Old writers never die, they just lose their batteries

One morning long ago, when I was hiring writers to help me write everything my clients wanted me to write, one of my fellow writers walked into our very casual office looking strange. For no apparent reason, he was wearing a bow tie.

“If I dress better,” he explained, “I’ll write better.”

It didn’t work.

But I was tantalized by the idea that something utterly unrelated to writing might help a writer write better. Superstition, yes, but hey, if it might facilitate higher fees, I’ll try it.

Fast-forward several decades. I’d like my “Outsidah” column to be better. I’d like less hate mail. So my brilliant brother-in-law, a master carpenter, builds me a little writer’s nook — because I feel sure that writing in a writer’s nook will make me a better writer, as opposed to, say, writing hunched over the kitchen table. Certainly you can see how isolating yourself in a small, isolated space designed exclusively for the execution of your craft — eliminating distractions, allowing total focus — is better than trying to replicate Updike only inches away from cupboards full of wondrous treats. Not to mention the leftover pot roast in the fridge.

My tiny writer’s nook, just big enough for me, my standing desk, and narrow wall shelves, is totally enclosed, except for a window overlooking beautiful Ipswich. Well, 20 square feet of beautiful Ipswich, behind the garage. But never mind that. I don’t have to look out the window. I can close myself off from the world, just me and my laptop, and be brilliant.

I christen my writer’s nook the “Art Room” — because my brother-in-law, the builder, is named Art — and I keenly anticipate not only writing better but feeling younger, more vital, cooler, more attractive. I can imagine emerging from a hard day’s work in the Art Room and my wife’s eyes glittering with admiration, perhaps even fluttering a bit, like a cartoon from the ’50s.

Then I actually try it.

After significant experience in the Art Room, I can report that it’s roughly as effective as wearing a bow tie.

The problem isn’t the nook. The nook is wonderful. The problem is the young, vital, cool, attractive parts of the equation.

I’m in the Art Room, being brilliant, when my hearing aid beeps in my ear. This means my batteries are low. It also means I’m probably not young, vital, cool, and attractive — but this detail can be ignored, because I’m all alone in my nook: Who will ever know? All I need to do is replace the battery. No problem. I carry spare hearing aid batteries in my pocket at all times, for just such a moment. (It’s not something I broadcast all the time — because it’s not exactly in keeping with my young, vital, cool, attractive persona — but getting caught without spare batteries when you need them will quickly teach an old dog the new trick of carrying spares at all times.)

In the privacy of my nook, I close the laptop on top of the standing desk, pull out my hearing aid, lay it on the laptop cover, and fish the package of batteries from my pocket. It’s in there somewhere. No, that’s the nail clipper. Okay, there — got it.

Then it’s just a matter of taking the hearing aid out of my ear, opening the battery compartment, tapping the old battery out — well, sorry, wait. I can’t quite see it clearly enough without my glasses. Okay, got the glasses on. There, good.

I’m tapping the new battery out of the package, replacing the old with the new — oh, darn. I have a little arthritis in my thumb joints, making it tricky to handle these tiny batteries. The old battery escapes me, bounces to the floor, somewhere behind the standing desk — eh, I’ll get it later.

Now I’m putting the new battery into the hearing aid — careful, careful — closing the battery compartment, and then putting the hearing aid back behind my ear. Well, actually, the earpiece of my glasses is in the way. I can’t quite put the hearing aid back in place without removing my glasses — yeah, they’re bifocals; so what?

So I remove the bifocals, situate the hearing aid, and replace the bifocals. Just like any young, vital, cool, attractive guy would.

Now it’s time to find that runaway dead battery. I’m crouching down, reaching behind the standing desk, feeling my way along the edge of the floor. Something twists in my lower back.

Dang, this hurts. I don’t think I can straighten up.

I hope my wife misses me, and comes looking for me, because the Art Room is nice, but I don’t want to die here.

Besides, someone else will write my obituary, probably brilliantly — and for a hefty fee.

Doug Brendel is alive and well on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Oh, wait; check that “alive and well” part. Pending further notice, follow Doug at DougBrendel.com.

Move-in condition, must hear to believe

Good morning! I’m so happy you’re considering a move to Ipswich, and I want you to know, I’m delighted that you chose me to help you find your new home. I’ve been a realtor in this community for decades, and I’m sure as we spend the day together, we can find the perfect place for you and your family.

Before we set out on our wonderful adventure today, let me just make a few suggestions. I’ve been studying the questionnaire you filled out online, indicating the neighborhoods you’re most interested in. I want to give you some insights into these locations, based on my extensive experience in the area, to perhaps help you refine your search for that perfect dream-come-true property.

First of all, I see you’re interested in Partridgeberry Place and Boxford Road, out in the western part of our beautiful town. Let me just give you a little heads-up about this neighborhood. If you’re annoyed by dogs barking very early in the morning, this is probably not the neighborhood for you. Are you familiar with the Service Dog Project? They train Great Danes and donate them to the mobility-impaired! Isn’t that beautiful? But 33 residents recently signed a petition claiming that “barking occurs frequently in the early mornings before 6 a.m. and for long periods.” I want to assure you that the Town of Ipswich does have a bylaw that prohibits “continuous and clearly audible barking” between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., but when our select board recently held a hearing about the complaints, one woman offered a really practical solution: “Anyone who is annoyed by dogs should not have moved near them,” she said. That is just so sensible, isn’t it? So we as realtors are just trying to do our part, as good neighbors, and warn people about the dogs.

Now I see, here on the map, another property you have your eye on. This is a very fine area, I assure you, as long as you’re okay with domestic violence. It’s totally illegal, of course, but you know how these things go. People disagree, and their disagreements get out of hand, and then it’s pots and pans flying through windows, and people stumbling out the front door, screaming and cursing, and then there are sirens, and handcuffs. Stuff happens, you know? So if you’re annoyed by this kind of thing, I’d suggest you just not go there.

Here’s another neighborhood I see you’ve circled — this is actually our major burglary and car theft area. We don’t technically allow burglary or car theft, but since people are so intent on doing it — if you’re annoyed by this sort of thing — we just recommend that people not go there.

Oh, I see you’ve drawn cute little stars in this part of town over here. I can sure see why you’d be attracted to this area, and honestly, if I were looking for a new home today, I’d be tempted by it too, except for the drag racers. I know it’s illegal, and dangerous, and foolish, but really, enforcing the rules can be so inconvenient, you know? So, if you’re annoyed by this kind of thing — well, we just basically wave people away from this area, and it’s way better for everyone.

Let me also recommend that you avoid this area where the neighbors dump their toxic waste. If this sort of activity annoys you.

And this is the part of town where Mr. Trenchcoat hangs out, eating from garbage cans and accosting schoolchildren on their way home in the afternoon. Verboten, yes! But here again, I think it’s just common sense: The best response to lawbreakers is just to avoid them. If that stuff annoys you.

I’m sure we can find you a superb home, however. Let’s climb in my SUV and head out. I’d like to start by showing you a lovely place upwind of the Transfer Station.

Doug Brendel lives on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where he has no dog-noise problem because he just turns off his hearing aids. Follow Doug at DougBrendel.com.

If Lincoln read by candlelight, you can too

This past Sunday morning, the power went out here on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, striking fear into hearts.

I revere the folks who run our Town power system — as long as I’ve lived in Ipswich, they’ve been quick to respond to any and every problem — but still.

When the power goes out, I confess to a flicker of fear.

I think it’s just because we’re so far away.

We live so far west in town, our neighborhood is informally known as P.B.: Practically Boxford. We’re out here beyond Marini Farm, beyond Route 1, out in the wilderness, where lost hikers occasionally stumble onto Hood Pond, believing they’re the first to discover it. Some have never been heard from again.

So there’s a certain sense of risk, of menace, living out here in the backwoods of Ipswich. When the power goes out, a niggling little question flits through the brain: Back in Ipswich proper, at the Utilities Department — will they remember us? Will we get power again anytime soon? And, more to the point, Should I start eating all this stuff in my fridge?

It should be noted that, in my experience, we have never suffered really long-term power outages in the Outer Linebrook area. Even in the most ferocious storms, the workers have mounted herculean restoration efforts. I have only once resorted to baking potatoes in my fireplace. (After which, I bought a generator — which of course re-ordered the universe so that I have never again needed a generator.)

Still, a power outage is an inconvenience. A frustration. An annoyance. There’s the inevitable cascade of First World problems. 

  • The automatic coffeemaker, which I meticulously set up the night before, doesn’t start up as scheduled. 
  • I can’t switch to hot chocolate because the microwave and electric stove are both dead. Neither of them will tell me the time anymore, either. 
  • To drive to Cumby’s for coffee, I have to yank the garage door up by hand, which deeply wounds my pride. 
  • My modem is lifeless, my WIFI is gone, my cable is worthless. 
  • Soon, my laptop’s battery will be drained; my phone’s as well. What will I do when I can’t check my Stop Bruni Project app? Especially the feature displaying the number of citizens opposed to building Bruni World — gah! I’m addicted to watching the surge in real-time.

With electrical powerlessness linked to such a cavalcade of catastrophe, there’s a natural impulse to pray to the Ipswich Utilities Department: Please, please, Beings On High, remember us, and have mercy on us, even us lowly ones, here in the outer darkness.

Certainly, if there’s even a smidgen of power left in your phone, you can call (978) 356-6640 and a friendly Town employee will take note of your dilemma, and your address, and let you know whether any of your neighbors have likewise reported an outage. If, however, you didn’t plug in your phone at bedtime, prayer is all you’ve got.

Meanwhile, you’re left to wonder how widespread this outage may be. It’s difficult to rein in a feeling of panic when you think about what disasters could ensue back there, to the east of Outer Linebrook, in civilization.

There could be chaos at the entrance to the Y, under the darkened traffic light, as dozens of drivers being nice refuse to turn, and dozens more refuse to go until they do.

Clam shacks could be falling silent all over the Cape Ann area. At this very moment, desperate Clambox employees could be building a woodfire under the fryer to get the oil sizzling again.

Actually, as I write this, I’m sitting in the front seat of my tiny electric car, charging my laptop off the car battery. But soon, even this makeshift power source will be tapped out. I do hope to get this column posted, somehow.

Oh, wait. The garage door just went up.

Geez, people, what were you worried about? The Ipswich utilities gods always come through.

Doug Brendel lives so far west in Ipswich, from his backyard he can see Russia. Follow Doug into his weird world via DougBrendel.com.

Don’t be a stinkah, use ya blinkah

I figure the average American spends about 56 hours a week on sleep, 40 hours a week on work, 6 hours a week on the commute, 14 hours a week on meal prep or eating or cleaning up afterward, and most of the rest of the week on social media.

My own statistics, as a relatively new resident of Ipswich, Massachusetts, are somewhat skewed from the national average because of the roughly 4 hours a week I spend sitting at the Hammatt Street stop sign trying to get onto Depot Square.

This odd intersection — well, I realize it’s not odd by New England standards; we have crooked three-pronged Y-shaped intersections all over the region — but the Hammatt-Depot-Washington Street intersection features the complication of a stop sign, at the foot of Hammatt Street. This means the southbound folks approaching on Washington Street and the northbound folks approaching on Depot Square have the right of way. The poor schnook approaching on Hammatt (that’s me) is obligated to stop and let any and all traffic pass before proceeding in either direction.

This should be a simple matter, but of course, it’s not, if a vehicle is heading up Depot, because you don’t know which way said vehicle will be turning at the intersection. They might follow the bend in the road, past the Ipswich Tavern, onto Hammatt. Or they might make a soft left to cross the railroad tracks and slip onto Washington. If they’re staying to their right, you can pull away from your stop and drive up Depot Square or down Washington, no problem. But you don’t know which way they’re going. You have to wait and see.

Unless, of course, the driver heading north on Depot offers you the information, by using their turn signal — that device you perhaps call the “blinkah.”

It appears to me that use of the blinkah is more or less a lost art here in New England — or maybe it was never an art in the first place. Maybe that page somehow got deleted from the MassDOT driver-education curriculum, so nobody really learns what to do with that stick jutting out from the steering column. Using the blinkah may be one of those mysterious ancient practices that has to be passed down from parent to child. Perhaps at some point in our past, parents became lackadaisical about preserving this tradition, and subsequent generations lost their blinkability.

I do believe use of the blinkah is a custom worth reviving, if only to get me from Tedford’s to Jetty’s.

Say you’re driving from the train station, and you turn at the bank, heading up toward Spice Thai. See that small car at the Hammatt Street stop sign? That’s me. I’m desperate for a bagel. Do a good deed. Use your blinkah. Tell me you’ll be staying to the right, and it’s safe for me to pull out. Or tell me you’ll be cutting to the left, and I have good reason to stay put. If you don’t use your blinkah, I’m stranded.

Living in Ipswich has been good for me because it’s taught me patience. Patience is the only feasible response to the Hammatt-Depot-Washington intersection, because the only real alternative — fulminating rage — is linked to cardiac arrest. Our historic cemeteries are full of people who went with the fulminating rage approach.

It is possible, of course, to avoid the torture by turning north on Hammatt and making a huge loop, via Central Street and Market Street, to get to Depot Square and Washington Street. Depending on traffic, you might actually save time driving this additional half-mile route. But I’m an optimistic old fool, telling myself, day after day, that someone driving north on Depot Square might actually use their blinkah. Hope springs eternal. Which is how long I’ve been sitting on Hammatt Street.


Doug Brendel writes most of his Outsidah columns from the front seat of his car. Follow him online at DougBrendel.com. Don’t follow him on Hammatt Street; you’ll never get home.

The Ultimate Answer to an Outsidah Column

Every time I write an Outsidah column (or “post,” if you’re a digital type), John Muldoon features it in the Ipswich Local News, the excellent free paper he mails to every address in Ipswich, Massachusetts.

He also posts it at IpswichLocalNews.com — but online, he adds illustrations.

The illustrations are always humorous. I always smile. Sometimes, I giggle. Once or twice, over the years, I’ve laughed out loud.

But today, I burst out laughing and couldn’t stop.

This is John Muldoon at his most hilarious.

I heartily recommend this to you … and if you don’t live in Ipswich, Massachusetts — which means you can’t get the print edition of the newspaper — I heartily recommend that you follow the Ipswich Local News online. So much clever stuff, every single week!

This will brighten your life.

Gentlemen, choose your sausages

I suggest a duel.

It’s really the only way out, as far as I can see.

On the one hand, you have Scott Finlay, living on Bowdoin Road, on the northeastern knob of Great Neck, in Ipswich. Walk out his back door, 200 feet or so, and you’re in the Atlantic Ocean.

On the other hand, you have Gary Champion, living some miles inland, on Palamino Way, south of Lakemans, west of Fellows— which is to say, in Ipswich terms, “horse country.”

Both guys, obviously, are struggling with the classic problems of the poverty-stricken. Thank heaven we have Dinner Bell meals available every week for needy folks like Scott and Gary.

No, forgive me, I jest.

There’s something more significant than the need for water, food, shelter, etc. at stake here, in the very public conflict between Mr. Finlay and Mr. Champion.

This isn’t about whether people have enough to eat, or whether someone can get a vaccination in order to avoid the agony of death by Covid.

This is more.

As far as I can tell — and I admit, to read the crosshatching letters to the editor can be dizzying, so I might not have this entirely right — these two guys are desperately struggling up out of the quagmire of their poverty to win docking rights at the Ipswich wharf.

Or how much these rights cost you.

Or how you get the rights.

Or something like that. Right?

Maybe I’m wrong. I’ve never owned a yacht. I’ve never been on a yacht, to my knowledge. Maybe I had one too many martinis, and someone lured me onto a yacht, without my knowledge. And now I’m writing a column ignorantly. Well, it probably won’t be the first time.

But to return to the matter of Mr. Finlay and Mr. Champion — What’s it really all about?

(Reading all the letters to the editor — Sorry, but it’s exhausting. I really can’t do it. I need to conserve my time and energy for the next season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.)

Submitting letters to the editor, and waiting to see them in print, and then holding your breath while you wait to get your friends’ feedback — it all takes so long.

A duel is so efficient, by comparison.

You can see why Hamilton and Burr were just like, Please, let’s get it over with.

On March 10th, Mr. Champion said, in print: “I challenge Mr. Finlay to defend his accusations against me in a public setting.”

In July of 1804, no question: This would have been (a) choosing a location, (b) choosing your “seconds” to stand by while you shoot at each other, (c) choosing pistols, (d) taking 10 paces — and then, presto: (e) you turn and pull the trigger.


Now — seriously — Mr. Champion, Mr. Finlay — citizens of Ipswich, Massachusetts — civilized people everywhere …

After endless board meetings, committee meetings, commission meetings, where everything requires endless conversation, negotiation, testimony…

Isn’t this what you really want?

Let’s have a duel. It’s the New England way.

No? Consider this:

In the 1860s, Otto von Bismarck challenged someone named Virchow to a duel. Virchow was entitled under the rules of the day to choose the weapons.

Virchow chose two pork sausages, one infected with roundworm.

The two would each choose and eat a sausage.

Bismarck declined.

So today, I wonder: Who will stand down, and be the wiser? Who will stand firm, and be the fool?

Champion? Finlay?

I imagine, my great-grandchildren will sit in their history class, on the bare ground, under the dead tree, and their teacher will say,

“When I was a child, we called it the Finlay-Champion War.

But of course, historians remember it as World War Three.

Which is, as you know, when civilization ended.

So yes, it really was that important.”

A duel. Yes. What could settle this question, more completely?


Doug Brendel lives on outer Linebrook Road. He’s shuddering in the shadows, where important things may still matter. If you can, visit DougBrendel.com, and communicate. Hello! Hello!

We are witnessing the fifth-greatest event in Ipswich history

The history of Ipswich, Massachusetts, has been shaped by a handful of colossal events — in 1634, 1764, 1911, and 1995: 

  • Masconomet sold out to Winthrop, 
  • Mr. Choate built our stone-arch bridge, 
  • the Crane family installed our beach, 
  • and EBSCO brought us jobs.

But now we can add 2021 to the list of destiny-shaping moments, because 2021 is when the Sandpiper Bakery opened on North Main Street.

It’s clear that the people of Ipswich have been suffering a dangerous shortage of simple carbs, because the arrival of Sandpiper is the biggest thing since Marty’s Donuts closed.

One windy, wicked cold morning last week, I stood in line with a multitude of other poor souls craving baked goods. The bakery’s cozy interior only accommodates four customers at a time under pandemic social-distancing rules. 

Likewise, we shivering masses on the sidewalk were barred from even huddling together for warmth. 

The Town of Ipswich will need to install some kind of weather barriers in front of Sandpiper: wintertime walls to avert hypothermia, summertime roofing to combat sunstroke. 

I also recommend assigning a traffic cop to keep order: It’s not clear if the line is supposed to snake uphill toward the Methodists or downhill toward the Christian Scientists. 

Either church, however, would do well to launch a mercy ministry for the folks furthest back in line, providing hot coffee, blankets, woolen caps, and — after Covid — warm hugs.

(Personal trainer Jen Tougas may offer a guided muscle conditioning routine for a small fee — squats, pushups, and more — to keep people from stiffening up as they wait in line.)

(Chris Florio: Please consider bringing in live music.)

In fact, a traffic cop may not be adequate. With so many people competing for a limited number of quiches and croissants, I fear fisticuffs. We may need beefy security people to keep the peace when the desperately hungry or the desperately behind-schedule try to cut in line.

Also, if — rather than choosing from the impressively varied selection in Sandpiper’s display case, you order something made-to-order — you’ll have to come back outside to wait for your order. At which point, you might need the protection of a security guard. As throngs of people stream off the street, you’re bombarded with questions and demands: 

“Are you in line?” 

“Is this the line?” 

“Are you the end of the line?” 

“How long have you been waiting?” 

Maybe we need a pop-up holding pen to separate the smug already-ordered types from the tetchy still-waiting types.

However, once you get to the front of the line and you step inside, you enter a lovely, tidy little world of scrumptious smells (and, from the workers, gracious gab). You suddenly feel elite — you’re in, everybody else is out. 

But the unfortunate side-effect is that you don’t feel like hurrying. There’s an occupancy limit but not a time limit. You can peruse and ponder and prevaricate all you want, while icicles (or cobwebs) form on the people waiting outside. 

Hmm, do I want a cinnamon bun, or coconut macaroons? The monkey bread, or the salted honey biscuits? So many choices, so little stomach space!

I feel certain that Sandpiper will need to invest in a timer system — and I strongly recommend a serious enforcement feature: Four minutes, and it zaps you. Nothing deadly, just a bit of a bolt to your backside, to get you moving along.

The Ipswich Local News recently reported that Emma Freeman lives across the street from Sandpiper and was texting her mother, Mary Bradlee, “to advise the best time to join the queue.” Emma, you could monetize this: a paid-subscription app for Sandpiper devotees, with minute-by-minute updates on the crowd size outside Sandpiper.

Looking ahead — as heaving hordes hang about Sandpiper’s simple storefront, street traffic will become an issue. Someday, I imagine, we’ll have no choice but to tear down First Church and put in a rotary.

Meanwhile, one final, earnest request to Sandpiper: 

Porta-potties. Please.

Doug Brendel lives on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, but depends on treks into Ipswich Center for ye Stores of baked Goods, just like ye Colonists of yore. Visit Doug at DougBrendel.com.

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.