Tuesdays with Moron: Chatological Humor Update

May 24, 2011

Every Tuesday, Gene publishes weekly updates to his chats.

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Chatological Humor: April 26

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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.

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Greetings, update readers. Today we start silly and proceed through to the meaning of God, and life, and death.   

Have you ever yelled at your boss? Is there ever an excuse for doing so? If so, and the yelling was justified, do you still need to apologize for loosing your cool, even if they were being a shortsighted, inflexible little piss ant. And if you still think of them as a shortsighted, inflexible little piss ant, would you be concerned that the apology would sound less than sincere?

My editor is one of my closest friends. We yell at each other all the time. But that is not really what you are talking about.


What you are talking about is a more formal situation, and I think in such a situation boss-yelling should be reserved for absolutely dire situations -- say, that you are being asked to do something unethical -- and only with an understanding that you are taking a risk, and a willingness to face the consequences.


Here's the thing: An organization has a right to create a hierarchy of authority, and to expect civility in all directions. When a overling yells at an underling, he violates the second part. When an underling yells at an overling, he violates both parts, and there's a name for that: Insubordination.


Strategically, it's stupid. It might compel an employer to take the side of the boss, even if he is wrong, so as to preserve chain of command.


Okay, I have some other workplace advice, that's sort of a corollary. NEVER USE THE F WORD. Why? Because once you do, even if you are right, the entire issue becomes that you used the F-word. And then the dreaded I-word gets deployed, and you are finished. Inappropriate.

We have a red slider, named Squirt. I love that turtle...silly as it sounds. I think our tank is about the same size as yours. This may sound gross, we sometimes give him goldfish and watch (Animal Kingdom-like) his pursuit of this tasty morsal. He knows when we come into the room and bats at the glass with his flippers to ask for food. He's no dummy!

We give crickets to  Pickles and Olive.

Gene, I need help! My husband and I are expecting our second child, a boy. The issue is that we can't agree on a name. He is Jewish, I am Catholic. The child, like our daughter, will have a very Jewish last name. I want to give him a first name that is, as he claims, a stuffy old English name. Please settle this argument...what should we name him?


As it happens, I have an answer for you.


I grew up with a kid named Kenneth Ginsburg. That was a stupid name. Irish first name, Jewish last name. It's like being named Chaim O'Riley. You don't want to do this. You want a first name that is plausibly Jewish. But not ONLY Jewish.


I don't know your ethnicity: Are you Irish Catholic? Daniel is Irish and Old Testament. I happen to like the name Daniel. Here are some other conceivably Jew names that are also plausibly Christian: David.


Okay, that's all I could think of. Go with Dan.

I take it from the poll questions that there will be yet another attempt to convince us all that there is no God. What I don't understand is why it's so important to you that everybody believe the same as you do. What difference can it possibly make to your life whether people believe in a diety or an afterlife? It's not like -- if your version of things is correct -- we'll all suddenly realize, "gee, Gene was right!" If your version is indeed correct, nobody's gonna know you were right. For the record, I do believe in God. Which is why I capitalized it.


I like the debate. And, yes, you're right. If I'm correct, no one ever learns anything about life, death, our place in the universe, etc. Death delivers nothing but an end.


This is my big disappointment with atheism: No comeuppance. Bin Laden didn't face a righteous Allah, who showed him what a disgraceful monster he'd been. The last thing Bin Laden learned was that getting a slug in the chest really hurts. Which is okay.

Your spirituality poll seems to assume that if a god or sentience exists, that there is only one of them. Even many fanatical atheists seem to make that assumption even while rejecting it. Do you suppose that is simply a cultural bias? I had the impression that most religions were generally polytheistic although most believers apparently aren't. Is there a reason why many people would see the mono- concept as more plausible than the others? Would it hypothetically offer more comfort than a triumvirate or Politburo of gods?

I was just discussing this very issue with Manteuffel, who is much smarter than I am.   I was reading my son's ancient history book, which posited (without elaboration) that the most important development of pre-Christian era was the concept of monotheism.   And I reacted with typical atheistic disdain, askingwhat on Earth does it matter which sky fairy one believes in.


Rachel pointed out monotheism is a philosophical state of mind, as well as a religious one, a state of mind that turned us inward:  With monotheism came the daunting notion of a single, omnipotent, implacable God who both punished and rewarded us according to a calculus we could not understand; it forced us to ponder the meaning of life.  Polytheistic gods were cartoons:  They fought among themselves, they were placatable by offerings and ceremonies -- they hated and lusted and were jealous; they were essentially humans with superpowers, acting out a silly mythology, consistent within its silly self.


A mono God is a God with powers and abilities (heh) we cannot begin to understand, so we have to ask ourselves what He means by what He does.   It's really the same question an atheist might ask:  Why are we here; what is good?  What is evil?   A mono God introduced an existential uncertainty, and from that came intellectual depth and growth. 

What do we define as 'God'? Something that is more powerful than us, that brought us into being, that existed long before us and will exist long after us? I think the laws of physics meet those criteria. The only reason we exist in this universe is because of F=ma, or E=mc^2, or the inverse square law of gravity. I don't believe in any kind of deity, or a divine consciousness, and I attribute my own existence to a very long chain of coincidences and accidents, but I experience an immense spiritual satisfaction when I look up at the stars and remember, as Carl Sagan said, that "we are a way for the universe to understand itself". Every atom in my body that isn't hydrogen or helium was produced by the death of a star. Who needs the God of the Bible, when we have the universe?

So long as you don't demand an answer to the question of Who Created the Laws of Physics, you have probably defined the Atheist's Creed.


Atheists do not lack awe.

I wonder what the correlation is between how religious a reader is and how likely he or she is to consider suicide. On the one hand, I think most religions condemn suicide, so maybe the more you buy into religious dogma, the less likely you are to consider suicide. On the other hand, I'm an atheist, and I can't wrap my head around the idea of wanting to commit suicide, precisely because I don't believe there's anything after death. Maybe it's just because I'm young and haven't experienced anything truly horrible in my life so far, but ceasing to exist forever is more scary to me than any suffering in life.

I treasure life.   I think it's a gift.    But I assume I will die by suicide.


That's because I assume that at some point I will be afflicted with something that so proscribes and limits my enjoyment of life -- and so burdens those who are taking care of me -- that death is preferable.   I think we all have that right. 


Am I afraid of the Hamlettian nothingness of death?


As a kid I pondered this.   My father helped out.   I have said this in this space before:  I once asked my father what it was like to be dead.  He said, "Hm, well, what was it like for you in 1918?"


He made his point.   Calmed me right down.   Not scary.   Just not anything. 

None of the choices for the poll seemed to fit my own position. I see no reason to hold either the belief that one or more gods exist or the belief that no gods exist. Since there's no evidence to support either belief, both are essentially no different from speculation. I view speculation as intellectually irresponsible except when it's done as a thought exercise - it's like guessing at the answer to a math problem. Either gods exist or they don't, and since we have no way of knowing which, the only responsible position is "We don't know." Any other answer amounts to professing a potential falsehood. I know that my position sounds rigid, but when people on opposite sides of the question profess their beliefs, one side is saying something false and I don't like being lied to, even unintentionally.


Sorry, but that's ridiculous. All either-or decisions are not equally valid, even where neither can be "proven." We don't know for sure that Margaret Cho is less funny than Louis C.K. -- this cannot be "proven." But some things just become manifest over time to the rational being.

What if the passage of time ceases to retain relevance for the deceased? By which I mean could there be something to the "life flashing before your eyes" phenomenon? Perhaps, as the synapses fail, the brain achieves total consciousness. The final instance of one's existence lingers in the mind, wallows in the deeds your days. Heaven or hell; you own private Idaho, is personal. Does it qualify as eternal existence if it never ends for you? The rest of us, we move on.


If you haven't seen it,  watch Richard Linklater's "Waking Life."  It's about lucid dreaming, and death. 


I have an odd semi-religious theory about life.   That all lives of all species seem as long to them as ours does to us.   That a butterfly's three days seem, to that butterfly, like 80 years to us.    Dogs live seven years for each one of ours, in terms of their perception of time. 


I cannot better explain or defend this.  I just take it on ... faith. 

Taking this poll was interesting for me because I recently had a recurrence of the cancer I beat last year and now it turns out that it's likely terminal. I'm 31 years old. I was never baptized, not raised in a religious home, etc. And I still don't know what to believe, even when confronted with my impending death at a time when I was not expecting it. I used to think people who turned to religion as they were dying were copping out, but I'm starting to understand it a little better now. But I still don't know what, if anything, to believe.


When I was 40, I was where you were: Facing likely death, and doing it as an atheist.


In my case, I tried to make myself feel better any way I could. I did research, learned that in the year 1012, the average life expectancy was 29! I was already waay ahead of the game! I started reading the obituaries, and took solace from anyone who died younger than me. It's gruesome, but a school bus crash filled me with joy!


I noticed with amusement the fact that when your friends think you are dying, they treat you differently, like you were Socrates, as though impending death imbues a person with some sort of infinite wisdom and knowledge of the Truth, as opposed to, you know, blind panic. I abused this fact. I made shallow statements that sounded profound, then laughed until my friends did, too. Then I wrote a book about how funny death was. The final chapter was titled: "Is Death A Laughing Matter? Of Corpse Not!"


In short, I dealt with it all like a smartass. We are what we are. Don't change who you are.


But I do have some helpful advice for you, too.


There's some small validity in that Socrates notion. Nothing is "copping out." It is the nature of life, and the signal strength of the human animal, to adjust our thinking as we learn new things. You are, philosophically, in a fertile place to learn. You are being forced to face great questions earlier than most of us do. Use that opportunity wisely. If it leads you to faith, that is not a bad thing, nor is it, necessarily, an accommodation with yourself -- a concession to fear. It can represent a higher state of philosophical awareness.


And lastly, I want to tell you that I am still here, 20 years later. Doctors are not always right. And the philosophical contortions I went through 20 years ago have helped me better order my life since. In retrospect, I feel as though I'd been given a gift. You may be, too.

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Gene Weingarten
Gene Weingarten is the humor writer for The Washington Post. His column, Below the Beltway, has appeared weekly in the Post's Sunday magazine since July 2000 and has been distributed nationwide on The Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 2008 and 2010.

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