How much wood would a wood-lugger lug?

Winter descends upon New England, and with it the need for firewood. Also firewood-lugging.

Do you have a fireplace? I mean a real one. The kind of fireplace John Winthrop Jr. and his gang put in their homes in the 1600s.

Sure, those fake fireplaces can be charming — like in the front room at Fox Creek Tavern in Ipswich, or the back room at American BBQ in Rowley. But they don’t require firewood-lugging. They only require power cord-plugging. You don’t have to be physically fit to slide prongs into their proper slots in a wall outlet. With a real wood-burning fireplace, on the other hand, you must lug firewood. It helps to be Popeye. Eat your spinach.

It also helps if your wood is stacked close to your fireplace. This minimizes the amount of lugging you have to do, and the amount of spinach you have to consume. However, it probably isn’t feasible to have a mountain firewood stacked in your living room; a single cord is 128 cubic feet.

So it’s helpful to understand high-efficiency firewood-lugging.

Pay attention, class.

To begin, a real-life example of the principle in question:

Our woodpile is located inside our garage, against the back wall. To get firewood from our garage woodpile to the living room fireplace requires quite a complicated process.

First, you must assess the size of your firewood. Firewood comes in various lengths, and the average girth of the average pieces will also affect your calculations. (My firewood typically comes from Wolf Hill Home & Garden Center, at Route 1 and Linebrook Road, less than a mile from my home.)

Then there’s the question of your firewood carrier — the device you use to lug your logs. My particular top-grain brown suede log-carrier (also purchased at Wolf Hill) is basically an expensive rectangle of thick leather with a couple of straps for handles. In my case, it holds about five pieces of my particular size of firewood. Which is plenty, because I can’t stand to eat any more spinach.

I go to the garage, load the carrier, and head back through the house to dump my five pieces of firewood into my living room firewood rack, which holds a total of about 15 pieces of firewood. So I have to make three round trips between woodpile and fireplace.

But here’s the key to efficient firewood-lugging. After the third wood-dump, I return to the garage to toss my empty firewood carrier. I could simply throw it, as usual, on top of what’s left of the woodpile, turn around and return to the house. But no. (Pay attention now.) I toss the carrier and then pick up one more log and take it with me, back into the house.


I bring the one additional log into the living room and said log on top of what’s already stacked in the firewood rack.

I’m gaining one stick of firewood for every three trips to the garage. Those 15 logs become 16.

Check the math! I’m eliminating every 15th trip to the garage. That’s more than a 6% gain.

Over the course of the entire winter, how many trips to the garage could I spare myself? Lots. About twice a month, I get a day off from firewood-lugging.

Think of the time I’ll save. I’ll be able to learn calligraphy. Take a Wordle class. Search the house for that missing cat. 

Life is short. Spend it wisely. Not lugging firewood. Every trip to the woodpile, add a log.

At the end, on my deathbed, I’ll be able to rasp one final word of wisdom to my loved ones:

“Spinach … eat 6% less of it!”

Doug Brendel lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts, in an antique house with an impossible number of fireplaces. Check him out at

We liked it that way

An old man sits hunched at the wheel of his ancient, rusted Mercedes-AMG GT with twin-turbo 4.0-liter V8. His face is wrinkled, his frame withered. He scowls.

“Why are you scowling, Grandpa?”

The old man works his jaws and runs his rubbery tongue over his toothless gums.

“This place makes me sad,” he rasps. “And mad.”

“Ipswich?” the little boy whimpers. “I thought you’ve always loved Ipswich!”

“I don’t mean all of Ipswich,” the old man grumbles. “Just this place. This part, little Dougie. This one part we’re looking at, right here, right now, you and me.”

The little boy looks out through the cloudy, pockmarked old windshield.

“Grandpa, it doesn’t look bad to me. Why would it make you sad or mad?”

“Ah, they ruined it!” the old man growls. “Back in 2023. Before you were even born.”

The little boy’s eyes open wide as he peers at their surroundings. “Was it wonderful before?”

The old man pushes away from the steering wheel, leaning back with a heavy sigh on the cracked gray leather of the driver’s seat.

“We called it Five Corners,” he says, his voice wavering wistfully.

The little boy squints, his head swiveling to take in the whole scene. “I only see four corners, Grandpa.”

The old man turns, his face suddenly breaking into a smile, facing the boy. “You’re so observant, little fella! You take it all in, you see it like it is. Just like I did at your age. No wonder they named you after me.”

“But why did they call it Five Corners,” the boy asks, “if it only had four corners?”

“They ruined it!” the old man thunders. His palms pound the steering wheel, and the boy flinches.

But then the boy composes himself and tries another question.

“Why did they change it, Grandpa?”

“Not change!” the old man roars. “Ruination!

The little boy is full of pity as he looks at his grandfather. He can see the old eyes glistening with melancholy memories.

“Those were the days,” Grandpa says, his voice dropping off almost to a whisper. “People communicated with each other back then. They looked each other in the eye, from their vehicles. They waved their hands, they wiggled their fingers. They came to some unspoken agreement. It was the only way to get through Five Corners. It was tradition. It was how things were done. People who didn’t reach out, who didn’t participate in the norms of our community, they paid the price. We had people stuck on Market Street for hours trying to turn left onto Central. And we liked it that way. Some drivers on North Main hoping to cross the intersection southbound finally formed a new religion where you prayed for divine protection and just eased into traffic and took your chances.”

The little boy feels a lump forming in his throat.

“But Grandpa, things were so beautiful back then — why would they, uh, ruinate it?”

The old man looks away from the boy, out over the curled edges of his faded beach sticker.

Make it more compact, someone said. More like a standard four-way where two roads meet. Improve capacity, someone said. Improve placemaking. What the heck is placemaking?”

Little Dougie frowns skeptically. “I don’t know. Is that a rhetorical question?”

“The side street on Town Hill used to be one-way coming downhill,” Grandpa grouses. “Now it’s one-way going uphill. That’s just wrong. It’s against nature.”

The little boy frowns, not quite understanding.

“And a traffic light!” the old man goes on. “A modern, electronic, totally non-historical traffic light! John Winthrop Jr. never needed a traffic light, did he? What do we need with a traffic light?”

Little Dougie looks up at the traffic light.

“It’s green, Grandpa.”

Grandpa guns the Mercedes. The little boy’s head bounces off the back of his seat.

“In the old days,” Grandpa mutters, “we’d still be stuck back there. And we’d like it that way.”

Doug Brendel lives so far west in Ipswich, you have to navigate Five Corners, Lord’s Square, and the Route 1 intersection to get there. Find Doug somewhere between here and Hood Pond, at

If we do rock-paper-scissors, I vote for paper

Ipswich made big news last week, because there wasn’t any news.

On Election Night, the race for the Essex Second District in the Massachusetts House of Representatives — a district of which Ipswich is one of 5-1/2 towns — was too close to call.

It was still too close to call the next day, and the day after that. And a week after that.

At one point, election officials were waiting for FWABs. That’s “federal write-in absentee ballots,” the ones cast by Uniformed Service members or their family members, or citizens residing outside the U.S. It seems weird to me that any election could be determined by a FWAB, but that’s the law: GUTI — “get used to it.”

Meanwhile, something called “provisional” ballots were still to be “resolved,” whatever that means, by the RMV — results to be released by today, Wed., Nov. 23rd.

At one point, it was reported that Republican Lenny Mirra was leading Democrat Kristin Kassner by just 4 votes — out of a total 23,488 cast.

(If true, that would be a win by less than 0.017%. Yeah, say it out loud: seventeen one-thousandths of a percentage point. You’ll probably never again need to form those words. Hope your mouth enjoyed it.)

Massachusetts law provides for a recount when the numbers are so close, and I hear a recount is under way. But’s Director of Research reports that a recount has changed the outcome of an election only three times out of nearly 6,300 elections in the past 22 years. Way better to win outright, the first time around, no matter how close the vote was.

So while you wait for the final answer, the tension can be torture — and knowing how hard it is to overturn an election via recount, the regrets can be even more painful. Somewhere in the Essex Second District, there are five Democrats who would have voted for Kassner — and could have put her over the top — but somehow, they didn’t get out to vote.

I have five friends in Ipswich who admit to being Democrats, but who didn’t end Election Day sporting an “I Voted” sticker. So I set out to interview them, in the wake of this historic near-miss, to find out what they might have to say for themselves. Excerpts from the transcripts:

Voter #1: “I meant to vote, sorry. I forgot. If Obama was running, I wouldn’t have forgot.”

Voter #2: “Wait — we didn’t win? Who won? Who was running?”

Voter #3: “I actually went out to vote, but when I got to the Y, a certain individual was going in ahead of me who really did me dirty in high school, class of ’76, and until I get an apology from that certain individual, I refuse to go anyplace that does business with them. The Y included. Saying it’s ‘just a polling place’ is no excuse, if you ask me. They could exclude certain people if they wanted to. They do it in Florida, don’t they?”

Voter #4: “Dang, I’m sorry I didn’t vote. I thought for sure we would win. I figured Lenny made his money in construction for 30 years, did something with his hair, and became a full-time politician. After Trump, who could trust a résumé like that?”

Voter #5: “I’m gonna vote in the recount, for sure.”

Doug Brendel lives in the political outback, on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Follow his strictly non-political non-profit work at

Burn, baby, burn

My garbage man is mad at me.

Me! The most conscientious sorter of waste products in the history of Ipswich, Massachusetts.

I am a devotee of the Ipswich Local News’ environmentalist columnist Paula Jones, who patiently and repeatedly teaches us about sorting our plastics from our pistachio shells. I obey Paula’s every word. I am a dues-paying curbside-composter. I peel the labels off my mangos before tossing the skins. At the end of a carton of eggs, I debate its disposal destination: Garbage? Recycling? Compost? The bag of non-recyclable film plastics hanging in my pantry? Or maybe slather it with organic mustard and munch it during Sunday Night Football? That’s it, five options. I don’t have the patience for any more.

We have so many environmentally superior options for disposing of our waste, we Brendels can go weekswithout filling our kitchen garbage can. Ipswich garbage-collectors are in danger of losing their jobs because there’s so seldom anything to collect at our place. The lucky guys who draw outer Linebrook Road duty spend their workdays riding on the back of the truck, listening to NPR on their earbuds and chuckling at their good fortune.

So why is my garbage man mad at me?

Because of bittersweet.

Bittersweet is that invasive vine, Celastrus orbiculatus, that people used to make those twisty holiday wreaths from. It’s so deadly, it’s illegal to sell it in Massachusetts today. When you see a tall, majestic New England tree coiled in beautiful vines, that’s bittersweet literally strangling it.

Before long, the bittersweet climbs to the top of the tree and spreads its leaves from its dozens of shoots over the top of its host, cutting off sunlight, killing the entire tree. Climate change is slow; bittersweet is fast. Even faster because birds disperse its seeds, and new vicious little bittersweet babies pop up like crazy all over the place.

Snip bittersweet with shears, hack at it with a saw, yank it out by its roots; but the question of the remains remains: Where should this go?

I can’t dump this stuff in the old compost heap at the corner of my property. The nasty little berries of the fallen bittersweet will take hold and start a whole new environmental crisis. That’s why they call it bitter.

Likewise for dumping my bittersweet in my curbside compost bin. Couldn’t this evil eventually leach out from the compost into other Ipswich curbside composting members’ properties? Yes. Bittersweet is a demon. Kill bittersweet? Forget about it. Google “bittersweet” and you’ll find 27.46 million webpages of despair. Bittersweet cannot be composted.

So it seemed my best option would be the good old-fashioned standard weekly garbage pickup. I stuffed the hacked-down tangle of bittersweet vines into one of those leaves-I-raked bags and dumped it in the bin like any ordinary bag of trash.

On garbage pickup day, however, my lovely garbage-collector took the other contents of our garbage bin and left the pernicious bag of bittersweet behind.

I adore my garbageman; I salute the effort, I support the cause. I don’t want to damage this relationship. So the next week, I took certain steps. I certified the bittersweet as “legal” and “approved,” by stuffing it all into one of those official Ipswich “overthrow” bags — $2 each, sold in rolls of five (at Aubuchon, Conley’s, Cumbie’s, DJ’s, Richdale, Shaw’s, and Tedford’s).

Also a non-starter. My beloved spurned me again. Left my bag at the curb. He wasn’t fooled by the overthrow bag I’d hidden my bittersweet in. The spiny twigs were poking out through the thin veneer of the bag, sneering silently to my dear garbageman: “Take me and you’re fired!” It’s the law: Leaf trash ain’t ordinary trash. Leaf trash must be composted, not hauled off and incinerated like ordinary Ipswich rubbish.

The truth is that bittersweet doesn’t even qualify for our annual Curbside Leaf Pickup Week, one of our town’s most cherished holidays, which happens each year, the week before Thanksgiving. (Hey! We’re in luck! That’s this week!) If bittersweet is included your curbside leaf bag, it winds up in the compost stream — and the seeds poison the gardens of countless other New Englanders. Again: Bittersweet cannot be composted.

The only proper end for bittersweet — the vines, which carry the berries, which carry the seeds, which carry the poison to our other vegetation — is death by fire. If your garbage pickup person can’t be tricked, bribed, or threatened into taking your cut-down bittersweet (so it can eventually be incinerated), then you’ve got to burn it yourself.

My clever wife follows the old New England tradition of twisting bittersweet vines into wreaths, then using them as fire-starters in our fireplace. She also recommends adding demon scarecrow decorations, “to give them a truly country-chic look.” These would have been especially popular last month in Salem. If only I had planned in advance to monetize this idea.

This whole episode has also taken a toll on my relationship with my garbageman. I hope to patch things up, but you never know with these things. Before long, it may be a tearful late-night argument over disposal of foil gift wrap.

Doug Brendel lives on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where his antique house is being slowly strangled by vegetation. Take a look at Doug, at least while you’re able, at

A pool in the basement would add value, right?

It’s a calculated risk, moving into a 200-year-old house. You’re not really the owner; you’re a temporary steward. The house has already lived longer than you ever will, and unless you screw up very, very badly, the house will still be standing there, aboveground, long after you’ve moved below. Living in a historic home is a privilege, an honor, a responsibility. And occasionally a pain.

In my chosen hometown of Ipswich, Massachusetts, my house — the back part built in 1797, the front part in 1817 — is regarded as “new construction.” Ipswich is famous for having more First Period homes (1626-1725) than any other community in America. Technically I can’t call my house “Colonial”; the historians have specified “Federal” for this era. This house is too “new” to be “Colonial.” If I refer to my house as “Colonial,” someone from the Ipswich Historical Commission shows up at my door with a musket.

Buy a 200-years-new house and you make certain assumptions. You may love the beautifully preserved original touches, the period detail. You may be charmed by the nooks and crannies. But you may also have to live with tilted floors and crooked doors, leaky window casings, and ancient systems. A historic-house expert once visited our dirt-floor basement, saw the odd assortment of makeshift columns holding up the floor above, and pronounced a simple, sexist, and probably accurate verdict: “What you have here is 200 years of lazy husbands.”

An owner may make improvements as their budget allows. After our house was built by Deacon Timothy Morse, some subsequent owner put in an oil tank and radiators. Someone wired the place for electricity. And someone sprang for the most important enhancement of all: indoor plumbing.

I’m no engineer, and I’ve never needed to be. I’ve lived most of my life, 60+ years or so, in reasonable houses, built in my own lifetime, with completely modern conveniences. Today, if I want to microwave yesterday’s pizza while someone else is blow-drying their hair, the house suddenly goes dark and quiet. You’re going to need to find something called an “electrical panel” and “reset” something called a “circuit breaker.” I don’t know what any of this means. All I know is, growing up in Chicago, I could toast a slice of raisin bread while watching Bugs Bunny. Now, I can’t.

This week, I learned — in greater detail than ever before — about the imperfections of yet another system in my beloved antique dwelling. Thanks to occasional minor emergencies in the downstairs bathroom, I have learned to use a plunger. My wife is the practical member of the team; she owns all the power tools and understands all the mysterious ways and means of our old house. But she was away at work, I was home alone, and the toilet backed up, so I plunged.

My very good neighbor across the street is a plumber, and he taught me the ideal technique for plunging: It’s not just push-push-push. The more effective practice is push-push-PULL. I push-push-pulled for half an hour or so, and finally got the line clear. I was so proud of myself, I decided to celebrate by doing my own laundry.

However, as the washing machine emptied, water started flowing from the base of the toilet, and backing up out of the adjacent shower. I found the bathroom, the hallway, and the laundry room flooded. I sprang into action. I spread an assortment of beach towels to sop up the water — I texted the news to my wife — and I left town.

In my defense, I did have a previously scheduled speaking engagement in Connecticut.

While I was there, I got the report from my wife. It turns out that the decades-old pipe between the centuries-old house and the who-knows-how-old septic tank was clogged. So for some unknown number of days, we’d been pumping all of our waste — from every sink, shower, tub, and toilet — into our basement.

By the time I got home, my wife had hired emergency drain-uncloggers, and all we had left to contend with was our basement floor. Instead of Federal Period dirt, we now have Jurassic Period swamp.

Our plumbing system? Intact. Working as well as it did the day it was installed, back there in the 19th Century.

Our house? Intact. Occasionally a pain, but we’re going to keep it.

Our marriage? Intact. I married my handyman. She knew what she was getting into.

Doug Brendel lives in a state of perpetual confusion on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Check in on him, please, at

This Christmas, we’re expecting Marley & Marley

We’ve survived another Halloween, but some of us more painlessly than others.

Assaults by ghosts can be expected in this spooky time of year, and not just by badly behaved children wearing cut-up bedsheets and lugging plastic jack-o-lanterns door-to-door.

I mean the real thing.

A carpenter named Timothy Morse Jr. was laid to rest in the Old Linebrook Cemetery, where Linebrook Road bends and Newbury Road begins, half a mile south and west of my house, a house which Mr. Morse built for himself and his family in 1817. After a couple hundred years’ worth of corpses were deposited in said cemetery, the “new” Linebrook Cemetery was established next door to the house. The remains of Mr. Morse, however, were not relocated. When his ghost wants to revisit his 205-year-old work of art, he has to float half a mile north and east.

I imagine Mr. Morse visits from time to time, particularly when he’s offended by some so-called “upgrade” to his masterpiece. Take the problem with the front door, which I inherited when I arrived from Arizona and bought the house. The entire place was beautifully preserved by the prior owner, but the front door was, shall we say, a lost cause. It appears that Mr. Morse may have scavenged a door that was already 175 years old by the time he hung it.

In any event, by the time I took possession of this front door, it was a rectangle of weather-beaten some-kind-of-wood, which complained noisily when you tried to open it and even more noisily when you tried to close it.

After some time, a persistent draft in the front part of the house made it clear that the “historic Morse door” was rotting from the bottom up. It would have to be replaced. Not just the door, but the threshold, the frame, the works.

A North Shore artisan was retained, the work was done. Beautiful. Here’s a brand-new-but-historically-appropriate front door to accompany the adjacent “Timothy Morse. Jr. House 1817” plaque affixed by the Ipswich Historical folks before I ever came to town.

My neighbors must have been pleased. Finally, they wouldn’t have to look at that wretched old washboard of a front door.

I don’t think Mr. Morse was pleased.

Our front door doesn’t get much use, really. Typically, it’s just where I lean out each morning in my bathrobe to mount our humble American flag in its wall-bracket next to the door.

But cometh Halloween … and the new door won’t open. (Cue spooky music.)

There’s a latch, not a doorknob (in keeping with the “old New England” spirit of the house), and the latch seems to be jammed. I can turn it a little bit, but not enough to release the door and open it.

Undaunted, I head back through the house, bathrobe swishing dramatically, emerging from the mudroom in my fuzzy slippers, traipsing down the driveway, clomping through the front yard, mounting the front steps, and taking hold of the fancy new front-door latch.

The new door still won’t open. (Spooky music swells.)

At this moment I’m really hoping nobody comes by with a camera, because an agitated full-grown man in a bathrobe and fuzzy slippers clearly engaged in breaking-and-entering through the front door of a house on Linebrook Road is absolutely an Internet meme just waiting to happen.

My wife works at the century-old Crane Estate, where tour guides swear that Mrs. Crane (d. 1949) sometimes messes with the locks on the doors. I don’t think Mrs. Crane simply skulks about the mansion on Castle Hill. I think she offers workshops for fellow ghosts, maybe signs autographs afterward.

And when Mr. Timothy Morse Jr. chatted her up, she had a word of wisdom for him:

“Lock their doors. It makes them crazy.”

Doug Brendel cowers in fear in his antique house on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Follow him, but not too close, via

Can a man hold his breath 350 days?…

Can a man hold his breath 350 days?

We’re about to find out….

IT’S OFFICIAL! 350 days from today — on Thursday, October 12th, 2023 — Doug Brendel’s new play Best If Used By will open at the Firehouse Center for the Arts in Newburyport, Mass.

In this unique story of love and loss, resentment and reconciliation, two former friends, now senior citizens, vie for a single role in a new show.

Starring beloved North Shore actors Rebecca Axelrod and Barbara Bourgeois, and directed by Castle Hill Productions founder Kristina Grundmann, Best If Used By will run for 5 performances.

More details to come!…

Thanks to Executive Director John Moynihan and the Firehouse team for welcoming this new production to next year’s fall Firehouse lineup!

Until then, somebody please make sure the playwright breathes.

We’ll cross that sign of the cross when we come to it

I have an Episcopalian friend who lives at the corner of County and Poplar in Ipswich, and now that the bridge is one-way heading north, she can go to church but she can’t go back home. 

She loves the church, and the church family loves her, but nobody wants her there permanently. 

Yes, technically, she can return home, but to get there she has to make a circuitous journey past four other faith traditions: the Methodist and Congregational churches, the Christian Science reading room, and the Choate Bridge Pub.

The other option is to walk to church, and walk home, which is possible because the bridge is still open in both directions for pedestrians.

But it’s a daunting trek, some two-tenths of a mile, one way. That’s 422 steps, 211 of them on each leg.

On a frigid winter Sunday morning, my friend will certainly prefer the comfort of her Chrysler to the cold of her Crocs.

With the bridge closed to southbound traffic, her trip home from church — north on County, left on Green, left on North Main, left on South Main — will cover three times as much distance as it took her to get there. The math of the situation is overwhelmingly complicated. Instead of two-tenths up and two-tenths back for a total of four-tenths, it’s two-tenths up and six-tenths back for a total of eight-tenths. Twice the total distance. My friend’s Sunday morning gas bill will literally double — which can’t help but cut into her donations to the church. The bridge closure discriminates cruelly against the Episcopal church.

The bridge closure will also diminish the non-church aspects of my friend’s life. Between all those stop signs and left turns, not to mention navigating Five Corners, by the time she gets home it will be time to go to church again. Forget making a living or having a romance or going to Shaw’s. She’ll have to go on welfare and order groceries from Amazon. It’s just one minor bridge closure to you, maybe, but it’s radical lifestyle upheaval for an innocent resident of Poplar Street.

The problem with the bridge, they say, involves “structural deficiencies.” So besides the narrowing of traffic to a single lane, the bridge now has a weight limit of 15 tons. “The bridge is still safe for travel,” DPW director Rick Clarke is quoted as saying. But beware. If you’re walking across the bridge and 15 tons’ worth of vehicles are crossing at the same moment, the bridge at that moment is overloaded by your exact weight.

It’s not a farfetched scenario. The bridge is 200 feet long, give or take. The average Ford F-150 is about 18.5 feet long. I told you the math is complicated. I’ll boil it down for you:

The County Street bridge could accommodate 10 pickup trucks. But a Ford F-150 weighs well over 3 tons, and that’s without a load of what-not in the bed. So we’re talking more than 30 total tons of truck.

Even if you got D’s in math like I did, you can see the terrible chance my friend will be taking if she walks to church.

My heartfelt advice: Pause, dear one, as you approach the County Street bridge. Look around. Make sure there isn’t a caravan of pickup trucks crossing at the same time as you.

Better yet, drive to church; take the long road home. Maybe stop at Heart & Soul for lunch on your way back. Take sustenance for your pilgrim journey.

And may God bless you.

Doug Brendel lives a bridge too far, on outer Linebrook Road, 4 miles west of Ipswich center, and works remotely, 4,200 miles to the east. Follow him at

You are what you own

It was a romantic notion, I confess, moving from a perfectly framed almost-new house in a master-planned community in Scottsdale, Arizona, to a 200-year-old house scavenged from 300-year-old leftovers on a winding road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, but here we are.

And things are, shall we say, different in small-town New England.

The Pilgrims and the Puritans (I could never quite keep them straight) came over from Holland or England (I could never quite keep them straight either) with their own strict ideas about what was appropriate and what wasn’t, and apparently it wasn’t appropriate to build big closets and cupboards, places where you could store lots of stuff. I guess it was regarded as worldly and scandalous to have lots of stuff.

Or, apparently, even if you were irreligious, you still built your house with tiny closets and cupboards, or none at all, just to keep from being tried and convicted and hanged as an infidel, or a witch.

However it happened, my antique house got built (of course it was “new construction” back then), and I fell in love with it and bought it and moved into it with the full knowledge that my family and I would face a dreadful dearth of closet and cupboard space.

I have no one to blame but myself.

There wasn’t even a word for closet before the 1300s, and even when the word was invented (from the Latin clausum, for “closed”), a closet was designated as a “small private room for study or prayer.” Those folks in the Middle Ages clearly did not understand that a cool American guy would need a place to hang his voluminous capitalist free-market supply of multiple suits, too many shirts, and more pants than any one person could possibly wear — not to mention a few vests that can’t be tossed out, just in case vests come back into fashion.

Also, please, if you don’t mind, there should be enough space to walk in, turn around, and survey this mini-clothing-kingdom as I decide what to wear for maximum impact in this afternoon’s committee meeting.

(Closets started out as “wardrobes,” separate pieces of furniture, in old Europe. But according to, it was the resourceful Americans who invented the built-in closet, a space-saving space designed directly into the wall. Appropriately, this was back during the era of President Martin Van Buren, an early champion of indoor plumbing. In his upstate home, Van Buren installed the first flush toilet north of New York City. You don’t read “The Outsidah” just for fun; we bring you all manner of valuable information, like this Martin Van Buren bit.)

We need our spaces, for our stuff. Where would you be without your closet, cupboard, or sideboard? Thank heaven the French gave us words for all these storage places: the cabinet (“small room”), the dresser (“to arrange”), the buffet (“bench or stool”).

And then there are shelves.

You might expect a house with a shortage of closets to make up for it with a surfeit of shelving. But no. My antique house proves otherwise. Puritans condemning closetsful of clothing were not going to sanction shelvesful of stuff. History tells us that a German family as far back as the 1300s may have had a schelf, a plank affixed to a wall where they kept small objects. But New Englanders in the early days evidently regarded such small objects as sinfully superfluous, because they created precious few places to put them. 

When we moved into our house on outer Linebrook Road, I inherited the downstairs bathroom, the smallest bathroom ever constructed outside of a jetliner, and with even less shelf space. There’s a dollhouse-sized medicine cabinet above the sink, and a barely-toilet-width nook for the toilet, with two shelves above the toilet. I call them shelves; I’m being generous. They’re two wooden shutters — those flaps that hang on the outside of your house to cover your windows, with diagonal slats — turned horizontal and nailed into the wall, to serve as shelves. As if installing actual shelves would be scandalous, an admission that the house’s residents had capitulated to the iniquitous urge to acquire stuff.

In this minuscule bathroom space, I survive by a system: (a) Day-to-day requirements jam the medicine cabinet. (b) Anything not required every day goes on the slat-shutter-shelves above the toilet.

I have tried to be creative with the limited space, sliding four small rectangular wicker baskets onto the two shelves to hold my immoral abundance of bathroom effects. Whatever goes into these baskets, however, is promptly forgotten.

The shelves are above eye level, so when I want something from one of the baskets, I have to pull it down from its place and go foraging. I’m such a classic American pig, hoarding far more stuff than I need, that every expedition into the over-the-toilet baskets is like an archeological dig into the depths of my own decadence.

This week, for example, I went searching for replacement blades for my Gillette Sensor razor. In one of the wicker baskets, I found multiple toothbrushes given me by my dentist over the years (and consistently ignored, since I use an electric toothbrush), along with a dentist-gifted sample-sized tube of toothpaste, a bag of floss picks, a tiny squeeze bottle of something called “spot treatment,” a package of “cooling eye gels,” and a small leather travel case stashed with the essentials I would need if I ever had to leave town in a hurry.

No razor blades.

The next basket featured athlete’s foot powder (although I’m no athlete), shaving cream (although I wear a beard), shoe polish (never used), a hair brush (also never used), multiple bags of cough drops (I feel fine), and another small leather travel case — apparently because at some point I felt I might need to leave town in a hurry and didn’t remember that I had already worried about needing to leave town in a hurry.

Still no razor blades.

The third basket had even more dentist’s-office toothbrushes and toothpaste, a roll of gauze bandaging the color of mud, a half-empty box of bar soap, a brush for shining shoes (never used), an array of combs in sizes and colors I would never be caught dead using, and a supply of hairpins (why?). Oh — and boxes of gas relief and laxative tablets left over from a long-ago mercifully forgotten colonoscopy prep.

I’m only giving you a partial inventory here, you understand.

In the final basket, there was an electric beard-trimmer, a travel-size bottle of hairspray, another roll of gauze bandaging but in neon lime green this time, a stack of pandemic-era disposable masks, another comb, another toothpaste, more toothbrushes — and a pharmacy bottle containing leftover cyclobenzaprine.

So I am fully prepared if I develop muscle spasms or my hair gets mussed. And I am really prepared if I make someone mad enough to run me out of town.

But I clearly don’t have enough stuff on my shelves, because I don’t have any razor blades.

Doug Brendel lives on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, with his mountains of mostly pointless stuff. Enter the maze if you dare, at

All I want to do is drive my little car, that so bad?

Pray for me. I’m at the RMV.

Not the Rättsmedicinalverket. That RMV is the Swedish National Board of Forensic Medicine. This isn’t Sweden. This is Massachusetts.

It’s also not the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde. That’s the National Museum of Ethnology in the Netherlands. If you’re looking for that RMV, you’re in the wrong place.

This is the Registry of Motor Vehicles, which is called the Department of Motor Vehicles, or DMV, almost everywhere else in the U.S., but here in (the Commonwealth of) Massachusetts, we like to hark back to an earlier era, when we had hifalutin registries, thank you very much, not just dumb old “departments.”

At the moment, I’m at the RMV office on Route 1 in Danvers, like several dozen other people. Yes, we’re all unique individuals, we all have lives of our own, but we’re bound by a common, desperate need: the need to comply with some detail in Massachusetts law that will allow us to continue operating our chosen vehicle.

In this hermetically sealed capsule of a waiting area, we’re all thinking the same thing — for some of us, it’s deeply subconscious; for others of us, it’s painfully conscious, sparking and flaring just under the surface:

I need my vehicle. Mess with my use of my vehicle, and I will kill you.

This room is a simmering cauldron of anxiety and potential rage. It’s not safe here.

Also, because it’s taking forever … Please pray for me.

I tried to do this a week ago. I went online to the RMV and navigated my way to the specific issue I needed to deal with. It might have been easier to reach the Rättsmedicinalverket. (If only I had needed a crime-victim cadaver in Stockholm, I could have scored in a minute or two. But no. This is Massachusetts. This is the RMV.)

Eventually, I figured out how to find the appointment-making page of the website, only to find out that a miracle had occurred. The day I wanted an appointment to deal with my particular issue happened to be the very day when the RMV would begin taking walk-ins for my issue. No appointment needed.

Saints be praised! I knew in that moment that I had a been a very good boy, and God was rewarding me.


I arrived at the RMV. At the door, a uniformed officer quizzed me about my intentions (he stopped short of making it an old Soviet-era movie by saying “Show me your papers”), and pointed me into a certain line. Soon I was at the window, where the staffer had just one question for me:

“Do you have an appointment?”

“No,” I replied. “The website said—”

The staffer threw up her hands, exasperated with my idiocy. “Okay. I can arrange an appointment for you. Right here. Right now.”

That was a week ago.

So here I am, today. To make the appointment she made for me a week ago. A morning appointment — yeah, baby; I’m no dummy — to get in here ahead of the crowds.

As I write, I’m in my second hour of waiting for my appointment — the firm to-the-minute appointment assigned to me personally by the staffer behind the window that I was approved to stand in the line for by the uniformed officer. All legal and accounted for. Totally legit. I’m good. I’m clean. Authorized. Certified. Verified.

But I’m still sitting here.

Looking around, I see my situation may not be so bad.

There’s a pretty nice tent city here for long-term dwellers. The price is right. And there’s a shared hotplate.

Volunteers from area churches drop in from time to time with food and clothing.

Since I arrived, one couple fell in love and got engaged.

It’s the RMV. Pray for me. Especially if you’re from one of those religious traditions with long, drawn-out prayers.

This may take a while.

Until today, Doug Brendel has lived on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Henceforth, however, it’s possible you may only be able to find him at the RMV office in Danvers, or at