Chatological Humor: Swine Flu Fever; Quiet Cars; Cat Calls (UPDATED 5.1.09)

Gene Weingarten
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009; 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: MEN | WOMEN

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," co-author of "I'm with Stupid," with feminist scholar Gina Barreca and "Old Dogs: Are the Best Dogs," with photographer Michael S. Williamson.

New to Chatological Humor? Read the FAQ.

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


Gene Weingarten: Good afternoon.

We are gathered here today, instead of yesterday, because yesterday I was traveling via Amtrak to and from New York City; this, on a day when some news media were cautioning against unnecessary travel, warning with bubonic gravity of the incipience of a modern Black Death, a plague that will thin us by half before its macabre work is done, though, technically, it hasn't quite thinned anyone yet anywhere around us.

I will say that the man behind me was sneezing constantly between Wilmington, Delaware and Philadelphia, where he exited the train to some scattered applause.

Listen, people, it's the flu. This isn't 1918. We'll be fine.

The last few times I have traveled by train I have accidentally found myself in the "Quiet Car," in which one is supposed to speak only if absolutely necessary, and only in a whisper. This rule is invariably policed enthusiastically by a conductor chosen from the ranks for former "hall monitors," someone who -- and I mean to provoke no one here -- is the sort of person who would prissly castigate a driver for tapping his bumpers while parallel parking.

On this trip, though, I avoided the Quiet Car and immediately regretted it. The woman beside me was young and pretty, and was dressed in a short skirt, and sat a bit indecorously, with unconcern for her modesty. I say this at the risk of appearing like a dirty old man, but this sort of thing is a rare happenstance and is not entirely disagreeable. But the woman instantly managed to completely defeminize herself by pulling out a cell phone and spending the entire hour we sat together making a series of thunderously banal phone calls, at deafeningly high volume to no one in particular about nothing at all. I transcribed this as she was talking and am cutting and pasting here from my notes.

"Yeah, put the potatoes in the oven and you can fry some mushrooms if you want. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I like lasagna too but not tonight. "

"You see "24"? What I wanna know is who the secret people the redheaded girl are talking to on the computer? And how about Jack telling off the other grumpyface girl."

"I don't have much going on, just wanit to say hi! (pause) Yeah, on a train. (pause) Nothin.' (Pause) No nothin' much. (pause) Nope, nothin; (pause) Nope, nothin'. Nothin. Okay, seeya. "

"The Sixers game is on tonight! Been gettin' into it now that they are in the playoffs. I don't get into it usually. (pause) Nope, nothin'. "


I do have one overwhelming question about train travel. What kind of a person eats a hot dog on a train? Almost every time I visit the Cafe car, someone is ordering a hot dog. Who are these people? Are they looking at what they are eating? Do they not realize that a hot dog on a train is the lowest form of protein commercially available? It's got the same relationship to food as Bazooka Joe has to comics. Who ARE these people? Is there anyone out there who has ever eaten a hot dog on a train? Can you explain yourself?


A few short links today. This one from my daughter.

And this from Pat The Perfect.

And an excellent aptonym from Andrew Hoenig.


Several weeks ago, Chatological Humor discontinued its regular Comic Pick of the Week feature, on the theory that it would be unseemly for me to critique comic strips if I were soon to be the author of one. I promised to find a replacement feature, and here it is. It's going to be reader-generated, and the first submission is by Justin Stone.

That's what we're doing. Rewrite dialog balloons for any current comic strip; you can either post your results on a Web site like flickr or Facebook, and send me a link, or you can send it right to me at weingarten(at) Important: You must make your dialogue fit the existing balloons. As Justin discovered, this can be hard. Comic-strip writing is Pinteresque.


Please take today's poll. We will discuss throughout the chat.

The CLOD this week is from the Honeymooners, and you'll find it below.

Okay, let's go.


Gene Weingarten: Ooh, this just in. Chatological Humor might have had a beneficial, tangible effect in the world.

Last week, a chatter noted, correctly, that "Agnes" was a tone-deaf joice as the comic strip chosen to appear on the KidsPost page. Very, very true: It's excellently cynical, even nihilistic, with big words and complex themes.

Someone apparently listened. I've just heard that it goes back on the comics page, and will be replaced in KidsPost by Frazz. Much better choice. Frazz or Big Nate would have been my choices.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Gene, Marta from Wee the People fame. Family and friends have really reacted to the column. The best is the awe when people ask, "You know Gene Weingarten?". I feel so cool.

Your BFF in the neighborhood- Marta Below the Beltway, (April 26)



Pumpernickel?: So, you chose pumpernickel, rather than, say, rye, in your column because....pumpernickel is a funnier word, RIGHT? Nothin' to do with the color of the bread. I liked it. If McCain had won the election, I would have used sourdough.Hillary? Challah, clearly. Below the Beltway, (April 26)

Gene Weingarten: I did in fact use pumpernickel because it was a funnier word. Obama's skin is not pumpernickel color, anyway. He's more like a nice Focaccia, or a Ciabatta.


New York: Making up cartoon dialogue? What is this the new yorker?

Gene Weingarten: We're not supplying the cartoon. You have to find a strip, rewrite the strip, photoshop your new captions.


Fairfax, Va.: Gene - just wondering if there were any repercussions for your writing rude poems about poles up George Will's arse? Seems mighty accommodating of the Post to let you post that. Did George find it funny? What's your relationship like with him - respectfully agreeing to disagree?

I have to say that even as a flaming liberal who mostly disagrees with Will I admire his precise and erudite writing. Sort of like Krauthammer. Conservatives you can talk to. At least they seek to convince through reason and fact and not appeals to mythical sky beings or jingoism.

Gene Weingarten: This is a reference to last week's updates, where I wrote:

Higgledy Piggledy

George F. Will, Columnist

Feels that in clothing taste,

Denim's a farce.

Seems that this arrogant


Fashion of choice is a

Pole up his arse.


I don't know George, but I respect him and I just know that he can take this, uh, japery.

My friend Horace LaBadie wrote in to tell me that I had misused "Sesquipedalian," which is technically an adjective, referring to the use of long words, but may not be so noun-ized to refer to a practitioner of sesquipedaliansm. He is right. I should have said "sesquipedalianist's", which strains, but does not break, the dactyl meter.


Harrisburg, Pa.: I would like to hear from someone who talks on a cell phone on Amtrak on a high voice. Why do you believe the rest of the passengers have a need to hear your conversation? Does it make you feel important? What is your motivation?

Gene Weingarten: I think to some people a cellphone provides a Cone of Silence.

Boy, the Cone of Silence was a great gimmick in Get Smart.


Springfield, YOUR_STATE'S_NAME_HERE: It is my understanding that neither a surgical mask nor what I think of as a cleaning mask would do ANYTHING to protect me from any virus. I don't know if my wearing one of the masks might protect others if I were infected with a virus, but I doubt it.

I do know that wearing a type 4 biohazard containment suit would protect me and others, so I am not entirely uneducated. But a level 4 containment suit is such an extreme fashion statement.

Am I right or wrong about the surgical masks?

Gene Weingarten: Good question. Some quick research confirms:

Biohazard containment Suit, class III or above -- Plus: Perfect protection. Minus: pricetag of $400 and higher; awkward physical appearance, like a supernumerary Martian in a b-movie from 1954.

Full-face or half-face respirator -- Plus: Works better than a medical mask, will prevent airborne virus contamination some of the time. Minus: Some of the time.

Medical Mask -- Plus: Makes you feel better about being out in public; does prevent huge goober, loogie droplet contamination; does help limit contamination to OTHERS if you are already contaminated. Minus: This is simply not much of a barrier to airborne flu.


Austin, Tex.: Gene,

As keeper of the "30 Greatest Sitcom Characters of All Time" list, I'm interested in hearing your thoughts on Bea Arthur's characters upon the occasion of her passing. I recall Sophia making the cut.

Gene Weingarten: I liked Bea Arthur a lot. She would be in the second thirty. The only women in the 30 Greatest were:

7- Alice Kramden

10 - Edith Bunker

15 - Liz Lemon

19 - Roseanne Connor

23 - Lois Wilkerson

24 - Sophia Spirelli Weinstock

28 - Lucy Ricardo.

No, we will not debate Lucy. She is number 28.

Gene Weingarten: Want to see Alice Kramden, maybe the first strong sassy woman on TV sitcoms? Watch the last minute of clip one and the first minute of clip two. She's dealing with Ralph on a diet.


Washington, DC: "Listen, people, it's the flu. This isn't 1918. We'll be fine."

Just checking: Was the supposed to be a joke? (Because, as you know but not everyone might, the 1918 pandemic that killed tens of millions of people was, ummm, the flu.)

Gene Weingarten: Yes, indeed. It was. But 1918 was not 2009. Public-health medicine has come a long way.


Fairfax, Va.: I am at home, following this chat while working, while my wife is upstairs taking what sounds like an unimaginably boring conference call. I know she's reading this too instead of paying attention to the call (which has a strange echo effect that makes it sound like all callers are baseball stadium announcers). Can I give her a shout-out? Hi honey! Your life sucks right now!

Gene Weingarten: Okay, I'll allow this. Wife: Please answer.


Rockville, Md.: Swine flu reaches Israel: Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman demands that Israel refer to the disease as the "Mexican flu" since pigs are not kosher.

Gene Weingarten: Yes, I find this hilarious. Is the theory that since that when one takes the virus into one's body it is akin to eating it? And therefore it must be kosher?

Isn't a virus a BAD thing? Wouldn't they WANT it to be trayf? (Trayf means not kosher, and, homonophonically, it is "fart" backwards, which is the source of several lame borscht-belt jokes.)


Swine Flu: This is the best thing I've seen in the media since the Swine Flu outbreak.

Gene Weingarten: Hahaha.


Gene Weingarten: I love euthanasia jokes.


Why people talk loudly on cell phones, from a former telecom geek: Regular landlines have a feedback loop--you can hear your own voice in your earpiece when you speak. Cell phones have no feedback loop, so people subconsciously speak louder to compensate.

Gene Weingarten: Right, I have heard this. It is the added issue of being in close confines -- elevator, train, etc. -- that makes this behavior less understandable to me. You KNOW you are being overheard.


Quiet Car Nazi Here: The quiet car is one of greatest innovations in the history of human travel. It is not just the conductors who will shoosh you, but also passengers like me who can be enraged by riders that casually ignore all of the announcements and postings. Don't mess with the quiet car!

Gene Weingarten: I hate the quiet car. Tom the Butcher and I were once accidentally trapped on the quiet car. It was being in Detention in Middle School.


Hot dog!: I do not buy hotdogs. When I grill out, I choose bratwurst or hot links or some such.

And yet when I'm at the zoo, or a ballgame, or on a train, I invariably get a hot dog.

That first bite, when your teeth pierce the skin and the warm meaty oil bursts out... it's practically pornographic in its awesomeness. I rewrote this four times to make it sound less porny and this was the best I could do.

Anyway, public hot dogs = bliss. Also, on the train it's that or a sandwich of indeterminate age, you know?

Gene Weingarten: I contend NO hot dog heated via microwave can be anything but awful.


Washington, D.C.: Why limit your complaints to people who talk ON A CELL PHONE at high volume while on a train? Why isn't this a complaint about people who talk in high volume, whether or not they're talking on a cell phone? I was on an Amtrak train recently, sitting across from someone talking on a cell phone, and I couldn't hear a word she was saying. I could hear quite clearly the conversation between two people sitting a few rows behind me.

So, something tells me this isn't completely about the talking in high volume. Is it that people would rather eavesdrop on the whole conversation than half of it?

Gene Weingarten: You know what? I demand high quality in a conversation that I am eavesdropping on. This woman was an idiot. It bothered me.


Agnes switch: Not to diminish your powers of persuasion, but there was also a letter to the editor on 4/25 that may have prompted the change.

Gene Weingarten: We were WAAAAY first. And for all I know, that letter was prompted by this chat.


Ummmmm.....: Who is Liz Lemon? (#15) Duh.

Gene Weingarten: You know Alice Kramden and not Liz Lemon?

You are revealing something about yourself.


The Wife: Ok, would it have killed him to just come upstairs and say hi? The man is incapable of doing anything the simple way. Anyway, thanks for the shout-out. Now I need to get back to this conference call, which is apparently being held in a airplane hanger.

Gene Weingarten: Thank you.


Summerti, Me: Gene, this is a very serious question, asked in earnest by a young hot female fan. How should I feel about and react to street catcallers/whistlers/blatant starers? I dislike the attention and I especially dislike the commands I'm given to smile, or worse, the commentary I get when I ignore the original salutation ("you could've at least said hello" etc). So here's the thing: am I supposed to treat this as just men being polite, saying hello to a young female (knowing fully well they probably don't address any old women and probably zero men)? Am I supposed to walk idly by while men try to whistle for my attention? It's embarrassing and frustrating and more frustrating because I think they want me to have a reaction to it of some kind, whether good or bad. I'm honestly trying to gauge whether I'm overreacting or not and how to approach this rationally. How am I supposed to feel about this behavior? And, out of curiosity, how do males who don't do this feel about it (surely you've seen it happen before)?

Gene Weingarten: I think this is an assault, and I dislike and disrespect men who do it. I know a woman who sees this a little more charitably than I do -- that it's an effort at connection from someone who otherwise would have no opportunity for connection, and knows it. Someone who wants to elicit a smile.

I think it's an assault, and I dislike and disrespect men who do it.


Baltimore, Md.: Re Alice Kramden: Did you know that Jayne Meadows nearly didn't get the gig because Gleason knew she had been a Broadway glamor girl and thought she couldn't possibly be living in cold water flat as the wife of a Brooklyn bus driver? Cunningly, Meadows came to audition wearing no makeup and dressed as frumpily as possible. The rest is glorious TV history.

KRAMDEN: (Teaching Norton golf). First, you must address the ball.

NORTON: (Perfectly timed pause by Art Carney.) Hello, ball!

Gene Weingarten: Yes. The pilot had a more famous actress playing Alice, I forget who. She was more of a Brooklyn shrew. Was considered good, but not good enough.

Meadows created one of the most important roles in TV history. Audrey, not Jayne.


Not the Train B, UT: On a metrobus not too long ago I heard a young lady talking on a cellphone. I mention it now because of what, specifically, I overheard.

"Yeah, I'm on the bus. No, it's OK, I don't know any these people so I don't care what they think."

She was at least 6 rows away from me.

Gene Weingarten: Actually that's pretty good comedy. She knew what she was doing.


Hot Do,GS: I have eaten a hot dog on a train. I'm not proud of it, but I have.

It happened on a ride to NYC. I was beyond hungry, and didn't think a bag of M&Ms would do the trick. But that wasn't what really convinced me to try the hot dogs. What really convinced me was, with hot dogs, occassionally you get a delicious hot dog in unusual places. Outside of Home Depot, or CostCo, for example.

The train hot dog, however, disappointed.

Gene Weingarten: They. Are. Microwaved.

You can get a decent hotdog out of hot dog water. You can get a fine hotdog off a grill or rotisserie. You can get bupkis out of a microwave.


Rescue, ME: Hi Gene. I met you at the Rescue Me gala on Saturday. (I am the Liz who so ineloquently introduced herself-- twice.) Your speech was great; would it be possible for you to post the text online? Thanks again for your participation, it was much appreciated!

Gene Weingarten: I am surprised anyone heard it. This was a very fine cause but a very tough audience: A hundred dogs who were well behaved and 500 people who -- I think this might be related to an open bar -- weren't all that kind to the speakers. We were speaking via an inadequate PA system over a dull rumble of cheerful, lubricated chatter.

The speech, however, will be my column next week. You can find it there. And thank you.


Sacramento, Calif.: Your poll is very timely. I live in Sacramento, where a recent case of swine flu was just diagnosed. I spent most of my Saturday at the Asparagus Festival, where I was pressed up against thousands of people, and today, I am feeling terrible. My head is pounding, my body aching, and I have a cough that's beginning to wrack my body.

If it gets any worse, off to the doctor I go tomorrow.

My hypochondria comes into play with my son. I don't necessarily care all that much about my own health because I'm pretty confident I can kick this, but I have a 6 month old baby that is also developing these symptoms (or at least the cough and general listlessness). I'm petrified he will catch it.

Gene Weingarten: In my book on hypochondria, I referred to this second-party concern as "referred hypochondria." I have it bad. When my then 10-year-old daughter got a routine eye test and was informed she had an odd bulging of her optic nerves; I did some research (before the Internet, hypochondriacs had extensive medical libraries) and concluded that she had a brain tumor. Somberly, I rehearsed how I would tell her, and how I would make her final months as comfortable as possible. Tentatively, I began to compose her eulogy, which was going to be heartbreaking but uplifting. Practically, I weighed the financial ramifications, readjusting what we were salting away for college tuition. This all lasted about 12 minutes. Further inspection revealed that what she had, in layman's terms, was "big fat optic nerves."

Oddly enough the cure for referred hypochondria is the same as the cure for regular hypochondria. A few years ago, Molly had a genuine, serious health scare that turned out fine. Makes you stop worrying about the trivial crap, for good.

Just FYI: Neither you or your son has swine flu. You heard it here first.


Silver Spring, MD: Have you seen the Liberty Mutual commercial that condones parents breaking into their childs computer to snoop? As someone who has raised two children, what do you think about this?

Gene Weingarten: I think absent really, really compelling evidence that a kid is in trouble, kids have, and deserve, a right of privacy.


Washington DC: Would the conductor in the quiet car wake up a passenger who was snoring in a disgusting and impossible-to-ignore way? That's the WORST thing I've encountered on AmTrak, the snorers.

Gene Weingarten: I have never had a clue what to do with a snorer. It's not his fault, really. But it's really annoying. And a bit icky.


re: Obama is a ciabatta?: Uh, have you seen a ciabatta? It's a white bread. The crust is, at most, Jennifer Aniston (subtle, golden tan).

Obama is a hearty whole wheat.

Gene Weingarten: We are TALKING about crust here: The outer surface of the bread. I hold to Ciabatta.


Falls Church, Va: re: Summerti, Me

I kinda feel the same way about Hooters. (That it disrespects women. And I have no respect for men who eat there.)

Am I wrong?

Gene Weingarten: It's a good question.

The waitresses at Hooters will tell you they don't feel exploited, I suspect. The subject of a wolf whistle does.

But your question is about the men. I'd feel uncomfortable in a Hooters. The only time I was in one was with my wife. I was more uncomfortable than she was.


Smell Pho, NE: I was attending a convention at the Javits Center. I visit the men's room to take care of business. I hear a guy's cell phone ring in one of the stalls. In the loudest New York-accented voice imaginable, I hear, "Hey! Nah! I'm taking a sh-t at the Javits Center!"

Gene Weingarten: Also designed for comic effect. I like it.


Philadelphia, Pa.: I took Amtrak to NYC Monday and today. Monday I was fine, a bit allergyish. Today I feel like I have a real cold setting in. Presumably nothing worse -- I sat in the cafe car on the way up Monday to minimize human contact. I didn't eat a hot dog then. I do frequently eat Amtrak hot dogs. Yes, they're terrible but they're the best food they have in my opinion. The bar for food on Amtrak is so low, a virus could jump over it.

Gene Weingarten: SO DON'T EAT ON AMTRAK

That's what puzzles me. People who will eat completely awful food, just to eat. Bring food. Or wait.


Washington, DC: Seeing your chat scheduled at the same time as the gossip ladies makes me wonder - do you listen to Roxanne on Wait, Wait? Would you like to be on the show?

Gene Weingarten: I love the show but would never go on. I am not quick enough. I'd think of great answers seven seconds too late.


Not Ciabatta: Nope, he is Rye, all the way!

Gene Weingarten: I see that, a little. Some copper in there.


Phone Calls: A friend and I have a game we play when we're bored and in public. We call each other and try to have a conversation that will mildly alarm any eavesdroppers. The key is to make it believable (no one is going to believe you're actually a spy or a hit man discussing your most recent "job" in an airport terminal). The phrase "the doctor said I'd be contagious for 48 hours" is great, especially if you never specify WHEN the doctor said that.

Also successful: "The luggage scanners only detect live pets through body heat, so anything cold-blooded will probably get through okay as long as he doesn't move around too much."

Gene Weingarten: Very nice.


New England: "A few years ago, Molly had a genuine, serious health scare that turned out fine. Makes you stop worrying about the trivial crap, for good."

Yup, that'll do it. I contracted MRSA a few years ago, and am fine now (after a year on antibiotics), but that was, in retrospect, the single most dangerous thing that's ever happened to me. Puts a lot of things in perspective.

Gene Weingarten: It was the whole point of my book. There is a cure for hypochondria. It's not great, but it really works.


New York, N.Y.: I forget. Is Jack Donaghy on the list? 'Cuz he makes that show.

Gene Weingarten: Yes, he is. I forget the number.


Vir, AL: So, I bet lots of people have seen this viral video from last year of a girl trying to kick a soccer ball through the Randy's Donut's sign in LA, but I thought it was worth sharing.

Doctored? Maybe. Although, after searching other websites, the jury is still out. Some say that the ball's trajectory is too steep and that the girl's don't get enough of a running start. Others say that if they are talented kickers it's all possible.

I am leaning towards real....

Gene Weingarten: I am a sucker for viral videos. I believed the girl through hoop until a debunker came up with an argument that made sense to me.

This seems plausible. We don't know how many tries they made and failed at.


Doct, OR: I went to a new ophthalmologist a few years ago, and as he did the exam, he said, "Huh." (Incidentally, I hate it when docs make a quizzical/concerned noise like that without explaining. HATE. It happens way too often.)

Anyway, yeah, he asked me if anyone had mentioned a swollen optic nerve to me. No one had. I asked what it meant, and he said that either my optic nerve was naturally "funny-looking" (that a technical term, doc?), or I had a brain tumor. For the record, it's neither. He was just weird. I went to a different ophthalmologist next time and when I mentioned the query, the doc laughed and said, "Was that Dr. ________?" Apparently he's known for seeing "funny-looking" optic nerves.

Also, an ultrasound technician once asked me if anyone had ever told me I probably had endometriosis. No, because I don't have it.

Gene Weingarten: Many years ago, a doctor told my mother and me that my father probably had a tumor behind an eyeball that was inoperable and would separate his brain from his body.

He was, uh, wrong. My father outlived my mother by 18 years.


Cat Calls: I have first hand experience with the unwelcomed cat calls as well, and cant stand them. I agree more or less that it is a mild form of harrassment. but really, it just depends on the guy it is coming from. I'm not too asahmed to admit I agree with Chris Rock's take on the scenario. If the guy looks like Denzel, it's not harrassment.

Gene Weingarten: Do women agree with this last point?


Arlington, Va.: Nooooo, please don't attack the quiet car! It is one of the few places where CIVILIZED rules apply. Now, if you end up there by accident, then I blame you for not reading the signs in the car or listening to the conductor. But those of us who choose to be there TREASURE the peace and quiet. It is such a good reading opportunity.

No public place is allowed to be civilized anymore, we are forced to listen to the inanity you related in your story. Don't mess this one up. No one is being a hall monitor, it is a choice to be there and there are tons of cars for those who have to bray into their cellphones.

Gene Weingarten: I basically support the concept. There are two problems: On crowded trains, you can be forced into the quiet car. Also, it should be policed within reason. Not in a totalitarian way.


Logan Circle: The last time I rode the train, the young woman across the aisle from me spent two hours calling everyone she knew to discuss the boob job she had just had in NJ. She really felt like a woman now. Her breasts were riding a little high but would settle down in a couple of weeks. They were tender. She couldn't lift her arms above her head. And so on. I learned a lot about breasts.

And coincidentally, I also had a hotdog during that trip. A hotdog is very hard to screw up. Seems in many ways like the safest thing to order on a train. Enough mustard will make any hot dog okay.

Gene Weingarten: I like your first story. I am appalled by the second.


NY: How come the Merriam-Webster spells 'bupkis' as 'bubkes'? How do these things work, anyway? Phonetic translation, or regional spellings, or??

Gene Weingarten: Well, it's all approximated. I vastly prefer doofus to dufus, but the Post Stylebook doesn't permit it. Except here.


At Cat Calls: It would still be harrassment if he was Johnny Depp's twin. Besides, the rather decent looking ones usually don't do this sort of thing because they don't need the approbation.

Gene Weingarten: Noted.


Cat Calls: Gene Weingarten: Do women agree with this last point?

No. At least not this woman. Harrassment is harrassment regardless of attractiveness factor.

Gene Weingarten: Noted again. Okay, a lot of women are saying this. That is what I assumed.


Annapolis, Md.: Gene, I'm worried. I was recently diagnosed as having "avoidant personality disorder." When one is told that s/he has an incurable lifelong personality disorder, there's not much to live for after that. Is all hope lost? I'm feeling pretty hopeless. I feel as though I've been told at the age of 35 that I'm going to live a long, friendless life then die alone. There's only one variable I can control in such a life sentence, and that is how long I'll have to endure this. I think you see where my logic is taking me.

Gene Weingarten: Okay, I've just now read about this for the first time, and you are talking suicide, and to me, that would be a tragic non-solution to a fixable problem.

I do not trust any designation of "personality disorder." Criteria are subject to the changing politics of psychotherapy. I also question any such diagnosis as "incurable."

You've seen one therapist, apparently, but it may be the wrong one. Can anyone within the range of these pixels suggest something here?


Hypochondria: My husband thinks I'm nuts, but I'm starting to worry I might have MS. A cousin has it, so it's not out of the realm of possibility. My symptoms are numbness/muscle weakness in my hands (the former mostly happens in my sleep and seems to be related to the second), dizziness/vertigo (this is recent, and it happens often when I lie down or stand up, or otherwise shift the direction of my head, ie when I look up or tilt my head to the side), and fatigue. The first and third could be ascribed to my recent pregnancy (I'm 13 weeks post partum), except that my son's sleeping through the night and so I'm getting 6-8 straight hours of sleep a night. The dizziness hasn't made me pass out or fall over yet, but it's been close. I'm terrified I'm going to fall with my son.

Am I crazy? I went to the doctor about the numbness before the dizziness set in and she checked my iron levels and thyroid and both were fine. The fatigue's since gotten worse, though I'm sleeping more, and the dizziness started.

Gene Weingarten: It is seldom I get to do this with any degree of certitude, so it feels good:

This doesn't sound like the presenting symptoms of MS, at all. At all. Relax.


Washington, DC: Hey Gene! Just last weekend a guy told me to "smile!" I just gave him a blank stare. I loathe men who do that, and I'd give Denzel the same blank stare.

Gene Weingarten: The mail is running 100-0 on this.


Swine capital: Interesting poll. I think my answers are someone skewed though. I'm a doc in a busy Peds ER in a state with one of the fastest growing Hispanic populations in the US. The vast majority of my patients immigrant from Mexico (as opposed to other central and south American countries). I wash my hands obsessively. And occasionally pick up something from a patient (not common, as I have a rockin' immune system). I haven't been asked yet by a parent to test their child for swine flu, but I know I will. Am I more likely to catch swine flu than the average American? Sure. Am I worried? Not really. I worry more about that nasty gastroenteritis that went around this winter and the possibility of Hep C than Flu.

Gene Weingarten: Thanks.


Rockville, MD: re the soccer ball video.

The first try, the girl is wearing a red jacket, white shirt, black shorts.

Second try, she's wearing a grey jacket, blue shirt, black pants.

Gene Weingarten: Wait. It's a different girl, no?


Big,OT: So, why did you think it was funny to perpetuate the bigoted canard that black men have big feet? Did it even occur to you to call attention to other similarities between Lincoln and Obama - their intellect, their ability to calm a nation, etc?


By your reasoning, I was also saying that Obama is almost eight feet tall.


Your Own Universe: "Gene Weingarten: I basically support the concept. There are two problems: On crowded trains, you can be forced into the quiet car. Also, it should be policed within reason. Not in a totalitarian way."

And of course "within reason" means Gene gets to do what he wants.

Gene Weingarten: Well, I think if one's cell rings, and you pick it up and clear the call within a minute, you shouldn't be chastised and ordered to turn your phone off.

That happened to someone on the train I was on.


Post partum MS: Parenthood is exhausting, even if you are sleeping through the night.

Gene Weingarten: Yep.


Dupont Circle, D.C.: I can see your friend's point about it somewhat, in that you can tell when I guy is just being friendly to a pretty girl. But sometimes there is a level of lewdness or creepiness that makes you feel so...objectified. And of course, sometimes I'm just in a crappy mood and don't feel like smiling or being polite back! What's wrong about that? And then it usually leads to some sort of epithet from the guy. My friend said if girls worldwide would make a concerted effort to always respond with negative reinforcement then it'd go away. How do we get the word out?

Gene Weingarten: Well, my point is, you shouldn't be compelled to make that choice. Or ask that question.


Re: "If the guy looks like Denzel, it's not harrassment.": Rears here. I don't agree with the above sentiment when it describes catcallers. I don't want that kind of attention on the street from anyone and I'm not going to go on a date with or pay any kind of attention to someone who catcalls me on the street, I don't care how good-looking he is. I've been catcalled by Denzel types in three-piece suits and it's just as creepy as when it's done by construction workers, teenagers, whomever.

That said, when I was sexually harassed at work a couple of years ago, I found myself wondering if I would've been so skeeved out by it if it had been a cute young guy instead of an ugly old pervert. The answer is probably not, if I found him attractive and we had a previously flirtatious relationship. I pretty much hate myself for setting this kind of double standard.

Gene Weingarten: Rears! You're married and you go on dates? Cool!


Washington, D.C.: What about guys who give female colleagues shoulder massages at work? Have you ever seen this? I always figure those guys are like the catcallers -- unable to make contact with a woman any other way. I also see it as a form of harassment? Are there any women here who've had that done to them and objected? I worked with someone like this in one of my first jobs out of college. He was, fortunately, my age and also new to the work force so I had no qualms about telling him that I'd cut his hands off the next time they touched the small of my back.

Gene Weingarten: Wait. What?

Guys do this? Unsolicited?


Liz Lemon and Alice Kramden: What am I saying about myself if I don't know who either one is?

Gene Weingarten: You are blind?


Raleigh, N.C.: Thought this might entertain you for a few minutes...

Gene Weingarten: This is completely moronic. I watched the whole thing, laughing aloud.


Personality Disorder: Way overdiagnosed. This person probably just has "issues" like the rest of us, and should see a cognitive behavioral therapist posthaste. Before you go, make a list of all the things that are making you unhappy. A good therapist will help you see the causes of these things (it's mostly you), figure out and implement solutions. It takes a lot of work but it is so worth it. You will not feel this way forever. Coming from someone who knows.

Gene Weingarten: Thank you. Appreciate this


Quiet cars...: So by your reasoning, should someone whose phone goes off in a theatre have a minute to clear the call? Because there are also signs posted there that tell people cell phones are no-nos.

Gene, people can simply turn off their phones for an hour or two. I believe they did that in caveman times.

Gene Weingarten: Cmon! Not parallel. In a movie theater, a ringing phone is a major distraction.


Blacksburg, VA: I spent last summer in the Bay Area in CA. The Amtrak/Caltrain trains had really good food! Fresh hummus, gourmet little pretzel chips, bags of carrots. Once you left the CalTrain-sponsored trains and were on Amtrak again you were screwed.

It would be so easy for Amtrak to have halfway decent food, but it just doesn't.

Gene Weingarten: They don't because of the unsophisticated pinheads who will buy (I don't mean to be repetitious here) MICROWAVED HOT DOGS. Why try harder?


Falls Church, Va: re: Guys do this? Unsolicited?

Yes, even the former president, to the leader of Germany...

Gene Weingarten: You're right!


Washington, DC: Last night, at the Whole Foods, a woman wearing a mask was blocking my access to the entire soup section. I waited patiently for about a minute, before politely saying "excuse me." No response. Suddenly, I developed the scariest hacking, rattling cough in the history of humankind. That got her out of there. Of course, now I'm going to get swine flu as punishment for feeding into her paranoia.

Gene Weingarten: Hahahaha.


Avoiding People: Just read the description - sounds like me until about 10 years ago. I'm still not very social, but I no longer avoid being with people. What 'cured' me? Not 100% sure, probably two things: Travel, after a very very crappy year I went round the world, and moving somewhere new. The travel gave me the self confidence to talk to people without worrying about what they thought and being somewhere new made it easier to be this more confident person.

Hope that helps.

Gene Weingarten: Thank you.


Chicago: There's an editor at a newspaper I used to work for who is so into astrology she now writes about how the stars affect big news events in the news blog.

I actually wonder what she thinks about newspaper horoscopes - does she love them or is she so hard core she leaves that stuff up to her astrologist?

Gene Weingarten: This completely un-self-aware column contains this fine clause: "Whenever something happens suddenly, I always think of Uranus, but ..."


Jefferson City, Mo.: "We call each other and try to have a conversation that will mildly alarm any eavesdroppers."

This reminds me of an Amy and David Sedaris story. He's considered the "funny" one in the family but it's Amy who's the hoot.

As the story goes, they're in NYC on the subway. She's getting off at a stop before him. She gets up to leave, gets to the door, then calls back to him "hope you beat that rape charge."

Actually, she related that here in an "online discussion."

Great stuff.

Gene Weingarten: It is.


Charlottesville, Va.: I had a psychology professor one time who told us this:

"Women, have you ever met a guy who just won't give up? I mean calls you, keeps asking you out, just won't leave you alone? Do you know why they do that? Because every once in a while, one of you gives in."

I hate to say it, but it's true. If women would just universally ignore these guys - NO reaction, not even anger for the ones who are just looking for a reaction - it would stop eventually. But some women like the attention, and some get angry, and some smile back out of politeness. Ignore them, like they are non-humans, because they very nearly ARE. And we stop wearing mini-skirts, too, right? It's just tempting the non-humans and asking for trouble.

Gene Weingarten: Not sure I agree with Cwoman's sarcasm here! Seems to be no reaction is the best reaction.


The Empress of The Style Invitational: Wait, didn't you mean to mention that, starting in a few days, the Empress will begin moderating a discussion group about The Style Invitational and other matters of national importance? And that it will be called The Style Conversational?

Gene Weingarten: No. I hadn't intended to mention that all. It is going to be in mild competition with The Gene Pool, and it's going to be attended by very smart and funny people, and it would be better for me if no one finds out about it.


numb hands: If your hands and arms are going numb at night, you probably need to buy a different pillow. And watch how much time you spend in repetitive motions - like typing obsessively in response to chats.

Gene Weingarten: I occasionally wake up with one arm completely paralyze. It's positioned on my chest, higher than heart level. There is no blood in it. I have to lift it up with the other hand, and put it down on the bed, and feeling returns in about ten seconds.

Anyone else experience this?


Cat calls: Sorry for this being so long but here's my story.

About 15 years ago, I was walking to the Courthouse Metro around 8:00 am. Two construction guys were hanging out by a truck and as I was walking towards them watched as they made loud and obscene cat calls to every woman that walked past. I watched as every woman stiffened and quickly walked past. Well, I decided I couldn't/wouldn't take it. I walked past them and they started with their cat calls. I stopped, turned around and walked towards them. Their smiles quickly dropped to an "oh sh-t" expression. I asked them if they realized how much they upset women and how would they like it if they found out their mothers or girlfriends were harrassed and made to feel afraid while they were just trying to get to work.

They both hung their heads and apologized saying they had just gotten off work and were blowing off some steam, and one even offered his hand to shake (no hard feelings). I left feeling a little better. (I have to say that I probably wouldn't have done this if this didn't happen directly across the street from the Arlington Police Department).

Gene Weingarten: Wow.

It reminds me of a great cartoon; can't remember whose, alas -- where two construction workers are talking robustly about a hot woman who is walking toward them -- her shape, what they'd like to do to her, etc. -- and then she passes. As she passed, they go completely quiet and inarticulate. When she is safely away, they start up -- big bad manly men, again.


I'd like to hear from some men who tell women to smile.: What are they thinking when they do it?

Gene Weingarten: Good suggestion: Anyone care to explain??

Send em in to weingarten(at)washpost, and if there is a good explanation -- or an interesting one -- I'll post it in the updates.

Next week Tuesday as usual.


UDPATED 4.30.09

Gene Weingarten: A woman named Ellen writes in with a fabulous idea, just a few weeks too late. As a test of the power of prayer, she suggests, on the day of my double knee-replacement surgery, I shouldhave asked people of faith to pray for the rapid recovery of just my right knee. Then we see which one recovers most quickly.

Too late now, but a great idea.


Even Worse Train Conversati, ON: Back when I lived in the metro NYC area, I commuted by train. I once overheard the following cell phone conversation held by the woman across the aisle and one row in front of me, which I did transcribe verbatim, but now reproduce from memory as it was several years ago.

"Hi, honey ... Not much, I was just wondering: last night when you were home alone and thinking about me and relieving your stress, what exactly were you thinking about?... Really?!?!... [laughs] No, that's fine, I just wish you'd imagined something a little more flattering ... No, whatever works for you, that's fine..."

You get the idea.

Gene Weingarten: Have you ever heard (no, I cannot link to this because I still want a paycheck) Louis CK's riff on the adorableness of wives' fantasies that their husbands think about them when relieving their stress?

If you haven't heard this, and you are an adult, you should find it.


Original Alice Kramden: Pert Kelton (October 14, 1907 - October 30, 1968) was an American vaudeville, movie, radio and television actress who portrayed the original Alice Kramden on The Honeymooners with Jackie Gleason. She performed in a dozen Broadway productions between 1925 and 1968.

Gene Weingarten: And here she is.

A perfectly good actress, but no chemistry with Gleason, and the voice of a castrated duck.


Breadfoot: I trust you are aware of the etymological derivation of the word "pumpernickel" which makes it, without a doubt, the funniest bread name. from the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, 10th ed., 1993: G[erman] fr[om] "pumpern" to break wind + "Nickel" goblin, fr-om] its reputed indigestibility.

Buy your pumpernickel at the Sign of the Farting Goblin.

Stupidest Most hated and pretentious bread name -- artisanal bread. What the heck is that anyway? Artists got no business making bread. Go back to making art. Leave the bread to the bakers!

Gene Weingarten: I had forgotten this. It's spectacular.


UPDATED 5.1.09

Gene Weingarten: As a practitioner of the science of aptonymic arts, it is my duty -- I get no pleasure from this -- to report that one of the two youths charged with planning to blow up their high school and everyone in it has the last name of "Getachew."


Gene Weingarten: This is a few months old, but just came to my attention, and because of the gravity of the subject matter, and its appropriateness to Chatological Humor, we are linking to it here. Please note that most of the correspondents on this chat who write about urine on toilet seats are female law students at Yale.


New York, N.Y.: Further to the Chris Rock joke, re "if the guy looks like Denzel, it's not harassment," this training video ably demonstrates the phenomenon.

Gene Weingarten: Right on point. Thank you.


Cat Call: About 10 years ago, before my hair began thinning, I wore it long. It was slightly wavy and fell to just about my shoulders. Also, I was quite thin then. One evening, I was walking alone on a the street near the Folger Library when a man called out to me. I stopped and turned to face him.

The look on his face as he saw about two days worth of beard growth on my face made it plenty clear that he did not greet everyone this way. It was kind of fun to watch his harrassment turn to homophobia so quickly.

Gene Weingarten: Excellent.

You know, there is one point about the catcalls that I meant to make, but didn't. I think a man who feels it is his right to inform a stranger on the street that he finds her appealing -- is a jerk. It's sort of that simple. Don't need to parse it much more elaborately than that.


Numb Arm: YES!!!! I used to like to sleep on my stomach with my arm above my shoulder, under the pillow. I would wake up with absolutely NO FEELING in my arm -- as if belonged to a corpse! It terrified me the first time it happened. I stopped sleeping like that because I was afraid I was doing permanent damage. (If I didn't wake up right away, could I lose the arm?)

Gene Weingarten: About 30 people report this same experience. I didn't know it was this common.

To me, it is an eye-opening experience. It is as close as people can get, without actually experiencing it, to understand paraplegia.


Gene Weingarten: And finally, one of the most intriguing videos I've seen in a long time.

There is a story behind this. This song, very popular in the 1940s, was based on an impromptu line from Bob Hope's radio show. Hope's guest on that day was violinist Yehudi Menuhin, a name Hope's sidekick, Jerry Colonna, found hilariouis. Colonna blurted "Who's Yehudi?" and got a laugh. So he used it a few more times. It became something of a running dufusy gag for him, even weeks later, when the original reference was lost. A team of composers (Bill Seckler and Matt Dennis) loved the sound of it, and created the song above, as performed by hottie vocalist Lane Truesdale and her superior posterior.

Here's where things become a little insidious. The phrase was long disconnected from its original inspiration, Mr. Menuhin. So what, if anything, did it mean? Well, "yehudi," in Hebrew, is a variant of "Judah." And the phrase "Who's Yehudi?" took on the unsettling meaning, "Who's Jewish?" The video above was a "soundie," a 1940s-era nickelodeon type of short production seen for 10 cents in arcades. It's catchy -- warning, major ear-worm danger -- and jaunty, and pretty directly antisemitic. Note the leering old stereotypical Jew on the wall, scoping out shiksah butt.

There is at least one other 40s version of this song still available. On the surface, it's far more benign, but check out which singer-dancer is the one who identifies himself as Yehudi. (Hint: It's the one with the kinky hair, olive skin, and long nose.)


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