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When Your Neighbors’ Backyard Dreams Threaten To Crush Yours

I should feel some compassion, but I don't.

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wood stained picket fence in green yard with tree behind it
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When my backyard neighbors mount a 55-inch outdoor TV on their home, 14 feet off the ground and 8 feet higher than the privacy fence standing between our two yards, perhaps I should “get it.”

Since the country first locked down in March, suburban dwellers fortunate enough to keep their jobs have been maniacally sprucing up their backyards: planting shrubs, building fire pits and raised garden beds, erecting She Sheds and tiki bars. But when they — a young couple with a baby — settle in on their raised deck one summer evening and turn on their TV, my husband and I are dismayed we can see and hear it from our backyard, too. Worse, we can’t escape it at our own kitchen table. I should feel some compassion since we’re all spending more time at home now. But I don’t. What I feel, as their TV worms its way into our backyard microcosm the next night and the one after, is anxiety — and then anger. We’ve been trick-or-treating at our neighbors’ door with our two young daughters and waved hello from our deck, but we don’t know them well. I should walk over there and talk to them. Instead, I mope.

The backyards in our middle-class neighborhood are modest, closer to postage-stamp size than personal oasis, but I don’t overlook my fortune in owning one and sending my girls outside without having to worry. We spend hours doing normal backyard things: grilling; attempting cartwheels; and reading books while the sun drops, lowering the summer heat wave to a steamy 80 degrees, the tiger owl in the old maple finally waking. The backyard symbolizes one of the few places of normalcy many folks have left. Offices remain closed. Children’s summer camps and family childcare plans vanished in March. Elderly or high-risk parents are uneasy being in the same room with family and friends. Some of us don’t dare venture out to reopened restaurants or playgrounds while coronavirus numbers surge. Others have seen people hospitalized — or been witness to deaths. We stay put, longing for a respite from national worry and pain.

One night, staring out at the hostas we planted a few years back, chewed to nubs by rabbits earlier this spring, I suddenly realize where my anger comes from — and where it has been coming from since the virus became a reality: the illusion of control.

The backyard TV problem persists, so I call friends and seek advice. My uncle jokes: “Buy a universal remote and turn their TV to the Playboy Channel!” A friend instructs me to dress in dark clothing at dusk and employ a slingshot. My neighbor-the-lawyer sends me links to noise ordinances. I veto all (for now). My husband and I avoid confrontation, which we turn to as a last resort after ignoring the problem and stewing over it fails to produce results. But if we don’t want their backyard TV experience to become ours — and maybe every night until the first snow, we’ll have to face them. We cowrite a script of what we’ll say and practice, laughing wildly at our characteristic conversational weak spots. (He apologizes and backtracks. I become emotional and desperate.) Our girls bake a peace offering: chocolate muffins. Nervous, we decide maybe we don’t have to do anything. We’ll get used to it. That evening, though, their TV is turned to the kind of captivating — and disturbing — crime drama I don’t want my kids watching. I pull my 9-year-old away from the kitchen window. OK then: tomorrow!

The next evening, I drink a glass of red wine because the stakes feel high. We ride our bikes over together as a family, accidentally showing up on their doorstep during dinner. My husband and I hit our three main points: 1) We appreciate having them as neighbors. 2) They probably don’t realize the presence their TV has on our side of the fence. 3) Would they be willing to work with us and install an outdoor privacy shade? I add, “We’ll pay half!” My husband says, “Sorry to interrupt your dinner!” They listen. They seem surprised that we’re bothered. They indicate they’ll maybe think about it.

Back at home, we feel relief at having been heard. Twenty minutes later, their backyard TV comes alive with sharp flashes of light, motion and sound. Before I can step out onto my deck and scream into the night air and into what I imagine is a great wide void, empty of human empathy and kindness, they turn down the TV so we can’t hear it. Even if they do hang the privacy shade (we soon learn they won’t), our backyard won’t be the same as before. We are all in the process of adapting for the future.