Complaints rarely really about what’s stated

“I don’t mean to complain, but . . . ” I can still see the hand on the hip and the frown on the face, and hear the resigned sigh as my former next door neighbor leaned on the short length of wooden fence that separated our houses in the city where I used to live.

What would it be this time? That the hedge that bordered my front yard wasn’t trimmed to her exacting specifications? Was the whir of my food processor excessive, traveling out my kitchen window to her bedroom as I prepared zucchini to freeze for off-season breads? Or did my stepson curse while playing backyard basketball with a friend?

This time, it was something beyond my control, thank goodness. Had I noticed that airplanes from our local airport had been flying over our residential area of the city during designated quiet times? Why, she was going to obtain a copy of that ordinance, give that airport a call, contact her city commissioner to complain, and maybe even stage a protest if those things didn’t change. Would I be willing to sign a petition if she started one about the violations of the designated rules?

Designated what?! As the extremely busy working mother of three children, the only thing I was looking to sign was myself into the looney bin. I had no knowledge a quiet time ordinance existed. And I fell so exhausted into bed every night, I wouldn’t have noticed a violation of airspace unless, perhaps, a plane flew into my house. In that case, it wouldn’t matter. Heck, it really didn’t, anyway. Except to her.

These one-sided, blame-oriented conversations happened on a regular basis for the nine years I lived next door. As a retiree, my neighbor had mega-time on her hands to hatch conspiracy theories and to magnify minor things that were wrong within her immediate sphere. One had to admire her grousability. I envied her luxury of time to waste and resented that I never got to play offense, just defense – a perpetual goalie for her absence of real goals. Unless her goal was to make me miserable. She was MVP in that category.

Wish I’d known then that Lou Holtz quote, “Never tell your problems to anyone. Twenty-percent don’t care and the other 80% are glad you have them.” I would have tossed that verbal grenade in her direction, then left her wondering still on which side of the percentage I fell.

Instead, I installed a six-foot white vinyl fence between our houses. That came after she caught me outside getting the mail and told me it really bothered her to have to see my two dogs boxed up inside the six-by-six foot kennel all day. I had kenneled the dogs in response to her complaint they were stalking squirrels while roaming free in the backyard while my husband and I were away at work. Next we put them inside the house all day, but she complained she could hear them barking at people they could see out the front picture window. C’mon, lady! I’m feeling caged.

There was just no winning with her. You couldn’t even break even. So I erected a fence to block her view of the Kristy family sitcom she seemed so fond of watching. I hesitate to think what NOT putting up the fence might have done to me.

Passive negativity is draining. In his book Three Simple Things: A Map to Success in Business in Life, British entrepreneur Trevor Blake cites research that being exposed to even 30 minutes of daily negativity can actually peel neurons away from the brain’s hippocampus. If I recall correctly, using the few cells that escaped negative neighbor-induced brain damage, that’s problem-solving central.

Fence erected and brain semi-intact, I was left to ponder why my neighbor had continued to play her negativity all those years to my unappreciative audience. But soon after we made plans to move, spruced up our place and planted a realtor’s sign in the front yard, I got my answer when she walked over to inspect.

“Mind if I look inside?” she asked. “I’d been hoping for an invitation ever since you moved here.”

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