I live in a townhouse development where most of us are struggling to pay the mortgage and have enough left over for food. I mean, like, we are not one of these fancy complexes you see outside cities. My neighbor Susan is a shut-in after five rounds of chemo for various cancers, and I have become quite friendly with her even though she is kind of an odd duck that the rest of the neighbors don’t care for. I take her places with her dog in the back seat—he sits still when the car is moving—and she bakes me the most delicious blueberry muffins that I keep in the fridge for breakfast. However, l’ve gotten into a conflict with my other neighbors.
You see, Susan’s children—who by the way do not pay too much attention to her though they live not far away—have given her a Scottish border collie for company. He was attacked by a cat when he was a pup, and only has one eye. The other socket is not pleasant to look at. Now, if you are not familiar with that breed of dog, they bark whenever they see or hear someone within about a block away. They also circle around you when you are walking and can knock down a frail person, as Susan’s dog did to an elderly lady up the street who was walking to the mailbox, which, unfortunately, is right in front of Susan’s house. The neighbors now have banded together and want me to speak to Susan “about her dog.” They don’t like it that he starts barking at 6 A.M. and howls whenever he sees or hears anyone in the neighborhood walking, shutting a door, or talking. I must say that, to her credit, Susan keeps the dog in her own yard. I have never seen the dog off-leash.
The last time the neighbors asked me to represent them, I told them—now this is the truth—that I do not hear the dog because my house faces a different direction and is at an angle to her yard. I also said that Susan is a very nice person, which I believe, and that they should call her and ask if they could set up a meeting to talk to her about her dog. June, did I do the right thing?
—Perplexed in the Poconos
I, too, am perplexed. I am not sure whether you are worried that you might have been too protective of your friend when you refused to be the spokesperson for the neighbors; or not protective enough when you said they should talk to her instead of telling them to just get over it, or offering to support and advocate for her.
Let’s start by sorting through the various issues you have raised.
Of course, Susan’s being an “odd duck,” and the dog’s being unsightly, should be matters of indifference, if not the inspiration for generosity and sympathy, on the part of your neighbors. The fact that you mention Susan’s oddness and her dog’s unattractiveness makes me concerned about your neighbors’ attitudes and how likely they are to be flexible and understanding.
Susan’s being a shut-in, and her having to cope with multiple cancers and what sounds like an endless round of chemo, seem more relevant to me, and should be to the neighbors: aren’t we supposed to give people plenty of leeway when they are sick and in pain?
One would hope that the neighbors would try to lighten Susan’s heavy load, not add to it. On the other hand, it seems that the dog’s conduct has been problematic in two ways. Knocking down a frail person is obviously cause for genuine concern. But it sounds as though this was some kind of one-time fluke—in fact, since you write that Susan keeps the dog in her own yard and never lets the dog off-leash when outdoors, I don’t see how the incident happened at all. In any event, your letter implies that Susan, although odd, is in possession of all her faculties and can take steps so that nothing like this happens again.
The apparent main issue—barking and howling—is more difficult. I consider myself lucky that my neighbors are all tolerant or have dogs themselves, because I have never found a way to keep ours from going berserk whenever the mailman, a slow car, a person they’ve never smelled before, a person they really like, our cat, or a squirrel they’ve taken a dislike to comes within fifty feet of our door. I assume that, although the town house development you live in does not outlaw dogs, it does have various rules about being a nuisance; and if Susan’s dog starts barking at 6 A.M., this may also violate a municipal ordinance or be grounds for civil complaint. And irate, hostile neighbors—especially when they “band together”—can make life quite unpleasant whether or not there’s any official policy involved.
You have declined to side with the neighbors against your unpopular friend, or to be their de facto spokesperson, which I think shows good sense, and some courage, on your part. But you may want to take this a step further and try to mediate the situation—or, at the very least, warn Susan about the neighbors’ request and prepare her for the meeting.
I wish I knew more about what’s at stake here. Do the neighbors want Susan to get rid of her dog? Or do they just want to make sure she knows that the barking is a problem for them, and work with her to see how it might be controlled? Probably because of your using “banding together,” I have a mental image of their marching on the home of the hideous dog and its weird, misunderstood owner just after sunset, brandishing the modern town-house equivalent of pitchforks—plastic leaf rakes? weed-whackers? And if they do want to make her give up her dog when she is so sick, and has been effectively abandoned by her relatives, I hope that you can find it in yourself to go to bat for her and be her champion at whatever meeting they set up. (By the way, I think that having her meet with a group of neighbors may not be the best way to handle this. How about a more equal meeting, with Susan and just one neighbor, or you and Susan with two others?)
But it sounds as if nobody has actually said anything about getting rid of the dog, so perhaps compromise and mutual forbearance are possible. As I’ve already admitted, keeping dogs quiet is not my forte—it’s more my pianissimo, come to think of it—but there are ways for people with stronger motivation, and fewer dogs, to ameliorate a barking situation. If anxiety is part of the reason Susan’s dog barks so much, which would not be surprising given how stressed Susan must be these days, one of those Thundershirt things might help. Keeping the dog close, with lots of cuddling and petting, can also work—fact, it sometimes works for me, even though I am outnumbered—so Susan may want to take active steps to quiet her dog with cuddles at 6 A.M, or other especially problematic times. Exercise can help. So can putting your dog in a back room. Does Susan have a rear bedroom where she and the dog can chill at peak hours?
Susan’s vet may have also some advice and may recommend medication, or perhaps even breed-specific training or behavioral therapy. But that assumes that Susan can afford an elective vet visit, much less whatever medications and specialists the vet might recommend. Of course, those negligent children—who, after all, are responsible for the dog’s being with Susan in the first place—might be asked to kick in. This is a long shot, given what you say about them, but maybe they have more money than time to spare for Susan and would welcome the chance to assuage some guilt.
I may be getting carried away with my scenarios. There is no way I can predict whether the situation will degenerate into one of those unending neighborhood disputes where everyone starts digging in their heels, or whether it will turn out more Frank Capra/Disney, where a couple of the neighbors start walking Susan’s dog, and before you know it everybody is sharing Sunday dinner next to a basket of puppies sired by Susan’s dog out of the adorable Labradoodle in Unit 6B.
I hope you will keep tabs on what’s happening, and help Susan think about ways she can control her dog and improve her relationship with the neighbors. Whatever happens, I am sure you will be a good friend to Susan. In fact, you already are. You have been trying your best and, despite the many suggestions I have made, I don’t think you should feel strictly obligated to do anything more than you have done already. As it is, you are more attentive to your friend than her own family. You deserve every one of those delicious muffins.
Last week we went to a dinner party for ten, hosted by our friends Barry and his husband James. Barry, who always makes the main course, is a good cook, but his meals are usually on the bland side. This time the linguini sauce was wonderful—if anything, it was a little challenging, a little edgy. Although I did notice that James was silent and looked a bit discomfited, everyone else at the table praised the meal and Barry, the cook, seemed delighted.
I remarked on the uncharacteristically flavorful sauce to Frank, my husband, during the drive home. He laughed and said that while Barry was off serving drinks, he (Frank) had seen a container of salt, along with jars of some other spices, standing near the simmering saucepot and had doctored the sauce with liberal additions of salt and two or three of the spices. I was appalled, but Frank—along with the couple we were driving home—said that there was no harm done, and indeed some good, since we had gotten a funny story and a tastier meal out of it.
Who was right? And what, if anything, should I or anybody else do about this?
—Spicy in Springfield
You were right. The meal was Barry’s creation, and his and James’s gift to the assembled company. Frank had no right to alter it without permission. (By the way: absent some special circumstance such as Frank’s being a known expert whom Barry had consulted in the past, just asking for permission would also have been rude, although to a much lesser degree.)
Even more serious, I assume that Frank had no way to be certain of the other diners’ allergies, digestive issues, tolerance for spicy food, known tastes, or need to limit salt intake. For all Frank knew, Barry may have been accommodating one guest’s high blood pressure, another’s colitis trigger, or perhaps his own husband’s strong aversion to anything over a pinch of red pepper.
So, yeah, Frank behaved badly. I hope that nobody got indigestion or worse, and that the meal did not precipitate a post-party argument between James and Barry [James: You know I can’t tolerate peppery sauce! Barry: I swear, I just put in a pinch. James: That was hardly a pinch—you must have spilled it, or added it three or four times. Sometimes you are such a ditz. Barry: Seriously? A ditz? All I can say is that if I’m a ditz, then you’re a… [etc.].] But let’s hope that, as Frank says, there was no harm done, except of course to the rules of hospitality.
It is hard think of anything that Frank (or you) can do at this point to make amends, except to stop telling people about the incident. The story is disrespectful to Barry, and his feelings might really be hurt if it ever got back to him. In fact, I suggest that you or Frank call those people you drove home and ask them not to repeat the tale.
You should also say whatever you can to keep Frank from repeating his Phantom Spiceman caper at future gatherings. If he is a basically good soul, I bet that the hypertension/allergy/reflux/aversion argument will do the trick.
If Frank really can’t tolerate food he finds bland—which, by the way, other equally worthy people may find subtle, nuanced, or refreshingly natural—you could help him explore ways to spice his personal dinner-party food without secretly spicing everybody else’s. If he can manage it, surreptitious individual spicing—the herb-and-spice equivalent of whipping out the old hip flask and secretly spiking your ice tea during some dry and deadly luncheon—would be best. (This works well at buffets, but can be risky at a well-lit sit-down meal.)
Sometimes even public personal spicing can be permissible, if executed with tact. I, for one, would not mind all that much if one of my dinner guests openly brandished his own little vial of Sriracha and said “I hope you’ll forgive me, but I’ve gotten into the habit of putting hot sauce on just about everything.” And I certainly wouldn’t mind if a guest salted her food, or even asked for salt if, for some reason I hate to imagine, it was not already on my table.
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.
Image credit: Jamie Hunter on Flickr