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The question

My wife and I (both twentysomething), recently moved into our first house. We became friendly with one older couple: I have shovelled their driveway and we also gave them Christmas cookies. But a few days ago, he came to our door in a rage, claiming my wife had thrown dog poop onto his lawn (we have a puppy). I reminded him how hard we have been trying to be good neighbours. He acted like an angry child and told me to confess. We are trying to build a reputation in the new neighbourhood and I am worried that he is going to badmouth us for something that we didn't do. If he confronts me again I'll tell him that if he wants to apologize we will accept, but if not then to get off my property or explain it to the police when I call them for harassment.

The answer

I know what you mean about people talking/your reputation. You certainly don't want to be known as people who throw doggie doo-doo around at the drop of a hat. That kind of thing can stick with you, like something you stepped in ("If you'll forgive," as Woody Allen says in Manhattan, "the disgusting imagery"), and follow you around.

One of my friends used to date a guy who once became so enraged at someone who didn't scoop what their dog pooped that he picked it up, yelling, and hurled it at them.

He probably thought he was justified. But the story made the rounds, the legend grew, and he became known to one and all as "the Poo Flinger" for, literally, decades.

I don't remember anything else about him, not even his real name. I don't even remember what he looks like. All I remember: "Poo Flinger."

So, no, you don't want that. As to what you should do … well, first of all, no police. What are you going to charge him with? Defamation of character? No, that'll just inflame him further, like pouring peroxide on a hemorrhoid (see Woody Allen quote, above). That's a fantasy. First thing you do: Let it go.

Don't get me wrong. I do understand: Neighbour stuff can make people crazy. I get a lot of neighbour-related questions – maybe even more than family or work-related questions. The reason being, I've decided, is that like family members and co-workers, you're sort of stuck with them.

But unlike family, friends and co-workers, we often don't know that much about our neighbours. They could have bodies in the basement freezer. How many times have you seen it on the news. They interview the neighbour, who's all: "Phew, wow, we never saw this coming. He seemed so quiet and nice."

I'm not saying he's got a chopped-up body in his basement – or, say, a wall covered with pictures of you and your wife, including some showering snaps taken with telephoto lens.

But he might. He's clearly got some rage. And if he is indeed hallucinating about your wife flinging poo onto his lawn, then add the possibility that he's mentally unbalanced into the bargain.

In any case, he's not the type to antagonize. Basically, I think your instinct to steer clear of this nutcase neighbour is a sound one. Avoiding unpleasant people, places and situations is an art form, and a highly underrated means of lowering the amount of confrontation and friction in one's life – and one's blood pressure. Too bad more doctors don't put a hand on their patients' shoulders, gaze into their eyes and say in gravitas-filled tones: "I think you need to avoid some of the family members who are driving you crazy, for a while at least, until your condition stabilizes."

The world would be a much healthier place.If you do run in to your neighbour, be unfailingly polite and pleasant, but "on the clock," i.e., you know, "Gotta go." Your demeanour should suggest some pressing business awaits.

Don't kowtow. It's enough already with the shovelling and Xmas cookies. He is unworthy. I certainly understand your dewy-eyed desire (and a crocodile tear comes to this crusty curmudgeon's eye as I recall I was once like that too), to be beloved by everyone. But if growing older teaches you anything, it's that life is full of friction and conflict and not exclusively populated by well-intentioned people. Not everyone is going to like you; and not everyone is going to reward/be worthy of your time and energy.

On the bright side: If one does behave well, over time a consensus will tend to form that one is a "decent sort." If not, a consensus will tend to form around that fact, as well.

In other words, if, as I suspect, you are not the only targets of your neighbour's rage, eventually word will get around, his opinion and statements will be discredited – and at that point you won't have to worry about him sullying your reputation. He'll be ostracized from polite society, forced to confine himself to the classic avocations of crazy old coots everywhere: muttering about "the government" with food in his beard and writing angry letters to various publications and organizations.

And you two and your puppy can live happily ever after with your new-found friends: everyone else in your neighbourhood.

David Eddie is the author of Damage Control , the book.

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