See Spot Read. Read, Spot, Read.

Standard

English is a complicated language. It’s a miracle I can function in it. In fact, I’ve made my living, my entire adult life, as a writer. In English. My grade school teachers would be amazed, because I was such a poor reader from the very beginning. I could stand up and read you a story, with perfect pronunciation and proper inflection and plenty of emotion, but I scored very, very low on something called “comprehension.” What does that mean, exactly — “comprehension”?

Somehow, I’ve been able to churn out miles of newspaper columns and blog posts, appeal letters for various charities, and even whole books — not to mention about 15 years’ worth of sermons, back in my days as a clergyman — but I never became a very good reader. When the Kindle came out, I thought maybe technology could help me, so I bought one. To be honest, however, if you visit my living room, you’ll find my Kindle on the little table next to my favorite chair, still plugged in from the day I bought it, but serving as a very expensive coaster.

Even so, I am a great fan of the Ipswich Public Library. I have spent many hundreds of hours there. This is a place of enormous value to our beloved town. For one thing, you can use the bathroom without having to order any food. Furthermore, there is a little conference room upstairs which you can use without an appointment, as long as you don’t make too much noise, because there’s no wall or door to keep the sound from traveling down the stairs into the be-quiet-so-people-can-read part of the building. This little room is perfect if you want to meet someone who has the potential to get noisy when they dislike what you’re going to tell them, because senior librarian Laura Hoffman can be counted on to come upstairs and gently shush your unruly friend. Which is ideal for negotiations with your estranged wife, or your contractor who didn’t quite do that one thing.

I have frequently used the Ipswich Public Library as a place to pop open my laptop and get some work done between downtown appointments. (No point in driving all the way back out to Planet Outer Linebrook, where I live, only to hitch up the horses to the wagon again and head back into town an hour later.) Even though I am a poor reader, a slow reader, an unenthusiastic reader, and a reader with poor “comprehension,” whatever that is, I have been unfailingly welcomed with warmth and acceptance by the library staff, time and time again.

I have also become a great fan of the library’s director, Patty DiTullio. She tells me she is more of a “people” person than a “book” person. For which I am grateful. She makes me feel there’s hope for people like me.

(One day her little niece was visiting the library, and Director Patty bravely introduced me to the little girl, without feeling the need to whisper, “Be careful, he’s not much of a reader.” By the way, I believe I actually saw a volume of Nietzsche under the six-year-old’s arm, which made me shudder. I guess DNA runs strong in a librarian’s family.)

It is a particular point of pride for me that Director Patty invited me to participate in the Local Authors Fair at the library last November. Of course she positioned me next to fellow writer Sam Sherman in the “youth” room, even though neither of us has been a “youth” for quite some number of years. It was done, I presume, because Sam and I were expected to be rowdy. I trust we did not disappoint.

Director Patty and the library staff have worked hard to make the library less intimidating to me and other unfortunate folks whose comprehension meters tilt toward “E.” For example, some time ago they put up signs in the library that announced, “Ipswich Reads One Book.” They said Take your time, it’s for a whole year. This is so cute. Even I, of limited comprehension, can tell that they’re just being nice. The whole town of Ipswich can’t possibly take a whole year to read just one book. What would be the point of an entire library, jammed with books, if the whole town only reads one book in a year?

Thanks, Director Patty, for trying to make us comprehension-challenged folks feel welcome, but this goes too far. You’re really, really kind. Thank you. But please. Even without comprehension, I understand what’s going on.

 

Doug Brendel lives on outer Linebrook Road, 5.3 miles from the Ipswich Public Library, which is terribly far away, and especially hard to find if you can’t read the road signs. To follow him, click the little “Follow” sign.

 

 

Would You Like Me to Tell You About Our Specials?

Standard

Finally, no more snow in the 10-day forecast, so I put the pub table back up in the backyard, with the crank-operated umbrella planted in the middle of it, and the sturdy plastic-and-metal outdoor bar stools standing all around it like attentive soldiers.

It didn’t take long for her to show up. She wasn’t intimated a bit by the soldiers. I stepped out my back door to enjoy the tentative warmth of a breezy spring day, and there she was. Lounging in one of my pub chairs, as if she owned the place. The doe, the one who frequents my backyard with whatever relatives she happens to have in tow.

“Mild winter,” she rasped, in that sneery way of hers. “That’s what I hear.”

“Well,” I replied uneasily, not wanting an argument, “it did seem to be.”

“Humans,” she exhaled, pushing the last of her cigarette into the glass top of my pub table. “You should live outdoors, like we do. Then you wouldn’t call it mild.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“I see you had no interest in helping us out,” she went on, bumping another Virginia Slim out of its box.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

She tossed the box on the table and pulled a fancy gold lighter out of her purse. “That nice new garden you planted last year.”

I didn’t know where the doe was going with this. The deer hated our garden? “Uh, that was my wife,” I replied quietly. “She planted the garden.” Then I immediately felt guilty for throwing my wife under the bus.

The deer lit her cigarette. “Plenty of kale in that garden,” she sighed, then took a long draw, breathing out the smoke through her narrow black nostrils. “God, I hate kale.”

It was true. We planted kale last year. (It did great! And it stayed green all winter! We were thrilled.)

I gulped. “It’s a fad,” I offered weakly. “It’s in all the recipes these days.”

“Yeah,” she snorted. “And I see it doesn’t die. The winter was so mild, lucky you, the kale stayed green right straight through. You must be so happy.” She glowered at me, those big doe-eyes burning hot and black. “Did you plant any azaleas? Any tasty rhododendrons? A few roses? A little delicious dogwood? Do I see any lilacs to lick my lips over? Crocuses? Daylilies? Anything out here a deer might enjoy? No. Kale! You planted kale!”

I shifted my weight to the other leg and tried to look nonchalant. “Actually, I don’t think it’s our responsibility to feed—”

“You go feast like a Roman emperor in your precious Salt Kitchen & Rum Bar,” she murmured. “You’re so happy huddling over your beer at the new Brewer’s Table.”

“Actually, I don’t drink beer.”

“Whatever.” She tossed her butt into the grass. “You pull food off the shelves at Market Basket all winter long. We’re stuck out here, having to make do, in this overgrown backyard you call your ‘meadow.’ And we got what, here? A few miserable apple trees. The shoots of a baby white pine. Have you ever tried chewing on a white pine?”

“Uh, no.”

“It’s like eating toothpicks, only the minty ones,” the deer snarled.

“We have hostas,” I answered weakly. “All around the house. Lots of hostas. Deer eat hostas.”

“I’M SICK OF HOSTAS, OK?” she cried, pounding her hoof on the table.

Finally she sat back. She took a deep breath. She gave me a long, lugubrious look. “Kale,” she intoned. “How do you stand that stuff? It’s like spinach, but without the redeeming humor of the Popeye cartoons.”

Finally she leaned on the pub table and reached for her Ipswich Ale. She took a deep gulp, then set the bottle down and stared at it. Her rage was silently building.

“I’m sick of you people trying to starve us out,” she said, her teeth grinding, “planting marigolds and irises, stuff that would gag a moose. We won’t touch holly, you know that. Or blackberries. Oregano is like poison to us. And if I see any more mint, I’m going to scream.”

I cleared my throat. “I don’t think anybody is actually planting blackberries,” I offered. “They just happen.”

The deer looked at me with that look that deer give you. Not the paralyzed, panicky deer-in-the-headlights look. I mean the other look. When they see you in broad daylight, and their eyes say, “What are you staring at, moron? Can’t you see you’re disturbing my perfectly placid presence?” It’s something like the look you get from your manager at work, when your manager is 30 years younger than you.

“Blackberries just happen,” she repeated. “Sure. Tell me another story.”

She let herself down off the bar stool, and the four empties jiggled on the table.

God plants blackberries,” she grumbled, stuffing her things into her purse. “It isn’t random. He does it on purpose. Because he’s on your side. He created you last. Somehow that makes you special.”

She started walking, a little unsteadily, in the direction of Linebrook Road. Then she turned back. “They don’t let us into Salt Kitchen,” she said, stifling a belch. She waved a hoof at the backyard. “This is all we got.”

She turned again to go.

“Kale,” she snorted as she trotted off toward the Deer Crossing sign. “Geez, we don’t need to get hit by cars,” she muttered. “We have kale.”

 

 

Live Long and Honda

Standard

My wife is rather sophisticated, at least to my view. She’s an artist, an art collector, and an art dealer. She’s an award-winning theatrical director and producer. She’s a gifted writer. She’s very intelligent.

But she drives a gray Honda.

One day I came home to find her car in the driveway instead of in the garage. In the house, I found my wife with her girlfriend Katie. Katie is, I would say, quite sophisticated. She is a brilliant artist, a successful business owner, articulate and witty and socially aware.

But that gray Honda in the driveway was hers.

Katie and I attend the same church. A fellow parishioner named Jack drives a gray Honda, too. And our minister drives a gray Honda. And his daughter. Think a moment. You probably know somebody who drives a gray Honda, right?

A trail of gray Hondas stretches through Ipswich.

Once I started counting gray Hondas, I began to realize that the earth is crawling with them, like sheet-metal cockroaches. Start at my house on outer Linebrook, drive to Town Hall, and how many gray Hondas do you see? One day I actually kept track. Wanna guess? Four? No. Seven? Still low. Eleven? Dream on. I crossed the path of 14 gray Hondas that day — in the space of five and a half miles.

Ipswich is gray Honda hell.

Why?

I’m afraid of what the reason might be.

I’m afraid we’re witnessing a slow-motion alien invasion.

Yes, alien invasion.

We’ve known for a long time that aliens are either invading earth or preparing to. Any basic Google search will tell you this. But now it’s becoming clear what form they’re taking.

They pose as the drivers of gray Hondas, and they infiltrate the most intimate little spaces that humans can possibly occupy. Within reason. I mean, like, Ipswich. Towns of 15,000 or fewer residents. The gray Hondas themselves are actually highly advanced energy-absorption teleportation units, which draw the life out of our town and shuttle it back to the home planet without our ever knowing it. There’s no actual climate change, folks. It’s the gray Hondas, throwing off the natural balance of our ecological system by sucking nutrients and calories and BTUs out of our environment.

So somewhere out there, there’s a planet that was gradually dying, and they searched the universe for some source of the energy they specifically needed, and they found it here. In New England. In Ipswich. Maybe it’s the energy generated by bickering? I don’t know. But their equipment does indeed register energy spikes during Town Meeting, twice a year.

Anyway, they’re sending their rovers — disguised as gray Hondas — to crawl across our 32.1 square miles of land area and vacuum up all the energy they can find.

Yes. Gray Hondas. This is the safest, most commonplace form you can possibly assume, if you’re an alien.

You don’t have to wonder if my theory is correct. There’s a way to test this. The next time you’re driving through Ipswich and you see a gray Honda, just tap lightly on your horn. Nothing special, nothing extraordinary. Just a bip bip! Then watch the face of the driver of that gray Honda. Look at their eyes. You’re witnessing a momentary flicker of recognition. A moment of “Oh no! They’re on to me!”

See? Gray Hondas. Aliens.

The only way to protect yourself is to honk every time. Bip bip! Every time you see a gray Honda. Because when THEY know YOU know, you’re safe.

Good luck.

Live long and prosper.

 

 

If You Can Hear Me, Tap Three Times

Standard

Please help me. Come rescue me. I’m in here, I promise. Somewhere beyond the mudroom. If this message reaches you, please, I beg you, come to my house, find some way, I have no idea how, to get through the mudroom, and haul me out.

I have no idea how this happened, getting barricaded in my own house, by my own stuff. Where I come from, we didn’t have mudrooms. In the Arizona desert, we didn’t have mud. Mud, as I understand it, is a concoction of dirt and water. Dirt, I get. Over the course of my desert years, I became familiar with a whole range of dirt types. We had sand, grit, gravel, dust. In the urban areas, we had grime, filth, soot, even grunge. Plenty of what you’d call dirt. But hardly ever did we come across dirt combined with water. Because for the most part, the only water we ever saw was piped in from the often-dry Salt River and carefully restricted to exquisitely profligate fountains out in front of insanely lavish resorts.

Hence, no mud. Hence, no mudrooms.

But moving to New England and shopping for an antique house, I quickly discovered the alternate reality, the fifth-dimensional space, known as the mudroom. It is the humblest of chambers, bearing the humblest of names. The mudroom is never called the “entryway,” even though it is a way of entering. God forbid a New Englander should ever call it the “foyer” — that would be way too fancy. Likewise for “reception area.” And “vestibule” would be too churchy. No, this is the “mudroom.” It’s a wretched little cube, tacked on to an otherwise pleasant house, and named for a mixture of water and dirt.

It’s also, apparently, magnetic. In my very limited experience living in New England, I find that mudrooms attract junk. Not just metal junk, like a normal magnet. No, mudroom magnetism is eclectic. In the mudrooms of New England, you’re liable to find hats and coats and scarves and boots, and whatever tools don’t quite fit the current season, and the carrier you take your pet to the vet in. A few valiant folks are diligent enough to keep their mudrooms from accumulating clutter, but they mostly fall into one of two unfortunate categories: they’re either haggard from the continuous effort, or totally wired on caffeine, if not something stronger. And if you have school-age children — even just one of them — there is absolutely no hope for your mudroom. You’re going to find yourself clambering over an ever-morphing mountain of rubber boots, forgotten schoolbooks, splintered skateboards, and the part of the sandwich they put down to get their mittens on.

I guess it’s clear now that I simply couldn’t keep up. Or maybe “couldn’t” is the wrong word. Maybe I just made bad life choices. Maybe if I had assiduously attended to my mudroom, perhaps just removing a small percentage of the debris each day, say 50 or 60 items, I could have stayed ahead of the buildup. Maybe my priorities were misplaced. If I had spent less time making a living, if I hadn’t wasted all those hours caring for my children, or eating right and getting plenty of exercise, I wouldn’t find myself in the predicament I’m in today: trapped in my house behind a mass of assorted objects so intensely packed and intricately interlocked that I can hardly even get a cell signal in here anymore.

It’s not as if I could simply advertise a garage sale and hope for neighbors to take this stuff away, item by item, for a dollar apiece. This is not stuff anybody else would want, under any imaginable circumstances. There’s rusty barbecue equipment, and the grimy fishing hat that I always used to wear while barbecuing, before I couldn’t find the barbecue equipment anymore. There’s a Frisbee so warped it won’t Fris anymore. There’s a square of cardboard with FREE scrawled on it in huge letters, which last year advertised our bumper crop of apples on a table out by the street until someone took all the apples and the table the sign was taped to. There’s a hat somebody gave to my wife which she would never wear in a million years. A random light fixture. A spool of kite string knotted beyond redemption. A haggard sweatshirt celebrating the Chicago Bears’ Super Bowl victory. Mounds of various colors and textures of fabric probably constituting clothing from my daughter’s fifth-, sixth-, seventh-, and early eighth-grade eras. And innumerable as-yet-unreturned empty Appleton Farms milk bottles. If the price of milk goes up out there, it will be because we have $62,418 worth of their bottle inventory in our mudroom.

So I implore you, if you’re reading this, take pity on a poor fool. Bring a Bobcat. Bring a blowtorch. Possibly bring a priest. Whatever you think might help. Get me out of here. I know it won’t be easy. But I’m pleading with you on humanitarian grounds. My daughter will graduate in four years, and I want to be there.

 

 

Fixing What Isn’t Exactly Broken

Standard

“You know I loved you,” he says.

“I know,” she replies.

“I’m sorry about how this has turned out.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“I know. It’s Town Clerk Pam Carakatsane’s fault.”

“No, it isn’t. We can’t blame her. Don’t shoot the messenger.”

“I can’t seem to get a handle on this rage!” he replies. “You and I will never have a family! They say I have to be neutered!”

“I know. But it will be okay. Don’t freak out. Don’t bite somebody. If you bite somebody, it will be even more complicated.”

“I’m trying to stay calm,” he says, urinating on the forsythia. “But it’s not natural for a chihuahua to be calm. We’re a nervous breed. We quiver.”

“I know, darling,” she says. “I love it when you quiver.”

“I’m quivering now.”

“I see that.” She sighs. “You know, human males get vasectomies all the time.”

“This isn’t a mere vasectomy!” he shrieks. “This is neutering!” He begins pacing, his tiny toenails clicking on the sidewalk. “How could our romance come to this? I wanted to settle down with you, in a wooded backyard on outer Linebrook. Take our puppies swimming Hood Pond. All of us barking endlessly at the illegal Fourth of July fireworks. Now — the dream is a nightmare. ‘All dogs must be registered by March 31.’ It’s canine Nazi Germany! ‘Registration fee $15 for spayed/neutered dogs, $20 for intact dogs.’ Intact dogs! There’s a penalty for being intact!

“I know, darling. Please try to calm yourself. We’ll still have a beautiful life together.”

“Beautiful life! Beautiful life! You call ‘neutered’ a beautiful life?”

“Well, to be honest,” she replies quietly, looking away. There’s a long silence. “Pregnancy is not exactly a joyride, you know.”

He stops short. He stands up straight on all four of his little legs, looking straight at her. His tail trembles. His eyes bulge. Actually, since he’s a chihuahua, his eyes always bulge. But at this moment they seem extra-bulgy.

“What are you saying?” he finally murmurs. “Are you saying you don’t want our children? You’re willing to give up our love life — and the opportunity to keep my family line going — just to avoid the minor inconvenience of childbirth?”

She glares at him. Her chihuahua eyes are enormous too, but now they also burn with the fire of indignation. One of her nostrils twitches with rage.

“I thought you were a dog, but I was wrong,” she growls. “I was wrong about all of you.”

“All of who?” he replies.

She turns and begins to stalk away. Then she stops. Turns. Glowers over her shoulder at him.

“Men,” she says. “Men are pigs.”

He looks at her, stunned. His tail is perfectly still.

“Yes,” she sneers. “Even dogs can be pigs.”

She turns back and trots away.

He stands there for a moment, paralyzed. Then, suddenly, he comes alive.

“Wait!” he barks. “I’m sorry! I love you! You know I love you! Look! My tail is wagging! I’m quivering like crazy!”

She’s halfway down the line of forsythia. She stops and turns back to him.

“Get fixed, you jerk,” she scoffs. “Get licensed. Get legal. Be a man. It’s not all about sex. It’s not all about you. And may I just add this: Childbirth is not a ‘minor inconvenience.’”

She turns and continues trotting down the lane.

He yips at her in desperation.

“Don’t yip, little boy,” she snarls, without stopping, without even turning around. “Come see me after surgery.”

And she is gone.

He stops yipping. He sits. He lifts one ear. He cocks his head. He sniffs. He lowers his head. He licks himself. He looks up. She’s still gone. But he can still hear her voice in his head.

“Even dogs can be pigs.”

He turns and trots toward home.

What does that mean? he wonders.

Then he stops again. He lowers his head. He licks himself. It’s all he can do. Because men are pigs.

 

Doug Brendel studies gender dynamics across multiple species, beginning with his own, from his home on outer Linebrook. For additional dog-registering information, Doug recommends contacting Town Clerk Pam Carakatsane via IpswichMA.gov or (978) 356-6600 ext. 1015.

 

This was fun!

Standard

Book Launched, Fun Poked, Crayons Largely Unused