We recently moved into a house with a strange backyard configuration. Our yard borders five other back or side yards, and has no fencing. So we set out to build a fence with all our neighbours.
I had already met a few of them. Sharing a backyard has a way of bringing people together, for better or worse.
A neighbour who's a real-estate agent marched over one day with her bodybuilder husband to notify me that our overgrown flowers were blowing onto her lawn and causing her sneezing fits. After a few, um, tense moments (I was a little scared), they offered to lend me their mower.
I met Myron and Rena, the retired Italian couple who regaled us with stories of their granddaughter, as they hung their laundry on a clothesline just like they had done in the Old Country.
There was Sean, a father with two young boys and a cute pug who loved to show off the tree house he was building.
There was the bachelor, whose name I never learned but whose musical tastes I became intimately aware of - metal, lots of metal.
And the Egyptian pharmacist couple next door would always wander over to chat about the deer that sneaked into the area.
Problems and pets became all of ours; toys spilled across yards, and common interests became common ground.
But yards need fences, right? So we began bringing up the idea with our neighbours.
The pharmacist didn't quite understand what I was asking him at first. "Oh, go ahead, build a fence ... no problem with me," he said.
Great, I thought.
The second neighbour I approached, Sean's wife, blew smoke in my face as she mentioned a guy she knew who knew another guy "who could do just the posts for 20 bucks a pop."
I was having my doubts this was going to work.
But then the Italian couple, still upset that the previous owner of our house wouldn't agree to split a fence, said they'd pitch in. And the real-estate agent with allergies was an easy sell. Two down, three to go.
The bachelor surprisingly nodded in the affirmative while rocking out to his metal music. Then, the pharmacist realized what I had asked him and told me he was in.
Before I knew it, Sean's wife got their guy to do the posts and Sean built the section
between our homes himself with us splitting the cost of materials.
My pharmacist neighbour and I went to check out fences together. Four-foot or six-foot? Pre-made panels? Treated or untreated wood? A real friendship began to blossom between us. "Next time, you come with your wife and child or I don't let you in," he said. Soon, our families were barbecuing on his deck together.
I learned how handy Sean was, and he learned that my wife owns the drill in our family. And since we had to work together to pay for and build the different sections, we learned to trust one another. Maybe the saying should be that building fences makes good neighbours.
Piece by piece, section by section, the fence went up over a matter of months. By the end of the summer, it was complete. While a couple of sections matched perfectly, each of the other sections was the offspring of a different marriage of neighbours. One section green, another brown, one section smooth, another rough. All six-feet high, except for the section we share with the bodybuilder, who wanted all the sun he could get on his bronze body. I wasn't about to argue with him.
Myron and Rena brought over the first batch of cucumbers from their organic garden to celebrate. It had brought us all closer together.
And then further apart.
You see, after the fence was complete, a subtle shift occurred. We didn't talk to each other as much. There wasn't that forced interaction from the awkwardness of standing in the same shared yard, akin to being in an elevator with someone. You can only ignore the other person's presence for so long. But now it was like we were on two escalators, going in opposite directions.
We didn't see much of Myron and Rena any more, only their laundry on the line when the wind caught it and blew it up in the air over the fence line.
A misunderstanding from a lack of communication turned our friendship with the pharmacists back to the standard nodding and waving. We were awakened by a call from the police one night after the couple reported a "suspicious" car consistently parked in front of their house instead of asking us about it first. It was my mother-in-law's.
The bachelor's metal music was muffled. And we no longer had a dog for our little girl to play with. With no communal yard, there was also less community. Both the yard and our lives felt smaller.
We tell ourselves the fence is great, that we now have a frame for our yard, that we did a big job co-ordinating it. We say how happy we are that it's done and how great it looks. I guess it's only natural to want to mark your territory.
But a year later, as I stare out at our finished fence, I can't help wondering - are we really better off? I'm not so sure.
Adam Rodin lives in Winnipeg.
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