Of Puppies, Pandemics and Privilege
Why was my essay about leaving New York during the pandemic the most sinister of my career?
This time last year, I was dragged on Twitter as essentially the worst person in the world. I was “a plague rat,” “a selfish asshole,” “a rich, tone deaf dip-shit,” and a “vapid, selfish fucking monster,” among hundreds of other vigorous characterizations.
The occasion for this outcry was my April 15, 2020 essay for Medium’s GEN magazine about leaving New York City in the wake of the pandemic and renting a place in the mountains of a southeastern state — with a high-maintenance puppy, no less.
I’d hesitated to write the piece. On the surface, which is pretty much the only layer on which anything gets read or discussed, it’s about as close to the definition of Twitter hate bait as you can get. Look! A privileged city person fleeing her urban petri dish by vectoring up an economically disadvantaged rural community and getting her Green Acres yucks on at the same time! The actual facts of the situation were quite different, but I knew the optics were stacked against me.
I published the essay anyway.
I have a habit of doing that. In the 25 years that I’ve been publishing my work, I’ve made something of a specialty of saying unpopular or unflattering things. But as I’ve mentioned in this space a few times lately, I don’t write about myself as much as I used to. Though I’m always careful to use my experience not so much as a main subject than as a lens through which to examine larger ideas, the last several years has had me foregrounding myself less and less. Part of the reason is that getting older can mean there’s less drama in your life (either the real kind or the kind you tend to stir up in your own brain when you’re in your twenties and thirties) and it’s easy to find yourself lacking for any observations that feel new.
But there’s something else going on, too. I find that I’ve also been shying away from first person writing because the lane of acceptable topics is becoming narrower everyday. This is especially true if you want to avoid being accused of the sin that social media most loves to police: privilege.
I knew that if I wrote about leaving New York during the pandemic I would be accused of flaunting my privilege — in this case, the privilege of being able to swallow some rent on my tiny New York City apartment and pay for a deeply-discounted Airbnb in a rural region far to the south. I knew that a lot of New Yorkers, stuck in their apartments, were resenting the hell out of those who’d been able to leave the city — and who could blame them? With that in mind — and even though my editor very much wanted me to write about it — I promised myself I’d keep my mouth shut. Instead, I started digging into a potential reported story about how the child welfare system was affected by the quarantines, since I knew something about that world. After all, I didn’t have a Twitter death wish.
As with many people’s quarantines, my days had folded in on themselves, the normal markers of time vaporized. I had the added element of chasing around this brand new puppy, an all-encompassing distraction that was starting to have almost surreal effects. One afternoon, I sat on the porched steps watched him do ecstatic battle with a cardboard box for upwards of an hour, grateful for the respite despite knowing that I’d later have to spend another hour picking all the debris out of the grass.
I was charged at that time with writing a column every two weeks for GEN. As much as I didn’t want to throw myself to the wolves by admitting to leaving New York, I was itching to write about this new surrealist state, ideally for my next column, since the child welfare story wasn’t adding up to be anything terribly original. But I held back. You’d be an idiot to do that, I thought. It’s not worth the shaming. You’ve been around long enough to know exactly what would happen.
Then one afternoon it hit me: No, what’s really shameful is that you’d choose not to write something for fear of shaming. You’ve been around long enough to do better than that. You call yourself a real writer? Act like one.
I wrote the essay. For a week or so, it just sort of sat there quietly, garnering mostly positive comments. I chided myself for having been so paranoid, for both overestimating the impact of my words and underestimating readers’ abilities to read those words in good faith. Then a match was lit.
A Twitter user in Appalachia took deep offense at the whole thing, somehow interpreting my exasperation with nonstop puppy supervision (and the hell of quarantine itself) with disdain for the region. (I’d show you her tweets — they were so over the top so as to be almost hilarious — but she’s since blocked me.)
The vitriol mushroomed from there, much of it stemming from perceptions that I’d been reckless about spreading the virus. I’d made it clear that I’d quarantined for 14 days after arriving (for what it’s worth, I’d also stayed in my apartment in New York for 14 days before leaving) but I was nonetheless pilloried as a Covid Mary. People accused me of violating quarantine travels bans (I hadn’t) and demanded to know my precise location so they could check just how underserved the area was and how many resources I might be gobbling up. There was even talk of tracking down my Airbnb landlords and reporting them for violating some (nonexistent) health code about renting to people from out of state.
There was concern that I was going to get sick with Covid and end up on a ventilator in an under-resourced hospital, thereby denying ventilators to deserving locals. An excoriating — if also amusing — HuffPo article by Claire Fallon observed that I’d “scapegoated” my puppy and failed to engage with the moral ramifications of my decision. Mike Pesca, formerly of the Slate podcast The Gist, commented on the whole fracas in an epic rant he entitled “Why I’m Not Fleeing To My Country Home: A Hero Explains” (it’s here at around the 22:35 minute mark). I also talked about it on the then-newly-launched Blocked and Reported podcast (it’s in the second half of this episode).
Fallon, to her credit, was right about about my failure to engage with the moral ramifications of leaving New York. That’s because the essay was about the impossibility of grasping moral ramifications in that stage of the pandemic. Even more than that (as any high school English student should have been able to interpret), the essay about the way the delirium of chasing around a puppy had layered itself onto the catatonia of quarantine. It wasn’t an essay about leaving New York as much as an essay about leaving reality. It’s also wasn’t about Appalachia in any meaningful way. It could just as easily have taken place in the Berkshires or the Poconos. I referred to Appalachia because I wanted to keep my whereabouts vague.
That’s where I inadvertently set a trap for myself; though I was well aware of the legacy of socioeconomic hardship and neglected infrastructure of many areas of the southeast and rustbelt, I failed to fully grasp the baggage that comes with the word “Appalachia” itself. For the purposes of my essay, it was merely a reference to a geographical region, a huge one that reaches from the southern part of New York state to the northern part of Alabama and Georgia and as far west as Ohio.
In much of the cultural imagination, however, Appalachia is shorthand for catastrophic rural poverty. People who live there are accustomed to exploitation from outsiders, not to mention being the butt of jokes. As such, it makes sense that a tagline like “the rolling hills of Appalachia have been my refuge from the coronavirus epidemic” would be jarring, if not infuriating.
For what’s worth, the area I was staying in was not beset by catastrophic poverty. There were some very poor people there, for sure. But there were some very well-off people there was well. Also, what it’s worth, I did not write the essay’s tagline or the headline. (Writers rarely do.)
Sometimes I wish I’d been able to include details like this in the essay. As it turned out, I stayed down south on that farm for the better part of six months. I participated in the economy, which is to say I brought groceries and gasoline and probably a little too much wine. I paid a dog trainer to help me work with my puppy, who managed to gain sixty pounds over those six months (I also bought countless computer cords and phone chargers after he chewed them.) I did have to go to an urgent care clinic one day after getting stung by a hornet and having an anaphylactic reaction, but there were no ventilators involved.
I actually doubt that any of this would have made my Twitter critics less angry. It might have made some of them even more so, mostly because while I’m interested in examining the places that likely triggered the most outrage, I have no intentions of apologizing for writing the piece, which is what most of them wanted. More than that, they wanted me to apologize for the very privilege that allowed me to write such a piece in the first place. They wanted me to derive shame from my privilege and, from there, let that privilege silence me.
I kind of knew this was going to happen, so why I did write this piece to begin with? It goes back to my earlier point: You call yourself a real writer? Act like one. It boils down to the same reasons I write just about everything, which is that I’m compelled to look at confusing or vexing phenomena through as honest a lens as possible. And for the last several years one thing that’s especially vexed me is the way writers — and creative people in general — are now expected to be accountable not to their own creative or intellectual standards but to the standards of hair-triggered Twitter users than can easily turn into mobs. Under Twitter law, material that is morally complex, nuanced, maybe a little weird, and not easily summed up by a tagline is best left unpublished. That’s pretty much the opposite of artistic integrity, but here we are.
Ultimately, it became clear that my crime a year ago was not so much leaving the city but admitting as much. “One might ask that they have the grace to enjoy getting away with something in silence,” Fallon said of writers who had the hubris to talk honestly about their choices.
One might also ask when writers became expected to blunt their thoughts to protect readers’ feelings rather than respecting them enough to speak to them honestly. Despite the penalties I might incur, I still consider it a privilege to do just that.