Friday, September 30, 2011


I wanted to like this doggy essay, by Robert Lipsyte, I really did. I mean, I remember liking the novel the author's son wrote that's referenced in the piece, the one whose protagonist inspired the name of the dog-protagonist of this article. And the comments tell me other dog owners, including poodle owners appreciated it. And this Milo is super adorable!

But something about it seemed like the canine equivalent of food-movement or anti-fast-fashion piety, with a NIMBY twist. We have: a couple who split their time between their garden-having "duplex near Union Square" and nearby country house.

There is a part of me, however, that wants so desperately to hurl a YPIS. Must stifle YPIS! But it's so, so warranted! Although there's a more precise critique to be made. Here goes:

The author, who with his wife splits his time between a garden-having "duplex near Union Square" in Manhattan and a nearby country house - is incredibly proud of himself for having purchased - with a loan! no privilege here! we're just regular 'mericans! - the land adjacent to the house on Shelter Island, saving it, rescuing it, from becoming a "McMansion" god forbid, because his dog needs to roam (the duplex's garden is only a lil' city thing) much more urgently than tacky nouveau riche sorts need to house themselves. But the author likes his houses -houses - old and rustic, and is just doing his part. He knows the names of the trees, and will write while looking out the window at the woods. His potential neighbors are probably neck-deep in Pinot Grigio and a RHONY marathon.

And the dog for whom he's saved that land from theoretical neoclassical ick isn't just any dog, but a rescue. And not just any rescue, but one that had been rescued from Real America:

[A] cocker spaniel with soul, humor, deep tolerance and possibly an appreciation for both opera and Nascar. It had recently been saved from a South Carolina kill shelter. It was beseeching us to claim it. Its name was Snoopy. When I told Lois I could never live with a dog named Snoopy, she sensed I was caving. [....] [The newly-renamed] Milo was about 6 years old, the veterinarian told us. He had had heartworm and a skin disorder. He was overweight from what had probably been a diet of junk food.
Canine kale emergency here! Unclear if what's meant is, the dog had been eating Wendy's or Zabars, or that the pet food it had been fed by its evil previous owner(s) (who could well have been, I don't know, someone isolated who died or became to ill to care for the pet, and not an animal abuser?) failed to provide sufficiently high-end dog food.

I suppose what's off-putting here is the sense that the author can't just enjoy his two houses, his charmingly no-nonsense-sounding wife, his successful-in-same-field son, his cute dog. It all has to be somehow about how he is making the world a better place, saving not just this dog, but precious land in a NY-area vacation spot. It is all part of a broader mission to save the entire planet. With the exception of deer: "[...] I often fantasize about us hunting. We’d share the venison with shelter dogs and shelter people."

How to mesh this with the fact that this is a story about a couple with one already-basically-two-houses home in Manhattan, who are so protective of their second home that they've taken out a loan to make sure no one else builds what could well be a first-and-only home on that land. The author cares about "shelter people," but not the people who might have wanted to build a place next to theirs, because what if the house was not to their aesthetic tastes? And do homeless people really want to eat from the deer some guy from the city scrounged for with his dog? Do they like being called "shelter people" and lumped in with dogs?

So yes, it's kind of like when food-movement-aficionados can't just prepare and savor local-seasonal food, but have to insist that by going to the farmers' market, they're voting with their dollars, and of course throw in a few jabs about the horrible people who get fast food or order in. Who conflate doing what makes them happy - what makes them happy largely because it allows them to identify as UMC-or-higher, sophisticated, educated, etc. - with advocacy.

But maybe why the article so rubbed me the wrong way had more to do with its oddly aristocratic bent than the air of yuppie smug. (Never heard of this concept, "aristocratic"? See the second letter, re: Barbours, here.) A stretch of land is put to better use when employed for hunting with a spaniel than when housing insufficiently tasteful humans. This notion of terroir-but-not-in-the-wine-specific-sense, that someone who appreciates dirt and animals in a kind of stately way has more right to ownership than someone who, horrors, could just write a check.


Anonymous said...

I agree with most of what you say, especially about "shelter people" being thrown into the the same category or crate as shelter dogs.
One mitigating fact regarding the author's impressive real estate holdings is that he must have purchased both the townhouse and vacation home decades ago, when a whole townhouse in an iffy neighborhood in Manhattan and a whole house on demographically diverse (as compared to nearby Hamptons) would each have cost less than a one-bedroom apartment today. Since Lipsyte is old enough to have produced a son who's already published a book, he was around when prices were relatively low. He's been an established writer for a long time, his wife may have made even more money than he did--so, is using that sort of income a sign of privilege? Is success on its own necessarily privilege?


Phoebe said...

To my mother (or should I just call?) or, to my mother and any other readers I might have:

-Yes, it took less to buy this real estate Then than it would Now. But a) it was still out of the price range of most, and b) he and his wife nevertheless own this property now, and could sell some/all of it if they needed/wanted to. That's what makes the whole 'woe is me, I took out a loan for real estate, now I have The Debt' angle so off-putting.

-In general, I prefer the term "luck" to "privilege" for something like a writer successful enough (assuming his income was the key factor, when it might have been his wife's, his own parents', who knows) to have nice real estate. The word comes to mind here because of the obliviousness - he manages to make buying up property so that his dog can run around on it, as opposed to so that god forbid other people could live on it, sound like he's the little guy. He's not.