Hell hath no fury like a local salsa

It’s the dead of winter in New England. You must have strategies for keeping warm.

Some strategies work better than others.

For instance: Do you focus on warming yourself from the outside in, or the inside out?

Stacking firewood, as one example, warms you from the inside out. But it’s also possible to achieve inside-out warming without so much heavy lifting. Where I come from, in the desert of central Arizona, people warm themselves from the inside out by ingesting spicy foods. Why people who live in the hottest place on earth ever wanted to eat the hottest foods on earth, I don’t know. Maybe in the old days, hot food is all they had available. In any case, you can get truly hot food in Arizona.

On the other hand, to find truly hot food on the North Shore of Massachusetts is a major challenge.

Things labeled “hot” here … ain’t.

To eat something “hot” isn’t about some mild twinge, some moment of puzzlement, some delicate flicker of alarm on your tongue. If you call it “hot,” it should make your face sweat. It should, within 60 seconds, make you look like you’ve been crying for an hour. You should need an icy margarita immediately, just for survival.

Oh, I know you can buy a habanero pepper as an ingredient for your own cooking, or order “Thin & Spicy Dill Pickle Slices” from Ipswich-based Table Manners (the pickles are not really thin, but they are delightfully spicy). Or you can go to Market Basket and get commercially manufactured “hot” stuff from out of state.

But who’s making healthy, local, homemade hot stuff for us? 

Local foods labeled “hot”? Harrumph. I have been suckered repeatedly.

It’s basically a class-action lawsuit waiting to happen: North Shore farm stands calling stuff “hot” when really they’re not.

Last week I visited Northern Lights, our Ipswich farm stand on High Street. This place is a treasure: an enormous variety of wonderful stuff, including numerous Amish farm products. They have seasonal vegetables, fruits, bakery, eggs, honey and syrup, flowers and plants, even Christmas trees when the time comes. They also offer quite a line of “Annie’s Kitchen” products in jars. I bought everything I could find under the label “hot” — Hot Tomato Relish, Hot Pickled Garlic, Hot Pepper Cabbage — plus Habanero Dill Blast Pickles.

All very, very tasty. I gobbled the garlic and the cabbage like candy. The relish was perfect on my turkey pita wrap for breakfast this morning. The pickles made a delightful snack.

Hot? No.

I think the pickles, after I swallowed, may have given off the faint echo of something vaguely like heat. And certainly I saw a few lame pepper flakes sloshing around in the bottoms of some of the jars. But a pepper flake doth not a bonfire make.

With Marini and Russell’s farm stands closed for the winter, and Appleton offering only online-carryout, I had no choice but to cross the Ipswich town line and look for heat elsewhere.

I found myself in Newbury, at Tendercrop Farms.

On a rack to your left as you enter, they offer Hot Corn Salsa, Hot Black Bean Salsa, and Hot Slow Roasted Garlic Salsa — plus something they call Extremely Hot Salsa, without even a nod to its ingredients.

The hot corn salsa was wonderful — but not hot. The garlic and black bean salsas were delicious — but not hot.

Then I tried the mysteriously named Extremely Hot Salsa.

Oh, baby.

This stuff burned my tongue, charred the roof of my mouth, and melted the spoon. It scorched my throat going down, and enflamed my stomach. I had to mop my eyebrows, and douse my mouth-fire with seltzer. You know those cartoons where fire comes blasting out of someone’s mouth and ears?

Well, no, this isn’t how it was. Not exactly. But the “Extremely Hot” salsa was hotter than the other stuff, by far.

I’m going back for more!

And when I win damages for false advertising, I’m gonna serve this stuff at the party.

Doug Brendel lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where he studies fire-eating and other circus tricks. Enter his weird world via Doug Brendel.com.

Where There’s Smoke, There’s a Permit

I try not to live in fear, but as you read these words, I am really jittery. About fire. I do not like fire.

I spent nearly a quarter-century living in the endlessly hot, dry Arizona desert, where you don’t live in a house, you live in a tinderbox.

A few nights before my wife and I were scheduled to fly to Massachusetts and begin hunting for a house in Ipswich, our smoke alarm started screaming. We followed the smoke downstairs to our kitchen, where our Bosch dishwasher was spewing flames.

The kids and I all got out safely, but my wife grabbed the garden house and charged back inside to fight back.

Three days later, we were in Ipswich, Massachusetts, making an offer on a house on outer Linebrook Road. It was brutally cold. The ground was covered in a foot-thick shell of icy snow. Fire danger? No way. We’ll be safe here, I said to myself.

So you can imagine my horror when I learned — as a resident of Ipswich — that the Town allows something they call “open burning.”

From January 15th to May 1st, people are invited pay $10 for the fun of setting fires. Out in the open! Anytime from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.! Six solid hours of life-threatening peril! It’s madness!

You just have to get a “burn permit” in advance, and activate your permit online on the day you plan to burn. By 9 each morning, the Ipswich Fire Department decides whether to allow burning that day, based on various conditions — whether the wind is likely to carry your fire into Rowley, for example, or the air is so dry, just striking a match will make something go kaboom. If conditions are deemed hazardous, your permit won’t be activated that day. But of course, since the weather in New England is so changeable, you can come back and request permission the next day, and the next, and the day after that — 106 total days of potential conflagration.

Perhaps most disturbing of all are the lists of what you can burn and what you can’t. There is so much stuff on the “allowed to burn” list, it’s a miracle the Town of Ipswich is still standing.

Driftwood! From our spectacular beach! Driftwood is beautiful, it’s romantic, it’s almost poetic. But no. The Town of Ipswich yawns and lights a fat cigar and says, “Burn it.”

Raspberry stalks? Burn them. No other parts of the raspberry plant, mind you. But the stalks? We hate  the stalks. And not the stalks of any other berry. Just the raspberry stalks. Why do we hate the raspberry stalks? I have no idea. Probably some superstition harking back to the witch-trial era.

Forestry debris — if it’s not from commercial or industrial land clearing — is allowed. So if you have a woodsy area on your property, and you clear it out, you can burn that stuff.

Then, however: a Catch-22.

Take a look at the “not allowed” list: No grass or hay, no stumps, no household trash. (And no tires, thank goodness, globs of smelly black smoke excreting into the atmosphere. Take your tires to West Virginia if you’re gonna burn them.)

But what’s on the very top line of the “not allowed” list? Leaves

So if you clear that woodsy area, and you want to burn the debris, I guess first you’ll have to pick out all the leaves. This could certainly be quite time-consuming, and tiresome, if you had to do it all by yourself. But don’t do it all by yourself. Employ some Yankee ingenuity. Organize a leaf-picking party. This has been a charming, time-honored New England tradition for generations; or if it hasn’t been, it should have been. Invite your neighbors to sit in a circle around your pile of forestry debris — boys in their knickers, girls in their bonnets — and as everyone picks the leaves out, they sing fun songs or recite light verse or tell amusing stories of yore.

You’re also allowed to burn fungus-infected elm wood, and infected bee hives. Not sure whether you have to pick out the fungus. Or the bees.

But it all seems awfully risky to me, with or without leaves, fungus, or bees. April is our worst month for brush fires, with last year’s dead grass, leaves, and wood lying all around — yet April is right there in the heart of “open burning” season. I think the only way to do “open burning” safely is to eliminate the “burning” part. How about “open burial”? No permit required.

Doug Brendel lives on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and keeps a bucket of water nearby at all times. Explore his odd world at DougBrendel.com if you dare.

Gobble-Gobble Up the Town

The North Shore of Massachusetts is a place of helpful cooperation and good will. Towns help each other. If my wife manages to set fire to our house, in the outer Linebrook neighborhood of Ipswich, we shouldn’t be surprised to see a Topsfield fire truck roaring to the scene. If I break the law, depending on how heinous my crime is, chances are good that Middleton will take me off of Ipswich’s hands and incarcerate me in their Jail & House of Correction.

And the other day, as reported in the Ipswich Local News, the Town of Wenham provided a very valuable service to the Town of Ipswich, when Wenham’s astute Animal Control Officer, Steve Kavanaugh, issued a warning about aggressive turkeys.

So helpful! Ipswich has quite a number of turkeys, and many of them are aggressive. Officer Kavanaugh urges us to “avoid close interactions” with them. Unfortunately, this isn’t always feasible, because some are members of key boards and committees. You find others attending the same board or committee meeting as you, and there’s no law against a turkey attending a meeting. Also, some of our most aggressive turkeys are developers, or developers’ lawyers, which means you really must risk “close interactions” with them, because if you don’t, your town goes to hell.

(Biologist David Scarpitti told Channel 5 News, according to the Ipswich Local News report, that turkeys charge and peck at people “when they try to assert dominance.” We have certainly witnessed the pecking, and one can only assume that the lawyers are charging. But since we certainly don’t want turkeys to achieve dominance over us, I think we have no choice but to keep resisting — even with all the toil and risk this entails.) 

Residents can still protect themselves, Officer Kavanaugh says, by way of observing certain safety tips “should a turkey approach them or their property.” Indeed, aggressive turkeys have recently approached us on Essex Road and elsewhere; so abutters and other concerned citizens are going to be hugely relieved to know that there’s even such a thing as safety tips for dealing with aggressive turkeys.

One key tip: Don’t let them intimidate you. (Well, yeah, but easier said than done.) Make loud noises, Officer Kavanaugh suggests. Truth be told, I’ve observed some Ipswich residents engaging in this very strategy. At last Thursday evening’s online ZBA meeting, for example, my wife went off about the massive Bruni project, spending much of her allotted three minutes yelling and waving her arms. If I were a turkey, I would have been terrified.

Here’s a more curious tactic on the list: Cover shiny or reflective surfaces, like windows — because turkeys are attracted to their own reflection. Apparently it’s an ego thing. How could this apply to Ipswich? Well, if the Town can’t ban construction of Bruni’s 191 housing units on Essex Road, perhaps we could just ban the installation of windows in the new mega-complex. Since nobody will want to live in a place without windows, the aggressive turkey might just take his 191-unit sprawl elsewhere.

Officer Kavanaugh also makes one additional recommendation: Do not feed the turkeys. Yes, they may become tame, he says, but it won’t necessarily last. Even an apparently reformed turkey has the potential to explode in “angry or wild outbursts.” To me, this is the most disturbing item on the list. It suggests the possibility that some Ipswich residents are secretly supporting the Bruni project by putting food out for the turkey. Don’t do it, people. That bowl of Snickers miniatures on your front steps may seem like an act of compassion, but in reality it’s an invitation to disaster. Someday soon, when you’re living in a dystopian world of domination by turkeys, you’ll regret it.


Doug Brendel lives in a house on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where he runs and hides whenever turkeys strut through his yard. Explore Doug’s strange world at DougBrendel.com.

George Washington Plugged In Here

You don’t own a 204-year-old house, you steward it. 

It’s an exchange: You get to live there, and for this privilege, you care for the house, you baby it, you keep every detail perfectly intact as long as possible, and you gently replace only what needs to be replaced when there is absolutely no alternative.

That semi-functional latch on the closet door is not an annoying anachronism to be tolerated: It’s a 19th-century treasure to be cherished. John Quincy Adams was president when that latch was installed; how can you think of trading it for a Trump-era doorknob?

This is Ipswich, Massachusetts, practically the center of the antique house universe. Replace that rotting newel post on your staircase, and the Ipswich Historical Commission will storm the site wearing three-cornered hats and carrying muskets.

I take very seriously the preservation of our little square of Massachusetts, on outer Linebrook Road, and the old barn-red dwelling situated on it. 

So of course it was quite alarming to discover that my wife Kristina had nearly burned the place down. Not on purpose, mind you; but the flames licking up around your bookcase don’t really care about your intent.

Kristina has a lovely office upstairs, from which she runs our household finances. She also handles, from this room, all the logistics for the NewThing.net humanitarian charity we lead in Belarus. This is also “mission control” for her scholarly work, as she pursues a Literature degree at UMass Lowell. Then there’s FaceTime with our faraway kids, and there are Zoom conferences for various purposes, and probably some other stuff I’m forgetting. But as you can imagine, all of this requires technology: computers and modems and battery-chargers, and an electric radiator, and lamps, and probably some other stuff I’m forgetting. 

All of which has to be plugged in somewhere.

“Somewhere” is the key question. 

As far as I can tell, Kristina’s office is in a part of the house that still has the original 1817 electrical. Eventually, who knows how many years ago, somebody begrudgingly put an outlet on the wall. 

The only way to run a modern office in a room like this is to plug in a power strip, and then over time, as you add electric equipment to your operation, resist the urge to plug a power strip into your power strip. 

Or give in, and hope for the best.

I have no idea what-all Kristina had plugged into that outlet. (That room is her academic inner sanctum. If I stay out, I run less risk of getting any Shakespeare on me.) 

But the truth was soon to be told.

When she decided to paint the office walls a new color, she started the project by moving all the furniture to the middle of the floor. 

The decision to switch from asphyxiation blue to jaundice yellow may have saved our lives. 

There on the wall was the lonely, overworked outlet, with the telltale brown streaks of fire and smoke damage flaring up from its little rectangular nostrils. 

Not good.

We quickly called our favorite electrician, Marty, who has experience with antique houses. 

He arrived with all the stuff an electrician needs, plus archeological gear. 

He removed the beleaguered outlet, opened the wall, and began excavating. 

The wiring he pulled out of that wall was basically Ben Franklin kite string.

It took so long for Marty to make everything safe and right, we eventually set him up with a cot, a microwave, and a washbasin. His children came by occasionally to get reacquainted.

But eventually, the work was indeed finished — with correct wiring, and extra outlets. The electrician went home to his family. Kristina plugged everything back in, and moved the furniture back into place. 

We can breathe easy now. 

We will not go down in history as the people who burned down this house. 

At least, for the time being.

That little crack in the furnace is probably nothing to worry about, right? I don’t want to replace it. It’s Coolidge-era.


Doug Brendel lives safe and sound on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Learn more at DougBrhttp://www.DougBrendel.comendel.com.

We Been Buffaloed, Y’All

So many horrible things are happening these days. Intractable climate crisis. Implacable global pandemic. Violence in our nation’s capital. Bruni World threatening the Ipswich water supply. 

Against the backdrop of such tribulations, it seems small to fret about anything else. But the truth is, I’m really, really disturbed watching the NFL playoffs without the Patriots.

It feels so weird, like I’m having a dream where I died and then came back to life on a parallel planet; everything looks identical to the previous world except for one mysterious aberration — but it doesn’t matter because you know it’s a dream and you’re going to wake up and the world will be the way it was before, and everything is going to be okay.

Except, uh, no.

The Pats have been in the playoffs every year but one for nearly a third of my life. The year they began their playoff run, my beard was still black, and my college-freshman daughter was naught but a glint in my eye.

One of the most uncomfortable aspects of this strange Pats-less playoff season is the tragic scarcity of hate speech. Over the course of the past two decades, I’ve luxuriated in the loathing of my friends from all across the country. I could always count on a steady stream of sneering, fans of the other 31 teams whining about how sick they were of looking at the Patriots at the end of the season. It was pitiful, and I loved it.

But this year, it’s like I don’t exist. No grumping from Grandpa in Green Bay. No clamoring from my client in Cleveland. What’s my Saints-fan stockbroker doing with his time, since he left off cussing at me about New England? I’m chopped liver.

It was disorienting enough, this season, seeing Cam Newton under center instead of Tom Brady. But since tuning in to the playoffs this year, I’ve found that the unfamiliarity now extends to entire teams. It turns out there are now things called Bills. What kind of a name is this for a football team? Are these duck bills? Or possibly invoices? Pieces of legislation under consideration by lawmakers? Paper money? Or maybe to play on this team, you have to be named Bill? This seems unreasonable. What if you’re an awesome football player, but your name is Ronnie?

Whatever their name means, they’re sad substitutes for the Patriots. Obvious wannabes. Just look at those uniforms. Red, white, and blue. Sound familiar? And then there are the helmets. Practically indistinguishable from the Patriots’ helmets. They’ve sneakily replaced our iconic symbol, “Elvis on speed,” with an essentially identical cartoon of a bison, or possibly a large wart hog, being stabbed in the head by a huge red dagger. At first glance, you could easily see the wart hog and think “Elvis.” And you know opposing teams are making this mistake all the time. In that split-second, they think they’re up against the Patriots, and they’re intimidated. Falsely, as it turns out, because in reality, they’re only up against the Not Ronnies.

Yes, I’m bitter. How can you blame me? The world is not as it should be. Earth is baking, Covid is raging, democracy is staggering, and a vast swatch of historic Ipswich, Massachusetts, is about to be paved for condos. We needed the Patriots this year. And where are they? Sitting at home, eating Doritos, watching the Fake News Wart Hog Not Ronnies with the rest of us.

Sigh. Maybe there’s not much I can do, as an individual — about climate, or coronavirus, or Congress under siege.

All that’s left is … well, let’s see, what’s left?

Uh, Bruni sucking Ipswich water? Paving over the town? Doing a Capitol-mob number on our town’s historic character?

Maybe I could do something about this? I mean, as an individual? As a lone human being?

Hey! Yes! I could! Look at this! I could click here.

Awesome. Regardless of the playoffs. Regardless of what the Not Patriots do.

Doug Brendel has thrived as an obnoxious New England Patriots fan on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, for more than a decade. But now what? Follow him at DougBrendel.com.

Love and Compost in the New Year

“Darling, it’s a new year, and I’ve made a New Year’s resolution. You’ve scooped the litter box every day for all these years; but from now on, as an expression of my esteem and affection for you, I’m going to take over this chore.”

“Why, thank you, dear.”

“You’ve been so faithful, fetching the feces, excavating the excrement. You’ve shoveled it steadily and quietly — which is so ‘you’ — and I really appreciate that. You’ve never pooped out. But from now on, darling, I’ll do the doo-doo.”

“Well, this is very loving of you, dear.”

“No more worry about the waste, darling. I’ll scoop it right into the garbage, and you’ll never have to give it another thought.”

“Compost, dear.”

“Pardon me, darling?”

“Compost. Not garbage. Scoop the litter into the compost, dear.”

“Oh. Okay, darling.”

“We have curbside compost, you know, dear.”

“Sure, darling.”

“It’s a Town of Ipswich program, dear.”

“Okay. Got it, darling. Scoop the litter into the curbside compost bin.”

“Not straight into the bin, dear.”


“They don’t want your compostable stuff dumped straight into the bin, dear. Way too messy. It needs to be bagged.”

“Bagged, darling?”

“Scoop the litter into a paper sack, dear, and put the sack in the curbside compost bin.”

“Okay, darling.”

“I keep a supply of paper bags right next to the litter box, dear.”

“Okay, darling. No problem. I’ll scoop the litter into the paper bag, and put it right into the curbside compost bin.”

“Maybe not right into the bin, dear.”


“Maybe bring it to the kitchen, dear.”

“The kitchen, darling? Bring the bag of scooped kitty crud to the kitchen?”

“Well, yes. To our kitchen compost bin, dear, next to the sink.”

“You want that gross scooped kitty crud to go into the kitchen compost bin, darling?”

“No, dear. I want the stuff we’ve already put in the kitchen compost bin to go into the bag with the kitty crud.”


“Since you’re heading out to the curbside compost bin anyway, dear, you may as well take all the compostable stuff together — the kitty crud and the kitchen compost — and save a trip.”

“Okay, darling. Just to be clear: I’ll scoop the litter into the sack, take it to the kitchen, dump the kitchen compost into the sack, then take the sack straight out to the curbside compost bin.”

“Not straight out, dear.”


“Well, the kitchen compost bin will get awfully smelly awfully fast if you don’t rinse it out every time you empty it, dear.”

“Okay, darling. I’ll scoop the litter into the sack, carry it to the kitchen, dump the kitchen compost into the bag, rinse out the kitchen compost bin—”

“And the strainer, dear.”

“The strainer, darling?”

“The strainer that covers the drain, dear, in the kitchen sink. After you rinse out the kitchen compost bin, there will be gunk in the strainer, over the drain, in the sink. It really has to be emptied out — into the bag, with the kitty litter, and the kitchen compost — and then rinsed.”

“Of course, darling. So I’ll scoop the litter into the sack, carry it to the kitchen, dump the kitchen compost into the bag, rinse out the kitchen compost bin, empty the strainer, rinse the strainer, and carry the bag out to the curbside compost bin.”

“In the garage, dear.”

“The garage, darling?”

“Well, the curbside compost bin isn’t curbside, dear. It’s in the garage.”

“How does it get to the curb, darling?”

“You roll it out there, dear. The compost truck comes every Wednesday.”

“Okay, darling. I’ve got it straight now. Every day, I scoop the litter into the sack, carry it to the kitchen, dump the kitchen compost into the bag, rinse out the kitchen compost bin, empty the strainer into the bag, rinse the strainer, and carry the bag with the litter and the kitchen compost and the gunk from the strainer out to the curbside compost bin. Then on Wednesday, I take the curbside compost bin to the curb.”

“By 5 a.m., dear.”

“What, darling?”

“Out here on outer Linebrook Road, the truck usually comes by 5:30, dear.”


“Anything wrong, dear? You look troubled.”

“Just wondering, darling.”

“Wondering what, dear?”

“Is a dead cat compostable, darling?”

Doug Brendel scoops the litter box at his house on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts. You can follow him all the way to the curb at DougBrendel.com.

O Tidings of Gluttony and Joy

Of all the perfectly understandable reasons to complain about a global pandemic, Zoom church isn’t one of them.

Zoom church is awesome.

You can attend in your bathrobe, with or without having brushed your teeth. 

Recite the Nicene Creed with a mouthful of Cheerios. 

Write a column while Passing the Peace. Which I’m actually doing. 

Back in the ’90s, the New Yorker ran a cartoon featuring two dogs sitting in front of a computer, with one dog saying to the other, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Still true today. At Zoom church, nobody knows you’re scratching yourself.

I do miss seeing my friends, but to be honest, I don’t really miss all that Episcopalian choreography.

If you go to church in person, in the course of less than an hour you’re going to stand, sit, stand, sit, stand (there’s that Nicene Creed), kneel, stand, sit, stand, walk, kneel, stand, walk, sit, stand, and — if you want to listen to Dr. Frank Corbin’s splendid organ postlude — you sit one last time.

Zoom church is way simpler: you’re going to sit, sit, sit, stand, walk (to the bathroom and back), sit, sit, sit, stand, walk (to the fridge and back), sit, sit, and then do some more sitting.

After the pandemic, when we go back to in-person church, I’m going to be mightily tempted to bring a sandwich. A Tupperware container with a fancy cross on the lid could become a thing.

This past Sunday, the Sunday after Christmas, was perhaps the most important day for Zoom church.


Because of the sinning.

Let me explain.

My wife and daughters outdid themselves this year, producing the finest Christmas dinner in memory; but the sad side-effect of such a culinary triumph is that those same dear loved ones who prepared the feast become your mortal enemies in the contest for leftovers.

Greed, gluttony, duplicity, larceny? Do anything to get your fair share of the gourmet mac & cheese.

No sin is too sinful when mashed potatoes and gravy are on the line.

When Christmas dinner happens on a Friday evening, the precious final globs of oyster-and-mushroom stuffing will be in play on Sunday morning.

The hour you spend in the pews could cost you the last of the roast goose. But Zoom church keeps you in the leftovers game. Hallelujah!

Before the service began, I stuck out my leg to trip my 19-year-old on her way to the fridge so I could snag the last of the amazing Southern collard greens, which had been expertly slow-cooked with big, crispy mouth-watering chunks of butcher-quality ham.

During Sunday’s liturgy, as we offered prayers for “those we love but see no longer,” I bowed my head in memory of the green bean casserole.

Did I feel any guilt about my conduct?

“We are truly sorry and we humbly repent,” I mumbled halfheartedly. “Have mercy on us, forgive us all our sins….”

However, may I just say: The homemade pumpkin pie was bitchin’.


Doug Brendel counts calories at Dragonhead, his 203-year-old house on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Check him out at DougBrendel.com.

’Twas the Night Before Christmas Trees Running Out

“We have to go. Now.”

My wife was standing in the doorway, the fiery, glassy look of shock in her eyes.

“Marini is going to run out of Christmas trees.”

A cruel chill ran through my veins. We’d already been through so much in Ipswich, Massachusetts. A global pandemic. A fractious election. A Truman Show housing development on Linebrook Road. And now this.

“I saw it on Marini’s Facebook feed,” she said, her face ashen. “They’ve run out once already. They say they just got 200 more. But it’s only 200!

I didn’t need her panic for motivation. I could do the math: 200 Christmas trees; 13,000 Ipswich residents. This was a humanitarian disaster in the making.

“Mike Marini says they hope they’ll last through the weekend!” my wife cried.

I glanced at my iPhone. It was already Friday evening.

“It’s already Friday evening!” she squalled.

In this moment of crisis, a cherished family tradition was being threatened. From the year we moved to Ipswich, we’ve never had a Christmas tree from anywhere but Marini Farm. We’ve heard rumors around town, from time to time, that Christmas trees are available from other sources — but would they be okay? Could they be trusted? Would they be infested with rats, or bats, or wispy little spider-webby strands of coronavirus? You don’t want this kind of anxiety at Christmastime.

“Let’s go,” I replied — my usual decisive self. I sprang from my bed — No, wait, that’s “The Night Before Christmas.” Actually, I just groaned as I pushed myself up from my easy chair.

We raced to the mudroom, donned our winter gear, flung ourselves into the car, and headed east from our place on outer Linebrook Road. I feared the worst: hundreds of vehicles jamming the Marini parking lot, traffic backed up all the way to Route 1, car horns honking with exasperation, Cape Ann Botanicals vendors hawking cannabis gummies to alleviate the stress for stranded drivers.

But what we found at Marini Farm was even worse than my private nightmare: a virtually empty parking lot.

With a deep sense of Dickens-like foreboding, we got out of the car and tromped through the mud toward that place that has welcomed so many folks for so many years in this annual season of cheer: the Marini Christmas tree lot. We’ve grown accustomed to the heartwarming sight of thousands of Christmas trees standing there, stacked up like courageous soldiers, each one bravely waiting to have a hole drilled up their trunk.


As we arrived, we came upon an utterly shocking sight: two forlorn Christmas trees. Two. The entire lot had been picked over, in a matter of minutes.

We traipsed through the mud to inspect the two losers. We debated which of them would be less awful — the fat one with the lame top, or the scrawny one with at least a few needles left on its spire. (We went with scrawny.) A dedicated Marini worker conducted the requisite circumcision procedure: cut off the bottom of the trunk, drill a hole for the tree-stand spike, wrap the whole thing in netting, use twine to secure it to the top of your car.

Meanwhile, another family arrived: eager father, cheery mother, little girl in puffy pink snow gear. Their decision was easy: They’ll have to do Christmas with the fat one, with the lame top.

After them, humbug. As far as I can tell, me and the little girl in the puffy pink, we got the last Christmas trees in Ipswich this year.

But then, a bit of a miracle.

I dragged our next-to-last Marini tree into our living room, we stood it pitilessly on its pointy tree-stand spire, my wife swathed it in lights — and it became beautiful.

Merry Christmas to all. Especially those who got to Marini too late.

Doug Brendel lives on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and he should be ashamed of snickering at unfortunate folks at Christmastime. But he’s not. Chastise him via DougBrendel.com.

And To The Republic, For Which It Melts

Congratulations, my fellow minions of the Bay State’s North Shore! 

If you’re reading this, you survived this past weekend’s “bomb cyclone.”

I mean high winds, plus hours of pouring rain, turning to slush, then freezing solid.

Perhaps, come Sunday morning, you shrugged. 

Not much snow accumulation, after all. 

But at Dragonhead, my 203-year-old house on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, we were frozen in place.

I normally start my day with a personal patriotic ritual: taking my American flag from its place inside our front door and moving it to the holder mounted on the front of the house right next to the door. 

(The only exception: days when precipitation is forecast. It’s considered disrespectful to fly your flag in the rain or snow. Of course, this rarely happens anymore, now that we’re living in the Drought Age.) 

But on Sunday morning, I found that the front door wouldn’t open. I raised the old-fashioned latch (there’s no doorknob), but the rough old wooden rectangle wouldn’t budge.

I pushed, I banged, I put my shoulder into it, I even kicked. 

All of this was risky, you understand, because to look at it, I’d say the door is older than the house. 

I imagine that when Mr. Timothy Morse Jr. built this nice new house in 1817, he decided to put an antique spin on his contemporary-style dwelling — or maybe just save some bucks — by scavenging a door that was already 175 years old back then.

So our front door, after what would be nearly four centuries, is a rickety old thing. It should never be banged or kicked. The rotten old thing could disintegrate.

(My wife, on the other hand, estimates that the door is circa 1965. Anyway, we’ve discussed replacing it, but there’s always something else to spend available funds on, like bifocals, or hearing aids, or an electronically scheduled pill-dispensing system, since I’ll soon be as old as the front door myself.)

Anyway, the ancient front door would not yield.

Thank heaven we have a back door. A solid, sturdy, modern door, with an actual working doorknob.

I escaped in my bathrobe and slippers, looking like a weird version of Ebenezer Scrooge, still in my bed-head hair — and skated downhill the length of my driveway, to the front of our property, to discover the awful truth: At the base of our front door was a thick lip of frozen-solid slush.

It was going to take a pick-axe to get us out.

I would have to go back up the driveway (on the ice in my slippers, in itself a feat worthy of Shackleton), go into the garage, get the axe, sail down the driveway-glacier again (axe perhaps dragged behind me, like a rudder), crunch across the snowy front yard, up the two front steps to the front door, and begin hacking.


Many heroes, down through our nation’s history, have made enormous sacrifices for the sake of Old Glory.

God bless them.

I, on the other hand, picked my ice-encrusted Boston Sunday Globe off the ice-glazed asphalt, trudged back up the driveway, went inside and headed back to bed.

If you don’t like the weather in New England, they say, wait 20 minutes.

I recommend using this interlude for a nap.

(Just woke up? Doesn’t matter. America is the land of the free.)

By the time I woke again, the sun was streaming through the windows, and I could hear the reassuring drip-drip-drip of ice melting off the roof.

That wretched old door swung right open. 

The flag went up as usual, schedule glitch notwithstanding.

Democracy lives on.

Doug Brendel tends to his obsessive-compulsive routines in a usually-flag-adorned old house on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Visit him at DougBrendel.com.