a source of spiritual guidance. If you come to me for counseling, I’ll counsel you to go somewhere else for counseling. That’s about the extent of my wisdom.

And my neighbors are certainly not looking to me for financial guidance. That would be even sillier. (I bought my wife an extravagant gift. She, ever the gatekeeper, asked, “Is it paid for?” “Sure,” I replied. “I put it on the card.” She gave me the weirdest look. Then she returned the gift.)

My neighbors look to me for a different kind of guidance. Not spiritual. Not financial. Not even political — even though I would be totally happy giving them instructions about how to vote.

But no. My neighbors consider me a valuable source of guidance on a completely different level.

I help them find their way home.

This is not a difficult function for me. My house is bright barn red, and sits on a corner, very close to the road, like all the best 202-year-old houses. (Oh, let’s be more precise: My front yard is about as wide as crime-scene tape.) So of course, if you live in one of the nearly 50 houses in the neighborhood adjacent to my house, you learn to turn at the red house on Linebrook Road. You don’t read street-name signs, you don’t squint at your odometer. What nonsense. You go on auto-pilot, you doze at the wheel if you want to, because you know when you see that big red square looming over the road, you turn just before it. It’s simple.

This year, however, it was clear that the bright barn red had seen redder days, and a new coat of paint would be necessary. But as my wife and I began scraping off the old paint, it wasn’t just old paint that came off. Great hunks of rotted clapboard siding were peeling off the side of the house. By the looks of the garbage gathering at our feet, it seemed that the clapboards might never have been replaced since Timothy Morse Jr. built the house in 1817.

This was no longer a job for humble amateurs. So we placed a call to our trusty contractor, Shawn Cayer of Windhill Builders, and asked him to work his magic. Soon he had a team of workers erecting scaffolding, prying siding, and exposing the 19th-century bones of our house. In no time, however, they had replaced the wretched rot with beautiful brand-new clapboards. Beautiful brand-new unpainted clapboards.

Which means, my house was suddenly beige.

It wouldn’t stay beige, of course — but it would take a few days for the painting crew to arrive.

In the meantime — trouble.

“A new color for your house!” one neighbor remarked.

“Beige! So modern!” another said, barely masking the disapproval.

“I love the new color!” an elderly neighbor offered, with a smile. “It’s been barn-red since 1888!” It’s possible she watched the original paint job.

These few neighbors who loved the new color were clearly not the drivers, the commuters, the folks who rely on the big red house to tell them where to turn. Before long, I was hearing from the working-stiffs demographic — via email, text, and a single, plaintive, old-fashioned voicemail.

  • “Doug, where’s your house? I’m in Topsfield.”
  • “Dude, did you paint your house? I was past Hood Pond before I realized!”
  • “Doug, it would have been nice if you had at least notified your neighbors that you were changing the color of your house. My Zachary was late for his classes at Pingree today. Thank you very much.”
  • “Yo, I must have turned the wrong place. There’s a red house on the right at — eh, never mind. Can you call me?”

And this plaintive tweet on Twitter:

  • “#SomethingStrange. #MyNeighborhood apparently #obliterated. Can’t find street where I always turn to #gohome. #Batterylow. Someone find me, please. #BoxfordPoliceStation.”

A couple days later, the painters arrived. The house is now red again. Timothy Morse Jr. can rest in peace.

And my neighbors, too.

I want to serve my neighbors well. I really do.

YOUR ATTENTION, PLEASE — GUIDANCE SYSTEMS: GO.

 

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Doug Brendel lives in the red house close to outer Linebrook Road, and offers clear directions to passers-by. Follow Doug’s charity at NewThing.net.