At First, It Was Only a Couple of Sunflower Seeds


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

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

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

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

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

So where was all the darn birdseed going?

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

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

“Hey! Cut it out!” I barked at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have to stop,” I said.

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

“I can’t afford it,” I answered.

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

“It was an accident! I didn’t know!”

“Is that my problem?” she shrieked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Got any more?” she asked.



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



Time for Slime


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

Why? Because it’s so gosh-darn humid.

This is that time of year, ain’t it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s so humid, clams are steaming themselves.

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

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

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

It’s so humid, our cat melted.

See what I mean? It’s humid here.

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


Welcome to the Linebrook Speedway!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cops or no, let’s slow down.

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



The Ears Have It!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



Meet Van Gogh!



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

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

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

Tickets $15 • Get your tickets here TODAY!

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

Community House • 284 Bay Rd., Hamilton, MA



A Fox in the (Media) Henhouse


Some people will do anything for attention.

My friend Bob, for example. I’m sure you know him — at least by now, after he was all over the news, with all that coverage by various local TV stations.

Yeah, he’s the guy who got bitten by the rabid fox.

Sure, there were a total of three rabid-fox-bite victims in Ipswich that day, but my friend Bob was the one you saw on television. This is just like Bob, always angling for the spotlight.

It wasn’t enough to live in a lovely, pastoral place near the Ipswich River, surrounded by the beauties of nature, occasionally visited by wild turkeys (I don’t mean Ipswich drivers), enjoying the mild breezes of a New England spring. No. It wasn’t enough for Bob, I guess. He had to go and try to be a media star.

People blame the fox. I’m not so sure. Not at all. With all the fake news flying around these days, I’m not entirely convinced that the story you got was what really happened. There was nobody there rolling video when the attack allegedly took place. So all we have is Bob’s version of events. The tale of a man clearly desperate to be a celebrity, at any cost.

Bob tells me that he first saw the fox running on the other side of his neighbor’s yard. So for starters, this was not Bob’s fox. This fox was apparently committed to a completely different media opportunity. Bob says his neighbor’s grown son, visiting from upstate New York, was clambering onto the hood of a car and yelling as if he were being chased by a swarm of bees. Clearly this out-of-state visitor was striving for some kind of TV coverage himself. (Another fame-seeking New Yorker? You be the judge.)

According to Bob, his first thought was, “Ah, a photo opportunity — for a holiday card!” I seriously doubt this. In all the time I’ve known Bob, I’ve never once received a holiday card from him. Plus, are you really going to put a photo of a rabid fox on your holiday card? What kind of greeting would you offer? “Have a rabies, rabies Christmas!” “The 12 Injections of Christmas.” “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth (in your flesh).” Not plausible, Bob.

“I called out to Joanne, my wife, to go get her camera,” Bob says. “I tried to keep an eye on the moving fox.” Note that Bob doesn’t admit to flagging down the fox, or waving half a raw chicken at him to try to entice him into a photo op. In any case, while Bob kept an eye on the fox, the fox apparently spotted him — and liked what he saw.

And here’s where the story really breaks down. Bob asserts that the fox headed toward him, and then — trouble. Bob’s version of events: “As happens in so many dramatic, commercial movies filmed in the woods, when someone or something is chasing a victim, I took one step, tripped, and fell down.”

If ever there was a scripted moment, this is it. Bob does not routinely fall down in his own yard. This was obviously Bob’s big attempt at an Academy Award.

“Just then, Joanne came out of the house with her camera,” Bob goes on to say. So where are her photos of the big event? Oh, he says, she put her camera down “to see what I was doing.” Uh-huh. I suggest she shot the whole incident, but it was such bad acting, she deleted everything in disgust.

“She says that she saw me on the ground flailing my arms about, shouting and growling at the fox, as the fox had my jeans in its mouth at the bottom of my left leg,” Bob says — then adds, “tearing at it in a feeding frenzy.” Bob is a better writer than me. I never would have thought of the “feeding frenzy” line. But then this is how it is in today’s media-crazed world: Everything is spin, spin, spin.

“I guess my jeans were not tasty enough, so the fox let go and ran off,” Bob says.

But the damage was done. A scrape and a “puncture wound” on his arm, and an inch-long cut — oh come on, let’s go ahead and call it a bloody gash — on his ankle. The neighbor’s son ran over, Bob says, claiming that the fox bit him also. But whom, exactly, did you see on the Nightly News? Not the neighbor’s son. No. Bob cleverly screened the media away from the out-of-towner and grabbed all the glory for himself.

Bob quickly began ensuring his 15 minutes of fame. “I then became the town crier,” he says, “spreading a warning, knocking on doors of a few other neighbors.” Soon Ipswich’s intrepid Animal Control officer, two emergency services people, and a cadre of cops were on site. Bob was still thinking Hollywood, though. Here’s how he paints the scene:

“I turned my head and noticed a large rabbit behind us, with ears erect, learning what it could. ‘Should I be concerned?’ it seemed to ask.” I believe this is one of those scenes that doesn’t quite make the final cut of the movie.

At the hospital, Bob got seven rabies shots, administered by two nurses sticking him simultaneously — once in both arms, once in both thighs, once in both buttocks — plus a final, seventh injection in an undisclosed location. Mercifully, no cameras were allowed.

Finally, back at his home, it was time for Bob’s star turn. Reporters from three Boston stations sought him out. It might have been just another story for ABC and CBS; but it must have been truly gratifying for Fox News to finally broadcast actual “fox news.” The interviews, I think, reveal the master-media-manipulator that my friend Bob truly is. In these videos, he’s conversational but eloquent, knowledgeable but concise — and of course, as always, casually dressed while at the same time stunningly handsome. Something like Cary Grant in his later years, except for the turkeys.

To the very end of the episode, Bob tried to make me feel it was actually the stuff that movies are made of. Returning home from the hospital, he says, he was struck by a final haunting image: “As we parked, across the street an adult raccoon could be seen in the dark, hiding from our headlights.” Fade to black.

Well, I’m skeptical about the whole thing. Yes, I would love to see my friend Bob become a movie star. Or a TV star. Or even a YouTube sensation. But maybe it was simply not meant to be. In a curious coincidence, while he was being interviewed by the conservative Fox News outside his house, there was the liberal Bill Maher on Bob’s own TV set inside the house. Perhaps a bad omen, portending a failed career in entertainment? I don’t know. I just don’t know.

Anything for a moment in the spotlight, I tell ya. That’s Bob.

And I guess it runs in the family. Bob has a cousin on Long Island who follows the news in Ipswich; but after Bob survived the rabid-fox attack, did she call to see if he was okay? Did she rush to see if she could help in his recovery? No. She emailed Bob with a suggestion: Contact the Outsidah! Maybe you can be in a column!

See? I think this publicity fetish is in the DNA.

Well, okay, Long Island person. Here you go. I hope you’re happy.

Oh, by the way, your cousin Bob is going to live. Maybe send him a nice card?


Shave and a Haircut, Two Acres


My next-door neighbor is having way more fun than me.

In order to offer him some modicum of privacy, let me simply, for purposes of this column, refer to him as Hendrick. Hendrick drives a tractor-mower, whose actual name I keep forgetting. It’s a big, bold contraption, with a big, bold sound, one that requires Hendrick to wear very impressive noise-canceling headphones while he’s mowing the grass. Grass is such a quiet plant, slender and fine, waving gently in the breeze. But then here comes Hendrick, with a ferocious grrrrr!, like a deadly upside-down helicopter, blades whirring feverishly, slashing those tender little shoots to smithereens.

Just look at Hendrick in action, and you can see how much fun he’s having, leaning on that big ol’ steering wheel, whipping that massive machine around the corners, doing donuts around the trees. For all I know, he’s rocking out, with old Rolling Stones hits pounding inside those headphones.

I revere Hendrick because the places he mows, I don’t have to. We both have pretty big backyards, separated by a sort of meadow, with a winding path cut through the middle of it. The path is essential on school day mornings, because when my daughter walks to the bus stop, she can disappear in the tall weeds and tangled briars and never be heard from again, until she needs money. As you can understand, this critically important path must be mowed regularly, or it just grows over and disappears. I could take my miserable little environmentally correct rechargeable-battery-operated electric mower out there and push, push, push my way through the jungle. But no. My good neighbor Hendrick takes his Humongo-Notorious Death Star out there and — zoop! whoop! shlroop! — that path is as clear as an Olympic slalom course.

Hendrick also uses his Titanic Wham-O Mauler to clear the vegetation along the edge of my property. I’ve put up a decorative fence there, and I’m tempted to ignore whatever’s growing outside of it, between the fence and the road. But on his Mega-Dynamo Vege-matic Decimator, Hendrick can get a running start at the edge of his own driveway and fly down the street at top speed — possibly as much as 2 or even 2.1 mph — and clear the brush at the edge of both of our lots in 20 seconds flat. His riding mower is so gigantic, if he ever got mad at me, he could easily grind the entire fence into mulch. This is one reason why I ply him with cognac and other lavish gifts at Christmastime.

There’s also the matter of the rectangle, at one corner of my property, which abuts Hendrick’s property, and which, by a fluke of geography, really looks more like it should be his than mine. Like a good New England neighbor, observing all the proper protocols, Hendrick graciously asked if he could more or less treat it as his own, mowing it and keeping it up and even planting a couple trees on it; and as the lazy stingy selfish good-for-nothing neighbor I am, I agreed. Since that day, Hendrick has devotedly run his Colosso-Crush Devastato Predator over the northernmost corner of my property. He has made this corner of my property the crown jewel of the neighborhood. It’s immaculately manicured year-round. There are two beautiful new sugar maples complete with circles of mulch. Tourists stop their SUVs and take pictures of this corner of my property. We book weddings on this corner of my property. This guy Hendrick, I love him.

Of course, I realize, it’s not love. It’s not about me. It’s not really even about the super-sized riding mower. It’s about the kids. Hendrick has four children under the age of ten, while I have only one child at home. Hendrick has a certain need to get out of the house, and an excuse to don noise-canceling headphones. Hence, the need for a rider-mower bigger than a Volkswagen. And the need for a mowing area bigger than his own yard.

Here I am, by a stroke of good fortune. Ready to meet said need.

This is the essence of New England-style neighborliness, is it not?