My wife and I live in a lawned and leafy, neo-bucolic suburb of Philadelphia, in a development where the most annoying sound to date had been the weekend whine of lawnmowers and circular saws. We used to love to sit outside in the evening, stare at the trees, and watch the world pass by on the sidewalk that borders our property. It was our tiny piece of heaven.
All that ended when the family who lives next to us (separated by the longest part of our backyard) installed a backboard on its driveway and their adolescent son came of age and began to believe he would be the NBA's next big draft pick. Daily, for hours on end, my wife and I hear the constant thwacking of his basketball against the asphalt, commingled with an occasional swish when he is isn't clanging a brick on the rim or the backboard.
When I say "hours" I'm not exaggerating. Yesterday it went on from 3:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Each day after school into the evening the routine repeats.
We used to have dinner with the sliding terrace door and windows open. Now we keep them closed, and mutter obscenities to ourselves.
What's the remedy? Go next door and ask for negotiated boundaries? Write an anonymous letter and slip it in the mailbox? Deflate the basketball?
I should note that although they are "next-door" neighbors, we have no relationship with them at all, not even the I-recognize-but-don't-know-you-nod-in-passing type. Yes, we are guilty as charged, even though this is fairly standard in suburban communities. We should have extended ourselves a few years back when they moved in, as it would have made approaching them on any issue much easier today. But that's not the case here.
The irony of all this is that I love basketball, having played in Philly schoolyards and then as an adult for decades.
What do you suggest?
Bounced Around and Boxed In
Dear Bounced Around,
What do I suggest? I suggest that you ask what this annoyance is telling you.
Now, I know I'm always saying stuff like this, and that it can be a stretch to find in a genuine annoyance some kernel of an anonymous gift. But even when it seems a stretch, in looking for the gift hidden in the annoyance we often find the unexpected. But in this case it's not even a stretch. The gift is right on the surface.
You say two things. You say you have not yet met your neighbors and you should have years ago. And you say you love basketball and used to play all the time. So there you go. It's knocking at your door.
I think this annoyance is telling you two things: Get to know your neighbor. And start playing basketball again.
So join him in his game. That's my advice to you. That way you can establish a relationship. Once you establish a relationship, you might feel better about the situation at least. Or you can yell at him when he's bouncing the ball, and not feel so put upon. You can develop a fraternal, bantering relationship in which you can tell him to stop bouncing the ball because it's driving you crazy, and he can challenge you to some one-on-one. You can ask him to change his schedule and he can ask you to change yours, or just politely tell you to screw yourself. And no hard feelings. You can ask him and he can refuse but at least you'll have a relationship.
I know acutely the discomfort and paralysis you are talking about. I don't mean to minimize it. I have a neighbor who smokes outside a lot and every time he comes out and smokes I move inside, silently cursing, and this has been going on for years, and I have only said something once, in passing. And I'm supposed to be a guy with solutions, who takes on problems head-on, who believes in negotiated solutions! In this case I'm acting like a cowardly moron. So I know these things are not as easy to deal with as it might sound.
So let's think about the discomfort and the strangeness and the why. Why should it be so hard to do the obvious? Well, I think the discomfort comes from the conscious suppression of a natural instinct. It is natural to respond to another human within our hearing. It is natural to respond to another human in our living space. And why do we suppress this instinct? I think much of it has to do with the architecture of suburbia itself. It is an isolating architecture. We do not run into our neighbors in any central gathering spot. We do not see them on the street. You'd practically have to commit a burglary to get to know your neighbors. It is the housing. And it works on us to such a degree that when someone finally comes outside and does something that throughout our lives we have genuinely loved and in another context would love to join in on, we instead, and quite perversely, respond to it as an annoyance.
I'm not blaming you. I'm saying that suburbia is not just a bland, neutral influence, a less-interesting way of living, but is actively destructive to our culture and to our lives. Do you not feel, as you are sitting there, that a part of you has been lost? Do you not identify with this young man bouncing the basketball? And yet, because the suburban wall has been up all these years, and you have never met him and his parents, you think it is your fault, and you feel guilty.
Is it our fault? What are we supposed to do? Orderly, well-adjusted citizens respond to cues in our architecture. If the cues say to remain silent and distant, we are likely to do that. We are not used to defeating those cues. The cues in suburbia say not to get acquainted, not to get involved. So it's not your fault you don't know your neighbors. But this basketball playing is a real, tangible cue that says get involved, respond. So you are experiencing a sort of contradiction. Some suburban cues say: Remain in your own area. Stay silent. But another cue is saying: Shoot some hoops! Join in!
So I say go shoot some hoops with him. And long-term, I say become aware of the ways that your suburban environment tells you in many small ways to isolate yourself. Though you have found a kind of paradise, it may be a very lonely paradise. If you have the money and the wherewithal, you might consider moving at some point to some new urban community where the architectural cues invite community.
"Since You Asked," on sale now at Cary Tennis Books: Buy now and get an autographed first edition.
What? You want more advice?