Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

When it comes to our neighbors, my nickname for my husband is Mr. Wilson. Even though the original Mr. Wilson was the cantankerous next-door-neighbor to Dennis the Menace, the Mr. Wilson my husband more accurately resembles is Wilson Wilson, the next-door-neighbor who peers over the top of the fence in episodes of Home Improvement offering advice to Tim Allen.

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Either Wilson, my husband is the “hidey-ho” neighbor who will venture into your garage if you are working in it, will help you shovel your driveway in winter after he’s finished with ours, and will deliver the homemade Christmas treats he asks me to bake for the half dozen neighbors whose homes surround ours. When watering the lawn, he waves at each car that he recognizes as belonging to one of our neighbors, one hand held in the air, a salute to our block. Mike’s the reason we get invited to Labor Day parties across the street where our children swim and I make small talk until it’s time to walk back home.

I, on the other hand, am not like Mike. While I like my neighbors very much, I also like fences.

Don’t get me wrong. You are more than welcome to borrow a cup of sugar from me and I too, will do the obligatory wave should I see you walking out to your mailbox, but whereas my husband thinks we should invite you to a BBQ, I prefer for you to just smell the hamburgers I’m grilling as the smoke wafts over the fence.

Some might call me stand-offish, but there are healthy boundaries to every relationship. My home is where I relax. Barefoot and braless, I experience a jolt of panic when my doorbell rings. Who is it? Why are they here? What do they want?

Not my husband. Ring our bell and he’ll stand on the stoop shooting the shit for a good half hour while I peer through the blinds.

In the decade that we have owned our home, there have been relatively few changes to our neighborhood. For a few years, we had one house to the left of us that was vacant after a foreclosure, and when we finally got new neighbors, they were less than ideal. Their dirt backyard grew weeds taller than the fence. Here, they kept their son’s two monstrous dogs after he moved out. Since they owned cats too, the dogs were not allowed in the house. Living in the junkyard that was their backyard, no one ever picked up the piles of dog poo or told them to stop barking. In the heat of the summer, and with the right wind, we’d suffer through the flies, the smell, and the dust. One time they put a couch in their backyard, right next to the (broken?) elliptical machine and the two dozen bikes, which became a giant chew-toy for the dogs. I always wondered whether they got the sofa for the intended purpose of letting the dogs destroy it, but soon enough, they put their house up for sale, and I wasn’t the least bit sad. We lucked out with the young couple that bought it. They immediately planted sod and neighborhood equilibrium was restored.

Recently, however, conditions on the right have changed. New neighbors have arrived and we are already mending the wall.

I was headed to my car when I first saw them standing in the road talking to our neighbors from across the street. I would have just said hello, but my neighbors waved me over to meet them. The first thing I noticed was the window decal on a very large pick-up truck: a picture of Donald Trump urinating on “LIBERALS.”

Great, I thought. He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

The wife, in a three-minute conversation, was able to overshare several tidbits of their life; from job layoffs to nasty custody battles, the largest red flag came when she mentioned their last house had burned down.

I tried to keep a smile on my face, but inside, my thoughts were spiraling. Was it arson? Did you leave the iron on? Were you running a meth lab in the basement?

They seemed nice enough, but one thing was for sure: I wasn’t going to wear my Obama tee-shirt to the block party lest I find them dropping trou on my front lawn. Also, I needed to pick up some extra fire extinguishers. Stat.

Mr. Wilson wasn’t home when I met the new neighbors, but I made sure to fill him in on all I had learned. A week later, he finally got his introduction when the new neighbor came over to thank my husband for returning his dog when earlier that day, it broke through a fence post and ventured into our back yard.

As the two stood talking on the front porch, I thought it might be neighborly of me to come say hello. I listened to my husband espouse how great our neighborhood is when the new neighbor told us the reason they purchased the home next to ours.

“When we came to look at it, it was just after the fourth of July and every house had an American flag flying. I knew then that this wasn’t going to be a neighborhood full of Liberals and Communists.”

Mike chuckled as I turned and walked back inside wishing that the Democratic Party would conveniently call for my husband at that very moment. If only it was dinner time. 

When Mike found me hiding in our bedroom, he took one look at me and laughed.  “So I guess Liberals don’t fly American flags?”

Since Trump’s election, I’ve witnessed a country divided in ways I have never seen before. I’ll be honest, I’ve clicked that button to hide the political posts of friends and family on social media, but I’m not sure how to hide my new neighbor except by building a taller fence.

Yet for as much as I believe that good fences make good neighbors, I know that for better or worse, he is my neighbor, and maybe, rather than mending walls or building walls, what we need to do is start taking them down.

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In an article published in the Los Angeles Times, Alexander Nazaryan writes, “To wall off is an ancient human impulse, and there is no use in pretending that we’ve transcended that desire. It’s what we do with that impulse that matters.”

As I settle into the different sounds coming from across the fence, perhaps it’s time I take a clue from Mr. Wilson and invite the new neighbors over for a BBQ.

After all, boundaries, like some window decals, only serve to alienate one another. After so much division, it’s time we started coming back together. Conservative or Liberal, we all fly the same flag.

“[S]ome do not love walls, but others do, and always have,” Nazaryan writes. “A demagogue like Donald Trump will use it to his own hateful ends. An artist like Robert Frost will take the same and, listening to the complex rhythms of the human heart, create a thing of beauty.”

It probably will do no good to write my new neighbor a poem. I’m not naive enough to wonder if I could put a notion in his head. But I bet a plate of homemade brownies wouldn’t hurt. After all, we’ve still got a few years till 2020, and I’m hoping we can make the best of them.

If you want to read “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost, click HERE

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This Election Year, My Hope Lies Not in the Candidates

Voting: One of the great rites of passage. I graduated high school in 1996—the year that Bill Clinton and Al Gore were running for president. In an effort to make us better citizens, my government class brought voting booths to the library. We were allowed to pre-register as voters if we would be turning 18 that year. It was all very overwhelming trying to decide which box to check. In my limited education, Democrat meant liberal and Republican meant conservative. As a teenager, I didn’t see myself as a conservative anything.

My best friend and I went into the booth together—which I’m pretty sure is not allowed—but we told our teacher we had to, simply because we did everything together. I’m not sure what we did once we pulled that giant lever that closed the curtain, but we giggled a lot. Needless to say, I didn’t take it very seriously then; maybe that’s why I find myself so conflicted now.

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That’s not to say I don’t think voting is important, I do, but I am not very knowledgeable when it comes to politics, and I tend to think that an ignorant vote is more dangerous than no vote at all. As a result, I have been known to abstain from local elections, unless there is something on the ballot that I have a vested interest in—namely education.

A few years ago, I had done just that. Election day found me not visiting the polling place that was within a mile of my house. At 7:45 p.m. the telephone rang. The woman on the other end asked me if I had made it out to vote. When I told her that I had not, she reminded me that I had until 8:00 p.m. and could still get there.

“Yeah, that’s not going to happen,” I told her.

Let’s be honest, once my bra comes off, there’s not a whole lot that is going to get me to put it back on. It was late and my children were just about to be put to bed. There was no way that I was going to vote that night, and furthermore, I wouldn’t even know who or what I was voting for. Yet this woman took my refusal to vote very personally.

“I hear your children in the background,” she told me. And then she tore into me about how I was setting a horrible example for my kids by not exercising my right, as a woman, to vote. She was literally yelling at me. It was one of those situations where you are so flabbergasted that you can’t respond. After I had hung up on her, I thought of all the things I should have said.

I should have told her that the last time I checked, it was also my right to abstain from voting. I should have told her that the example I was setting for my children at that moment was that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all…Or not to let people pressure you into doing something you aren’t comfortable doing. I could have told her that I would, in fact, be heading to the polls thanks to her, and voting in opposition to the candidate she was supporting.

But I didn’t say any of those things; instead I sat there silently seething. And then I made a vow that I would never be in that situation again. Not because I would suddenly turn into one who voted for everything from the board members of my homeowner’s association to the next American Idol, but because I would never engage with these types of solicitors again.

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Living in a swing state, we are inundated with phone calls and in-person visits for politicians. My new response to any living person who calls my home or rings my doorbell with this agenda is to tell them that I don’t discuss my political beliefs with others. Most people have told me that they respect that decision and politely hang up the phone or walk away.

Even though I no longer experience the frustration that I did that evening, I’m still frustrated.

While I would like to be less ignorant when it comes to politics, I hate everything about them: the slander, the advertisements, the debates, the issues, the way my phone rings off the hook, the way it brings out the worst in people, and the all-consuming way it infiltrates everything from radio to television to social media. And this year, it’s worse, because the two presidential candidates we have are both equally despised.

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Even though I may have abstained from voting in local elections in the past, I have always voted for the president; but this year, for the first time ever, I’m torn. I don’t want to feel like I am selecting the lesser of two evils when I am voting for the person who will run our country. I want to endorse a person I will respect as our leader, but I’m not sure I can do that given these choices. And I can’t help thinking, that if these are our candidates, then maybe the system is broken.

The other day, I saw an elderly couple while out shopping. They both had white hair and cobalt blue shirts that read, “Nobody for President, 2016.” I chuckled and smiled and they nodded their heads at me, smiling in return. They think it’s broken too.

How many other Americans also feel this way? How many others would rather, for the first time in their lives, not choose? And yet, abstaining isn’t the answer. Because on November 8, one of these two candidates will be elected into office and we will all have to live with the consequences.

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While I would love to see—and have my daughters see—the day a woman gets elected as president of our country, I don’t know that I want it to be her. And while I would love to tell my children that anyone can be president if they really want to, I don’t know that I want him to be the one who first sets that example.

As a citizen of a country founded on pride, courage, and determination, I don’t want to spend the next four years feeling embarrassed…or afraid…or disheartened. But unfortunately, that’s exactly what it’s come down to.

As an optimist, I tend to look for the silver lining in every desperate situation, and so I have to hope that something good will come from this election. If it isn’t the person who will continue to rebuild our country, then maybe, just maybe, it will be the stimulus for a country to re-evaluate its system.