Cover image for My goodness : a cynic's short-lived search for sainthood
My goodness : a cynic's short-lived search for sainthood
Queenan, Joe.
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First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Hyperion, [2000]

Physical Description:
208 pages ; 25 cm
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PN4874.Q39 A3 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Joe Queenan admits, even though the money is good, all his meanness has filled him with self-loathing. My Goodness documents Queenans journey toward self-regeneration. After reviewing the history of goodness in the Western world (from Jesus Christ to Sting), he chronicles his own moral attempts at rehabilitation. Being nice is the biggest challenge of his career.

Author Notes

Joe Queenan was born November 3, 1950. The author of five previous books, Joe Queenan is a contributing editor at GQ and writes a column, "Good Fences," for The New York Times. He lives in Tarrytown, New York.

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Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Queenan's latest book is a delightfully eccentric chronicle of the acid-tongued journalist's attempts to become a good person--to turn away from his success as a "sneering churl" and to become the kind of guy who does nice things for nice people. His search for goodness leads him into pretty weird territory, but along the way he discovers what he calls the special pleasures of Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty: giving small sums of money to the homeless, feeding protesters outside the White House, doing things for others for no other reason than because it feels good. Like Queenan's other books (from his "sneering churl" period), this one is hysterically funny, but amid the laughs and the potshots (he still has a lot of not-nice things to say about a lot of folks), readers will find little nuggets of enlightenment. The book manages to be, simultaneously, both a spoof of self-help books and a genuine self-help book. That alone is a remarkable accomplishment. --David Pitt

Publisher's Weekly Review

Everyone loves a funny misanthrope: Voltaire, Mark Twain, Roseanne Barr. And combative movie critic Queenan (Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon) can be funny. In this memoir of attempted self-salvation, Queenan charts his attempts to drop his disputatious demeanor and become a nicer, if not better, person. As he admits, it's a hard journey, since his "financially remunerative niche as one of the handful of hired guns" who can "turn out a fast, efficient hatchet job" ostensibly hangs in the balance. He's at his best when contemplating how bad he has actually been, and when he measures the "obviously satanic people I have made fun of" against "unlikely people I have defended." His "Short History of Goodness from Jesus Christ to Sting" crackles with the gleefully barbed and insouciant tone that has made him famous as an insult-meister. But even when Queenan takes seriously his project of living more ethically, he continues to score easy points, such as making fun of the Body Shop's overly pious self-promotion. His self-mocking tone keeps the book focused on the larger subject of grappling with moral issues in a less-than-perfect world. But too often the balance is off-kilter between his riffs on the absurd commodification of self-help and liberal causes (i.e., "Practice Random Acts of Kindness" bumper stickers) and his more serious philosophical offerings. In the end, Queenan's journey doesn't quite satisfy, not because he goes back to being a slightly kinder "son of a bitch," but because those more serious aspirations get lost in all the easy humor. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Cultural critic Queenan, who once said that attending a John Tesh concert was like staring into the jaws of hell, takes a respite from his nastiness in an attempt to rehabilitate himself. The question becomes, can he do it? Believing that all his past meanness has filled him with self-loathing, Queenan chronicles a journey toward self-regeneration. He suddenly begins practicing random acts of kindness (RAKs) and senseless acts of beauty (SABs) in an effort to achieve some level of moral goodness. Aside from occasional relapses, Queenan eventually transforms himself into a pretty decent guy. Unfortunately, the money isn't as good for a critic who's also a decent guy. Will he hang up his Habitat for Humanity utility belt, put away the Sting and Ani DiFranco CDs, and brew his last pot of St. John's wort tea? After all, being nice could land a successful curmudgeon-critic like Queenan on Skid Row. As Bob Dylan wrote, "Money doesn't talk, it swears." Recommended for popular humor collections.--Joe J. Accardi, Northeastern Illinois Univ. Lib., Chicago (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Oral History Since I started out as a writer many years ago, I have built a reputation as an acerbic, mean-spirited observer of the human condition. Although the particular arc of my career has brought me a certain celebrity and a measure of wealth, it has not made me a happy person. True, some of my peers generously regard me as a curmudgeon, a gadfly, a well-meaning mad hatter, but in my heart of hearts I know otherwise. My chronic nastiness and obdurate refusal to look on the bright side of things goes far beyond garden-variety misanthropy. In a very real sense, I am a complete and utter bastard.     One reason I became a full-time son of a bitch and have never deviated from my chosen career as a sneering churl is because the money is so good. In a world where most journalists are more than happy to service movie stars, captains of industry, and people like Bill Moyers, I have carved out a financially remunerative niche as one of the handful of hired guns that editors can turn to when they need a fast, efficient hatchet job. The truth is, there simply aren't that many American journalists who are as consistently and methodically unaccommodating as me. Most writers would get tired of being so uniformly and predictably contemptuous of everything and everybody Most people wouldn't be able to sleep at night. But I have always been able to sleep at night. In fact, I have always slept rather well.     In late 1998, however, I began to succumb to the cumulative effects of a lifetime spent being clinically unpleasant. As I approached my fiftieth year and felt the footsteps of mortality just a few yards in my wake, I found myself questioning whether I wanted to spend the rest of my life as a human adder. When I read about Jimmy Carter's gallant efforts to rebuild defective roofs in the South Bronx, or Sting's courageous attempts to save the rain forest, or Susan Sarandon's selfless efforts on behalf of Death Row denizens, the homeless, the infirm, the ... (well, you get the idea), there was a part of me that was deeply envious of their activities. It wasn't so much that I actually wanted to repair roofs in the South Bronx or give aid and comfort to contrite, albeit convicted, rapists and murderers or help to save the rain forest; it's just that I thought people would like and respect me a whole lot more if I wasn't such a complete deadbeat. I was tired of people telling me that I was clever; I wanted people to start telling me that I was good.     Was there a specific event that precipitated my Saul of Tarsus-like conversion to the path of righteousness? Yes, there was. One night, in the fall of 1998, I purchased a ridiculously expensive tube of Tom's of Maine toothpaste. In doing so, I was out on a search-and-destroy mission. A couple of years earlier, my wife and I had been roped into attending a speech by Tom Chappell, founder and CEO of the world's most socially conscious toothpaste company For forty-five minutes, I had sat in my chair yawning and grimacing as Tom of Maine yammered on and on about his "mission," his "vocation," his "journey," his wife Kate's poetry, and his company's principled refusal to experiment on lab animals, as if anyone in the room cared one way or the other about the plight of a few disgusting rats. Remarking to my wife, "Where's Lee Harvey Oswald when you really need him?" I made a mental note to double back when I had some spare time and give Tom of Maine, Kate of Maine, and Anybody Else of Maine Who Thought They Were Better than Me Just Because They Didn't Experiment on Lab Animals a good journalistic thrashing. And now, two years later, that time had come.     On first glance, the toothpaste container seemed to provide me with plenty of material for target practice. Neatly tucked inside was a little note to consumers explaining, in typical blowhard fashion, the special social "mission" of the company. Then there was extensive information about the National Anti-Vivisection Society and the American Anti-Vivisection Society, including 800 numbers and website addresses where ordinary people could learn more about the systematic abuse of lab animals by Tom's of Maine's competitors. Finally, there was a grammatically disastrous hand-written note from a little girl named Kim telling Tom and Kate just how wonderful they were. As if they needed to be told.     Loaded up with this ammo, I trained my sights on these infuriatingly self-congratulatory targets, who, much like Ben & Jerry and Anita Roddick and Susan Sarandon and Sting, seemed completely incapable of scooping up a piece of litter or giving a blind dwarf a nickel without issuing a twelve-page press release apprising the general public of their awesome munificence. A Roman Catholic in spirit, if not in practice, that rankled. My thoughts drifted back to character-molding Biblical passages I had learned in my youth: God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are: extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as the publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.     And: Therefore, when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogue and in the streets.     And: For everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.     Since I seemed to have both God the Father and God the Son in my corner as I planned my imminent evisceration of these self-aggrandizing do-gooders, I couldn't wait to get to my PC the next day But then I had a change of heart. What, after all, was so wrong with using one's celebrity and even one's merchandise to better the human condition and make this a better planet? Sure, the Good Book said that charity vaunteth not itself. But that was back in olden days when charity-vaunting was anathema in the eyes of Yahweh. Things were different today Back in Biblical times, mankind was not trying to destroy the rain forest or melt the polar ice cap or torment twenty million lab animals every year just to make cheaper toothpaste or snazzier perfume. Back in Biblical times, famous people could afford to keep their good works under their hat or their bushel, because the fate of the earth was not yet in the balance. But times had changed, and the Toms of Maine were the first to recognize that. Typically, I was among the last.      But there was more to it than that; I had selfish reasons for changing my tune. When I conjured up a mental image of Tom of Maine rhapsodizing about his cruelty-free products or Ben & Jerry marketing a flavor that promoted world peace or Sting doing a benefit concert to help save the rain forest, what I saw were happy, vibrant, upbeat people. When I looked at my own personality, what I saw was a shriveled-up old prune. And I was dog-tired of being a shriveled-up old prune.      And so, I decided to set out on the road to spiritual self-regeneration, to transform myself into the very best human being I could be. On the most obvious level, this would involve being more generous to the people I wrote about. I would have to start writing positive book reviews in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and publishing enthusiastic interviews with celebrities. I would have to say life-affirming things about the businessmen I wrote about in Barron's and Forbes , and stop tearing things down simply for the sake of a few cheap laughs. After all these years of spewing venom, Old Mister Grumpy Face was getting shown to the door.     Of course, there would be more, much more. There would be volunteer work at civic organizations, immense activity on behalf of the snail darter, the manatees, the Dalai Lama, and any other Lamas who crossed my path. In the fullness of time, once my incipient goodness had become second-nature to me, I might even establish my own foundation to benefit the needy, the infirm, or the just plain dumb. ( Oops, there I go again! ) I would carefully study the exploits of positive role models like Peter Gabriel, Jimmy Carter, and Alec Baldwin, and attempt to emulate their radiant bonhomie . Ultimately, I might even seek instruction from religious leaders on how I could prepare myself for early sainthood.     From the very start, I decided that in attempting to transform myself into a spectacular human being, I would be careful to behave in an ostentatiously virtuous fashion. The one thing I had learned over the years from observing the Susan Sarandons and Ben & Jerrys of the world was that there was no point in being a wonderful person unless everyone else knew about it. Believe you me, when I set out on the Road to Perfection, people were going to get all the facts and figures.     In committing myself to this undertaking, I was aware that things might turn out disastrously, that the attempt to turn myself into a unilaterally swell human being could wreck my nervous system and ruin my career. I was prepared to take that risk. I was prepared to do so because I was tired of feeling worthless, because I was tired of being the sourpuss at the wedding feast, and because I did not want to meet my Maker with so few positive accomplishments on my side of the ledger.     Only time would tell whether it was possible for a person as jaded, cynical, and basically horrible as me to effect the transition into transplendent munificence. Frankly, I wasn't going to bet the house on it. But I was willing to give it a try I have never, ever backed away from a challenge.     Being good was going to be the biggest challenge of my life. Chapter Two La Vita è Brata: A Chronicle of Personal Vileness The first issue I had to address once I had launched my foray into the subculture of virtue was the central moral paradox in my entire existence--namely: The only reason I was able to take time off to devote myself to the reconstruction of my unacceptable personality was because I was pretty well fixed financially But the reason I was so well fixed was because I had made tons of money being cruel to people over the years. What's more, many of the people I had gone out of my way to be cruel to were people that I was now starting to revere.     For example, in the previous ten years, I had written five separate stories making fun of Ben & Jerry, and had used them as punching bags or gags in innumerable others. For these stories, I had been paid $12,950. I had also written a number of articles ridiculing Jimmy Carter, for which I had been reimbursed to the tune of $7,000. The abuse of Sting ($4,500), Bono ($4,000), Susan Sarandon ($5,500), and various other indisputably good people had also helped glut my coffers to overflowing. All told, my scornful treatment of unquestionably good human beings or the causes they supported had earned me $68,687, enough to buy two Toyota Previa vans.     I had, in fact, bought one Previa van, fully equipped, and had put the rest into blue-chip stocks trading at reasonably low multiples, plus a few small-cap cyclicals. And therein lay the supreme irony: that I was now buying Ben & Jerry's ice cream and Sting CDs with the very same money I had made by mocking them. That is, the money plus the vast appreciation in the value of my portfolio, bloated with stocks I had been wise enough to buy with the Dow at 3700, even though they included ethically fetid corporations which derived their earnings from the sale of tobacco, alcohol, and armaments. True, nobody ever said life was fair. But this seemed hideously unfair.     On the subject of revenue flows, it should be noted that not all of my income had been derived from eviscerating superb human beings such as Ben & Jerry and Susan Sarandon. Over the years, I had written many acerbic stories about crooked stock promoters, New Age charlatans, cretinous movie stars, dim-witted politicians, uncharismatic cannibals, and John Tesh. I felt no remorse whatsoever over these stories. I did not feel bad about the $3,000 I'd earned from the Movieline story "Mickey Rourke for a Day," nor about the $15,000 I had earned from the British TV program it was repackaged into. I did not regret the tens of thousands of dollars I'd made pillorying Chuck Norris, Tori Spelling, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Deepak Chopra. And I certainly felt no remorse about the $43,000 I had made fish-gutting Geraldo.     And yet ... and yet. In my heart of hearts, I knew that much of what I was doing here was rationalizing. Sure, I had devoted a lot of my time and energy to eviscerating the Michaels Bolton, Jackson, and Milken, not to mention the Kennys Rogers, Loggins, and G. But how much of my rancor had been directed at cultural vermin such as these, and how much had been consumed by capricious attacks on undeserving victims? For that matter, what percentage of my stories had been mean-spirited? How many had been demonstrably unfair? Precisely how awful a man was this Joe Queenan?     It was a quandary that would become an obsession over the next few weeks. The big problem was that I didn't have any hard data, and procuring it was not going to be easy. I had started my career as a journalist in June 1986, when I published an acrid but thought-provoking op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Ten Things I Hate About Public Relations." Over the next twelve years I had written 889 stories for such top-flight publications as GQ , the New York Times, Spy, Barron's , the Washington Post , and Forbes , as well as for less well-known publications such as Chief Executive, Commonweal, Venture , and Amtrak Express . I had also written three original books. That worked out to 5,438 typewritten pages of magazine and newspaper articles plus another 969 pages of book manuscript pages, for a grand total of 6,407 pages. I had also written one full-length screenplay and three half-hour screenplays, but because very few people saw my movie and the three short Films aired only in Great Britain, I decided to set them to the side.     Estimating that a single typewritten page averages 225 words, this meant that in the previous twelve years I had written 1,441,575 words, and it was a safe bet that just about all of them had been unpleasant. Or let's just say that most of them had been used in the construction of a nasty sentence, phrase, paragraph, or chapter. Since I am not a good typist, hunting and pecking out perhaps thirty words a minute, this meant that I had spent 48,095 minutes--or 801 hours, or twenty complete working weeks--doing nothing but being vicious. And that didn't include time for research, fact-checking, travel, and lunch. Plus going to Los Angeles to be vicious on Politically Incorrect .     For a number of reasons, I was determined to Fred out how many of these words had actually been cruel. Well, maybe not how many words in and of themselves had been cruel ("the" and "an" lack the inherent venom of "moron" and "schmuck"), but how many words had been used in the construction of sentences deliberately fabricated with malicious intent.     Compiling this data was not going to be easy. To do so, I would have to review every sentence in every story I had ever written and tabulate my offenses. This would take weeks, perhaps months. Frankly; I had no appetite for this project, because rereading everything I had ever written just to see how cruel I had been would be psychologically debilitating, like an ax murderer visiting the tombs of his victims. Moreover, all the time I would spend calculating how beastly I had been in the past was time that could be put to better use doing good deeds in the present.     To avoid all this paperwork, I set myself the task of devising rigorous mathematical formulas to determine how many contemptible things I had said, how frequently I had said them, and the relative virulence of each statement I had made. Here again I hit a roadblock. On first thought, it seemed logical that if I took a random sample of my stories and counted how many hostile things I had said on each page, then multiplied it by a suitable coefficient, I would arrive at a figure quantifying both the number of nasty remarks and the ratio of mean things to inoffensive or nice things I had said over the years.     Unfortunately, not all of my stories were equally unpleasant. The articles I had written for Movieline, Spy , the Wall Street Journal , and GQ tended to be fiendishly nasty, while the work I had done for TV Guide , the New York Times , and the Washington Post was, in general, more nuanced, delicate, reasoned, balanced. In the latter, I tended to use a battle-ax; in the former, a hydrogen bomb. Thus, in order for my survey to purport to any methodological validity whatsoever, I had to make sure that the work was assayed in the correct proportion. Since one-sixth of my work had appeared in Movieline , one sixth in Barron's , and one sixth in my three books, it was imperative that half the material under examination come from these sources.     There was another problem. Even though I was sincere in my intention to become a better person, there nevertheless lay a sediment of putrescent bile at the core of my very personality. My idea of what was ill-natured would be very different from the average person's. If I went through my stories highlighting all the cruel things I had ever written, I would end up with a much smaller number than the ordinary layman. But which figure would be the correct one?     To address this problem, I decided to send out a representative selection of my work to a statistically relevant group of my friends (30) and have them analyze how inhumane I had been. This required elbow grease. I spent the better part of an entire weekend divvying up my work into three basic groups--Mean, Very Mean, and Unconscionable --then divided up my friends into similar categories: Nice, Okay, and Horrible. Once the selection process was complete, I sent each of these thirty friends roughly 5,000 words (20 pages) of my output. This came to 150,000 words or 600 pages, roughly 10 percent of my oeuvre . It was my intention to study their cumulative responses, tally up the incidents of malice, divide the total number of mean remarks by the total number of sentences in each story, and then multiply that by ten to determine     1) How many nasty things I had said in my career.     2) How frequently I had said nasty things.     3) The ratio of sentences containing nasty remarks to those containing generally inoffensive material.     The manila envelopes that I sent out were accompanied by this letter: Dear Friend: As part of a massive project I am currently working on, I need to quantify exactly how many genuinely unpleasant things I have said in my career. Accordingly, I am distributing my work to a wide array of friends, seeking their feedback. Could you please take the time to read the enclosed material and underline or highlight every remark that could reasonably be interpreted as being mean-spirited, in the sense that it was definitely meant to inflict harm? I stress that the intent of the writer, rather than the appropriateness of the target, is the main issue here; even if the remark was directed at someone as odious as Benito Mussolini, Attila the Hun, or Geraldo Rivera, I would still like you to make a note of it. Also, any comments would be helpful. I thank you in advance for your help in this massive undertaking. Best Wishes, Joe Queenan     Now I had to wait. And wait. And wait some more. Yes, although some of my friends sent the material back like a shot, recognizing that this was a serious request, many more of them dawdled for weeks on end, and some did not even bother to reply By failing to do so, these craven individuals catastrophically undermined the methodological validity of my study, thus imperiling our friendship. But in the end this did not matter because the people who did reply weren't much more helpful. Some people underlined almost everything. Some people underlined almost nothing. Some people took offense at the use of the term "forked tongue," while others let "cocksucker" slip right by. One of my friends said she was too busy to review the material, so she got her assistant to do it. Needless to say, she works in the entertainment industry.     The biggest failing of my informal survey, one that I had anticipated and perhaps even feared, was that my assorted friends had very different levels of sensitivity to cruelty. Take, for example, my ex-dear friend Andy Ferguson, who works for Rupert Murdoch's satanic Weekly Standard and who once wrote speeches for George Bush.     Andy, a persnickety sort, had technical problems with my request. Though he found that "mean-spiritedness permeated the pieces like a fog, like some kind of untraceable mephitic stench," he was disappointed that he could not find "specific insults directed at specific individuals whom you clearly intended to make feel bad." And he still wonders why Bush lost.     Another friend wrote that since everything I said was deliberately spiteful, she didn't feel like wasting her time highlighting every single sentence. A third friend said that she could not in conscience highlight or underscore insults directed at people who clearly deserved to be insulted, even though I had specifically requested that my friends draw attention to every mean remark, no matter whom it was directed at, because that was the whole point of the exercise . And a fourth friend said that the entire procedure was pointless because I was a "nasty fuck" and didn't need to conduct a scientific study to figure that out.     Finally, there were the fussbudgets. Some people sent pages and pages of notes and even footnotes. Others suggested ways that my writing could have been even nastier. Oh great: The Amateur Hour . Most meticulous of all was Doug Colligan, a friend who works at Reader's Digest , but who is probably best remembered for his eccentric, catatonic interpretation of Dr. Paul Thorpe in my doomed $7,000 movie Twelve Steps to Death . Doug couldn't resist getting out the colored pens: blue for generally inoffensive remarks, red for when folks got smacked around a little, orange for when things really started to get personal, Day-Glo Yellow for when people got completely hammered, orange-and-yellow for pure viciousness, and blue-red-yellow for nuclear ad hominem slander. Like I needed this hassle.     In the end, as usual, my friends proved completely worthless. Once again, I learned the hard way that if you wanted something done right, you had to do it yourself. So now I finally did what I had been moving heaven and earth to avoid: I made a pile of everything I had ever written, got out a load of colored pens, turned on the calculator, turned off the phones, and got hard to work. (Continues...) Copyright (c) 2000 Joe Queenan. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

1. Oral Historyp. 1
2. La Vita e Bruta: A Chronicle of Personal Vilenessp. 6
3. A Short History of Goodness, from Jesus Christ to Stingp. 23
4. Today Is the First Day of the Rest of Your Lifep. 42
5. Your Dad Must Be the Nicest Man in the Whole Wide Worldp. 58
6. Family Valuesp. 76
7. The Frugal Philanthropistp. 91
8. Capitol Gainsp. 104
9. Reach Out and Touch Somebodyp. 116
10. Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Wordp. 133
11. What a Tangled Webp. 149
12. Second Thoughtsp. 166
13. Once More, Into the Breachp. 192