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A Piano, a Puppy, and a Co-op’s Crossed Wires

Last year’s brief flirtation with the game of bridge has been invaluable for dealing with my neighbors, especially since I took up a much noisier pursuit: piano. In bridge, players are rewarded for learning to recognize when a partner says one thing but means another. In my co-op, I can resolve a problem faster when I recognize a shareholder complaint disguised as a passing comment.

Before bridge lessons, I might have believed that when a neighbor said, “We hear you took up the piano,” it meant that news of my new endeavor had spread around the building. It wasn’t as though they could hear me, I thought. I had passed on a beautiful acoustic piano for a digital model so I could play with the volume turned down, at least until I progressed to something more pleasing to the ear than endless scales and tortured versions of “Frère Jacques.”

But my experience with bridge had me on alert for messages hidden under the words. The game’s endless bidding conventions allow players to reveal the cards in their hands, but not always in the most straightforward way. I soon realized that “We hear you took up the piano” was actually my neighbor’s coded bid. I’d had the same feeling a week earlier when a friend showed up for lunch after I was already seated and asked, “Is this table too close to the door for you?” Obviously, I thought the table was just fine. But I understood that it wasn’t fine for her, and since I wanted her to answer the next time I phoned, I followed the social convention. I gathered up my coat. And my book. And my latte. And I said, “Let’s find a table in the back.”

Similarly, since I want to continue to enjoy peaceful relations with my neighbors, I responded to their bid, “We hear you took up the piano,” with “Oh, can you hear me playing?” They bid again with, “Not much.” I rebid with, “Does it bother you?” They passed: “No, it’s fine.” The hand played out with my promise to turn the volume down even lower and their promise to let me know the next time they are disturbed.

My only adjacent neighbor to have absented himself from this convention is also the newest. Whenever I practice, no matter how softly or what time of day, Sydney, a puppy, begins running back and forth, dropping and dropping and dropping his ball. When I stop, he stops. When I start, he starts.

Sydney’s considerate humans asked if I could hear him running around. By convention, I understood their hidden question, “Does his running around bother you?” This time my answer was the same to both: no. A young golden retriever who seems destined for a lifetime of adorable puppyhood, Sydney is perfect. When I mentioned the non-coincidence coincidence of Sydney’s playtime and my piano practice, my neighbor laughed and asked if I ever I hear him howl when I play.
I do not. And I can’t tell if Sydney’s howling would be awful, or the ultimate canine compliment. Without conventions, it’s so hard to tell.

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