Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sunday Mourning With Weingarten

Washington Post humor columnist Gene Weingarten, excuse me, Pulitzer Prize winning features writer Gene Weingarten (whom I have previously called an asshat), has taken a break from his usual cycle of fart jokes, doggerel poetry and crank calls to customer service representatives to pen a touching heart-felt tribute to his dead father. You can read it here. I’m going to go back and reread it myself. Please take a break and do so too.


I needed that break to wash the little bit of vomit from my mouth as I gagged my way through that diabetic-coma-inducing piece of maudlin sub-Mitch Albom drivel. It may be a little harsh to compare Weingarten to Albom since I have never read anything by the Mitchster myself, but my son was assigned The Five People You Meet In Heaven for high school English and he assures me it is truly awful. And it’s a particularly cruel comparison since Weingarten’s weekly online chat is presumably ironically subtitled ‘Tuesdays With Moron.’

In addition to his weekly scatologically tinged chat and his infantile column, Gene, like the constipated father in Portnoy’s Complaint, loudly labors over the three or four feature length articles he writes for the Washington Post Magazine each year. It was for one of these that he won his Pulitzer. He revels in taking the contrarian view and finding the twist in the story. A famous one is about a much in demand children’s party performer with a serious gambling problem. His most recent work was about parents that accidentally leave their infants in the back of cars until the baby dies from the heat. He took the pro-parent position.

Which is why I am so disappointed he went with the ‘aren’t old coots in nursing homes’ adorable route with this column. Now I bet a lot of you feel I am way off base here over a schmaltzy but benign piece of wistful nostalgia mixed with the bitter tragedy of watching a loved one’s mental decline. So I am going to have to deconstruct this and explain why this column is particularly nausea-inducing.

Having to institutionalize a parent is one of the most heart-wrenching decisions a child has to make. Dealing with the slow decay of a loved one’s faculties is tragic and Weingarten taps this vein as he details his father’s loss of sight, and eventually his memory. The first little anecdote is meant to be heart-warming, but I found it oddly disturbing as I could almost hear the ebony and ivory piano keys tinkling in the background as we hear about Gene's dad's lunch table partner.
One day my father told me that Mr. Williams had died. He was sad, but smiling.

"I read his obituary in the paper today, and I learned something about him I never knew. Everyone else here knew it, but I didn't." He wanted me to guess.

"He was rich?"


"He was famous?"


"I give up, Pop."

"He was black!"
Is his dad some sort of hero for having lunch everyday with a black guy? Would he have treated the guy differently if he had known he was black? Was the lunch time conversation so banal that no racially identifiable tales of Jim Crow or segregation or the civil rights struggle were ever mentioned? Just how is this heroic or touching? As a vignette in racial understanding it's a little troubling.

And then Gene finds it cute that his elderly dad finds an even older girlfriend.
Fifteen years a widower, at 85 my father found a girlfriend. Jeanette was another resident at his complex; her age and the thermostat setting in her apartment were both in the mid-90s.
I got news for you. Any guy in a nursing home with a pulse can get a girlfriend. The demographics at that age group are so skewed, every man there becomes the cock of the walk. Senior post-menopausal hook-ups are so common that some nursing homes are Petri dishes of what used to be quaintly called social diseases.

This is all build-up to the big finish that is supposed to make you just weep.
My father was an uncomplicated man; in a way, that was his genius. He taught me that only a few things are important in life, and that those are the only things that matter at all. I never really got a chance to thank him for that.

My father's last coherent words were: "My grand-daughter is going to be an animal doctor."

She graduates from vet school today, Pop.
Aww, ain’t that sweet? Somewhere up in heaven, a grandfather is watching his grand-daughter get a diploma. Clearly the value of an education is one of those “only things that matter” that so deeply touched Gene. Not that it kept Gene from dropping out of college three credits shy of graduation, a decision he regrets even less than his heroin addiction. He frequently berates journalism school as a waste of time and money. So big points for the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do hypocrisy there.

Gene is also a pretty notorious and vehement atheist that can’t possibly believe his father is really hearing his shout-out. And that is where the emotional manipulation is most blatant. He himself doesn’t believe in an afterlife, so this touching vignette can’t possibly be real, but he trusts that his readers will fall for this superstitious claptrap and get all misty eyed.

And while Weingarten deserves to be proud of his daughter, he has milked her tenure in vet school endlessly. He has repeatedly explained how vet school is tougher to get into than med school (and I say good for that, otherwise, every girl that once had a pony fetish would enroll and there would be more vet clinics in this country than tanning salons). He’s posted pictures of her with her arm up to the shoulder in a cow’s nether regions. He has used her as an unpaid expert when his readers write in with pet related questions. Molly’s career choice has hardly been a state secret. But his dad made the “My granddaughter is going to be an animal doctor.” comment back in 2006 and Gene has saved it for the most maudlin moment possible. I bet some version of this column has been sitting on his hard drive for years, just waiting for the right time to hit the submit button.

It must annoy this very talented writer to see other former newspaper columnists like Abrom and John Grogan hit the Oprah show powerball lottery and become famous and fabulously wealthy. Millions of people have visited nursing homes or had a beloved pet die on them. Only a few get to milk the experience into movie deals.

Gene himself is a pet lover and has ridden the dying dog driven publishing juggernaut with his own entry into the ‘isn’t that cute and sad at the same time” niche with a book of photos and essays with the admittedly punctuationally atrocious title Old Dogs: Are The Best Dogs. Right now it’s a respectable 10,473 on the Amazon sales charts, only four thousand spots below the hardcover edition of Marley and Me.

Writers are supposed to manipulate your emotions. Romance novels get the blood flowing. Horror books pump the adrenaline. Comic novels make you howl with laughter. Weingarten is a craftsman able to work words into playing into the reader’s hearts. He knows the tricks and how to hit just the right tear-duct opening notes. It’s just galling to be played so pitifully like this. Gene, you are a better writer than that and your father should be ashamed of you. Wherever he is.


Anonymous said...

Oh my. I read the column with a much different reaction. I didn't think he was trying to make his dad into a hero - just that it was funny that he didn't know his friend was black, and that his 90-year-old girlfriend lived in a hothouse. I've had quite a few older relatives in nursing homes, including my dad, so anywhere you can find humor is a godsend. I agree, Gene's humor and shtick gets old, but he's a good writer. But I respect your view, too.

And it's Mitch Albom. I read Tuesdays With Morrie, and it was ok - not great literature, but ok. And he does a pretty good Elvis imitation.


Anonymous said...

Why sugar coat it like that?

All the exact reasons why I hate Gene more often than love him. But, something tells me he isn't really envying the attention of the Oprah denizens.


yellojkt said...

I fixed the Albom. Don't know how I did it twice.

I have a pretty long running list of peeves with Weingarten. I tried to stick to the germane ones. He is a good writer which is when it is so troublesome when he is bad on purpose. I'm sure Gene wouldn't turn down any Oprah Book Club money.

DemetriosX said...

Life is too short to waste your time reading columns that do nothing but raise your blood pressure. And, you know, I'm not sure and don't have the time to apply my Google-fu, but I'm pretty sure the thing with the blind guy not knowing his long-time conversational partner was black is an old joke. So the asshat isn't even original.

Bob S. said...

Great stuff, yellojkt! I'm chuckling out loud here.

A mere niggle, but the third paragraph contains: "His most recent work was about parent’s that accidentally leave their infants..."

I think you can make do without that apostrophe in "parent's".

Anonymous said...

Not entering into the whole thing, but...I think your characterization of the story about infant car deaths as "pro-parent" vastly oversimplifies both the article and the issue. I hadn't read Weingarten before, and it's entirely possible he's often as much an asshat as you say he is, but I think this article does show the way people can manage to forget infants in cars - and that such people are not necessarily serially irresponsible drunken, drug-addicted morons.

yellojkt said...

Thanks. Fixed.

Yes, my characterization does over-simplify the issue. The masterfulness of Gene's writing when he is on top of his game is that he can take a difficult topic and show the nuance and subtlety. I'm on Gene's side on that issue.

After reading that article and knowing how scatter-brained I am, I said "But for the grace of God, goes me." I could have never lived with myself if I had done such a thing, but I can see all too easily how it could have happened.

Katarina Whimsy said...

(and I say good for that, otherwise, every girl that once had a pony fetish would enroll and there would be more vet clinics in this country than tanning salons)I will not make comments about pony play to my friend's dad, I will not make comments about pony play to my friend's dad, I will not make comments about pony play to my friend's dad...

yellojkt said...


Thanks for making me Google that. Not.

The power dynamics and psycho-sexual basis for the adolescent female pre-occupation with horses (including unicorns) has always been intriguing but also more than a little disturbing. It's good to know that there is a formal (if rather obscure) recognized kink to allow people to process these unresolved issues.

Katarina Whimsy said...

Oh dear, I'm sorry. I should have at least left you an NSFW warning with that.

I wasn't necessarily aware that there was a psycho-sexual basis, although I'm sure it makes some amount of sense if I think about it too hard. Granted, I never had any interests in ponies until about two years ago or so, when I decided that they would be a good thing to ask people for when they asked what I wanted for my birthday/Christmas/etc.

Also, re: the comment you left in my livejournal, board slave/tape slave/tape bitch is not a kink thing (to the best of my knowledge) It's a term used in the techno fandom group to designate the person at the masquerade who is in charge of keeping track of all the CDs that people bring their music in on. The sound board operator controls volume, and when the music fades in and out. The tapeslave makes sure that when the operator is making the music happen, the music actually is in the CD player and playing.

Also, you *should've* come to Balticon! I would've liked to see you --it would've been fabulous, or embarrassing, or both.


Anonymous said...

I think you meant 'heart-wenching' up there.

A Vehemently Notorious Atheist

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, Congrats on the Weingarten mention. I think you should aim for a restraining order from MoDo next.

yellojkt said...

Actually, it's "heart-wrenching", I'll fix it.

labradog said...

Between your Weingarten column, and the note at the bottom of your blog, I don't know which earns you a heartier "fuck you".
Write what you know about - stick to comics, and avoid the litcrit.

Oh, and don't spend too much time worrying about people poaching our ideas.