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.

And We Plan to Be Married in the Spring

Just before they closed the state of California, owing to that coronavirus thing, I was in Sacramento on business.

I flew in, Ubered to my hotel, plugged in my laptop, checked my email, slept deeply (it was 3 a.m. on my body clock), then rose for an 8 a.m. meeting with a client. (No problem. By then, it was 11 a.m. on my body clock.)

I spent a long, hard day pretending to be a major American businessman, then headed back to my hotel room, opened my email app, and found 3,458 emails.

No, I’m not engaging in hyperbole. I’m talking literally: 3,458 emails.

I had a fleeting thought that I had suddenly become the most popular guy in the world. Maybe these were all messages of congratulation for my Pulitzer Prize, which I just hadn’t been notified of yet.

But no. I had been hacked. Somebody — who knows why or how — was bombing me with emails.

And not just with random messages. These were a very specific type of message. They were all, shall we say, romantic invitations. I’m putting it mildly, just in case you’re so desperate for things to do under quarantine that you’ve taken to reading the Outsidah aloud to your elementary school-age children without first previewing the content. (Don’t do this. Child abuse laws still apply, even in quarantine. Maybe especially in quarantine.)

I immediately began deleting the 3,458 emails, but it didn’t take long for my finger to cramp from hitting the delete button. Also, I feared for the delete button itself, which seemed to be getting more and more rickety by the minute. Besides, as fast as I worked, the little numeral in the bottom corner of the window — Total Number of Emails — wasn’t going down much.

In fact, I soon realized, it was actually getting bigger.

The offending messages were still gushing in — a stream of smut, an inundation of immorality, a flood of F–words, need I go on?

Of course I shut down the email program immediately. But eventually you have to check your email, right? And when I did, the horror show was still under way. Emails pouring in, offering all manner of exotic sensual encounters.

I got tech support on the phone. “Change your password right away,” said the voice.

Of course. I should have thought of that.

I changed my password. The enormous number in the bottom corner of the window finally stopped growing. I sighed. Peace had been restored to the land. 

I thanked the voice, hung up, and spent the rest of the evening deleting odious emails from my inbox.

End of story.

Or not.

The next morning, awakening to a fresh new day, I opened my laptop, fired up my email program, and found not only a torrent of new incoming emails, but an equally ferocious outflow. The hacker had figured out my new password — I guess “IpswichBoy2020” wasn’t crazy enough? — and was using my own email address to send out thousands upon thousands of those spicy suggestions. I had become the ultimate sex-spammer.

I called tech support again. I tried not to scream. I tried not to hyperventilate. I don’t know that I succeeded, but either way, I can’t remember the scene clearly, because my brain was on fire. Also, I was sweating through my underwear.

The tech support person was not prepared for such a crisis. “Advanced Tech Support” would have to be contacted. Of course Advanced Tech Support was busy at the moment, maybe eating a pizza, or winning money from office mates on the vintage PacMan machine in the backroom.

Anyway, by the time the “advanced” person got on the phone, my email service provider had shut down my account. Too many outbound emails per hour, sorry! Officer, it wasn’t me, honest!

Tough. My email address had been zapped into oblivion. I was now, as far as the emailing world goes, totally invisible. If you tried to email me that day, sorry. I didn’t exist. The email address that I had used ever since they invented email was now a fond memory — or, if you got one of those 30,000 emails I inadvertently sent out, a simultaneously thrilling and disgusting memory.

It took Advanced Tech Support another several hours of digging to find a mysterious single line of code that the hackers had somehow slipped into my email account, giving them permission to do their dastardly deeds. Then it took a day to restore my formerly innocent email address. And another day of pleading, cajoling, and bribe-offering to get myself off the sexual-spammers blacklist, so I could finally use my own address to email my mommy.

It’s something of a miracle, actually, that in all the years since the creation of email, this was the first time I was ever hacked. I’m grateful it never happened before, and grateful that it’s over. It was a harrowing experience. Looking in the mirror, I can see that I aged ten years.

On the upside, I now have 30,000 girlfriends.


Follow the Outsidah by clicking “Follow” on this page. Or do something more worthwhile, by following Doug’s humanitarian work at NewThing.net. Thanks!

Shall I Bring Thee Thy Slippers?

aapraying phone call from GodEpiscopalians get a bad rap.

They’re supposedly stiff, stodgy, stilted, unimaginative traditionalists with no capacity for creativity, no inclination toward innovation, no tolerance of new ideas.

Well, they’re wrong about us.

Look at George Washington. He was an Episcopalian, and he made some pretty jazzy moves to outfox Cornwallis and win the war. Look at Robin Williams. He was anything but a stiff, stodgy, stilted, unimaginative traditionalist. Fred Astaire. Barbara Bush. Would you have called Barbara Bush stodgy? I mean, to her face.

Here in my chosen hometown of Ipswich, Massachusetts, our Episcopal Church is blessed to have a non-stiff, quite imaginative priest, the Rev. Bradford Duff Clark, who parties by the name of Brad. Brad is the ever-exploring mastermind behind such Ascension Church quirks as “PJ Day” (wear your pajamas to church), a day for bringing your pets and livestock to church (I would have drawn the line at rodents, but no, Brad is a liberal), and an assortment of other oddities.

So when coronavirus sent everyone home, and Ascension Church canceled its public services (like most other churches did), Brad took this past weekend’s services to Facebook Live (as a few other churches did). Which is how I found myself at home at 10:15 on Sunday morning in my bathrobe, lounging in my favorite over-stuffed chair, a cup of French vanilla decaf on the side table, and dialing up the church’s Facebook page on my phone.

Of course it wasn’t quite the same as driving from my antique house on Planet Outer Linebrook into the center of town and being there with all the other supposedly stiff, stodgy, stilted, unimaginative traditionalists. But it was pretty great to be there virtually, with the enormous stained-glass Jesus in the background, just like always, his arms outstretched by his sides, either saying “Welcome, my child” or “What in the world were you thinking?”, I can never be sure.

The camera stayed in a fixed position — no “live action-cam” following this or that worshiper dancing in the aisles. Yes, we’re an energetic bunch, but not quite that way. Let’s call this something more along the lines of quiet energy.

On the whole, it was almost like the real thing: There was Brad, in his non-party vestments, leading us through the liturgy; and Scripture readings by Ted Flaherty, our junior warden (not that we’re a prison, supervised by wardens, but who knows what churches were like back in the day, when Episcopalians assigned these names?). Dr. Frank Corbinprovided music, with solos by the remarkable John Petre-Baumer. Just about everything an Episcopalian could possibly want in a Sunday morning, except for snacks afterward in St. Matthew’s Parlor, and hugs from friends.

Oh, and the Eucharist. Sometimes known as “communion.” It was not feasible for Brad to thrust a wafer of bread through the screen into our hands — let alone a sip of wine, which has been banned anyway by the Diocese of Massachusetts till further notice. I feel sure that the brains at Apple are working on CommunionCam, however — the wafer pops out from a slot that used to be there for DVDs, remember? — and when that’s available, I’m going to be an early adopter.

Mostly doing church via Facebook Live was great because I never had to get anywhere close to my Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes. Those black dress shoes are still gathering dust in my closet. If Jesus came for the common man, then church in your bathrobe makes total sense.

The online service wrapped up a little before 11 a.m., and I tapped the little X in the corner of the window with a sigh of satisfaction. Just about that time, my 18-year-old daughter emerged from her bedroom.

“I just went to church!” I reported cheerfully.

She looked me over, blinking sleepily.

“Was it PJ Day?”

Doug Brendel lives mostly in his bathrobe on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts. You can follow his foolishness here at Outsidah.com, or his serious stuff at NewThing.net.

Blizzards Build Character, Shut Up and Shovel

You thought football season was over, but this year, it wasn’t, and it isn’t, and it isn’t going to be, at least not for a while.

In case you missed it, you are now living in the inaugural season of the XFL, a new professional football league.

So while the NFL world is writhing like a decapitated garden snake over the location of Tom Brady’s next mansion, football is continuing to be played, every Saturday and every Sunday, for the benefit of us football junkies.

Yes, America, you can now watch pro football starting with the NFL preseason in August and keep watching it straight through the XFL championship game (the poor man’s Super Bowl) on Sunday, April 26th. So we now have barely 100 days a year without professional football.

I confess to having watched a few XFL games already, and here’s what I’ve observed:

(1) Good changes to the NFL rules, making the game faster, safer, and even more entertaining than when it was slow and dangerous.

(2) Snappy helmets and uniforms; the XFL clearly hired good graphic-design people.

(3) Fans in the stands are usually rooting for the correct team.

Let me explain (3).

When the NFL plays football, the weather is generally cool — the regular season starts in September — and getting cooler, until finally you get the Super Bowl, which happens at the beginning of February, and it’s so cold outside that the NFL almost always puts the championship game either in a nice safe temperature-controlled dome or in a sunshiny outdoor stadium in, say, Miami.

But most of the NFL season happens during that part of the year when northern cities have cool or cold weather. Which means while you’re watching an NFL game broadcast from a warm-weather city, you see quite a lot of fans in the stands rooting for the visiting team.

Yes, the visiting team.

In fact, sometimes, mostly all  of the fans in the stands.

The warm-weather home team comes out onto the warm-weather home-team field, expecting to feel the warm-weather home-team love, and they get booed  instead of cheered.

This happens because so many people who live in northern cities have the sense to go south for the winter, like butterflies, and robins, and geese, and other species with smaller brains than us. And these people, who can afford to move from north to south when the weather doesn’t suit them, can also deal with the exorbitant price of NFL game tickets.

So fans in the stands rooting for the Steelers during the Dolphins home game are not just perversely risking death at the hands of beer-crazed Floridians, who would happily commit murder if they were only sober; these Steelers fans are folks who wisely bailed out of Pittsburgh in October and they’re not going back till May, no matter what, and you can’t make them.

Hence, this: You see Buffalo Bills fans at a game in New Orleans. Chicago Bears fans going crazy in the stands at Tampa Bay. In any game broadcast from Phoenix, fans from any and every market cheering against the home-team Cardinals. Not just because the Cardinals are awful. This is something deeper.

But this is how you know New England is special:

You almost never see New England fans in the stands when the Patriots play away from home.

Why?

Because New Englanders never leave New England.

We’re flinty Puritans. We’re hardy Pilgrims. We have pinched noses, red from the cold, and squinty eyes that got that way from hours of shoveling snow during hurricanes. We’re people who came to the New World and found a place with rocky soil and vicious nor’easters and ice slashing like waves of daggers from the sky, and we said, “This place is perfect. This is home!

And we stayed.

Some folks who arrived in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where I live, were here on Day One, some 380 years ago, and they’ve never left. My friend Fred Winthrop is a direct descendant of the Winthrop who founded Ipswich, in 1634, and you will never find Fred acting like a fool rooting for the Patriots at a Jaguars game in Jacksonville. What nonsense. When Fred wants to go on vacation, he doesn’t head to some namby-pamby tropical island. He goes skiing. He hikes trails. He goes to mountains. He doesn’t go south; he goes north. He goes to Maine. Maine doesn’t even have  an NFL team.

New Englanders are here to stay. When my wife and I chose Ipswich as the town we wanted to live in, it took six years before anyone put their house up for sale. Finally our realtor, who had spent most of her career sitting at a desk doing crossword puzzles, called and said a place had come available on Linebrook Road. “We’ll take it,” I said. “Don’t you want to see it first?” she asked. “Offer the full asking price!” I shouted. “I’ll send it by PayPal!”

Now, we’re New Englanders too. It doesn’t matter that we’re transplanted New Englanders. We know what’s expected of us. We will never leave. You can’t make us. If we need a vacation, we’re looking at an Airbnb yurt in Labrador.


 

 

Doug Brendel is staying put in his 202-year-old house on Linebrook Road in Ipswich. Following him won’t be hard, since he’s not going anywhere. Click “Follow” here at Outsidah.com, or subscribe to his cold-weather charity at NewThing.net, and follow NewThingNet on Instagram.

 

 

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.