Every day at 7am I’m awakened by the thump thump thump of my 12-year-old neighbor dribbling a basketball. Then a pause as Sam tries for a basket. Followed by either the clunking sound of the ball hitting the backboard, or silence as it swooshes through the net. Then thump thump thump again.
This goes on until it’s time for him to leave for school.
“You’re my alarm clock,” I told him once. “You wake me up every morning.”
“Is that okay?” he asked, looking alarmed. He clearly didn’t want to give up his morning basketball practice.
“It’s fine,” I assured him. “I’m an early riser. I’m ready to wake up by seven. But if you were out there shooting hoops any earlier, it would definitely be a problem.”
“I won’t be,” he said. “Thanks.”
It’s actually a rather pleasant way to start the day. My own son is all grown up and happily living in California, and because I miss those happy years when he was under my roof, I enjoy the sound of a kid having fun.
Earfuls from Alice
My neighbor Alice feels differently. We were sitting on her deck one afternoon chatting when Sam, three houses over, began shooting hoops.
Thump thump thump. Swoosh. Thump thump thump.
“He starts in with that every morning at seven,” Alice said. “It drives me crazy! It’s so rude and inconsiderate.”
Apparently, one neighbor’s innocuous dribbling is another neighbor’s intolerable noise pollution.
“Talk to him about it,” I suggested. “He’s a nice kid. I’m sure he’d stop.”
“I shouldn’t have to,” she huffed. “He ought to know that seven is too early to start making that kind of racket.”
Alice is a considerate neighbor.
Several years ago, Alice installed a set of wind chimes in her yard. Every time there was the slightest breeze, they tinkled merrily. I could hear them clearly from inside my house, even with the windows shut.
I loathe wind chimes. They may sound delightful to you, but to me they are fingernails on a chalkboard. After enduring the awful ting ting ting for weeks, I approached Alice.
“I know you have every right to enjoy wind chimes on your own property,” I said. “But I can’t stand the sound of wind chimes, and yours are driving me nuts.”
“The sound they make is so lovely!” she protested.
“Not to me,” I said. “It’s your yard and you are totally entitled to enjoy them. But I hate them so much that I just had to say something.”
She took them down the next day.
Good and grumpy
My suburban neighborhood is full of sounds I don’t enjoy. One neighbor’s deafening air conditioner compressor. Another neighbor’s loudly barking dogs. The roar of leaf blowers and lawn mowers.
I have to accept most of it, which makes me all the more grateful that Alice is the kind of good neighbor who’s willing to take down the wind chimes that give her joy because the grumpy lady next door dislikes them.
But my gratitude also makes me very much aware of the fact that I’d had the opportunity to shut down Sam’s early morning dribbling, but hadn’t. In fact, I’d encouraged him to continue.
It doesn’t seem fair.
I get things just the way I want them — no irritating wind chimes, and a morning wake-up thump thump thumping that I actually find pleasant. Whereas poor Alice is not only living without her beloved wind chimes, but enduring an early morning noise that she finds intolerable.
Beyond the fence
On the other hand, how fair is it for Alice to get angry at Sam for not magically knowing that his early-morning basketball practice is driving her nuts? She needs to talk to him about it.
If the noise truly bothers her, Alice could ask Sam to postpone his basketball practice until later in the day. And yet she hasn’t. Maybe it doesn’t really bother her that much. Or maybe it is really bugging her, but she’s one of those people who finds it difficult to assert herself.
Should I ask Sam to quiet down on Alice’s behalf? Or do I stay out of it and let them work this out themselves? I think about it each morning as I lie in bed enjoying the sound of Sam shooting hoops, and imagine Alice in her own bed, fuming about it.
Sometimes I wonder if there’s anything I’m doing myself that drives the people in the next house nuts—but I’ll never know if they don’t speak up. A happy neighborhood is a complex web of needs and boundaries, and just as with navigating any other relationship, the challenge is not only knowing what our boundaries are but actually communicating them to each other—even if that means telling others that their beloved wind chimes or basketball are tormenting you.
You've always got a choice. You can stay angry. Or you can make your needs known to other people and hope they'll care enough to accommodate you.
Maybe Alice will find the courage or the gumption to talk to Sam. Maybe she won't.
In the meantime? To paraphrase Robert Frost: good earplugs make good neighbors. Maybe I ought to give Alice a pair.
Image description: A photo of an outdoor basketball backboard and net, with green spring trees behind it. A basketball sails toward it in midair.
Image description: A photo of a small windchime with shiny silver tubes, hanging against a white stucco wall.