My neighbor, Ira, isn’t a bad guy. He loans me his lawn mower from time to time, and his kids and mine are in the same class at school. His problem is that he is a world-class name dropper and a liar, and he just can’t seem to help himself.
He just got back from Italy, and—wouldn’t you know—he had to tell me all about his private audience with Pope Francis, the new Lamborghini that he has on order, and the way the Italians marveled at his high school level Italian. They could not believe, he said, that he was not a native.
June, this stuff is driving me nuts. This guy can barely say “rigatoni,” much less speak Italian. He drives a Dodge Dart, and can’t pronounce “Lamborghini,” either, much less pay for one. And if Pope Francis saw him alone, then I am Frank Sinatra of Hoboken.
Ira lives next door and I can’t avoid him, but I have no desire to tell him bluntly that everybody in the neighborhood thinks he is a pathological liar and a pompous fool. My wife Anne, who is a student of psychobabble, started lecturing me this morning about his insecurities, his problem with self-esteem, and his intrinsic goodness—something not discernible to the naked eye.
I will stipulate that Ira does not torture cats, probably contributes to the United Way, and does a bang-up job as an usher at his church. But I am afraid that one day I am going to explode and tell him that he is crazy as a jaybird.
Any thoughts, June, on how I can develop patience and self- control? (Moving is not an option.)
Seething in St. Louis
I’m glad that you are asking for patience and self-control, not for a way to reason or shame Ira into being more honest and less of a blowhard. Patience and self-control are difficult in the case of people like him, but changing them is even harder.
At the risk of sounding like your wife —whom I hope you respect and appreciate more than your single allusion to her would indicate—I believe that one of the best ways to keep your cool with Ira is to try to drum up some sympathy for him. He, does, indeed, sound very insecure and desperate for attention and admiration. When you also consider that his whoppers and name-dropping seem to backfire with you and everyone else in the neighborhood, there really is a great deal to feel sorry for.
Whether Ira is “intrinsically good” or not does not seem to me like a question worth asking here. He does not seem to be intrinsically evil—although I have been having some doubts about this lately, I don’t think many people are. He just sounds sort of meh, morally speaking: he lends the mower, he collects the tithes or whatever at church, and he seems to be an okay, or at least a present, dad. As I am sure you would agree, even the intrinsically meh deserve our understanding when they can’t seem to keep themselves from acting like idiots.
It might also be useful to keep reminding yourself that Ira may be lying to lots of people but, from what you report, he isn’t fooling anybody. I would find it much harder to bear him if anyone took him seriously or, God help us (and God may have to, if one can believe recent polls), if Ira’s braggadocio actually helped him gain a position of power and influence.
I have known several Iras in my day, and I have found that it sometimes helps to respond in as low-key a manner as possible, even to the point of seeming not to hear, when they get going with the lies and name-dropping. This is basically the same tactic I was taught in puppy obedience school: when your golden retriever jumps up on you, the best response is neither to play with her nor to yell, but to turn your body away and look bored. If you can be consistent about this, and if you can keep other humans from either freaking out and screaming at the pup, or letting her jump all over them and telling you it’s fine because she’s so cute and they just love animals, she will realize that jumping on people is a lousy way to get attention.
Of course, you do not have that much control over Ira and his environment, and he sounds as if his motives are more complex and less sensible than the average dog’s, but this lukewarm-shoulder technique is worth a try. I doubt if it will change Ira, but it may slow him down a little. And it may serve to calm, or even divert, you when he is being especially trying. This tactic can work one-on-one: simply change the subject, say something noncommittal, or pretend not to hear. But it is especially effective in groups. For example:
Ira (running into you and another neighbor on the street): My Lamborghini should be here any day now.
You: Cool. Do you have any extra weed-whacker line? Mine broke off again.
Ira: I’ll check. But about the Lamborghini…
Other Neighbor: That happens to me all the time. I think I’m not winding it right. Ira, can I check out your spool when Seething’s done with it?
Ira: Sure. Charity begins at home. As I was saying to the Pontiff just last week…
You, sort-of feigning deafness: So Ira, will you be home in an hour or so if I come by for the weed-whacker line?
Ira: (Nods, starts to open his mouth.)
Other Neighbor: Thanks so much, Ira. I’ll get it from Seething and have it back to you by the weekend.
Exeunt you and Other Neighbor at a brisk pace.
Ira (mildly perplexed): Ciao, amici!
The other thing to do, of course, is to minimize your contact with him. See if you can just drift away from him. I get it that, as a next-door neighbor whose whole family knows yours, Ira is hard to avoid. But take what steps you can, even unto buying your own lawn mower.
It sounds as if you are trying to avoid losing your cool and telling Ira off not just to escape unpleasantness, but also out of kindness. Good for you! Let’s hope that Ira learns to temper his self-delusions, or whatever they are, before he embarrasses himself and his family too many more times.
This is not an easy situation. Just keep telling yourself how lucky you are not to be him, and count to ten when he talks popes and sportscars. Buona fortuna! Sei un buon vicino.
P.S. Since I write for a lit mag, I feel constrained to point out that, in America, we are usually crazy as loons and naked as jaybirds, as applicable.
I have been dating a wonderful man for about two years now. We have started talking about his moving in with me, and both of us see this as a big step on the road to marriage and kids. Scott is sexy, smart, funny, a successful businessman (banking), and a talented musician, and we agree on most important matters. The only thing that makes me hesitate is that—with the exception of classic blues, which he plays in a band—he has almost no interest in culture of any kind. I am a high-school English teacher and aspiring writer who loves literature, classical music, and pretty much all the arts. Although it has never been my favorite kind of music, I have also come to respect and appreciate the blues. I go to Scott’s concerts, help with his web site, and usually preside over the band’s CD-and-T-shirt table.
You would think he could go to the orchestra or the art museum or maybe even read a book sometime and talk to me about it, but everything except blues guitar, TV sports, and whatever is on HBO leaves him cold. He is usually happy to have me go out with a friend, or alone, and says he has no problem living in a place full of my books. But he won’t read himself, except for his job, and I have given up dragging him, as he puts it, to any entertainment except the rare movies we can agree on, which usually involve gunfights or superheroes. As for my writing, he does not disrespect it, exactly—he just thinks of English and creative writing as these very specific things I do, which may be fine things but are not his things, as if I were an entomologist or a TV repairwoman or something. (To be fair, I guess I feel the same way about what he does for his day job. But writing for me is my passion, not my day job: I am trying to chronicle the human condition and explore the human heart, for God’s sake!) (Only slightly ironic!)
Lately, when he is not out practicing with his band, he has been spending more and more time at my place, which may soon be our place. We cook together, which is great, and have sex, also great, and walk around my neighborhood with my dog, who adores Scott and helps us make friends, so that is great, too. But the rest of our leisure time mostly consists of his sitting in front of the humongous flat-screen TV. I can tell that it bothers him when I don’t join him, and sometimes I do watch with him, especially if it is an HBO series. But usually I much prefer to listen to music, read, or write. When the TV is on I have to use headphones to listen to music. When I read or write, I use a white noise box and noise-cancelling headphones, but am happiest on hot days when I can turn on our loud A/C. I am starting to look forward to the Sundays and evenings when Scott stays at his place, or leaves after dinner, so I can read and write in silence, in an apartment filled with great music.
I am worried. Can we be happy together?
Hesitant in Harrisburg
I see several factors at play here. One is your concern that Scott takes so little personal interest in your creative writing. I can certainly see why you wish this were different. Writing is such an important part of who you are that you wish your life partner cared more about it, or would at least make an effort to care, out of respect for your work and (I suspect) because you would like him to know you, and want to know you, in this profound way. I can also see why you’d find the current situation unfair, since you have made the effort, and largely succeeded, where his blues band is concerned.
From what I have read and seen, which is plenty, the spouses and companions of writers run the gamut, from those with little interest in and understanding of the process, to those who are fellow writers or artists and even collaborators. Either of these extremes, or anything in between, can work—or not—depending on the individuals involved. It never seemed to bother all those great white male writers in Western literary history whose supposedly prosaic wives, like Joyce’s for example, had no clue what their august spouses were up to—as long as the writer’s various other needs were met. And I can see how a writer whose spouse was a brilliant and engaged reader, perhaps even a fellow writer, could actually suffer from over-reliance on spousal praise, from writerly competition, or from various magnified neuroses. (Look at Zelda and her Scott.)
I suppose we would all like to be living with our ideal reader—mine would always understand my intentions and offer tons of constructive criticism while simultaneously adoring my every comma. But, for many writers, a spouse who may not understand our mission, but gives us the freedom and support to fulfill it, is more than good enough. At the risk of being cynical—and still wishing that Scott could be all he is, plus a discerning and appreciative reader of your work—there is much to be said for a match between an aspiring creative writer and a successful businessman who, from his music, at least has the general idea of what it means to make art, and who can pay the bills if you quit your day job, or need to be inspired by trips to Paris or the Serengeti. You will have to decide whether or not you will feel lonely, or stifled, in a relationship with somebody who takes so little personal interest in the very personal work you do. I will say, though, that not every relationship has to provide everything, and that it can sometimes actually be good, because broadening, for writers to team up with people who travel outside literary circles.
I am nevertheless a bit concerned about the way so few of your other interests seem to converge. Again, I know many couples who share only a few interests—and, in your case, you do both seem to like cooking and dogs, which I think are two of the ten or so greatest boons to humanity. I commend you for learning to like the blues (although I might not if the music were not inarguably fine), which provides you with another activity and interest to share. Given that you both also have demanding day jobs, and that you need time to write and Scott needs time to practice, I wonder how much more leisure time you actually have. But I do think that you should try to talk to him about bending a little in your direction: you made room for his band concerts, and it is only fair that he go to a museum or classical concert, or at least an art house movie, every month or two. This may not work: he may refuse; or, more likely, drag his feet; or, most likely, agree to go but not make a good-faith effort to enjoy himself. The last case is the worst, as I would guess you know. It is so disheartening to try to enjoy a string quartet, or that nuanced movie from Croatia’s most sensitive young director, when there is a man sitting next to you sighing audibly and emitting little rays of light from the clock on his phone.
But even if you fail at getting him to meet you part way, I do not think this is necessarily a deal-breaker—unless you think it is. It would not be unreasonable to decide that this divergence in interests will only worsen over time, and prevent you and Scott from having a fulfilling relationship in the future. But since the two of you have so many other things going for you, you may decide that going to the opera and museums and so on with your other friends is an acceptable compromise. He absolutely cannot be allowed to resent you for it, though. In fact, it would be a lovely gesture if your banker boyfriend paid for your art museum membership and perhaps some opera tickets with an unobstructed view.
This leaves us with what, for me, is the most worrisome aspect of the situation: the way his TV-watching interferes with your reading, writing, and music. There may be simple solutions to this problem. If you are planning to move to a bigger place, or even a house, in the foreseeable future you can make sure there is a more sound-insulated space for you to read, write, and play your music, or for him to watch TV. In the meantime you can try talking to him about some compromises and accommodations. I know people who don’t mind watching sports with little or no audio. You can also get some TV headphones, and trade off on who wears headphones when. If your kitchen, say, or your bedroom is cut off from the rest of the apartment, one of you could sometimes go there with various electronic devices to watch, listen, write, or read.
You say that it bothers Scott when you will not join him in front of the TV. Now this could be a tougher problem. While it is probably a good sign that he values your presence and likes to share his viewing experiences with you, and while you should probably keep him company at least sometimes—some of those HBO series are just terrific—he should not expect you to sit through endless hours of programs you don’t like, especially when you have preferences of your own, and a vocation you want to pursue in your precious free hours. If you can’t make him understand this, I would worry. But perhaps he just needs you to explain, and be firm.
Of course I can’t tell you whether you can be happy together. But I will say that you sound pretty happy right now. If you do decide to stay with Scott and invite him to move in, I would insist on being able to do your own work and pursue your own interests as freely as he does, and encourage him (but maybe without insisting) to be more flexible in joining you at your favorite cultural events, just as you attend his concerts and watch some of his favorite shows.
One last thought: it sounds as if he is good with the dog. In my experience, people who are good with pets tend to be good parents. This is worth taking into consideration since you say that kids are part of the long-term plan. And when kids come along, your life will probably be taken up with princesses and superheroes and T-ball, and excruciating violin and trumpet music, anyway. You will like some of the movies, though.
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.
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