When getting hammered with the neighbors is not a good thing…today’s column in the Star!

One of my neighbors is a candidate for sainthood; specifically, as the patron saint of unemployed contractors. I call her: Our Lady of Perpetual Construction.

No further need have I for the sound-soother alarm clock, which used to gently wrest me from slumber each morning to the artificially-engineered chirping of birds and chiming of church bells from some faraway land. For the better part of the past three years, I have been reliably snapped into consciousness at 7:59:59 a.m. (or a tad earlier if the coast is clear) by teams of roofers and electricians and carpenters and handypersons revving up the jackhammers and firing up the electric saws.

Occupying the lower decibel levels are the landscapers who scratch-scratch-scratch at the soil and heave heavy bags of mulch with loud grunts, all while conducting constant, energetic conversations in Spanish. This band of botherers tends the land just over my fence all day, most every day, as if it were a sprawling multi-acre estate instead of a modest ranch house with detached structures in a seemingly constant state of evolution.

There have been periods of respite, particularly in winter, and so each morning I awake in anticipation of the first noise and wonder — is today the day when silence will be the only sound? Has she run out of money or ideas or permits yet? And what’s her secret for getting these contractors to show up, when I still can’t get my gate fixed by the guy who built it three years ago?

Last summer, Our Lady’s industry apparently inspired the adjacent school to undertake companion construction, the two teams hammering out a symphonic summer duet of daily blasting, grinding and sawing. The projects became so aurally intertwined that it’s certain Our Lady unfairly took the blame for sounds emanating from projects not her own — but then martyrdom is all part of the being-a-saint package.

On frequent summer evenings, Our Lady celebrates her construction achievements with a lively well-attended pool party. They feature an amplified stereo system blaring techno music with a throbbing bass beat that makes my windows vibrate as my eardrums expand and contract — the kind of boom-boom-boom you hear for hours after the music actually ends.

Still, while I would ban the bass, I have come to enjoy these parties vicariously. Our Lady hangs lovely strings of light in the trees alongside whimsical windsocks that catch the breeze; possibly to summons the spirits of ghostly contractors past. It’s quite sweet to hear the sound of children swimming and splashing and shouting over the music (although I do wonder how their little eardrums hold up). The festivities usually end at a decent hour, and there is a palpable ebb and flow as the party winds down, the sound of child’s play replaced by the comforting murmur of slightly-groggy grown-up conversation and camaraderie.

I was sitting at my backyard table trying to entertain my own guests one evening, when a friend commented on the over-the-fence festivities. “This sounds just like your New York apartment,” she screamed, so that she might be heard over the din. And she was right; my Upper West Side garden apartment was always surrounded by a cacophony of sound: Salsa music, honking horns, heavily-accented voices shouting, punctuated by impromptu singing and sporadic laughter coming from busy Columbus Avenue and Broadway nearby. This was a major improvement over the sounds streaming from the air vents in my prior Hell’s Kitchen apartment: constant police sirens, and screaming fights between hookers and drug dealers, all set to the gentle clip-clop of exhausted carriage horses returning to their stables for the evening.

There is something comforting about hearing other people happily residing nearby; a reminder that you are alive on a populated planet, not alone out in the country where you might be devoured by mountain lions or by zombies with no one to hear your screams.

But after a few years of construction, the ear becomes over-sensitized and the nerves hair-triggered, such that even moderate noises disturb to a degree totally out of proportion to their decibel level. There is some reason for hope — although not that the construction will ever end — Our Lady’s neighbors have abandoned that dream. I find in general that the more I know and like the source of noise, the less I hear it. I am determined to get to know Our Lady better, and find that the more I do, the less I hear “noise” and the more I hear “neighbor.”

We all have our particular sound peeves: leaf blowers, barking dogs, fire alarm sirens, audible chewing, crying babies on airplanes and fancy restaurants, cell phone conversations in closed spaces, or even the tone of a particular Vice Presidential candidate’s voice. I used to loathe the loud, rhythmic rumbling of my older dog snoring, so reminiscent of a revving-up racecar. But now that it’s the only sound the little guy can make, I find it comforting to hear.

Which proves, I suppose, that annoying noise is entirely in the ear of the beholder.

Today’s column in the Star is more serious than usual: a call for some civility in our public discourse.  Bickering Congressmen and blustering pundits have nothing on small-town editorial writers when it comes to bad-mouthing neighbors who disagree with them. Can’t we all just get along?

Back in the day, when I was a San Francisco attorney at a large law firm, I was asked by an influential corporate partner to handle a personal legal issue for his family. The matter required a simple unopposed petition, but because of the importance of my client, I briefed it as if it were a landmark civil rights case before the Supreme Court.

The partner and his wife sat next to me in court, and when the judge arrived I stood up. After complimenting me on my brief, he granted the petition. I said: “Thank you, Your Honor” and quickly sat down.

My client was peeved. “You didn’t argue anything,” he noted with irritation, muttering sarcastically: “Great job.”

I took the opportunity to repeat to this partner an important lesson from the trial lawyers who originally trained me:

Once you’ve won your argument, shut up.

You’d be amazed at how often this rule is violated. Lawyers and business negotiators and hobbyist-arguers will make their points brilliantly, then proceed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by piling on unhelpful facts, even arguing the other side’s point of view, before finally running out of hot air.

But the best way to blow an argument is to tack on some random nasty personal dig, immediately lowering the level of the debate while erasing all memory of the convincing analysis that preceded it.

I observed this recently during a Planning Commission hearing regarding modification of a winery permit. The debate was long-winded but civil, until one concerned neighbor stood up and proceeded to excoriate the applicant, painting him a slick snake-oil salesman.

The effect on the audience was palpable: A collective “no” was gasped en masse, and even those opposing the application became sympathetic. The commissioners seemingly agreed, even though the neighbor had scored some good points before he went for the jugular.

Many of the letters to the editor I’ve read lately, and the comments thereto, suffer from the same “Why did they have to add that?” problem.

For example, some folks in our town are urging the city to abolish a loud siren signaling the deployment of the local volunteer fire department. Other residents, including many long-timers, feel strongly about keeping it. I had absolutely no opinion on this one, and looked forward to hearing divergent views of the issue.

Several locals wrote to the paper describing the special meaning the siren holds for them, the nostalgia it conjures, its importance as a safety reminder, and its celebration of volunteerism and of the firefighters’ long history of service. Frankly, they had me at “I care.” Just knowing that this meant so much to them was powerfully persuasive — they had won their argument.

But then, after the bell had rung and the heavyweight champion had been crowned, came some pro-siren low-blows: Those who opposed it were not “real citizens” but rather godless, ungrateful arrivistes.

The anti-siren contingent, after making a strong case touting the advance of technology and denouncing disturbing decibel-levels, inflicted its own jabs, labeling the siren a “fetus-frightening” public nuisance and its proponents provincial noise-polluting dinosaurs.

While everyone is entitled to their subjective opinions, I wonder if advocates realize how their expression sends analytic argument off the rails. It’s as if, in a presidential debate, the challenger delivered a withering indictment of the incumbent’s tax policies, reduced his economic platform to rubble, then added “And you’re ugly, too.”

As distressing as it is to read personal attacks on individuals, it is equally distracting to read disparaging generalizations about groups of citizens, reducing their complex views to clichés.

People who seek to limit the use of gas-powered leaf blowers are not spoiled police-state-pushing spendthrifts seeking to ban all vestiges of modern civilization. Those opposing leaf blower limits are not selfish polluters indifferent to the allergies and impending deafness of their neighbors. People against low-cost housing proposals are not cold-hearted discriminatory elitists, any more than proponents are irresponsible water-wasting lefties.

The platform of local candidates cannot be reduced simply to growth versus no growth; the views of the local citizens group for “responsible growth” cannot be boiled down to five letters (NIMBY); and people do not write passionate letters to the editor just because “they have nothing better to do.” We may disagree with some of these groups or individuals, but we can respect the time and thought that went into the positions they take.

I’m looking forward to an election season during which citizens can vigorously debate the issues and really listen to one another, while remembering that decent people may disagree. A re-read of letters to the editor reveals that the most respectful and nuanced are the most persuasive.

In other words, you can convince others you’re right, without saying something wrong.