A few weeks before the movers arrived, Lynda walked into the kitchen to find Niles, our Yorkshire Terrier, laying alarmingly still on the kitchen floor. Fourteen-year-old Niles was gone. We wept, we grieved, as everyone does after losing a long-time companion. But, he lived a long, happy and full life that tempered our grieving and allowed us to refocus on our upcoming move to Chapel Hill, NC. Lynda had taken a new job with Duke Medicine about which we were both excited. Regarding dogs, we still had Tamar and Winnie and decided we would add a third dog to the family after we settled in to our new home.
The house, an English Tudor on an acre of land was located in a very small neighborhood consisting of twelve home owners, called Meadow Ridge. Despite our small size, we did have an HOA run by the twelve Meadow Ridge families. In general, I don’t like all the rules imposed by HOA’s so read through the CC&R’s to determine just how restrictive it would be. I would need approval by the Architecture Committee for a fence around the backyard to contain the dogs. So, I asked around who I might speak with on the Committee to gain approval for the fence. No one seemed to know who was on the committee and several neighbors told us not to worry about it; “just go ahead.” I understood the fence should be compatible with the overall character of the neighborhood and so we had it built. Now, the fence was in place, the dogs could come and go without our having to walk them, we were finally feeling settled. Lynda started her new job, I set up my home office continuing my new consulting practice with a British partner. Life seemed just about whole except for the dog we promised ourselves after Niles’ death.
Growing up, my family had several German Shepherds. As a child I had no appreciation for the challenges of owning a Shepherd, so, thought getting another was a sensible thing to do. We spoke with several breeders and decided on one in Spartanburg, SC. Soon, we had our new puppy, a small, cuddly, Teddy Bear we named Oona.
Oona grew fast…very fast and before long looked like the majestic champion her parents, Arman and Soffie Vom Haus Brezel had been. We took her to obedience classes, remembering the oft repeated admonition, “these dogs like to work; they need to be well-trained, they’re fiercely loyal, they’re very protective”. She was all those things and more. Always by my side, she waited at the front door watching for me no matter how long I may be gone. She loved her training sessions, playing ball, and snow. But Oona required a lot of attention, always overly anxious to please, I often caught (and continue to catch) her staring at me as if trying to anticipate what I might do next and how she would participate. If I moved my chair back from my desk, she’d jump up, as if to asking, “where are we going, boss?” It was a bit like having a child again. She was, however, poorly socialized and disliked virtually all other dogs except the two she lived with. But her world was mostly confined to the house, the backyard, and our solitary walks around the neighborhood before dawn.
Six months or so after Oona joined our family, we received a visit from a neighbor named Ho. Ho was from North Korea, had recently retired from UNC where he was a professor. His new interest seemed to be an obsessive concern with all manner of things related to the neighborhood association and it’s twelve families. He busied himself and everyone else organizing work parties; spreading mulch, trimming shrubs, or emailing us all about his concern for how tall the grass had grown in the community’s 5 acres of unused common space. He also delighted in sharing Korean proverbs about moral matters he translated and emailed to the community.
Today’s unannounced visit to our home had a single purpose; drawing our attention to the CC&R rule that a family was permitted no more than two dogs. A third dog was simply not allowed. His manner was a blend of odd contrasts. He smiled warmly, yet his tone was officious. I thought, “what the hell?” then chuckled at the absurdity and silliness of his ‘out of the blue’ visit. It felt as he saw himself as a loyal messenger representing the authorities who wanted us to know that it had come to their attention we were in violation of the two-dog rule.
“Well, let’s change the regulations”, I proposed. “Ho, there are only twelve of us living on twenty acres. There’s almost an acre we had fenced for our dogs behind the house. You can’t even see them unless you’re standing in our driveway.”
“I’m sorry, this is the rule”, he said feigning sympathy but resolute regarding acquiescence to the rule.
I’m a pretty patient and good-humored guy but Ho was really beginning to annoy me so felt compelled to lay out my position.
“Let me explain something to you, Ho. This dog is a member of our family and we are NOT going to get rid of it. Please know that I am very clear about this. And by all means feel free to convey this to anyone else who feels similarly.”
“But you are breaking the rules” he complained.
“Ho, we have an HOA meeting in two weeks. We can change the rule or create an exemption. The HOA didn’t care about rules when it came to my fence. I was told, don’t worry about it. So, certain rules are overlooked while others are not?”
Ho shook his head as if pitying my ignorance of basic decency as he began to walk away. He stopped then, turning to add, “It is very different from what I believe. The well-being of the community is more important than the desires of an individual.”
“Do you believe,” I asked, “the well-being of this community is negatively impacted by our dog?” I held my tongue as my mind flooded with unkind retorts and snide remarks about this not being North Korea although, I confess wasn’t especially proud of this.
“It’s the principle.” He spoke to me as if I were somehow incapable of understanding the complexity of what he had to say. Finally, he smiled again sympathetically expressing a paradoxical empathy for the flaw in my makeup that drove my disregard for the community’s well-being. “It’s the principle” was a phrase I would come to hear again and again.
The matter came up at the meeting of the HOA several weeks later. I made my plea and confessed I had misinterpreted the importance to the community of the CC&R’s. “We should create a subcommittee that will consider this and rewrite the rule.”
Days later, myself and two other men sat ‘round our dining room table to create language for an amendment that would allow exemptions on a case by case basis. I foolishly believed this would put an end to the matter. Yet, a few days later, Ho again rung the doorbell. After a little bit of small talk, Ho bluntly stated, “you must comply with the rule of two dogs.” I was very unhappy that Ho kept coming to our house like some sort of grim reaper telling and retelling us the end was near.
“What part of no do you not understand, Ho?” I asked. Ho then explained he called all ten HOA members (except us) to conduct a straw poll on the two-dog rule. Why he did this was a mystery since the membership created a subcommittee to rewrite the rule. But truth was, it wasn’t a mystery. It struck me as an outright hostile act that placed his reverence for the rules over some newcomer to the community believing they were exempt. This was about teaching us a lesson. He further explained that those who previously supported the amendment had a mysterious change of heart. The majority now felt the rule had to be upheld and our dog had to go.
Not surprisingly, the neighbors now seemed to find it hard to look at us, getting very busy when the potential for a close encounter presented itself. Talking with us was out of the question. This, predictably, went both ways. While the emails grew more ill-tempered, one couple we had not met before asked to visit. They wanted to share their distress about how events were unfolding and express their support for us. Curiously, this was the only family the neighbors (HOA) had ever required to give up their third dog a few years earlier. Unlike us, this family that had complied with the rule and were visiting to share the pain it caused them and offer their support. But the majority of the remaining ten families felt that since no exception was made for them, none could be made for us. The consistent application of the rule was a matter of principle regardless of the the former dog owner’s position.
In the end, we were not intentionally flaunting the rules. It was my oversight. I mistakenly generalized that the flexible approach on our fence meant that the HOA CC&R’s were not rigorously enforced. Their purpose was not to make a big deal out of very small matters, not to create conflict. This interpretation was not new. The CC&R’s forbade exterior modifications to homes in Meadow Ridge which were routinely ignored. It was no small coincidence that as our conflict grew the Architecture Committee was re-activated and was now approving existing exterior modifications retrospectively.
Lynda and I had only one prior experience with HOA’s. What we learned was, while there certainly was a role for them, especially in larger communities, they also became magnets for people with too much time on their hands; people who needed to exercise some measure of power in a world where they felt powerless. There is no better remedy for feeling powerless than coming to an HOA meeting and tying it up in knots with citations of obscure subparagraphs and footnotes and municipal ordinances and what a lawyer once told you. It leaves everyone wringing their hands and dreading the next meeting and strains relations with your neighbors. I thought we were done with all that. The dog was fenced. The dog wasn’t noisy. The dog was rarely even seen by the neighbors. And indeed, a careful reading of the relevant clause in the CC&R’s stated no more than two mature dogs per household were permitted by Meadow Ridge residents. Oona was six months old and the literature on German Shepherds stated they did not reach maturity for three years. I paused to think this over, but it all seemed so petty and frankly, stupid.
Over the next few weeks, the dispute remarkably continued to heat up. My next door neighbor, Rob, who historically always went out of his way to be friendly, asked if we could chat for a moment while we both worked in our yards.
“You believe in community, right?” He wore an understanding smile as mine began to sag. He waited for my response.
I felt the rumblings of a syllogism that he, no doubt was pleased with, most likely because it was designed to make him sound reasonable and me unreasonable.
“Of course,” I answered, knowing where this was going.
“And communities are governed by rules, right?” I didn’t answer. “Don’t you think communities need to be governed by rules, David?” The smile maybe became a little too smug for the level of patience I had, so after he finished part two of his syllogism, I had no intention of listening to his ‘Therefore’ clause.
“Tell me how my getting rid of a dog, who my wife and I regard as a member of our family is going to somehow benefit this community of twelve families, Rob.”
“It’s the principle. Communities are built on principles.” There it was again.
“It’s the principle? You’re going to force me to leave this community and move to another because of your principle?”, Disgusted, I walked away knowing that he believed with his whole heart that he was doing the right thing. I have known too many people like this and increasingly find it more than difficult to be around them.
Several days later Ho, came to visit again. With a deeply saddened expression he made a final appeal for us to get rid of the dog. Doing less than this would place the HOA in what he said was an untenable position. An email arrived from the new head of the HOA, an oncologist from UNC. Interestingly, they were newer to the neighborhood than we, but perhaps felt a communal bond by siding with the majority. The email, explained that their efforts to reason with us were unsuccessful and we remained uncooperative. They were left with no alternative but to refer the matter to a legal counsel on behalf of the HOA.
Lynda cried and expressed regret for our ever-having left California for this dreadful place. “We need to speak to a lawyer!”
We talked to a lawyer who said while the rules favored the HOA, asked, “Do you really want to live with these people?”
The answer, to be sure, was no, but we struggled to get beyond the reality that neighbors forced us to choose between our dog and our home
We quickly put the house on the market and moved to a wonderful home in Durham in the neighboring community of Durham. I was bitter, but am at peace believing that, as a matter of principle, we had chosen the right path for us.
It has been over seven years now since this episode and two weeks ago Oona was diagnosed with Lymphoma. No matter whose life cancer touches, it’s always painful. Oona, of course, does not understand what’s wrong but we do and carried the burden of deciding whether to keep her comfortable or do chemotherapy. Her prognosis without treatment was 30-45 days. Chemotherapy might give her up to a year and was generally well-tolerated. We cried and talked about whose interest we were looking after and asked many questions about quality of life. We have opted for chemo believing it serves Oona’s and our interests. She had her first treatment yesterday and wanted to play ball afterwards, ate her dinner, remains at my side even as I write this. We’ll continue to hang in with her as long as she shows the chemo lightens the disease burden. Why? It’s a matter of principle.