Chatological Humor: A Tribute to Tom Lehrer

Gene Weingarten
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 12, 2008; 12:00 PM

Gene Weingarten's humor column, Below the Beltway, appears every Sunday in The Washington Post magazine. It is syndicated nationally by the Washington Post Writers Group.

At one time or another, Below the Beltway has managed to offend persons of both sexes as well as individuals belonging to every religious, ethnic, regional, political and socioeconomic group. If you know of a group we have missed, please write in and the situation will be promptly rectified. "Rectified" is a funny word.

On Tuesdays at noon, Gene is online to take your questions and abuse. He will chat about anything. Although this chat is updated regularly throughout the week, it is not and never will be a "blog," even though many persons keep making that mistake. One reason for the confusion is the Underpants Paradox: Blogs, like underpants, contain "threads," whereas this chat contains no "threads" but, like underpants, does sometimes get funky and inexcusable.

This Week's Poll: WOMEN| MEN

Important, secret note to readers: The management of The Washington Post apparently does not know this chat exists, or it would have been shut down long ago. Please do not tell them. Thank you.

Weingarten is also the author of "The Hypochondriac's Guide to Life. And Death" and co-author of "I'm with Stupid," with feminist scholar Gina Barreca.

New to Chatological Humor? Read the FAQ.

P.S. If composing your questions in Microsoft Word please turn off the Smart Quotes functionality. I haven't the time to edit them out. -- Liz


Gene Weingarten: Good afternoon.

When I was a lad of 10 or 12, my family used to gather after dinner and listen to records. Because my parents had terrible musical taste, a huge proportion of these records were by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Fortunately, my parents did have a good sense of humor, so there were Tom Lehrer records, too, and I took refuge these. Lehrer was a Harvard math professor who moonlighted as a purveyor of wickedly seditious musical satire. I've only lately come to realize that half my sense of humor, and all of my love of doggerel and complex wordplay, were derived from those evenings avoiding Herb Alpert.

Musical satire is not a lost art, exactly, but I believe it has never again approached the intellectual heights that Tom Lehrer reached during a brief, electric recording career in the 1950s and 1960s. These songs are mostly lost. We're gonna rediscover some of them here. They have been hugely influential, and not just on me.

People younger than I but older than 15 are familiar with this delightful song, done by the Animaniacs in the early 1990s.

The concept was a ripoff of something Tom Lehrer had done a quarter century before, with a vastly harder topic, and without cheating by even a syllable. (The Nations song forces some rhymes, and achieves others only through extraneous words.) Try this masterpiece.

Lehrer could be astonishingly vicious. I think my favorite song of his was one about the Nazi missile scientist Wernher Von Braun, who made for himself a filthy, comfy landing in the U.S. after the war to work on our space program, where no one liked talking about his past. Lehrer did, in a minute and thirty seconds of charming vitriol.

Lehrer was fearless, and his facility with wordplay and rhyme was at least the equal of Cole Porter or W.S. Gilbert. A song showing both of these qualities was "The Vatican Rag," in which Lehrer, a Jew, gleefully took on the Catholic Church. This was the time of the Vatican II, when Pope John decided he needed to bring the church into, like, the sixteenth century or so, and popularize the mass by de-Latinizing it and introducing the vernacular. Lehrer thought the whole thing was a hoot, and made his own modest suggestion on how to spice things up. Listen to the audacity of both the song and the rhymes: The Vatican Rag.

The joy of being subversive was what propelled Lehrer, even if he had nothing political to say. Try this one, on the subject of serial avicide.

It's not that Lehrer couldn't be romantic. He could, in his own way. Here's his stab at a love song.

Lehrer would fall in love with a sound, and turn it into a song. This happened with the name "Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky," a somewhat obscure 19th century Russian mathematician who, Lehrer learned, was once accused of plagiarism. That the only scrap of a point that Lehrer needed to create this masterpiece of writing and performance.

I'm putting all of this in the past tense not because Tom Lehrer is dead (he's 80) but because it's been decades since he has written or recorded a song. He famously said once that the whole point of satire was ended when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize, and more recently observed that George W. Bush didn't merit being satirized, he merited being vaporized.

Using an intermediary, I located Lehrer yesterday at one of his two homes (with characteristic contrariness, it seems that he winters in the Northeast and summers in the Southwest), but I was under a difficult stricture. Lehrer does no press interviews, and would not tolerate one, even in connection with this tribute. So I can't technically tell you what he said.

But I can report several things. I told him what an influence he had been on me, which is something not that many people get to do in their lives, and for which I am grateful. I told him about how I had once defeated The Poet Laureate of the United States in a doggerel-writing contest because I was able to rhyme "New Hampshire" with "for damnshire," a type of outside-the-box thinking he taught me. And finally, I asked him something about which I'd always been curious. One of my favorite songs of his is an appreciative ode to Alma Mahler, a rather amazing woman who possessed the beauty and charm and whatever else necessary to become wife and/or mistress, in succession, to the great composer Gustav Mahler, the great architect Walter Gropius, and the great novelist Franz Werfel.

The song's refrain changes slightly each time. One is:

Alma, tell us!

All modern women are jealous.

Which of your magical wands

Got you Gustav and Walter and Franz?

Another is:

Alma, tell us!

All modern women are jealous.

You should have a statue in bronze

For bagging Gustav and Walter and Franz.

I asked Lehrer if he ever considered a verse that seemed too delicious to resist:

Alma, tell us!

All modern women are jealous.

How did you get into the pants

Of Gustav and Walter and Franz?

He said, and I quote directly, and with all appropriate modesty:

"I never use that level of crude humor. That's your level, not mine."

In short, we have established that my hero reads me! And thinks I suck!

I am authorized to repeat one more thing about this non-interview, and it is quite appropriate for this very day. Iasked Lehrer if there was anything he'd like to add, in this chat, about the current president. After a bit of pause he said, "Just tell the people that I am voting for Obama."


Okay, lessee. With apologies to Tom, I think this ( not safe for work video) is funny.

And I deeply hope this is real, because it is awesome.

And finally, on the aptonym front, we have this, from Dave Barry. Check out the name of the fire chief.

Please take Today's Poll ( WOMEN| MEN). There are a few surprising twists, and one that doesn't surprise me but does bewilder me. Can someone explain why, if you are in a bit of a hurry, and think you might be going in the wrong direction, you would not ask a passerby for help? I do this ALL the time. Why would anyone NOT do this?

This week's comics picks will be posted shortly...


Gene Weingarten: The Comic Pick of the Week is Wednesday's Zippy, because I declare it so, and I am the boss. The first runner up is Monday's Candorville. Even though it is whiny, it is right. Runners up: Monday's Agnes, Wednesday's Frazz, Wednesday's Lio, and Wednesday's Speed Bump.


Columbia, Md.: Masterpiece? Hmmmm, not too hard to rhyme when the vast number of elements end in "ium" wow genius!

Whatever... thanks. You ruined a very enjoyable memory by throwing in the old person's standard reply "so and so did it upteen years ago, and he did it better too! so there!" - I think it was Steve Allen who originally said that (and more eloquently)

Gene Weingarten: You do not understand rhyme. The "ium" in a way makes it HARDER to rhyme, because he is not rhyming off that syllable. The rhyme for "cadmium" for example, has to end with AD-mium.

Gene Weingarten: He also, somehow, maintains perfect meter throughout, using ONLY the elements.


Dogtown, Ark.: In case you missed it,'s article on how new breeds make the Westminster show is called " Here comes the Plott Hound."

Gene Weingarten: Yep. And I have seen the winner in the Plott category -- I think his name is Black Monday -- and Murphy is a LOT hotter than that Plott.

Liz, can you attach Black Monday's picture, and Murph's? Black Monday| Murphy


Shower: Seriously, that many chicks never pee in the shower? Running water makes me go, so I go. It's sterile, people! Just save your soaping for after, and you won't have pee-legs. These are the same people who hover over toilet seats, making it gross for the rest of us.

Gene Weingarten: Read next post.


Not in urinetown: Wow. I can't believe how many women pee in the shower. I have never done so and can't imagine doing it. Yuck. Is it that hard to take a pee before you get into the shower?

Gene Weingarten: See previous post.


Massochism Tan,GO:"You can raise welts/like nobody else" is still the most delicious rhyme I've ever run across this side of Dorothy Parker.

Gene Weingarten: Aw, the Vatican Rag has six that are better than that!

I also like the try-and-hide and cyanide.


Owen and Mzee: The tortoise and hippo story is true. There are children's books about them. The hippo lost his pod in the tsunami and befriended the mean tortoise at the animal preserve. It's a great story.

Gene Weingarten: Yep. I have just discovered that. Yay.


Bagging Gustav and Walter and Franz: He is awfully close to your level. Replace the first 'g' with an 'n' and he's there.

Gene Weingarten: He was kind of funnin' with me, I think. He has been quite risque. He did a whole song about transferring an STD from one person to another. I think it's called Agnes.


NCIS: The tv show "NCIS" used the Element Song as part of a plot device this season. Someone had bits of the song on his computer and the elements highlighted were a code for a secret plot.

Gene Weingarten: Cool.


Washington, D.C.: Only today's Zippy (and not the one you linked to) will load from the Post site. Can you inform the appropriate parties?

Lord knows I don't usually read Zippy, so I'm curious to see one that's actually funny. If you wait, it seems to load eventually.

Gene Weingarten: Noted.


Washington, D.C.: you should ask how many people wash their feet in the toilet. You shower-peeing folks are gross.

Gene Weingarten: So what are you saying about Murphy, who DRINKS from the toilet?


Late To The Party: Someone last week sent me a link to your article and chat transcript on TGZ. First, I like your writing style. That was a great piece of writing as was your Joshua Bell piece. Secondly, I wanted to ask a Q about TGZ that wasn't addressed by anyone in the chat that occurred shortly after the article's publication. Seems to me that there was a strong spiritual side to Eric. You made two references in the article that led me to this conclusion and they were the angel he believed kissed him early in his life and the fact that he would pray in private before each performance. Finally, a chatter shared an anecdote about Eric and a child in church during Easter. Am I reading too much into this?

Gene Weingarten: No, he has a deep faith in the existence of God. He doesn't seem to care much for organized religion, as I recall.


Bowie, Md.: BTW, George Lincoln Rockwell was one of the original holocaust deniers, since he (accurately) perceived that the holocaust was a barrier to the acceptance of the Nazi philosophy.

Which would be funny if there weren't still holocaust deniers.

Gene Weingarten: By the way, I got an email saying that Rockwell was actually assassinated a few months before the Nazis moved into that building, so he didn't actually "hold court" there. I am checking and will correct that if it's wrong. Anyone know for sure?


Austin, Tex.: Headline:

" Police: Crack Found in Man's Buttocks"

Gene Weingarten: WOW!


Hybrid Boxer "Owner": You're missing the point about the PETA spot. Their stuff is always very affecting, as well as effective, and it's never even a little fair. It shouldn't be "fair," because PETA are extremists, and diluting their message would go against everything in which they believe.

Sidebar: I wanted our new dog to have the athleticism, intelligence, and sweet disposition of a boxer, so I looked for a boxer (not from a puppy mill, from a private individual whose conditions were very nice). It wasn't until our vet pointed out that our pup was (a) half "Canadian standard" and (b) going to be huuuuge that we even knew there was a second version of a "purebred" boxer. No wonder we only paid half price.

PETA's right, just as they're right about not eating meat, not wearing fur, etc. So what? You can ignore their spots just as easily as you ignore the spots for new cars and combs, can't you?

Gene Weingarten: I agree. PETA is not trying to be fair. They are trying to be provocative, and to get people to think. It's a fine line: If they go TOO far over it, people discount the message entirely.

I like this ad. I think it's about the right degree over the line.


Oakton, Va.: I wasn't too impressed with the PETA ad, but it did get me thinking on how to improve the Miss America pageant. First, divide the contestants into groups. You know, the sporting group, the working group, the toy group ...

Gene Weingarten: I like that.


Chevy Chase, Washington, D.C.: As a dog owner for the last 30 years the video hit on one of my pet peeves (pardon the pun). In my experience, the purebreds are the exact opposite of a master race. Extensive inbreeding leads to a variety of health problems. The most healthy dogs I have owned have always been mutts...

Gene Weingarten: Yeah. And the master race -- master species comparison made in the video is a stretch.

This video is not fair. But I like it.


Plott Houdedness: Look closer. Those are Black Monday's bowling trophies.

Murph is way hotter.

Gene Weingarten: You said it.


Tampa, Fla.: I have to agree, Murphy is WAY hotter than Black Monday. Did I hear you right that you got her from an animal shelter? That's why I'm so big on getting a pet from a shelter - they make awesome pets.

Gene Weingarten: The ASPCA of Northern Virginia! We didn't even realize she was a purebred. She looked like some sort of burrowing mammal to us.


New York, NY: I'm interested in what Liz thinks of today's Lehrer-centric intro. I'll politely keep my own opinion to myself.

More importantly, does Tom Lehrer pee in the shower? How about Jim Lehrer? He's a'ight. Ain't got nothin on Dr. Dre.

Gene Weingarten: Noted. But why keep your comment to yourself?


STD: I Got It from Agnes

(she got it from Jim)

Gene Weingarten: Right, exactly.


Mumbl, IN: What's the KKK guy muttering to his neighbor at the end of the video?

Also: Is PETA's argument that neglect of mixed breeds through preferential treatment of purebreds is the same as actively seeking to eliminate non-purebreds? I see a distinction there, so that's why I didn't consider the video quite fair (although it did make me laugh).

Gene Weingarten: Basically, and I think I am summarizing this correctly, PETA believes that because breeders are pushing out all those purebreds, worthy mongrel dogs who could have a home are being gassed to death in shelters all over the country.

The guy is asking whether there will be snacks later.


Boston, Mass.: Gene - I have a question which I believe only you are qualified to answer. My girlfriend is telling me "I don't want anything for Valentine's Day." Does that mean I REALLY don't have to get her anything? Or does it actually mean "I'm going to say I don't want anything, but if he doesn't do something, he's a big fat pig?"

Women are so confusing. I stand by your word - if you tell me not to do anything, and I get dumped, it'll be all your fault.

Gene Weingarten: Do something, moron.

Were you born yesterday?


Pat the Perfect, ME: About the live-catch mousetraps discussed here last week:

Yes, you do need to check them every day (mice can't live long at all without water), and yes, you need to be able to let the mice go a distance from your house (and no, even though the brown "deer mice" are incredibly cute, they don't work as pets; they just have too strong a compulsion to get out).

But if you live in the suburbs or beyond, you really should invest in a live-catch trap. Don't get the small plastic ones, which break quickly because the mice will chew them. And DON'T get a spring-loaded one, which can cause horrible damage to the mouse.

The one to get is called the Tin Cat. It's about the dimensions of a hardcover book, stainless steel with a window on top. You just open the "book," set a teaspoon or less of some bait inside (we use suet for bird feeders; peanut butter is fine), and leave it near where you've seen evidence of mice. The mice go in through a teeter-totter thing that keeps them safely and comfortably inside; once one mouse is in there, another will often follow.

When you look through the window in the morning and you see the mouse, just carry the trap outside and open the hinged top -- the mouse jumps right out and runs away.

The traps are pricey -- about $15 -- but they last a lifetime. I got ours online. We have caught dozens of mice in a few short months, much to the amusement of our no-count cat.

Gene Weingarten: Thanks, ma'am.


PETA-phile: I'm still not a fan of the organization, but I really hate tail and ear docking. Dogs are so expressive through their tails and ears, why would anyone do that? Plus, ouch.

Gene Weingarten: I hate tail and ear docking, too. In the dog park where Murphy romps, there is a young doberman named Dean. Dean's ears are intact, and that small fact transforms the fierce, authoritarian Dobie look into the sweetest countenance you can imagine.

Docking Dobies' ears turns them into something unnatural, something Der Fuehrer loved.


Bismarck, N.D.: I am appalled! I am offended! I am agitated and completely shocked!

You spoke at my college journalism graduation about two years ago, and now you're sneaking up behind people in coffee shops. Here I am...working hard, being ethical, and trying to make an honest living, and the man who helped send us into the great big world with advice like "the sword is mightier" is now... oh what the heck. Obama is the best choice for change.

Gene Weingarten: Hi, kid, I remember you. You are on the air in Bismarck, and we are all proud of you.

Don't do as I do, do as I say. Stick it to The Man.


The WP, D.C., checkin' back in: Hey Gene and Co.,

Sorry I've taken so long to get back, but I'm the guy who wrote in about having a hopeless crush on the girl from an adjacent office. They've had me, you know, working when I'm at work these days. Totally sucks.

I'm back, and ready to supplicate myself before you and all of cyberspace for that juicy tidbit of knowledge on how to initiate a great conversation. If you feel I don't deserve this kernel of information, I might just go ahead and say "Hi," as a chatter obviously wiser than me suggested. Something tells me your way will be more fun? Surprisingly enough though, I haven't seen the object of my affection since I wrote my post. Think she's onto us?

Either way, I promise you I'll work up the nerves to follow through. I won't let you down.

I also think Prickly City is weak.

Gene Weingarten: Sorry, but you were not the guy I promised an answer to. I promised an answer to the guy who kept seeing the same woman on his commute, and had no idea who she was.

You, I can't help. He has some moves to make, if he asks.


Pee Cures, AF: From my 20+ years in the military is the old adage that peeing on your feet (best done in the shower) cures athlete's foot. This was referenced in "Courage Under Fire"...I believe with Matt Damon's character. Also, peeing (and flushing) before getting in the shower wastes 2-3 gallon of fresh water. And lastly, all of this applies to your own personal shower at home, not the group shower at the health club.

Gene Weingarten: I believe the pee-athletes foot thing is an urban myth. Sadly.


Washington, D.C.: Gene Weingarten: He also, somehow, maintains perfect meter throughout, using ONLY the elements.

Well, he's also using "and" a lot to help the meter out.

Gene Weingarten: Just a little. I think I counted three ands. This song is 99 percent pure.


Asking for Directions: I almost never ask pedestrians for directions because in my experience they usually don't know or worse yet, think they know and get me more lost.

Gene Weingarten: In my experience, you can almost always tell the ones who don't know. I think I get the right advice 9 times out of ten.


Murphy: You humans do WHAT in my drinking bowl?

Gene Weingarten: Exactly.


L'enfant terrible: Sure he was funnin' you. From "Be Prepared":

You shouldn't sell you little sister, that's not nice

Unless you get a fair percentage of her price

Gene Weingarten: This was a spoof on the Boy Scouts.


Electoral College: OK, so who are these morons who say they could vote for either Obama or McCain? Are they the same boobs who in 2004, when faced with the starkest choice in ages, told pollsters in late October that they hadn't made up their minds? Sure, you can admire Obama and McCain for being men of principle, for having a vision, for serving their country, etc. But they're on opposite ends of the political scale. Obama is very much a liberal Democrat. McCain, despite the protests of the spittle-flecked arm of the party that he's not mean enough to the gays and the foreigners, is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. They're on opposite sides of numerous issues. McCain would repeal abortion rights, Obama supports them. McCain would keep Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Obama wants to get rid of it. McCain wants to cut corporate income taxes while Obama wants to end corporate tax breaks. McCain voted yes on the Central America Free Trade Agreement. Obama voted no. McCain voted to prohibit lawsuits against gun manufacturers. Obama voted to allow them. McCain would allow some privatization of Social Security. Obama opposes that. McCain would extend Bush's tax cuts and voted to repeal the estate tax. Obama wants to reduce the Bush tax cuts and voted to keep the estate tax. Oh, and then there's that war. One is for it, one against.

Do people not care what these guys would do as president? Is the fact that you think they're both pretty honest enough to get you to flip a coin on gun control, abortion rights, tax policy, the Iraq war, gay rights, education policy, health care, etc.?

I believe in democracy, but people sure can mess it up.

Gene Weingarten: People who say they could vote for Obama or McCain are people who are saying that, at long last, they want to vote for someone they really like and respect.

They are not idealogues. They are saying it has been a very long time since two candidates presented themselves who are likeable, honorable people.

I understand this. I am too profoundly in political disagreement with McCain to make this statement myself, but I understand the sentiment. It is one of relief.


Musical satire is not dead: Fans of Tom Lehrer need to check out Roy Zimmerman on YouTube. His songs on religion are particularly good.

Gene Weingarten: I'll trust you. But I'm inclined to be in favor of singers named Zimmerman.


New Germa, NY: Gene,

In the '80s and early '90s we often ate at a great hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant just up the street on Wilson very near the former Nazi Headquarters in Arlington. Many times we had to park on the street near their well-marked building. As you know there is a residential area right next door. We wondered what it was like for the neighbors. Did people say things like, "Betsy, could you please run next door and borrow a cup of sugar form the Nazis?" "Mom, can I go over to Adolph's to play?"

Good for Java Shack! A friend of mine who is part Native American grew up a block away and was on the receiving end of comments from these jerks. What kind of a**hat gets his kicks by hurling slurs at a first grader?

Gene Weingarten: Uh, Nazis, Liz. Nazis.


Rockville, Md.: PtheP says "We have caught dozens of mice in a few short months, much to the amusement of our no-count cat."

Unless she takes them quite a long ways away from her house, she has probably caught the same few mice over and over again.

Gene Weingarten: You don't know Pat's cat, Daryl. Daryl is something like 92 years old.


Blogorrhea?: So is that the joke then? The blog always starts next week like the bar always has free drinks tomorrow?

Gene Weingarten: It's not a blog, and it will start the first week in March. It's all set.


Washington, D.C.:"Can someone explain why, if you are in a bit of a hurry, and think you might be going in the wrong direction, you would not ask a passerby for help? I do this ALL the time. Why would anyone NOT do this?"

Because I'm a misanthrope and I'd rather be lost than deal with strangers.

Gene Weingarten: Surely, this can't be everyone's reason.


Go Obama!, Va: Gene, did you catch CNN's segment on the Mystery Method? They showed the "teachers" on camera but didn't give their real names, just the fake ones. Interestingly enough, they did ID the students, but first name only. Are there different standards between TV vs print?

Gene Weingarten: Oh, definitely! On lots of levels, one of the most dramatic being self-promotion. On every single broadcast, Lou Dobbs flogs his own books, gives it away as a prize, etc. It's kind of shameless. We are not allowed to do that.


Mystery Method: I am sure I'm the 800th person to mention this, but two Mystery Method teachers, "Mystery" and "Matador" (I believe those were their nicknames), were on CNN last night talking about the MM boot camp. Several class participants were interviewed as well, and they had video of the guys in a bar working the method. I have to wonder, how come these guys are OK going on national TV (not using their real names, of course, but not hiding their faces either), but your pal The Don didn't want to expose himself in your story?

Gene Weingarten: He probably would have gone on TV, too. What he didn't want was his real name used in a story that could be googled forever. Like, in four years, when he applies for a job as CEO of Microsoft, and they do a search on him.


It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp: Oh, Wise One, what is your take on this? In a question/comment on Howard Kurtz's chat yesterday, a self-identified 24-year old wrote something to the effect that "older people" (i.e. the apparently hopelessly out-of-it Hillary Clinton. And me!) don't understand that pimp is not that bad a word. Really? Since when? Was that just one lone screwed-up 24 year old, or should I fear for the future of Western Civilization?

Gene Weingarten: Pimp has been cleaned up a little, helped along by Pimp My Ride. A high school teacher of my acquaintance spent some time a few years ago trying to talk one of his best students -- a bright, charismatic kid -- from his dreams of becoming a pimp.


Kisses and Make-up -- Oh, God!: The fact that you have not noticed that your wife wears make-up -- including lipstick -- for many years suggests a certain lack of ability to see that which is right in front of your eyes.

Doesn't this undercut your position on the existence of God? You could have been visited by angels and assumed they were pigeons.

As someone else who doesn't believe in God, I feel like Richard Dreyfuss in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" after the fellow UFO witness announced he also saw Bigfoot.

At least I'm agnostic and not a conclusion-jumping atheist.

Gene Weingarten: I think the problem is that too many people are visited by pigeons and think they are angels.


Silver Spring, Md.: On bathroom water phobias--I always have a glass of water on the nightstand when I go to bed. I share this glass of water with my girlfriend. Occasionally, I will wake up in the middle of the night, find it empty, and refill it. It's much easier to refill from the bathroom tap than to go downstairs to refill from the brita pitcher in the fridge. When my girlfriend realized that I did this, she refused to share my water anymore. Unfortunately, this doesn't mean I have my own water now; it means I have to go downstairs to refill my water.

Gene Weingarten: Hm. Tapwater phobia is an interesting future poll topic.

I think tapwater phobics are nuts.


Rockville, Md.: As a rare pedestrian-asker, but a frequent pedestrian-askee, I noticed that I was far more likely to be asked for directions when I was walking the dog. I believe that people think that if you are walking a dog, you must live in that area, and thereby, must know your way around.

Gene Weingarten: Or that you are not a potential attacker, I suppose. Are we all that afraid of each other?


Not asking for directions: I'll give you one answer on why someone wouldn't stop and ask for directions: because the answer you would get from the average pedestrian is just as likely to be wrong as right, if not more so. All you might be doing is wasting time, with no increase in probability of getting there quickly.

Last summer, my mother was visiting, and she wanted to take my daughter shopping. I gave her straightforward directions, but she still felt the need to stop and ask someone before even coming to the first turn. That person naturally gave her bad directions, and it took them an hour to get there (it's a 10-minute drive from my house), with 9 stops to ask directions, according to my daughter.

This type of behavior is pretty typical for my mother, who represents an extreme case of the female stereotype in this regard (whereas I'm an extreme example of the opposite). This used to drive me crazy, until I eventually realized that actually getting to your destination quicker was only a small part of what drove her--it was really more about connecting with people. That's not a bad thing--her persistence in direction-asking led to some of my family's most memorable, serendipitous vacation experiences--but I tend to separate the two. I'll take a decent map and my own navigation skills over "directions" from a local any day, and save the socializing for other situations.

Gene Weingarten: BEcause I ask frequently, I am scrupulous about giving the right directions. I once got confused and sent a man 15 blocks away from where he needed to go. This still bothers me. If he is reading this: Sorry, the Safeway is NOT on Maryland Avenue. It is on Nebraska, about a block away from where we were standing.


Pat the Perfect: The Risque Tom Lehrer: In the 1970s, he wrote a song for the PBS kids' reading show "The Electric Company" called "Silent E" ("Who can turn a can into a cane? Who can turn a pan into a pane? It's easy, don't you see, with Silent E").

Later on, for a London-based revue of his songs called "Tomfoolery," was added: "Who can turn a simple rap into rape?"

Gene Weingarten: Hahaha. Thanks, Pat.


Obama: My husband is conservative, but not so much with the current Republicans. However, this morning heading to the polls, he said something way offensive about Obama. I can't believe he said it. I've never heard anything like that from him.

Besides the fact that we are going to have a long conversation tonight, it makes me really nervous that Obama's race is going to play a much bigger picture in the general election than in the primaries.

Gene Weingarten: I think this country is going to rise to the occasion. I believe it, deeply.


That guy's a liar: I'M the guy who's having a hard time getting past "hi" with a woman in an adjacent office. Sheesh! Did he think I wouldn't be reading today?

Gene Weingarten: Hahahahahaha.


Lehrer is immort, AL: The first song by Tom Lehrer I ever heard was "Silent E," on The Electric Company.

When I was in high school my father revealed that he had listened to Lehrer on 10" records back in the 50s, when he was hanging out with the Kingston Trio and listening to the Weavers. (This was quite a shock to me because I knew my father as a passionate Goldwater Republican. Also, who knew there were 10" records?) He found Lehrer's albums on Reprise and bought all of them, and we played them over and over.

Today my children (ages 9 and 7) love him, mostly for "The Elements." It's only a matter of time before I break down and let them listen to "I Got It From Agnes."

I always liked Lehrer's other stock response about his retirement. "When people ask whether he is interested in writing songs about various hilarious current events (war, recent presidential administrations), Lehrer says he feels like a resident of Pompeii who has been asked to make a few humorous comments about lava."

Gene Weingarten: Heh.


Spittle: Gene, I'm so glad you asked the spitting question. Why on earth is it socially acceptable to spit in public when virtually every other bodily secretion is verboten? Spitting is unsanitary and, frankly, disgusting. I can honestly say I have never spit in my life (barring the dentist's office and the like). I am, obviously, a woman. I'm also in my late twenties, and I feel the spitting problem is especially rampant among men in my age category. Unless you're running a marathon - and let's face it, lots of runners pee themselves or worse, so spitting is the least of their worries - there shouldn't be any spitting in public.

Gene Weingarten: I would like to hear from some guy who spits. I don't. I don't know why you would have to.

I also ask directions. These are two very non-guy things about me. Oh, and I have a vagina. That's a third.


Leher, ed: I was also exposed to Tom Lehrer an impressionable age, probably 13-15 when my parents brought home "That Was the Year That Was" and "An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer". I don't think anyone has combined the musical and political/social satire the way he did. Weird Al and Peter Schickele/PDQ Bach do well on the music side but don't particularly try to get the political/social side. Someone, probably PBS, occasionally broadcasts a performance that was recorded very late in his career. I'm glad to hear he's still alive and disappointed that he has hung up his piano.

Gene Weingarten: Well, he IS eighty.


Bethesda, MD: Hi Gene,

I don't know that we've ever covered this - what are your thoughts on Valentine's Day?

Gene Weingarten: I like any day that affords us another chance to buy presents for our women. Because our women are SO grateful for SO minor a fact. Because they are SO certain we will forget. Yes, it was invented by the chocolate and florist industry, which is why I never gives chocolates and flowers for Valentine's Day.


Dirty Ratsville: Gene,

I think I know how you'll answer already, but I'll ask anyway.

Would you rat out a(n admittedly despised) coworker if you found incontrovertible evidence that s/he had been snorting drugs in the office bathroom, on company time?

Would it make a difference to know that said coworker SUCKS at his/her job, and that said suckage really affects others' jobs, and that this person's manipulations were WAY out of hand and they had been getting away with murder for far too long?

Gene Weingarten: I think you need to report this for everyone's benefit, probably including his/hers.


More than just relief: Thank you for your answer on the "morons" who say they could vote for McCain or Obama, you said it perfectly - though I know I probably won't be able to vote for McCain, when the time comes, and I've had to renege on my promise to my mother never to vote for HRC, because I just might have to - but it's more than just relief.

I registered to vote with great excitement, almost 32 years ago; and this morning, when I voted for Obama, was the first time I have been excited, proud, and happy to vote. For that, I am profoundly grateful. And I'm grateful for McCain doing so well for the same reason - because even though I don't agree with him on many issues, I do like and respect him, and I haven't been able to say that for - well, for the past 32 years.

Gene Weingarten: Exactly. This is an exciting year.


Charlottesville, Va.: Hey Gene,

Up until now I thought EVERYONE peed in the shower, and the results of your poll are deeply bewildering. I'm a 21-year old woman, and I frequently pee in the shower; what's confusing to me is that it's so much cleaner than peeing in the wilderness while camping, or next to the highway while on a long road trip, or wherever you feel like when you're drunk in college. And I KNOW that most, if not all, of the women in this chat have done at least one of those last three things at some point in their lives. So why the refusal to pee in the shower, where the water can wash away all residue?

PS: I bet the women who don't pee in the shower are the same ones who don't have intimate relations there, either.

Gene Weingarten: This poll is baring all sorts of interesting things. There's something going on with the snorking, too.


Tapwaterphobia:: She's not against tapwater itself, so much as tap water from the BATHROOM sink.

Gene Weingarten: That's even stupider.


RE: Lehrer Intro: I thought my backhanded comment was clear enough. It's old guy awfulness! I expected someone to ride across the screen in one of those bikes with the huge front wheel. There's an old Simpsons episode with an awful political singer in it. It's clearly a Mark Russell parody but it would work just as well for Lehrer. Maybe it's technically rhymed well for rhyme enthusiasts (nerd!) but that doesn't make it funny. Gene, I love ya buddy but you're SO OLD. I'm pretty sure these Lehrer videos would seem old and dated to my dad and he's 65. I'll check with him later today. I'm 29, by the way.

Gene Weingarten: I know 20 year olds who appreciate Lehrer. On a level like that, genius is timeless.

Seriously. Examine your deficiencies.


Silent E: Lehrer wrote the Silent E song? For years... make that decades, I have marveled at this simple, yet complex verse.

He turned a dam into a dame.

But my friend Sam stayed just the same.

Gene Weingarten: Yep.



Right, but wrong?: The PETA commercial raises a question you are about as well qualified to address as anyone. Can the KKK be invoked in this manner without offending people whose relatives were oppressed, terrorised and haunted by the Klan? PETA opposes, I believe, euthanizing stray animals. No doubt a powerful commercial could be built around a theme of dogs and cats being off-loaded from '40s era freight cars, handed bars of soap by SS uniformed attendants and lead in to gas chambers "just for a little flea bath." But would that be right? We know they have the right to do it, but should they exercise that right?

Gene Weingarten: I think this is a terrific question. My initial thought is, right, invoking the Holocaust in this ad would have been in bad taste. I don't see it here: Is it because the Holocaust would touch closer to home?

Can we hear from a black person about this? Is this ad racially offensive?


Second Spitter: I spit, or not, as the need arises. I won't do it in polite company, or inside unless I'm in a restroom. But why not outside? We live in a world where the ground is literally fertilized by all manner of creation ... so what difference does a loogy make?

Gene Weingarten: What difference would a turd make, then?


Column picture?: The cell phone picture that (I gather) was supposed to be included with your column did not make it into the Post online. Can you post it? It's Just Nazi Same Place, ( Post Magazine, Feb. 10)

Gene Weingarten: Leaping into action, using my new-found technological skills, I sent Liz the picture from my cell phone to hers, and she shall affix it here: Here.

And may I be the first to say that Mark Evans has girlie handwriting.


Cincinnati, Ohio: So there was a note at the end of Richard Cohen's column today, to the effect that Barack Obama supported the same flag-burning bill that Hillary Clinton did. Is this true? If so, I feel a little disillusioned about him. The Real McCain, ( Post, Feb. 12)

Gene Weingarten: Wow! I guess it is true!


Alexandria, Va.: If you smoke a cigar, you spit. There's never a spittoon around when you need one.

Gene Weingarten: I smoke cigars. I have NEVER spit.


McCain: McCain seems feeble to me -- he just doesn't look healthy. Is he really robust enough to withstand a presidency? Also, his involvement with the S&L scandal bothers me.

Gene Weingarten: And this is especially worrisome to me if he chooses a running mate with rock solid right wing creds.

He should choose a woman. That would be a brilliant political maneuver.


Falls Church, Va.: So Lehrer used to be very funny but now is just angry? Did that maybe make you think a little bit about why you feel drawn to him?

Gene Weingarten: I don't think he's any more angry than I am. Or most of the people in this chat are.


I didn't vote today: A little anecdote to further NASA's refusal to acknowledge von Braun's behavior.... I attended space camp the summer after 9th grade, and our team's name was von Braun. It was a fantastic experience. I thought it was pretty nifty that our team was named after someone who fled the Nazi regime and then helped the US rocket program (this is what we were told). Imagine my horror/amusement when my college boyfriend informed me about VB's history prior to coming to the US. Ah, well.

Gene Weingarten: Yeah, I believe he invented the V2. He, singlehandedly, fought the Battle of Britain, which came close to annihilating London.


Pat the Perfect: We did entertain the notion that we were catching the same mouse/mice over and over. But they were slightly different in color (some are grayish, some are a rich chestnut brown), and we did take them a good distance from our house -- either across a ravine, closer to other people's houses, or down and across a street into some other woods.

I just think we had a mouse problem for a while. (We haven't had a mouse for several weeks now, though, for some reason.)

Gene Weingarten: Okay.


Option Three: Safeway is on Kentucky...

Gene Weingarten: Right, not Nebraska. See how bad I am at this?


RE: snorking: I consider myself to be a pretty well behaved person, but I have to admit to spitting up phlegm (always as discreetly as possible). I've just always had really bad allergies and the snot has to go somewhere (swallowing it? gross). What's a guy to do?

Gene Weingarten: Swallow it. Or hawk it into a hankie. Jeez.


Rear-Facing Subway Seats: When I was a very small child, during the Reagan administration, I remember riding on the subway with my father and being very confused by the rear-facing subway seats. I must have figured that I was obviously facing forward, so I asked my father why the train was moving backward. He told me with a straight face that it was because the Republicans were in power. I remember being confused by the laughter on the train, too.

Gene Weingarten: Hahahaha.


Rockville, Md.: How did you like Dave Barry's appearance last week? He had us rolling in the aisles. It's a good thing I visited the restroom before the performance.

Gene Weingarten: I thought Dave was brilliant. I had heard maybe half of the routine before, and I still made me laugh. By the way, he mentioned Earnest and the screen door, which was referenced in last week's chat.


RidingMetroWeekends, Va.: I prefer a window seat. If I have my choice, I'll pick a forward-facing window seat. I only use Metro on some weekends, and I board at an aboveground station.

Gene Weingarten: Hm. Why the window seat? I much prefer not being pinned in by another person.


Central Virginia: I am a woman. I never peed in the shower. It wasn't something I ever considered doing, no matter how much I needed to go. I waited.

That's all past tense now, because of this chat.

Don't tell.

Gene Weingarten: Wow!

Gene Weingarten: We change LIVES here, people.


Fred: Just thought you would want to know.

W. von Braun's sliderule is in the space muesuem in Huntsville, Ala. His hat is also there.

(Like anyone under 45 would know what a sliderule is!)

Gene Weingarten: I have three slide rules, high-quality Pickets. I'm saving them for my grandchildren, who will make a fortune on them. I also have one of the last 700 wind-up Timexes. That will pay for my great grandchild's college education, which will cost $4 million.


Safeway: The Safeway is on Kentucky. If they were on Maryland and you sent them to Nebraska then they were more than 15 blocks from their destination.

Gene Weingarten: They were on Kentucky and I sent them to Maryland.


Tempe, Ariz.: It is totally true that pimp is no longer a bad word. When one says "pimped out," people under 40 (under 30, maybe? I'm 26 and I don't know how old David Schuster is) do not picture actual pimps or actual prostitutes. We understand that "to pimp out" means either, when referring to an inanimate object, "to trick out," or, when referring to a person, "to use as means to a (probably somewhat nefarious) end." Talk about a manufactured crisis. Jeez.

Gene Weingarten: I understand.


Black person here::...and I loved the PETA ad. It's a satire. I thought it was pretty funny, and it makes you think. Do I agree with all of PETA's positions, no. But very rarely do I think they don't have a decent argument. I like the fact they use an extreme example to make a point.

Gene Weingarten: This summarizes my view perfectly.


Condi, Rice: Rumor and propaganda (aka WTOP) has said that McCain is considering Condi as a running mate. What say you?

Gene Weingarten: Hm. I dunno. I think she is a major architecht of a disastrously prosecuted war. I think should would be pretty vulnerable.


I Voted, D.C.: I'm Indian, and I wrote you a message about how equating dog breeding with creating a master race is deeply, deeply offensive to me as thousands of Indian women were forcibly sterilized right here in the U.S. That was a tragedy, and this kind of commercial diminishes it.

Gene Weingarten: I am not seeing how this commercial, directly or indirectly, is making fun of or diminishing that tragedy.


College Park: GW: "I much prefer not being pinned in by another person."

Please don't tell me you are on of those people who will sit in the aisle seat leaving the window seat unoccupied. I sided with you on the bumpers and the airline recline seat, but this behavior is really inexcusable.

Gene Weingarten: No, I don't do that. That's bad.


The Flag: Just because somebody says somebody else said something doesn't make it so:

Obama voted to preserve the Constitution:

WASHINGTON - U.S. Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) released the following statement on the flag burning amendment:

"I cannot imagine anything more abhorrent to a veteran than seeing the flag they fought for being burned to make a political point. I too have great pride in our flag. I share outrage at the thought of it being disrespected. And though I have never seen anyone burn a flag, if I did, it would take every ounce of restraint I had not to haul off and hit them.

"But we live in a country of laws. Laws are what stop people from resorting to physical violence to settle disagreements, and laws are what protect free speech. And when I became a Senator, I swore an oath to protect the Constitution. Under that oath, my first allegiance is not to a political party, or to an ideology, or to a president, or even to popular opinion, but to the Constitution and to the rule of law.

"The Framers made it difficult to amend the Constitution because our founding document should not be changed just because of political concerns or temporary problems. And even the strongest supporters of this amendment are hard-pressed to find more than a few instances of flag burning each year. Those problems were left to be solved through legislation, and I support legislation introduced by Senator Durbin that makes it illegal to burn the flag without changing the Constitution. The Constitution has only been amended 27 times. These amendments include guarantees of our most basic freedoms, the freedom of religion, the right to a trial by jury, the protection against cruel punishment.

"Today, there are hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops risking their lives for their country, looking to us to come up with a plan to win the peace so they can come home. Across America, there are millions who are looking for us to do something about health care, about education, about energy. The Senate will likely be in session for about 50 more days for the rest of this year. To spend the precious time we have left battling an epidemic of flag burning that does not exist is a disservice to our country.

"As Richard Savage of Bloomington, Illinois wrote to me, "I am a Vietnam veteran and Republican. . . . Those who would burn the flag destroy the symbol of freedom, but amending the Constitution would destroy part of freedom itself." Mr. Savage is right, which is why I will vote against this amendment. Senator Durbin's amendment is a way forward to balance our respect for the flag with reverence for the Constitution."

Gene Weingarten: Wait, uh.... did Richard Cohen really say the opposite today? I am confused.


Washington, D.C.: I'm having trouble reconciling

"On every single broadcast, Lou Dobbs flogs his own books"


"Weingarten is also the author of 'The Hypochondriac's Guide to Life. And Death' and co-author of 'I'm with Stupid,' with feminist scholar Gina Barreca."

Gene Weingarten: That's FINE PRINT, boilerplate!


New York, N.Y.: That woman's experience with her husband's Obama comment is poll-worthy I think.

Most of us would never willingly marry a racist, right? But what if you marry someone and 10 years later they make a really racist comment? What do you do? Is having a talk about it that night enough?

Her anecdote freaked me out.

Gene Weingarten: It appears to have freaked her out, too. Good start.


Goleta, Calif.: I love that PETA spot, even if it's the teensiest bit unfair. No, not all AKC members are Klan-bait, but they are willing to mutilate their dogs just to conform with some ridiculous aesthetic standard that has nothing to do with, you know, being a dog.

Make me king and I'd ban all ear cropping and tail docking. Don't want a dog with a tail? Get a corgi. Want ears that stick straight up? Get a freaking Pomeranian.

Better yet, go to the animal shelter; you'll surely find something worthy of your painfully high standards.

Gene Weingarten: I agree with you entirely. It's a pretty broad-brush ad, and I think it more than a teensy bit unfair. But the cropping and bobbing and such strikes a chord with me.

Gene Weingarten: And by "strikes a chord with" I mean "bothers." I would never misuse a cliche like that.


Washington, D.C.: Gene,

I just moved to within a couple of blocks of you (two blocks from our beloved Eastern Market) and now that we're neighbors, I wondered if you'd be willing to share your thoughts on any hidden gems of the neighborhood. I've already fallen in love with Frager's Hardware and Hayden's Liquor for their character and friendliness. Any other recommendations?

PS: I have already decided that the indicator that I have truly become a member of the Eastern Market community will be when I spot you on the street, perhaps walking Murphy.

Gene Weingarten: Get your car repaired at Capitol Hill auto Service on Independence. Ask for Phil. Say hi to my son, Dan, who works at Frager's paint store. Dine at Montmartre and do not visibly admire Anne, the incredibly competent maitre d, at least not in the presence of your wife, assuming you are a guy. There's more, but this is boring most of the readers.


Rockville, Md.: Regarding your alcoholism test: My father, when he was a practicing physician, had a standard test to determine whether a patient was an alcoholic or not. The test consisted of a single question -- "Do you drink at least a pint of hard liquor before breakfast."

The answer to the question was immaterial. What mattered was whether or not they took the question seriously. If they had to think about it, they were an alcoholic.

Gene Weingarten: I like that!


Bowie: But we ARE dog's "master" race.

Gene Weingarten: Indeed.


Pimp my post: I think the word "pimp" is sort of the same as the British usage of the verb "tart," as in "She got all tarted up for the party." It doesn't mean she dressed like a whore, exactly, but there's definitely a hint of naughtiness still clinging to the word.

Gene Weingarten: I think you are right; good analogy. Also, if you call a woman a "tart," it is said with some respect.


Annapolis, Md.: Gene,

This is my third message about how offensive I find the PETA video. If you think it is ok to use white supremacy via the KKK as a joke to further animal rights, why isn't it ok to use aryan supremacy via the holocaust?

Is it because the Nazis killed so many people? Didn't the slave trade (supported by the idea of white supremacy, and endorsed in the modern era by the KKK) kill many people too? Or is it the passage of time that makes it ok to joke about the killing of black people, but not Jewish people?

Gene Weingarten: Hm. This is why I posed the question. I am ready to be persuaded that this is offensive.


Re: flag burning: Actually, the answer is far more complicated. Both Clinton and Obama voted for a Dick Durbin bill that would make burning the flag illegal if the primary intent in doing so is to intimidate or incite a breach of the peace. Clinton earlier sponsored a similar version.

Both Obama and Clinton voted against the flag burning amendment which would have amended the constitution to prohibit flag burning.

I think there were a lot of Democrats willing to support the Durbin bill because, if passed, it would be held up to scrutiny under the First Amendment. Alternatively, the flag burning amendment was written to carve an exception to the First Amendment.

Gene Weingarten: Ah.


Gene Weingarten: Okay, that's it for today. And for the next couple of weeks. I am crashing on yet another cover story.

When the chat resumes in early March, it will resume with a discussion group in tow. I don't want to overstate things, but this will be exciting, so exciting that all women will be able to have an orgasm via intercourse, all people will begin peeing in the shower, and the airlines will give us more leg room.

No updates. See you in early March.


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