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Rules of Disengagement

January 25, 2009

I sometimes wonder what the Guinness Book record is for the number of days that two next door neighbors refrain from speaking to each other.
                   I have no idea if that category exists but if it does, I might have a chance to make my first world record.
Judy and I bought our current house at the end of summer, 1994, a few months before Marlee was born. Now, it’s 2009 and still, my next door neighbor and I haven’t spoken. We haven’t looked at each other for more than a second, haven’t said one word on the phone, haven’t waved or nodded. The silence between us has been loud and clear.
                   Yeah, we’ve come close. When I nearly hit his car as he darted out of his driveway, I considered yelling. When his large body floated in his swimming pool as my daughters begged me to take them to the beach, I just about caved and asked if he would allow my young girls to please use his pool. When the police came in the early morning after being called by “the neighbors” who complained of our barking dogs, I almost walked next door and rang his doorbell.
                    It is just so much easier to stay away.
                    When I met another man for a business breakfast at a Livonia restaurant, it was no more than ten minutes when I perceived my next door neighbor and his two sons approaching me. I could peer them taking a seat at the table just three feet to my right, and felt finally, this was the day that the long and winding silence would be broken.
                    The man across from me kept talking at me, my eyes shifted right, I quickly shuffled some eggs and toast to my mouth and thought, I have got to say something to my neighbor. This ungodly, uncomfortable stillness had to stop.
But as the minutes slowly passed and nothing was said to me from the right side, I became a little more at ease. And when the check finally was plopped on our table, there was no turning back. The consecutive day count of silence between my neighbor and me was still intact.
                    I’ve always appreciated silence. I’ve had a difficult time communicating orally for most of my life. I used to think of myself as the shy, afraid-to-speak, keep-to-myself kind of guy. When news shows displayed footage of the latest psychopaths and their neighbors interviewed, how often was the crazy guy described as “nice but kind of a loner?” Except for their compulsion towards angry violence, the similarities between the desperate loners and me were often eerie.
                    Maybe it’s a guy thing. When a good friend and I sat in the family room at a high school graduation party, we discussed the importance of us not meeting anyone new, not saying hello to strangers, and making sure there was absolutely no eye contact. Rick said he believed it was critical for him to “limit his contacts.” We invented a verbal handbook for our “rules of disengagement.” We were perfectly happy to make no small talk with anyone (besides each other) and not blend into the party’s social network. We just wanted to construct social etiquette that would keep us away from the maddening crowd.
                    That’s the way I like it, with a network of a few friends whom I see every once in a while. I also like my office door shut; I like headphones on, the TV flickering from channel to channel. All I ask is for people not yelling, not fighting, no questionable or hurt feelings, and no one thinking, “why the hell did I say something so stupid?”
                    Keeping away from your neighbor isn’t so bad. Modern suburban neighborhoods aren’t what we grew up knowing. I lived in a 900 square foot house just a few feet between our two neighbor’s homes. We were comfortable to venture there, to talk and eat together, except for our crazy neighbor to the south who I thought of fondly as “The Nazi.” Mr. Combs sat on his front porch and gave kids the evil eye when they approached his finely manicured and thick, green lawn. His large boulder on the far right corner kept our car firmly planted on our thin driveway, inches away from his grass. But just like my neighbor and I, he never spoke a word to my father or mother, except once to tell them that the fence my father built was exactly one and a half inches over his property. He spoke loudly and clearly for my dad to “take the fence down!”
                    I wished we had German Shepherds to mess up his lawn. We had a dog when I was four but we had to give it away after it plopped a big mound of excrement under our couch on the night of a crowded party in our 8 x 10 foot family room on Hugh Street.
                    You have to wonder why dogs are “Man’s Best Friend.” Is it because they’re friendly and obedient or because dogs are like men? They don’t talk, they’re always hungry, they eat way too fast, they like simple pleasures, and they like to bark at neighbors. If that’s not the typical guy, it’s typical me.
                    I’m not saying I’m proud of myself. I’d like to be a great speaker, comfortable in my own skin, happy to make small talk with someone new, as my wife does. When Judy places an order late at night with a catalog company’s customer service person, she shares her likes and dislikes, her work day, tells a little about the kids, and listens to all the minutia of the phone person’s life. She can talk for hours to anyone.
Me, I hate the silence shattered by a ringing phone, someone else ready to enter my space. I must be like my King Charles Cavalier Spaniels, Esther and Chauncey. I mark my territory and want no foreign invaders.
                    As Rick marveled at my neighbor and my accomplishments, having so many years of uninterrupted non-communication, he asked what I would do if we made it to 2014, achieving 20 years of blissful silence. I said, have a party, of course. Invite family and friends and send an invitation to my neighbors to the “20 Year Anniversary Celebration of Absolutely No Communication Between Us.”
                    My neighbor might actually take a chance and come over. Instead of congratulating him by making eye contact and talking, I would just shake his hand. The handshake between neighbors would be enough to let us both acknowledge: “Job Well Done.”
                    So far, in our nearly 15 years of living side by side on Stone Gate Court, I am proud to say that my neighbor and I have never argued, never run over the other’s grass, never let our dogs crap on the other’s lawn, and never resorted to angry violence.
Come to think of it, we’ve really been pretty good neighbors, like State Farm insurance representatives.
                    I wish that Palestinians and Israeli Jews could be so cordial.


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