My neighbor Alicia was just born to be a pain the butt.
First she whined about my lilac tree, which she was sure was going to crash into her house. Since it was planted eight feet from the house and is only six feet tall, it would have been a mighty quiet crash.
Her next big worry was the evergreens, which I planted near the property line, mostly for their natural beauty (but yes, June, I will admit it: Also to keep nosy neighbors from peering into my windows). So she says: “Those things could grow to thirty feel high and ruin my view. ” Since they grow slowly, I said, being something of a wit, “But not while you’re alive, Alicia. ”
Well that set her off. She went to the president of our neighborhood association and complained that we weren’t around enough, and that we wouldn’t be available to deal with any of the inevitable catastrophes that she saw coming. And she also said that we mouthed off about serious issues and made fun of her whenever we had a chance.
Guilty as charged on that last one, June. This whack job is making out lives miserable. How do we tell her, in a nice way, that we want to co-exist, but we are also ready to go to war, if necessary.
Some English big-shot said that “A man’s home is his castle. ” That sure is not true if every time you open the door, some harridan is shrieking nonsense at you.
Should I consider a moat for my castle? Alicia is at least two sandwiches short of a picnic, and I can’t thing of a plausible reason to sue her.
Greatly Frustrated in Greater Philly
Probably not a moat, but are there any restrictions on fences? I do not know the size or layout of your yard, but a nice tall privacy fence — the opaque kind—might slow her down considerably. It is difficult and rather awkward to have to stand on the other side of a fence and bellow.
True, a fence would cost money, and it might offend your esthetic, or the neighborhood’s. Nor would the best of fences necessarily prevent Alicia from ringing your doorbell, berating you at the mailbox, accosting you at the supermarket, and complaining about you to other people. There’s also the risk that, although it would probably help, a fence might actually make matters worse if she saw building it as an antagonistic act. In my experience, though, people like Alicia often find some new object for their fear and anxiety when it becomes harder to see and confront whatever or whoever is currently setting them off. Any decision on fencing should take into account what you know about her particular brand of wackiness.
If you do build the fence, I suggest that you talk to her about it and spin it as a mutual benefit—one more bulwark against those killer lilacs and whatever else she thinks you are harboring. If you do not build the fence, talk to her anyway. No doubt she will give you several opportunities in the near future. Reassure her, if possible. Tell her that you will be more than happy to revisit the evergreen issue if and when the trees double in size, and that you and your wife have taken special care to keep your lilac well pruned and deeply rooted in the soil. Is there is any basis for mutual give-and-take—does she have a barking dog or errant cat? Loose roof tiles? An apple tree that attracts stinging bees? If so, you might mention something about how neighborliness is a two-way street. But before you go there, think about what she has said and done in the past, because she may take any mention of her own situation as an escalation or new threat and blow it all out of proportion, running to the neighborhood association with some tale about how you plan to poison her pet or chase away all the neighborhood honeybees. (Again, you have to know your own local whack-job. It might be a good idea to talk tactics with your wife.)
Be firm and unapologetic with Alicia, of course. Do whatever you can—I usually dig my fingernails into my palm—to keep from smirking or losing your cool. And, for God’s sake, temper the wit for which you say you are known. You see where it has gotten you. I know that it can be hard to resist a clever riposte, especially when you get to tell other people about it later. But it is not impossible. I, for example, have just considered and rejected several humorous references to Robert Frost because they did not seem worthy of my June persona. Besting an anxious nutty neighbor at repartee is unworthy of you, to say nothing of unwise.
Before you talk to her, though, I would go see the president of your neighborhood association, and make nice with as many other members as you can. I am guessing that, especially if she complained to them about the risks of projectile lilac bushes, or evergreens that might block her view in 2035—view of what, but the way? And is she even entitled to a view? They will already have some idea that Alicia does not have all her oars in the water, and will be willing to talk sensibly to you about how to cope with her. Make sure they know your side of the story. And try not come off as antagonistic—at least at first. Go for perplexed and concerned. This is important: do not make fun of her under any circumstances, even if they give you plenty of openings. If the topic of your past ridicule comes up, say that you tried to defuse the situation with humor, but that you now realize that this only offended her, and will of course be more careful in the future.
If you do not get immediate reassurance from the association that they know she’s a nut and are on your side, I would send them something in writing. It probably should not be too formal or legal-sounding; but it should list your main factual points (lilacs don’t fly, her view is safe, she accosted you nine times last week, and so on) for the record.
What does she mean about your “not being around enough”? Are you part-time residents? If so, I assume that you have some property manager, security company, or friendly neighbor (or the association itself) who will let you know about problems with the property. If not, get somebody. I am talking about real problems here, like lightning strikes or vermin. Presumably you are around often enough to check on those evergreens in case they have a growth spurt.
I see that your wife has also weighed in. Please see below.
I would like to second the exasperation my hubby has expressed about our insufferable neighbor. But since I’m a member of the local school board, I am concerned about alienating her. After all, a vote is a vote.
Here’s hoping that your husband can succeed on his own, and that you can stay in the shadow of the evergreens. If not, I think you need to back him up.
I am not saying that you should be the least bit antagonistic to anybody. Of course you should be pleasant and respectful to Alicia. This is what I am telling your husband to do! You could even be a bridge between them: I dare say that you are better equipped, as well as more highly motivated, to deal with the situation diplomatically.
But there will very likely be some moment of truth and you will have to take sides. Alicia may ask you to support her the next time your husband plants some poor innocent shrub. Or the neighbors, maybe even the association president, may take your silence as support for Alicia, or call on you to speak about the conflict.
If any of these things happen, I advise you to make a stand for reason, matrimonial harmony, your right to live in peace, and the well-being of your trees and bushes. A vote may be a vote; and I can see how, especially given its remarkable recent growth, you would not want to alienate the wacko segment of the electorate. But you will have to decide whether this outweighs the considerations I have just listed. You should also weigh the risk of appearing to accept or, worse, be afraid of, people like Alicia. Next thing you know, she’ll be running for office herself, and you’ll have a board full of lilac-deniers and dendrophobes.
By the way, I am not sure why you think she isn’t alienated already. Unless she has some sort of separate chummy relationship with you, which I find hard to imagine, I am willing to bet that she considers you part of a monolithic lilac-and-scorn conspiracy.
P.S. If you plan to continue in politics, be a little more careful with names. It’s June, not Judy.
I recently overheard a young woman complain to another, “And so they went out and he never even texted me. I felt like a g*ddamn third wheel!” When I pointed out that the expression was “fifth wheel” she looked at me like I was nuts and insisted it was “third wheel,” and that she’d never heard of a “fifth wheel.” When I replied that I’d never heard of a “third wheel,” and asked her what kind of a vehicle the third wheel referred to, she shrugged and said she didn’t know, but that all her friends said “third wheel.” June, am I losing my bearings?
Rolling in Raleigh
You are indeed losing your bearings if you think you can run around saying things like “the expression is ‘fifth wheel,’” especially to younger people. You can’t presume to “point things out,” or say what is and what isn’t. Unless you are supervising a dissertation or drafting a statute or something, that kind of prescriptive authoritativeness has gone the way of the slide rule, eating healthful food to stay healthy, and using quotation marks to indicate that ”healthful” and “healthy” were being mentioned, not used, in the preceding phrase. For most idioms, the expression is whatever people in your circle say it is.
But maybe you just meant that you thought “fifth wheel” was the term most people actually use. Based on some googling and asking around, I think this is true for people over 35, as well as for no less a linguistic hero than Will Shortz, who used “fifth wheel” as a crossword clue just this week. In my own circle—which, I should admit, has been characterized as “terminally literary”–“fifth wheel” is also the way to go. And “third wheel” is considered a “corruption of fifth wheel” in various dictionaries.
On the other hand, the younger people I consulted tended to use “third wheel.” There are hundreds of “third wheel” images and Internet memes, including one with Harry, Hermione, and Ron. A 2002 movie is called The Third Wheel, and so is Book 7 of Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
Some people tell me that they use the expressions interchangeably, or even (can you imagine?) that they have never really thought about it. My husband, who is usually a fiver but can also go with three, pointed out to me that “third wheel” is in some ways more apt, since the situation usually involves three people. “Think of a bicycle,” he said, and it is true that some of the images I found on line were of bicycles with a weird little side wheel tacked on. I objected that a third wheel on a bike, unlike a fifth wheel on a car or buggy, could be useful, and not just as a spare. It could make the bike into a tricycle, or into one of those bikes where your kid pedals behind you. He suggested that I might be overthinking the metaphor: “the point is that there’s a non-standard number of wheels.” I will spare you the long riff that followed, on such side issues as what expression to use if you are the fourth guy, and thus the even-man-out, when tagging along with a ménage à trois.
It would appear that, Will Shortz notwithstanding, the third-wheel usage circle is expanding as our circle, the fifth circle, correspondingly shrinks. I am afraid, Rolling, that this sort of thing will keep happening in the middle of the journey of our lives. Be strong and flexible!
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.