You Are What You (Don’t) Eat

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I have not lived in Ipswich long, but I have lived here long enough to know a thing or two about garbage.

People put their garbage cans out by the road each week on garbage-pickup day. (Where I live, on Planet Outer Linebrook, garbage-pickup day is Thursday.) Under the law, Ipswich will only take one garbage can-full of garbage from you per week. If you have more garbage, you have to buy shame-bags.

They’re not officially called shame-bags, but this is how they function. You put your overflow garbage, the garbage that won’t fit into your single legal garbage can, into the shame-bags, and set them out by the road on garbage-pickup day, and everyone driving by sees all too clearly that you’re a wasteful glutton, with no regard for the environment, that you’re only too happy to clog the nation’s landfills and burn new holes in the ozone layer, and you don’t give a rip about your carbon footprint. You probably also don’t bother to recycle or compost. Do you kick your cat, too? It’s likely. All of these insights, your neighbors derive from the simple fact that you had to put a shame-bag in front of your house on garbage-pickup day.

I am so terrified of the messages I’ll send if I put a shame-bag by the road on Thursday morning that I have become manic about recycling and composting.

In order to make sure I get the recycling part right, I have a framed copy of the official “Ipswich Recycles” Rules and Regulations mounted under a spotlight in a place of honor in my kitchen. This is a document that tries to be cheery — printed in pleasant blue and green, and featuring a smiling cartoon clam blithely bubbling in the center of a soothing circular recycling symbol — but there’s still an intimidating aspect to any message that employs so much boldface type and STERN WORDS IN ALL CAPS, like the headline “SINGLE-USE PLASTIC BAG and POLYSTYRENE BANS” and the very strict admonition “NO Styrofoam or other #6 plastics, thin-film plastics or plastic bags of any kind.”

Recycling is free in Ipswich, and technically, it’s “unlimited.” You can recycle as much stuff as you want to, every single week, on garbage-pickup day. You can recycle mountains of cereal boxes and towers of newspapers and more wine bottles than you could possibly consume the contents of.

But recycling is still tricky. In some of the fine print, you’ll discover that the “unlimited” recycling plastic is actually, well, limited. You can’t mindlessly recycle just any plastic.

“PLASTIC BAGS and PLASTIC FILM — Do not put in your recycle bin,” the authorities warn. They’re talking about water bottle cases, paper towel wrap, and that filmy, environment-unfriendly stuff they shrink-wrap your supposedly environment-friendly organic vegetables with. This stuff can’t go in your Ipswich curbside recycling; you have to take it to the big box inside the door at Market Basket, or some similar depository at Shaw’s, Stop & Shop, Target, Lowe’s, or Kohl’s. According to the rules, you also have to “Remove tape, labels or adhesive strips (NO pre-washed salad bags, frozen food bags, candy wrappers or pet food bags or material that has been painted or glued).” Those little labels they stick to each and every red bell pepper in the grocery store? You have to peel those off. The pepper guts can go into composting (composting is a different story altogether), but the little individual pepper labels have to go with the special not-actually-unlimited plastic recycling stuff.

Committed to total obedience, I have a separate bag (made of damnable plastic) hanging in my kitchen pantry, where I stuff all the plastics that can’t be recycled with all the other plastics; and once every few weeks, I head out with my plastic booty to a designated recycling site, feeling full of pride: I am recycling! And doing it properly! And it isn’t easy!

Garbage isn’t just garbage. It’s a lifestyle. To be a truly responsible citizen, you have to set aside extra time in the preparation of every meal, the consumption of every snack, to be sure about the correct placement of all the stuff that doesn’t go into your mouth. When the UPS man comes, you need to have a strategy ready for processing whatever packaging your package is packaged in.

It’s complicated, yes. But it’s worth it. At the end of my life, I want to know that I did right by the environment. I hope to live to be 100 — which is to say, 86.6 years of actual life, and 13.4 years of sorting my waste products.

In fact, when I die, just wrap me in back issues of the Ipswich Chronicle, slide me into a refrigerator box, and stand me up by the side of the road on a Thursday morning.

Wait — first, remove all labels.

 

 

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At First, It Was Only a Couple of Sunflower Seeds

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Ever since a horrific coyote assault last year, we keep our surviving cats indoors. As a side-effect, the animal kingdom has expanded its territory. The mice, the voles, the chipmunks, the squirrels, the bunnies, the birdies, and the snakes — all the species once fiercely targeted by our felines — have returned to the premises. They now hop, skitter, twitter, frolic, and slither about the property. They peck, graze, scrounge, and otherwise feed off the land as if God intended it this way. Which I guess he did, at least until he created cats.

We have a fine-looking bird feeder in the backyard, a shingle-roofed little house with see-through walls, hanging from a shepherd’s-crook pole. Back in the days when we still had a backyard Cat Patrol, I felt a little guilty about putting birdseed in the little house. It was like luring our innocent, fine-feathered friends into the Carnival of Death: “Step right up, take your chance, peck the sunflower seed and win a prize!”

Now, however, we can fill the feeder guiltlessly. Our backyard is idyllic, a safe haven for rodents, reptiles, robin red-breasts and their ilk. Our cats sit trapped on the screen porch restlessly observing the wildlife. It’s Torture TV. They meow and lick their lips, tails twitching with primal longing, till they eventually trudge inside the house, throwing me a spiteful glance on the way to their food bowl, where they crabbily crunch their dry, brown Meow Mix.

I felt good about the full feeder until it became a major budget item. I was soon spending more money on birdseed than gasoline. We could fill the little house to the brim on Monday, and by Tuesday it was empty. This didn’t seem possible. There aren’t enough birds in our backyard to eat that much seed in a week. If the birds were actually consuming that much birdseed, they would be too fat to fly. We should see a literal “round robin” waddling across the grass. We should have house wrens the size of actual houses. But no. All the birds seemed normal-sized.

Squirrels, maybe? Squirrels love birdseed. But we have a big metal cuff, shaped like an upside-down funnel, underneath the bird feeder, designed to deter squirrels; and as far as I can tell, it works. We have plenty of squirrels, but they have no engineering sense. None seem to have figured out how to prop up a ladder, or shoot a guywire from the nearby maple tree, or stack pairs of fallen branches in a criss-cross pattern, or otherwise employ the laws of physics to get to the coveted delicacies.

So where was all the darn birdseed going?

Yesterday I was sitting on my screen porch, tapping my laptop keys, when the mystery was solved. I looked up to see a doe standing at the bird feeder with her tongue sticking out. Not at me — it was extended into the bird feeder’s little bird-sized door. Her head was cocked awkwardly to one side in order to get absolutely as much of her tongue as possible into the little house. She was slurping birdseed into her mouth as fast as she could.

I slapped my laptop shut, set it aside, and stood up, knowing that the sudden activity would send the startled animal scampering away. I was wrong. The doe stopped slurping for a moment, eyeing me wearily, then went back to her task.

“Hey! Cut it out!” I barked at her.

She kept an eye on me, but didn’t break stride — er, uh, slurp.

I advanced toward the porch door, attempting to appear menacing. Appearing menacing is apparently not my forté. The deer kept at it.

“What the heck!” I exclaimed, stepping outside. I knew she’d run now. I walked up to her. She only slurped faster.

“Get away from my bird feeder!” I yelled, waving my arms.

Finally she pulled her tongue back into her head and straightened up.

“I can quit whenever I want,” she said evenly. Then she stuck her tongue back out and started in again.

I burned with shame. I never realized that birdseed is deer crack. I was providing the drug — pound after pound of it, day after day — to the addict.

“You have to stop,” I said.

“I’m not hurting anyone,” she replied between gulps.

“I can’t afford it,” I answered.

“I knew you’d turn on me,” she sneered. “You did this to me. Now you loathe me.”

“It was an accident! I didn’t know!”

“Is that my problem?” she shrieked.

“You don’t need more birdseed!” I cried. “You need help!”

The doe took another slurp. “I’ll get help later. Just not right now.”

I placed a hand gently on her shoulder. “Listen to yourself,” I pleaded.

The doe paused. She backed her nose away from the birdfeeder and peered inside, frowning. It was empty.

She swung her face toward me, and blinked her enormous eyes.

“Got any more?” she asked.

 

 

Doug Brendel lives on outer Linebrook, a primitive and delicate ecosystem where the slightest misstep can spell disaster for the wildlife. Follow Doug by clicking “Follow.”

 

Time for Slime

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I could have been Rip Van Winkle, asleep in the Willowdale State Forest for the past several centuries, and if I happened to wake up this week, I would still be able to say, without any doubt or hesitation, “It’s August.”

Why? Because it’s so gosh-darn humid.

This is that time of year, ain’t it.

Where I used to live, in the vast dusty sprawl of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, there was never any humidity in the air except for these few days of the waning summer. This was known as “monsoon season.” Massive vertical thunderclouds, like gangs of dark gray Stay-Puft Marshmallow Men, would assemble around the perimeter of the valley every afternoon, then march in on us. Soon it was all howling winds and pounding rain and Zeus-quality lightning — but only for about 12 minutes. Then it was back to the “sultry” setting, until the following afternoon, when it all began again.

Here in Ipswich, we don’t seem to be on such a rigid schedule. Some days we get sunshine and humidity. Other days we get clouds and humidity. Some days we get intermittent rain, alternating with humidity. Some days it’s a steady, soaking rain, punctuated with humidity. Otherwise it’s a pounding, thunderous rain, interspersed with humidity. Some days we get seemingly random assortments of all three — with humidity. See the pattern here? Humidity.

After nearly a quarter-century in the desert, my body has forgotten how to process humidity. My skin is not accustomed to slime forming out of thin air. Well, I take that back. The air in Ipswich these days is not remotely thin. It’s thick. I’ve heard it called “velvet.” I would lean more to “sludge.”

Ipswich is humid, my friends. It’s sticky. Sodden. Muggy. Moist. It’s dank. The air is practically viscous. I don’t mean to overstate it, but it’s so humid in Ipswich, it’s like breathing warm milk.

It’s so humid, dragonflies are wearing tiny little diver’s masks in order to breathe.

It’s so humid, volunteers have been scheduled to show up four times a day and towel off the Linebrook construction guys.

It’s so humid, mosquitoes can’t tell what’s blood and what’s air.

It’s so humid, children are getting soaked at Hood Pond without going into the water.

It’s so humid, Ipswich Town Emergency telephone alerts gurgle.

I sat on a bench in my backyard, and it was so slippery I slid off.

A crow who hangs out in my backyard tried to say “Caw! Caw!” and it came out “Glaw! Glaw!” He’s started smoking cigarettes just to dry out his lungs.

It’s so humid, stop signs are sweating and streetlights are steaming.

It’s so humid, I have to scrape off the mold before I use my Weber grill.

It’s so humid, clams are steaming themselves.

It’s so humid, the gloppy asphalt utilized to fill potholes can’t dry, turning each one into a mini-quicksand hazard.

It’s so humid, my mail is wilted by the time I get to the mailbox. I have to wring out my Ipswich Chronicle before I read it.

It’s so humid, mothers wiping their babies’ noses can’t tell what’s snot and what’s not.

It’s so humid, our cat melted.

See what I mean? It’s humid here.

OK, sorry; I apologize. You’re right: I’m exaggerating. Clams aren’t really steaming themselves.

 

Welcome to the Linebrook Speedway!

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I love those Linebrook Road construction guys. I want to grab every single one of them and kiss them. Of course they would not likely regard this as a kindness. But I do wish I could somehow express my gratitude.

Linebrook Road was a neck-snapping nightmare, a rack-and-pinion-wrecking moonscape. But then, with astonishing speed, the road gods did their demolition and prep work — whatever it is that road-building people do — and swiftly laid down a beautiful, smooth new river of pristine black asphalt.

Only days before, life was wretched. In the earliest phases of construction, my body quickly learned that it was going to be pitched, yanked, knocked about like a crash-test dummy as my vehicle navigated the treacherous work zone. Soon I was so conditioned to the trauma, I couldn’t even control my own visceral responses: Approaching the construction area, my butt clenched involuntarily, as if to protect my innards from being splattered on impact.

But now, life is beautiful! Sailing along Linebrook Road toward town, my little car is like a clipper on the bay, the wind whooshing down off Marini Hill to loft me toward Lord’s Square.

Of course, all this joy has its costs. And I’m not just talking about the $3 million we approved for the Linebrook redesign. I’m talking about cops. This is a Jaws moment: We’re gonna need a bigger force. The temptation to exceed the speed limit is now virtually too great for human resistance. Linebrook Road is delicious. It’s a black-topped slalom. It begs you to go fast.

These days, I find myself — a long-time practitioner of speed-limit compliance — taking Linebrook at record speeds, yet all the while screaming silently to myself: “Slow down, fool!” If memory serves, there’s a sign somewhere in the vicinity of 120 Linebrook that says “SLOW CHILDREN,” but I’m generally moving too fast to read it. I somehow recall a Catholic church at about Pineswamp, but all I see now is a huge tan blur, as if I’m Harrison Ford jumping into hyperspace, but without the paycheck.

We’re going to need more cops, I think, or the bodacious new Linebrook Road is going to be like an oversized video game, with vehicles streaming back and forth faster than us tired old folks can possibly track. And after GAME OVER, you don’t get another life.

I felt very badly for officer Ted LeMieux, the Ipswich policeman directing construction traffic and accidentally struck by a Peterbilt truck loaded with hot top. The driver was mortified, the officer had emergency surgery, and initial reports indicated that it was simply an unfortunate accident. I truly hope so. But I must confess to feeling a bit of perverse relief that it wasn’t one of us Ipswich civilians who bonked the cop. It coulda been me. It probably coulda been you. I’m tellin’ ya, insurance company computers are recalculating like crazy, and any day now we’re going to hear that Ipswich have been declared a high-risk group. All because of that beaucious new ribbon of road called Linebrook!

There could be an upside to all this, however. More cops, more speeding tickets, more cash in Town coffers? Picture this: Instead of that one lonely police officer we often see lying in wait on the parking lot at Our Lady of Hope, there could be a whole squadron of them: rows and rows of official black sedans and SUVs, ready to roar down the revenue road. I figure every new traffic cop could be worth a couple thousand times his weight in traffic citations. This changes everything. One new school or two? Heck, we’ll build one each in all four precincts — all paid for by speeders. The ones who survive the crashes, I mean.

Cops or no, let’s slow down.

And if you see me out there speeding, you have my permission to honk — flash your lights — yell — gesture rudely — throw fruit — something, anything. Somehow, please, get my attention. Before I squash one of those “SLOW CHILDREN.”

 

 

The Ears Have It!

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First there were Van Gogh’s ears, one of which went bye-bye.

Then there were Spock’s ears — on Leonard Nimoy’s famous Vulcan character in the original Star Trek.

And then there were my ears. Which are largely dysfunctional — except for the hearing aids.

Soon, all three sets of ears will come together in an extraordinary theatrical experience — Vincent, a full-length two-act one-man show, at the Community House in Hamilton, July 13-16.

Here’s a rundown on the pairs of ears in question:

  1. Vincent Van Gogh has fascinated people for well over a century, not only because of his artistic masterpieces, but because of his wild rollercoaster of a life — and death.
  2. Leonard Nimoy, not only an actor but also a gifted artist and playwright, was transfixed by Van Gogh decades ago. He devoted himself to researching the artist, waded through Van Gogh’s voluminous correspondence — and ended up writing a beautiful play, which Nimoy himself performed 150 times across the country (sans pointy ears).
  3. The hearing-impaired Doug Brendel (that’s me) will perform the play this summer, portraying Van Gogh, Van Gogh’s brother, and a number of other characters in the artist’s colorful life. Tickets are available at Outsidah.com.

Many of my friends don’t even realize I’m hearing-impaired. But the truth is, without the little machines in my ears, I can’t really function.

I began losing my hearing nearly a decade ago. Since my father gradually lost his hearing, my wife and I agreed that we would monitor my auditory capacity — would my DNA follow his? — and we would take action if and/or when needed. “If and/or when needed” turned out to be about the time we moved to Ipswich. (Thanks, Dad.)

With the help of the friendly yet professional Dr. Steve Brauninger at Cummings Center, I was fitted with a couple amazing little devices that “hear” for me. In fact, I’m so high-tech that even if you mute the TV at my house, I can turn it up in my head and listen comfortably.

In the olden days, there was a stigma about hearing loss. People equated hearing impairment with lack of intelligence (when in reality, deaf people can be smart or dumb, and hearing people can be dumb or smart). So hearing aids were designed to be hidden as much as possible. However, they could actually be only as small as the technology allowed, which wasn’t too small at all.

These days, there’s less of a stigma — people who discover that I’m hearing-impaired don’t generally seem to treat me as if I’m any dumber than I really am. But technology has advanced so dramatically that my hearing aids are truly tiny. It’s a challenge to get my fat fingers to open the miniature door to replace the ultra-teeny battery: Imagine slicing a pea into thirds; the middle slice is the battery. The speaker that fits in my ear is like a splinter of dry vermicelli. And twice a month, when I have to replace the plastic dome that fits over the speaker and secures it in my ear canal, it’s like doing brain surgery on a mosquito.

Still, I’m not complaining. It’s better than being deaf. “Huh?” I said, it’s better than being deaf.

Acting onstage wearing hearing aids is no different from relying on your actual ears, if the equipment you’re relying on works right. I remember years of amateur acting gigs before my ears gave out, and I can honestly say, the acting part is no different now than it was then. But if my hearing aids aren’t working right, it gets tricky.

This past winter I had the honor of playing the lead male role in Blithe Spirit with Castle Hill Productions at the Crane Estate’s Great House, and my original hearing aids were approaching the end of their natural life. (Hearing aids typically last about seven years before those tiny tweeters and woofers give out and have to be replaced.) When you’re onstage, you’re always listening for another actor to give you your cue, but my hearing aids were dying. So if the other actor (a) needed to be speaking softly, or (b) happened to be facing away from me — or, heaven forbid, both (a) and (b) — I had no idea when to start my next line. At one point in Blithe Spirit rehearsals, I was reduced to asking the formidable actress Jamie Clavet to change her blocking and say her line in my direction — or else speak the heck up. It was one of those times when you hate being deaf, because you have no choice but to ask someone to accommodate your disability.

Shortly after Blithe Spirit closed, I got a new (and advanced) pair of hearing aids, and now I hear better than you do. These remarkable contraptions automatically sense the environment (noisy restaurant? quiet theatre?) and adjust my hearing accordingly, based on eight different logarithms, or algorithms, or whatever they are, I honestly don’t know; I flunked geometry.

So here I am: the guy with bad ears, playing the guy with one ear, scripted by the guy with pointy ears. I hope you see the show. I’m pretty sure you’ll hear the show. The Community House has great acoustics.

 

 

Doug Brendel lives in a quiet neighborhood on outer Linebrook Road. Huh? I said, Doug Brendel lives in a quiet neighborhood on outer Linebrook Road! Follow his irreverent commentary by clicking “Follow.”

 

 

Meet Van Gogh!

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Vincent-Doug

Tickets are on sale here NOW for my full-length 2-act one-man show “Vincent” about Van Gogh.

Please don’t miss this one! We’ve produced it 3 times before so we know how powerful this theatrical experience will be for you.

Awesome script by Leonard Nimoy; stunning visual effects by Kristina Brendel.

Tickets $15 • Get your tickets here TODAY!

July 13-15 at 7:30 pm and July 16 at 4 pm

Community House • 284 Bay Rd., Hamilton, MA