Whose Feelings Count Most in a Pandemic?

Whose Feelings Count Most in a Pandemic?
Image:Chelsea Beck

If an alien or visitor happened to take a gander at lifestyle journalism over the past six months, they might assume that even though a lot of people are losing their jobs, waiting endlessly for unemployment, or even being evicted, the majority of the country has passed the pandemic baking bread, moving out of cities, and gazing out the window wondering if every day is Wednesday. For every story about the truly devastating impact the pandemic has had on normal life, it seems that there have been countless others that do little more than document every single possible concern of the upper-middle-class.

Lifestyle journalism catered specifically to the needs, wants, and desires of the beans and sourdough crowd: the same affluent workers whose jobs afforded them the flexibility to do their jobs from their homes. During the long, dark months of the spring, while many Americans were contending with lives lived mostly indoors, countless other people were doing the work that afforded the WFH class the freedom to worry only about how to occupy their time now that they were trapped inside.

The New York Times quickly gathered their resources to create At Home, a section of gentle lifestyle content meant to quell the anxieties of their core audience, many of whom might have already escaped New York City during the worst spring months. The landing page for the section collects the various articles written for the express purpose of soothing the frazzled nerves of its readers and states its intended purpose: “We may be venturing outside, tentatively or with purpose, but with the virus still raging, we’re the safest inside,” the copy at the top of the page reads. Of course, inside was the “safest” place to be for a good long time, but even acknowledging that is a privilege. For all the Times readers who spent the spring worriedly disinfecting the groceries delivered to them by DoorDash or FreshDirect employees, there were countless other people working to make sure that the people locked in their homes, fearful of the out of doors, had food to eat. This divide was rarely noted in the lifestyle content that proliferated, most likely because it is not soothing to readers to think about the minimum wage employee riding a bicycle through rain and sleet to deliver them a pizza.

As the pandemic unfolded, I turned to the Times for recipes like many of my other peers did, but quickly developed a one-sided adversarial relationship with the What to Cook This Week email newsletter, written mostly by Food section editor Sam Sifton. Cataloging the innermost anxieties of the upper class has always been the hidden directive of the paper’s Style section, but witnessing that bleed over into the Cooking newsletter became tiresome after a while.

Consider this dispatch from the July 24 newsletter, some six months into the pandemic:

Good morning. I caught a fat porgy on a home-tied fly the other day, a blind cast into clear ocean water, streaming past boulders on an outgoing tide. It wasn’t the striped bass I was looking for, but I thought it might be good for a few tacos for dinner and that hauled me out of the rut I’ve found myself in these last few weeks. It’s been freestyle mapo tofus with ground beef and chile crisp; skillet pastas with Italian sausages and plenty of kale; crema-marinated chicken grilled and doused in lime; repeat. It gets boring, frankly.

For thousands of people who have yet to leave their neighborhoods or who have been working and running the household in a capacity that does not allow for leisurely casting a line into a clear blue ocean, Sifton’s missives are comically out of touch with other, more pressing realities like juggling childcare and a full-time job. What he and so many other writers have been working against since the pandemic started is nothing more than an exploration of what it means to be bored. Sourdough, an affectation that has largely been abandoned, was an effective way to channel anxieties about an airborne virus, but also, baking bread is nothing more than a hobby that adequately fills empty stretches of time while also making people feel productive. Baking bread for leisure is an activity that I imagine those who do it for a living, in industrial kitchens and the like, would rather not undertake. The gap between leisure and labor here is wide.

Other, more esoteric “hobbies,” like growing scallions in jam jars, was rebranded as “novel frugality” in a piece that now feels typical of the sort written during the spring and early summer. Habits like saving Ziploc bags, regrowing the aforementioned scallions, and eating the heel from a loaf of bread were the sort of penny-pinching habits reserved for the generation that survived the Great Depression, not the rest of us who have long luxuriated in the great American pastimes of consumerism and consumption, the April story at Vox implied. These habits, which are fairly normal and do not really deserve any special mention, were documented on social media and in pieces like the one that ran in Vox. Framed as an upper-class panic about safety and minimizing trips out of the house, these behaviors are unusual only because the people in question never really had to think about frugality in a concrete way.

From Vox:

Tom Namako, news director at BuzzFeed, tweeted that he found himself “diligently washing then saving every single used glass vessel, and I don’t know why.” On a phone call, Namako reports that at its peak his collection included “like 20 bottles” with no clear plan for their use. He’s considering using the bottles for scallion regrowth or pickling, and he’s also started washing Ziplocs and aluminum foil. His motivation, he’s realizing, is largely safety.

Washing Ziploc bags for reuse is not particularly novel; they are expensive and it is wasteful to throw them away after one use. Doing so because of an unprecedented global pandemic is an affectation that only serves to make people who were already doing these things long before feel bad.

Paying close attention to lifestyle journalism over the past six months revealed that the anxieties, concerns, and fears that are being documented are purely those of Richard Florida’s “creative class”—upwardly-mobile individuals working in vaguely creative sectors who mostly congregate in cities like New York and San Francisco. These individuals value the sorts of amenities that make a city feel superior to a suburb: museums, bars, restaurants, and the ability to find a decent heirloom tomato at the height of summer. It’s worth noting that these concerns are, in the grand scheme of things, first-world problems. The trouble is that when these issues are given top billing, they appear to be the only issues that really matter. Carefully documenting the vagaries of the upper class and expecting their anxieties, hobbies, and worries to be representative for the entirety of society is a tale as old as time.

Giving space to the weird quarantine quirk that you and maybe three other people you’re friends with isn’t self-aware—it’s simply elevating an inside joke or observation made between friends by using the platform afforded to you and presenting it as a matter of course rather than an anomaly. Much like the case of the Amazon coat, which appeared in the Times Style section in November 2019, the small observations in and around the writer’s friend groups are not representative of the experiences of others and it is presumptuous to assume that just because something is happening to you, that the experience is universal.

In late May, the Atlantic ran a piece about one writer’s newfound propensity towards clumsiness as a possible strange side effect of the pandemic. Interviewing a few people who, like the author, are largely working from home, she discovered that she’s not the only one. The answer to this conundrum is not another unnamed ailment, but merely happenstance. Stress, anxiety, and the simple fact that a lot of people are spending more time at home means that things will break and we will notice. Self-awareness, a handy trait that most writers should have, is missing once more. Yes, a lot of people are at home, but there are a lot of other people working in a variety of jobs experiencing the same sorts of accidents in warehouses, grocery stores, and pharmacies around the country. It’s not that a rise in clumsiness isn’t news, but the fact that a Brooklyn-based writer dropping a glass every now and again was written up proves that the perspectives that are elevated by corners of the media are extremely limited and often defined by both class and, therefore, race.

But cataloging the anxieties of the upper-middle-class with the close scrutiny that many lifestyle and women’s publications have over the course of the pandemic is nothing more than participating in the world’s worst echo chamber: a friendly space where certain anxieties are met not with resistance or criticism, but wholehearted acceptance by an audience of your peers. It is curious that in 2020 writers and editors still perceive their readers as their peers—the assumption being that anyone who reads a website or a national publication is like a white, college-educated, upper-middle-class person. As we stare down the barrel of another long winter, faced with the likelihood of rising rates of infection and the grim prospect of even more deaths, it might be nice to give some space to the people in the back of the room, who have been diligently doing their jobs so the rest of us can sit inside and do ours.

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