The Washington Post

Chatological Humor: Monthly with Moron

Jul 26, 2011

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.

Gene's next chat will be August 30.

Read this and then take one of the polls below:

A writer for The Washington Post is sent to a small Midwestern city to write a complex magazine profile about an ordinary man involved in an issue of national importance. The writer spends three days with his subject, whom we'll call "Bob." By day two, things are not going as well as the writer had hoped - he feels that Bob doesn't trust him well enough to fully open up. The problem, the writer feels, is cultural - he and Bob are of dramatically different backgrounds, with different levels of education and sophistication. The writer believes Bob is holding back because he fears that the writer will be condescending, and the story will make fun of him.
The writer, in fact, likes and respects Bob and isn't going to ridicule him; the story is going to be largely sympathetic. But the writer understands Bob's fear: There isn't much common ground on which to build a sense of trust. It's a problem: The writer feels that with a little more openness, the story could become an A. But right now, it's shaping up as a B-minus at best.
On day three, the writer joins Bob and his friends for a backyard barbecue. At one point, with many of the guests gathered around, after a wink and a request that what happens next be "off the record," Bob pulls out a pipe, fills it with marijuana, fires that sucker up, and then passes it to the writer.
The writer is not unfamiliar with pot. It is not part of his present, but it was a robust part of his past. He is confident that he could take a few tokes and still be able to do his job competently. Personally, he does not believe that smoking marijuana is either unethical or immoral. The fact that Bob smokes marijuana is not germane to the story; the writer feels it's okay to keep this off the record.
But the writer also knows something else. The Washington Post has an inviolable rule: A reporter on assignment is not permitted to break the law. Period. No exceptions. Depending on circumstances, violating this rule can be a fireable offense.
The writer believes that if he declines the pipe, he loses his last chance at establishing the sort of trust and rapport he is hoping for -- that however reasonable his excuse was, he would have established himself as aloof and censorious. He believes that taking the pipe might well finally persuade Bob that he is someone to be trusted.

Click one of these links to take the poll:
I have smoked marijuana | I haven't smoked marijuana

Bonus politics poll:
I lean conservative | I lean liberal

Last chat: Chatological Humor: June 28

Recent chat updates: July 5

About this chat
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 one Tuesday each month, Gene is online to take your questions and abuse. Although this chat is sometimes updated between live shows, 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.

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.

Ed's Note: 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.

Good afternoon.

I am a notorious uber-liberal.   As I have written in the past, I am so liberal I should be found guilty of treason and executed.   Please take that into account in judging the following paragraph. 

I'm surprised that no one has yet used the word "extortion" to describe the bargaining stance of the Congressional Republicans in this debt-limit impasse.    I've never seen anything so blatantly and openly extortive  in a political arena as the GOPpers' take-it-or-leave it position.  Nothing clarified this more elegantly than a line in Boehner's speech last night, where he said, with a straight face, that his caucus had come up with a nice package that he fully expected the Democratic Senate to pass.   Really?   The straight-faced disingenuousness was palpable, and filled with threat:   "Nice little country you've got here.  Be a shame if something really bad should happen to it."

Okay, pot and journalism.   If you haven't done so already, please take the polls now.   As several of you surmised, this question arose during the reporting of "None of the Above," my 2004 profile of Ted Prus, an American non-voter. 

(Yes, Ted released me from the off-the-record pledge; we talked last week.  He's doing well.)  I will be discussing the pot issue during the chat in what I believe to be the longest single answer in the long and storied history of Chatological Humor.  

After discussing the pot issue with the writers at the conference, I recalled another ethics situation I had faced much earlier in my career.    I took informal polls of the audience at critical points as I told the story.   I will do the same with you, today.

The Mayborn Conference was in Dallas, which meant I had to fly, which meant I had to once again witness the appalling indifference of the airlines to our suffering, and the raised stress levels occasioned by the ignorant or callous passive-aggressive decision by some coach passengers to recline their seats.  This situation, as many of you know, has actually resulted in fisticuffs, aborted flights, scrambled fighter jets, etc.

Read about it here and here

On my flight, I watched a tall, elegant man of the cloth become  a frothing, muttering, sputtering maniac when a woman reclined into his knees.    This mild looking St. Francis of Assissi didn't say anything to her -- but spent the whole flight in a state of moral outrage and indignation.    I think part of the problem here is that we don't know whom to be furious at -- the recliner, or the evil airline forcing us into this absurd spatial situation.

Well, it was during this flight that I had an epiphany.   Perhaps it is because I share a birthday with Mohandas K. Gandhi, but I realized that the way to fight this is through a form of passive resistance.  

What we have below is a document you can download and print.   A rare Chatological Humor Freebie.    lick Click on the small version below to get a pdf version you can print (or right click and select "Save Target As ..." or "Save Link As..." to save it for printing later. Please make multiple copies -- on thick paper, if you can -- and carry some with you when you travel.    In this small, righteously indignant way, we can battle the airlines while retaining our humanity.  After your travels, please keep this chat informed of how well this worked.

airplane courtesy card



It was 1974.   I was 23, a reporter for the Albany Knickerbocker News, covering a state investigations commission hearing into alleged corruption by city of Albany officials.    On this day, the commission showed a blowup of a page from "Little Black Book" seized in a raid of the offices of William Graulty, owner of a construction business.   It contained the names of several high ranking Albany city officials,  and after each name were hieroglyphics -- squiggly figures that made no apparent sense.    Investigators believed they were codes for numbers and that they represented the size of a bribe that Mr. Graulty had given these people in return for city business.    This was a big deal.

Unfortunately, that's all that the investigators had.     They had wanted to subpoena Mr. Graulty to explain those glyphs, but he was said to be too ill to testify -- in fact, was hospitalized at the Albany Medical Center.    His lawyers had gotten a judge to issue a writ of some sort prohibiting the state investigators from talking to him.    It all sounded fishy.  Everyone involved -- Graulty, the lawyers, the judge -- was part of the local Democratic machine that was being investigated.

Sitting in that hearing room, something occurred to me.   The writ simply prohibited investigators from talking to Mr. Graulty.  It didn't say anything about reporters talking to Mr. Graulty.    So I slipped out of the hearing room and headed to the hospital.

Instapoll Question Number One (click link to take poll):

Was this unethical?

Okay, when I got to the hospital, I arrived at Mr. Graulty's room -- it wasn't visiting hours but no one stopped me -- and stepped inside.  What immediately became apparent was that Mr. Graulty was indeeed very sick.   He was the color of mustard, and had tubes snaking from every orifice of his body into a lot of machines.      I decided to try to interview him anyway. 

Was this decision unethical?


Mr. Graulty agreed to talk to me, but he was clearly somewhat disoriented, losing his train of thought and -- though I had told him who I was and why I was there -- occasionally calling me "doctor."    He did, however, know who he was and was willing to discuss the notebook and the notations on it.  

Was it okay to keep talking to him, with his faculties somewhat impaired?


Because of his somewhat childish state of mind, I decided that the best way to approach this was to bait him a little bit, and appeal to his ego.   So I told him that they were making a big deal about this notebook over there in the hearing room, like he was some big important person, but that I thought those were just nonsense scribbling and he didn't really know any bigshots at all.   He got indignant, and said they were not nonsense, they were numbers.   

Was it unethical for me to take a pose, pretending to think that the notations in the book were meaningless?


At that point, Mr. Graulty leaned forward, agitated, and grabbed for my notebook and my pen.    He then DREW the figures that had been in the book, and indicated what digit each one represented.  It was an old retailing code, he said, used to put the wholesale price on the back of a price tag, so the retailer could know how much he could bargain a price down without losing money on a deal.     

As Mr. Graulty leaned forward, with the tubes straining to hold him, I remember thinking to myself "PLEASE DON'T DIE UNTIL YOU WRITE THIS DOWN."

Was this thought disgusting and immoral?


I got my story.  It was my first huge scoop.    It appeared on page one under the headline:  GRAULTY GIVES CODE KEY TO LITTLE BLACK BOOK.

That's the end of the story except for one thing.     After I walked into the room, the first thing Mr. Graulty said to me was "Doctor?"    Now, I knew that I couldn't tell him I was a doctor, and I didn't.   A minute or two later I would tell him truthfully who I was and why I was there.   But the very first thing I did was walk up to him and hold out my hand.   And he held out his hand.   But instead of shaking his hand, I took his pulse.  

Was this unethical?


Okay, we're almost done here!   But since we are talking about journalistic ethics, I thought I would show you this story.It seems like a terrible and heartbreaking miscarriage of justice, though I do not know this wire service, so I cannot vouch for the story's accuracy. But what I can tell you is that the reporter is not telling you the whole story. How can you write a story like this and fail to specify that the student involved has one of the most comical names in the history of names?

Hey, hippie, thanks for the set up to what should be an interesting chat. On the story with the pot - it's clearly a slippery slope with "illegal" activities and which should and shouldn't be taken seriously. I mean, if you were in a speeding car, would that be something you'd need to report to your editor? Very unlikely, yet speed is just as illegal as smoking pot. Of course the possible punishments are different, but I didn't see anything in that fact pattern that the Washington Post's prohibition on illegal activities made any gradations between levels of illegality. Anyway, IMO, the best way to handle this is the way you did, er, "the writer" did - break the law, but keep it quiet to avoid putting the editor in a difficult position of having to make a black and white decision where the right answer is clearly gray.

Well, yes.   This was my thinking.   It was not, however, the way The Post wished I had thought.   I know that because I discussed this last week with Leonard Downie, who was the executive editor of The Post at the time all this went down.   It was an interesting conversation. 

My thinking, in general, hinged on one important fact: I was breaking a rule, but I was not doing something dishonest.    It's a huge difference. 

If you lie to someone to get a story, that's dishonest.   If you write something for hidden financial profit, that's dishonest.   If you plagiarize, that's dishonest.   If you lie in print, that's dishonest.      If you have an undisclosed bias, that's dishonest.   Mine was a much more technical sin, if it was a sin at all.    I felt this was not a matter of ethics.   There was nothing "in it" for me, except for a better story. 

(For those of you prepared to argue that I was "in it" for a high, well, you don't know much about journalism.    Nothing ruins intoxication of any sort more than being on the job.   Major buzz kill. )

This sort of situation occurs only rarely, and when it does I employ what I call The Howie Kurtz Test.   Howie is the CNN media Voice of Conscience.    My test is not whether I've done something for which I could be fired -- as I did here -- but what happens the day after I've been fired.   The day after I've been fired, Howie shows up  with a microphone and asks me to explain.   If my explanation is stammering and evasion, that's bad.    If my explanation is forthright, one I can live with, that's okay.   I could have lived with my explanation here.   I think other news media would have understood.  I'd probably have been hired elsewhere.  

Which brings me to my conversation with Leonard Downie, which I had last week before I discussed this matter at the writing convention.   I wasn't sure what Len would say about this seven-year-old matter, but I had a pretty good idea. 

Len is probably the greatest newspaper editor of his generation.   One of the reasons for that is that he never gave anyone any reason to doubt his integrity -- we knew that whether we agreed with him or not, that his decisions would be principled and based on what he felt was in the best interests of journalism. 

Len was reluctant to make absolute pronouncements on a hypothetical situation, but he said that he felt I was definitely wrong to have taken the pipe, but that, as a split-second decision, it was understandable and excusable.   What he found inexcusable was my decision not to tell my editor, Tom The Butcher.

Now, here's what's particularly  interesting:   Had I told Tom, Tom would have told Len.   And Len says he would have had to do something.     Possibly, the story would have been killed.    Possibly, the portion of the story obtained at that party -- the best part -- would have been killed.   I would have been reprimanced. 

And, had I NOT told Tom and all this had come out later, under publicly embarrassing circumstances, Len said  any number of things could have happened, up to and including my being fired.

Len questioned whether it was really necessary for me to have taken that pipe to get what I wanted -- he felt that I probably could have held the trust of my sources by forthrightly explaining my professional conflict.   We agreed to disagree on that.


Interesting, no?   A collision between my obligation to my employer  and my obligation to my story (which subtly also involves my obligation to my employer, but in the opposite way).

I continue to believe I made the right decision, a commonsense decision based on an inherently imperfect choice.   

There is one further point:  I didn't tell Tom.   Why not?

The first reason is simple: Tom's my best friend.  He might have held this secret.  I didn't want to put him in a position of having to risk HIS job for a decision of mine.    

The second reason is something I call  LODI,  The Law of Diminishing Investment.    It 's the law that governs this sort of thing in a newsroom.   You must apply it whenever you consider whether to kick a decision up  higher than yourself. 

There are times when you absolutely MUST tell a superior about something, and any good reporter knows when that is.    There are obligatory cover-your-arse moments.    Then there are ones that are less clear, such as (in my opinion)  my decision here.     And for those moments, I apply LODI.     LODI is not a governing law, but it is one you must take into consideration.

At every level above you, decisions will be made based on a lesser and lesser investment in the story itself.      Each decision will be less passionate, more by-the-book.    The quality of the story will become less important, as opposed to matters of institutional correctness, precedent, and whatnot. 

In this case, I desperately wanted this information in my story, because it elevated its quality and came closer to explaining a universal truth.  I was passionate about that.    Tom cared also -- it was HIS magazine; he wanted the story to be as good as it could be.   But he cared a little less than I.    It wasn't HIS byline, etc.     At each level above us, the investment in the story as opposed to the process would be diminished, until it arrived at Len, who would make the final call with all of the hot-blooded passion of a goldfish. 

So, LODI is something a writer needs to take into consideration before baring his or her soul to an overling.   It's just a factor, one of many.   In this case, it was the deciding factor -- I wanted this story to be as good as could be, and I didn't feel, on balance, that I had done anything unethical.   I had broken a rule, but not a Commandment.   







Gene, is this you?

Okay, well, this is probably staged.   The car in front was in neutral, and probably running.  

But in theory, I approve. 

Why isn't the internet a financial plus for a newspaper? It brings an increase in readership at much less cost (fewer hard copies; reduced distribution costs). How much of a traditional newspaper's budget did subscriptions cover.? And, most importantly, why do potential advertisers not pay to reach a global audience far larger the pre-internet readership?

It is true that we newspapers are getting more eyeballs today than we were in, say, 1985.    It is also true that the vast majority of newspaper profits have always been derived  from advertising, and that what you could charge for advertising was based on your circulation.  So far so good.   The problem involves the new business model. 

In 1985, we were able to charge much more for advertising.    The Web doesn't permit that because there is much more competition.     So we have a situation where we are competing against high-eyeball aggregators like Huffington Post, which gets what we get for their advertising but expends a fraction of what we pay to produce their product.   That's because we pay a lot to produce our stories, and they pay next to nothing to steal them.   

It's a serious problem. 

How does one submit questions to Gene between sessions? The Ask Now link is only active on the day of his chat and only until the chat is finished. I frequently miss the actual chat but always read them after and would like to submit my comments while the chat is still fresh in my mind.

Oh no! The "Ask Now" button should always be active.  In fact, I see some questions in our queue that were submitted a couple of days ago.  If you ever run across this problem again, then please feel free to email us:

In several of the poll answers you mention the obligation being "to the story" as a justification of the means to obtain information for the story. As if the story is a living, breathing entity with a right to exist at any cost. Where is the line between smokin' a little pot to be one of the gang get the good information and tapping a phone? Did my knowing the information in your story benefit me more than the rule breaking, ethics bending, story subject coercing hurt the foundation of the free press and therefore hurts me? And honestly, I don't mean this in a smarmy way. I'm not sure how I feel about what you did. I'm not 100% comfortable with it but not 100% uncomfortable with it.

Well, okay.   Tapping a phone is dishonest and deceitful.   It violates a trust.   It is illegal and scurrilous.   It sucks.   

I said yes when someone offered to share his pot with me and his friends.  

Where is there a parallel? 

My first concern on the reporter's dilemma was that, if the reporter took a toke, he would then be at the mercy of Bob and everyone else at the barbecue who witnessed him breaking the law. If he had no way of being found out, I wasn't too concerned about him doing what he needed to do to establish trust. Then I thought about it some more. What if it were another kind of illegal activity, like child porn or dogfighting? The reporter doesn't get to decide what laws he will follow or not follow on the basis of his personal moral code--even the pointless laws. Then again, my husband and I routinely break our state's standing laws against sodomy. The odds of my being prosecuted are laughable, but I'm technically doing something illegal, in violation of my employment agreement. Help me out of this corner I've thought myself into, please.

Sorry, I'm too distracted.  Thank you for sharing!   I love this chat because the anonymity allows for so many interesting things.  

I just finished (finally) reading your book and was surprised at the number of essays I hadn't read before. The one about you taking Molly off to college said she wanted to be a doctor. When did she change her mind to becoming a vet? I almost cried again (I did the first time I read it) about your father's last words. My daughter never got to know any of her grandparents.

Molly decided to become a vet after a few months volunteering at a Sickle Cell clinic in Kumasi, Ghana.  She saw many, many babies die. 

I don't know if there is a direct relationship between that and her choice of veterinary medicine.   I do think it helped informed that choice.   I'll have to ask her.  

...who the hell wrote the text on that card? Your name is on it, but I'm not buying it. You had help, didn't you?

Me and me alone, why?    

So, is the idea that you try to board before whomever's in front of you & then you leave this note on his/her seat? No mystery who would have left it there, so while it may start out passive, I fear it won't end that way...

Nope, you pass it directly to the person.  

I don't like it THAT much.


Okay, I am now going to share a fascinating number, obtained for me by producer Haley Crum.     

So far, in responding to the journalism poll, 284 readers say they have not smoked pot.    And 818 say they have. 

What a great group, you all.  

I'm appalled at your actions in this story, and that you were rewarded with a big story. I'm appalled at the number of people in the pot poll who did not think the reporter should have obeyed the rules. This is why people think journalists are scum.

And I am appalled that you are appalled. 

Could you write back and elaborate on what is appalling?   


I found a typo in Tom's book, "Old Souls". It's on page 76 of the paperback version. What should I do?

I'm guessing this post is from Tom.  ANYTHING to get a mention of that book.    

Lying about being a reporter is a fire-able offense. The more you tell about your history, the more absurd it is that you've been moralzing in this chat and your columns. Unless it's all one big Christopher Guest farce, in which case, bravo.

Lying about being a reporter?    Oh, you mean in the hospital room? 

I am not claiming I did the right thing there... lemme look at your votes, and then I will tell you what EYE think of my behavior.    This was very early in my so-called career.  

Just a quick point on the default issue... if there really and truly is a capital-d Default where the US government stops paying its bondholders in a meaningful way, then, yes, the global financial system will crumble and it'll be depression time. The thing is that it won't happen that way; we're about to be late on our phone bill, then our gas bill, and despite this Aug 2 countdown clock on the WaPo site it's much more of an erosion than a Thelma and Louise style drive off the cliff. The politicians know this, and this has sadly increased their willingness to engage in brinksmanship - when they know that the brink isn't really a brink. A pox on all of them.

My question is, why is it brinksmanship and not brinkmanship? 

You can't leave us hanging! So what happened when you told him you weren't a doctor??

I had told him I was a reporter right at the beginning, and reminded him once or twice as we talked.   

I had three thoughts: 1. This sounds so much like a dummy name inserted for compositing purposes. Like the way Time reporters used to slug KOMING KOMING. But I immediately rejected this idea as lacking in humor potential. Besides, who does that anymore? That's, like, so 20th century. 2. Who's her adviser, Humbert Humbert? 3. "Yes, her father and I realize Kymberly Wimberly is an unorthodox choice for a name," said her mother, Dolores Wimberly. "But we were afraid that people would laugh at her if her name were Kimberly Wimberly."


So it's not extortion when Obama says he won't sign anything that doesn't include a tax increase and puts off any real decisions until after he's re-elected?

No.   There is a reasonable position and an unreasonable one.    It is not reasonable to demand no taxes, no shared burden by the rich. 

I am undergoing chemotherapy and none of the anti-nausea medications work. Vicodin helps but it's constipating. Why can't I get something that might make me feel well enough to go to work?

Oddly enough, Ted Prus is now getting medical marijuana, for severe arthritis and related maladies.  It was why he didn't care if I told about this anecdote.   

Gene -- I don't understand the position in which you sit if a person reclining on the plane physically encroaches upon your knees. I've flown across much of the country on planes of every size and every airline in the last year, and while some are indeed cramped I've never encountered the sort of discomfort you've described on many occasions over the years. I am a normal-sized adult male, 5'10" about 175 pounds. I sit reading for most of my flights. So why have I never felt that the reclining in front of me was much of an encroachment and you're apoplectic about it? What gives?

Hm.  I think the explanation for this is that I am right and you are wrong.  

Airlines have only responded to what the flying public wants. Americans have shown time and time again that they prefer low prices to comfort.

A reasonable point, but there has to be a better solution than this.    

I assume the Post policy you state is real, not made up for this hypothetical. If so, is it really enforced to the letter? What if you speed to get to an appointment with a source on time? Or overstay the parking meter because an interview is going well? If these transgressions are overlooked because the offense involved is minor and one we know everyone does all the time, then they've opened the door to asking those same questions about the dope smoking.

C'mon.   These things are not "illegal" in the sense we understand.  They are traffic infractions.   We know what illegal is.  

Having said that, one thing Len Downie emphasized in talking to me is that every case is judged separately, on the facts, taking everything into consideration.  It's why he really didn't want to get into hypotheticals. 

The weed itself isn't the problem. I'm uncomfortable with the deliberate misrepresentation of oneself to gain someone's trust for a story (although maybe that happens a lot in small ways?) and with using what people said while slightly high - that seems like encouraging someone to put themselves in a vulnerable position, and then taking advantage of it. FWIW, I'm an academic who does a lot of field research, sometimes with people who don't trust me. I gain their trust by being honest, or I don't gain it and don't get a good interview. Those are the only two ethical choices. In my field and in journalism, ethical conduct isn't that hard. It's not like getting the story is going to save lives, if only we could lose the pesky ethics. "But I wanted to get that story myself" isn't that compelling a reason.

But I didn't misrepresent myself at all.   And it was THEIR decision to get high.   I was merely an observer of a scene that was playing out.    So I'm not sure what you are objecting to. 

During the attacks in Oslo, your colleague Jennifer Rubin, posted a controversial blog entry connecting the ongoing slaughter in Oslo, Islamic jihad and proposed reductions in the US defense budget. "Moreover, there is a specific jihadist connection here", she claimed, and went on to describe the connection she perceived.  My question is not directly about the blog post, as the internet-wide firestorm it touched off speaks for itself. I am, however, very concerned that when I search for "Rubin" using WaPo's own search engine, I see results that say this: "Right Turn : Norway Bombing ...Islamic terrorists kill scores..." (screenshot from Friday) The webpage has had this summation of that blog post up since the attacks were ongoing and has not changed or corrected it yet. (screenshot from today) The first part of my question is who is responsible for formulating that summation? Was it Jennifer Rubin? The second part of my question is who is responsible for correcting it and why have they not yet done so?

Ouch.   I have Alerted the Authorities. 

That, however, was based on a mistaken assumption.  It may well be that the assumption was based on an unattractive bias, but it was a momentary misfire born of ignorance. 

It pales in comparison to this, which is calculated, disgusting bigotry by the editorial board of a major world newspaper.    Look at the intellectual dishonesty exhibited:  Okay, so, like, it wasn't Islamic terrorism but IT COULD HAVE BEEN.  LET'S GET THE 'SLIMS ANYWAY. 

In your updates on July 12th, someone brought up the idea that if you believe in ghosts, then you should believe in god. It reminded me of something I once learned about Stanley Kubrick. Of course I can't find the quote now (except one that is discussed here by Harry Potter), but when Kubrick made The Shining he said something about how all ghost stories are at their core happy and consoling, since within the premise of the story, there has to be an afterlife, and we aren't just a random mix of DNA and water. I have never seen a ghost, I don't think they exist, and I don't believe in God. But, prior to hearing this idea from Kubrick, I was always a little frightened about the possibility of ever seeing a ghost. Now, I am excited by the idea. If I ever did see one - well, it would probably be explained by carbon monoxide poisoning, or possibly just an ingested hallucinogen- But, if there was no other explanation, other than I just saw a freaking ghost, then that would seem to be about the closest I could see myself of ever having proof that there is another side to our existence which has yet to be documented by science. Which would be pretty cool. I just don't see it ever happening. You may have touched on this in previous chats, but does this bring up what I think is a likely misconception about atheists? If I were ever to be proven wrong, it would be pretty awesome! Even if it meant I am spending the rest of eternity sitting next to Glen Beck in 150 degree heat, with nothing to eat except lima beans, I feel like I would still be laughing to myself, saying, "Man, I can't believe that hell actually exists! This is crazy!"

Yes, this same idea has occurred to me.  I do suspect that sense of awe and wonder and humor would begin to wane after the third hot-lead enema, though.    

 I once considered writing a short story in which a decent, religious person dies, only to discover that God is very Old Testament, and condemns people to hell for sins such as "blaspheming"  or feeling lust in their heart. 

Dear Gene -- Greetings from Austin, TX. Please accept these humble contributions, broken rules and all. Composing a few lines for a half-hour certainly beats shaking my fist in the general direction of Washington, DC. Higgledy Piggledy Builder John Boehner heard Experts all warn that the Ceiling's too low. "Nonsense," he chuckled, with Strange equanimity. "My House isn't worried, and It ought to know." ------- Higgledy Piggledy Speaker John Boehner urged: "Rise above politics; Time to agree." "Nevertheless," he winked, "All of us know that in Crises like this one, fault Starts with a (D)."

I like your second one.  Alas, "nevertheless" is not a double dactylic word, so it is imperfect.   

Nice card. Can I get one that says, in effect, please don't let some contrived notions on etiquette stop you from reclining to your heart's content?

You can make one yourself, you rude, selfish person.  

My father had a teacher in high school who always signed papers with his full name, which was Delmer Elmer Walmer.

That is FABULOUS.   At least he rolled with it.   

Did you notice the House Majority Leader licking his lips during his response last night. Do Republicans really have to try and appear even creepier than they are?

You mean Speaker.  

He really looked slimy to me, but I acknowledge a bias here.     I thought his speech, and his appearance, and his demeanor, were infinitely worse than Obama's.   

The top 10% of wage earners in America pay 70% of the tax burden. 25% of the top wage earners pay 85% And yet they should be taxed *more*? The bottom 50% of American wage earners pay less than 3% of all tax revenue.

I don't know if your figures are right, but even if they are, the answer is yes.   

In the story about the Arkansas valedectorian, this sentence struck me as weird: "McGehee Secondary School is predominantly white, and 46 percent African-American." Even assuming no other ethnicities are represented, can a 54% majority be called "predominant"?

It's an odd use of the word,  yeah. 

For me, the deciding moment in all this was when Senator Tom Coburn, whose ultraconservative bonafides are beyond repute, said that obviously revenue increases had to be coupled with spending cuts for any long term plan to work. Anyone who thinks otherwise lives in a fantasy land, unless they are willing to totally eliminate both Medicare and the Department of Defense. Let's see Congress vote on that.


I'm presuming here that you qualify as "rich" (over $250k). Our family, though certainly not rich, makes over $250k. We are staunch Democrats and are angry at the GOP for not including tax increases (or a return to previous tax rates) in their plans. I think you've argued that lower-income Republicans are nuts for voting against their own interests. What are your thoughts on Dems who do so? Why do you think that so many of us exist?

I love Steinbeck's quote about why socialism will never take root in America.   This is slightly paraphrased: "Because poor people do not think of themselves as an exploited minority.  They think of themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires."

Loved the indignant righteousness of the person who scolded you over the picture of Murphy taking a dump. Back when you were editing Tony K's Style column, did you two consider it a plus when a particular column generated an angry letter to the editor? I thought that he had either lost his edge or enthusiasm for the task when there were fewer and fewer Free For All complaints. By the way, isn’t it true that in your neighborhood, the property line is just in front of the house, so you really don't even own your front yard. I remember looking at plats that seemed to indicate that, so the swale is really deep in public territory.

Correct.  You do not own your front yard or your fence.   You may not own your front steps.   You are responsible for maintaining them, however, in that you can be cited for public nuisance, etc. 

The general rule is that if you live outside the law you must be honest.. You have to tell your Editor that the integrity of the article might be compromised. Once you tell your editor, he has to take action, the least of which would be to edit out those portions of the article obtained while you were one tote over the line with the people about whom you were writing. Reprimand could be verbal if the editor documented the incident off the record. A year later public revelation is a whole nother matter. At that point, the Newspaper and the editor have their hands tied if they want to maintain THEIR integrity. They have to respond publicly or the newspaper's rules of conduct are worthless. Personally, I'm not sure what I would have done if I were the journalist. Fake inhaling like I was some undercover police officer? I don't know, I wasn't there.

What is the underlying sin to trigger all this?  That I was one toke over the line with someone I was writing about?  

Would it have been okay to drink with them? 

So, more and more, we hear about the alpha male/pickup artist mentality. As someone who does believe painfully in the fact that though gender roles are flexible, they do have some real basis in who we are, I get it. Men are conquerors, women are caretakers, etc. BUT - it has struck me lately that in a massive amount of music, the man - who in order to get the woman is supposed to be a macho alpha male - is completely submissive. Professing love, her beauty, he only wants to be with her. So, what gives? Why is our music so contradictory to what is (according to some) human nature?

Interesting thesis.  But isn't it belied by hip-hop?  

You've gotten really cranky in your Twitter feed. Are you conscious of that?

I have ALWAYS been cranky in my Twitter feed.  

Many years ago I promised myself that when I hit 60 I would start a national column called "The Grumpy Old Fart." 

I hit 60 in October.  I am thinking about it, still. 

Gene- Got here early today & to kill time I went through the FAQ for the first time in a few years. A couple things occurred to me: 1. It is so out of date, it is practically as bad as not having a FAQ at all. 2. I had almost forgotten about the Molly&Dan hosted chat. Can you bring them back to fill in for you? I don't care that you're only on once a month- I'd give up two months w.out you for another chat with them. 3. Your chat-keeper used to play a huge role both in monitoring you and bringing their own personality through (the dearly departed Chatwoman Liz), and then Rachel filled in for a bit (liked her too) but I could not name the current 'keeper' or anything about them if a gun was to my head. Sad.

Hi, chatter.  My name is Haley.  I like ice cream, the Kooks and moderating this chat.  So if there is ever a gun to your head, which I hope is never since that's kind of scary, you'll know my name.  Which is more than I can now say if the situation is ever reversed, dear anonymous chatter.   P.S. - Thanks for the FAQ suggestion.  Email about it!

While I put the chance of actual default pretty low, I'd say the chance that this whole fiasco will hurt the economy is much higher. There is a big difference between actual default and losing the confidence of the banking industry. This is the point that many in Congress don't understand, or more cynically, don't care about. Even if the government can avoid a default at the last minute, there will be some bankers betting that they won't. And that will make moving money around, i.e., the economy at large, suffer.

Right.   Or even just the general feeling right about now that no adults are in charge.   That HAS to hurt confidence, no? 

Here's one to throw out there. I get uncomfortable around pointed objects. In my mind, I'm going to trip or slip and they are going to poke out my eye. Doesn't make much sense... scalpel or scissors on a table, coat-hooks at head height, etc. There's always a sort of involuntary shudder and mental image. Don't know if it's connected, but I can't look at someone with a reddened or inflamed eye either: my own eyes start to water or feel irritated. Any comment about this odd eyeball damage phobia? It's not something I think about, but things just trigger it sort of randomly. I'd like to break it.

This is in reference to my column from Sunday, which was as disturbing a bit of humor reporting as I've ever done.   

I have since heard from many more people with many more heebie-jeebies, the weirdest of which was from a man who claims -- I cannot verify this -- that whenever he hears the friction of shoes against a pile carpet, he has to stick a finger up each nostril, and has done so in public many times. 

I said no to taking a hit but not for any of the reasons listed. It shouldn't be done because the reporter no longer uses. This reporter obviously at some point made a decision that they weren't going to use anymore. They haven't started again so the reason must still hold. Be true to yourself.

This is sweet, and I don't mean to be flip in my answer. 

You are assuming I no longer smoke pot because I have decided it is bad for me, or immoral, or becuase it is illegal, or whatever.  

Nah.   I'm just sort of no longer interested in that high.   I do not judge people who smoke; I consider it a benign substance, mostly, at least when compared to alcohol or harder drugs.  I don't advocate its use -- I do know that some people can get screwed up by it -- but I also don't condemn its use in moderation.  

So, that's a sweet thought of yours, and I appreciate it, but it's not germane.   

You said there was one opinion you hold that won't write about because you don't want to hurt people. Is it that you don't believe in adoption? As an adult adoptee I might be projecting here. But if it is, please take it on!

What?  No!  

Why on Earth would anyone not believe in adoption?  

Just for the record, I have disclosed the secret opinion  to a few good friends and they are unanimous it is something I must never say aloud -- even though most of them agree with me.    The problem is not that I would look bad in the eyes of most people; the problem is that I would deeply hurt people who have done nothing wrong. 

It might make a good poll question. I was surprised by your surprise at the guy who said he had to leave his teaching job because he might not resist the allure of the girls in his classes. You seemed to think few men would be attracted to girls that young. I think many would.

I will do it as part of next week's poll. 

Yeah, it would surprise me.   I am as lustful as the next dirty old man, but I see high school aged girls as children.    They're just ... unfinished.    And too naive and unsure of who they are.      

what is this email address about? is the email address you use when you want to get in touch with Washington Post interactivity producers, like me.  If you love a chat so much you want to cuddle with it, then use that email address.  Or if something frustrates you to no end, then email us about it there too.  We'll write back.

Okay, I gather that you are voting on all the Instapolls, but your votes are not showing.   So I don't know how you feel about my hospital room hijinx. 

I'll tell you how I feel. 

I feel I did one think that was completely unethical: Taking the guy's pulse.   That was deceptive, duplicitous and unforgiveable.   It embarrasses me to this day, though it is a bit funny. 

Everything else was very aggressive.   Some might have gone over the line but for an important fact:  This was a huge story of grave public importance.    It was about bribery of public officials.   I think that excuses aggression and the mild duplicity of not telling him the complete truth.     If I were an editor and learned that a reporter had played with the ego of a source to get him to talk, it wouldn't bother me much, especially  for a story as big and important as this. 

I was annoyed by this statement in your column: "Let's say you are my wife, and we are making the bed together, as husbands and wives so often do in idyllic wifely fantasies and nowhere else." I'm sure there are many couples where it is the case that the wife is the only one who changes the sheets and she is fine with that. I'm equally certain there are many couples where the wife really resents her husband not pulling his weight around the home including changing the sheets. I wish you wouldn't reinforce that behavior which I think that comment does. It discourages some guys from doing the job, and legitimizes guys who say it's just normal for the wife to do it. Also, among the people I know there are many husbands who do change the sheets - equally as often as their wives or even more often. 


You linked to a cartoon; I had to kill the link because we cannot publish the F word. 

Well, we can publish "the F word."   We just can't publish the f word. 

Not funny in the Kimberley Wimberly way, but I had a high school teacher named Richard Head. Can you imagine how any parents could effectively hate their child at the moment they were born as evidenced by giving a chlld this name and subjecting them to a lifetime of torment??

Excellent.   For a humor column,  I once interviewed a Richard head and asked him if he ever used a nickname.   He was a grumpy old guy and didn't even understand why I was asking the question.   I cannot recall if I was allowed to write this.   I think I wasn't! 

I wish you had not shared the 1974 story. It really diminishes your reputation as a journalist for me. I would say you were Machiavellian, except even he said his philosophy could not be ethically used by individuals for personal greed, profit, or self improvement. I have been a journalist and fully understand the desire to make a story the best it can be, but if you disregard your employers rules because YOU need a specific outcome, rather than seek out other sources,and it doesn't matter how it is achieved as long as YOU get the desired result so you are considered an excellent writer- that's lame. I've smoked pot, so I'm not hung up on that, just that you'd do anything to get your story. The surprising thing to me is that you are an excellent writer, I've been touched by your stories, but now I wonder just what you have done to get those results. For me, especially in the 1974 job, there is no redeeming quality for such a lame issue. And as for your editor/ best friend- you owe him big time if you really are a "friend."

Okay.    Please remember I was 23.   

But how is public corruption a lame issue? 

Is that Ted Prus story in Fiddler on the Subway? I haven't bought it as I assumed I'd read all the stories, but I had never read that one.

It is. 

In your summary of the pot-smoking dilemma, you said that that Ted Prus requested that what happened next be "off the record." Wouldn't that mean that you couldn't ethically use any quotes you got at the time? Or because he didn't specify "I meant the pot-smoking is off the record, not my quotes," you were free to use them?

He meant the pot.    I was taking notes the whole time.    I understood what he meant, and he understood that I understood what he meant.    

So basically, in your mind rules are for other people, and you should get to decide which ones are worth following and which are not in any given situation?

In a sense, yes.   But that's needlessly hostile.  What I am saying is that there is honesty and dishonesty; there are rules and there are crimes;  there is truth and there is lying.    

I don't think I did anything dishonest, in any way.   I can live with myself. 

As an Ivy-educated single mom making less than $30k a year in a major metro area, I beg to differ with your definition of "rich."

I know what the guy meant.   You can have a $250k household income and still be a working stiff without a plush standard of living, and with  financial worries. 

I also know what you mean. 

How is this even close? Unless the reporter has a personal objection, there's no reason not to do it. I know. I've done it. In my actual life, I don't smoke dope. Tried it a few times, don't particularly enjoy it. But when I was interviewing Willie Nelson and they passed that joint around, I damn sure took a hit. To have done otherwise would have changed the atmosphere in the room, taken the attention away from the conversation and made everyone suspicious. So I took a puff, passed the joint and everything went great. Would I have smoked crack in the same situation? No. But that's a personal choice, not because I'd be worried about newsroom policy. Unless you have a medical or moral objection, what reporter wouldn't smoke that joint? None that I know.

About forty percent of the writers / editors / j students at the Mayborn conference said they wouldn't have done it. 

You're playing with your job, dude.   Big companies have rules, and they expect you to follow them.  This was not a simple decision, not as simple as you make it.  

Hi Gene, I read in one of your updates that dog pee is harmless to grass. I have two dogs, one male and one female, and you can always tell where my female dog goes #1, because it kills the grass. No damage from my male dog, don't know why this is the case. So for the people like yourself who think it's not a big deal for dogs to go on the grass, my experience is different.

Yep, I'm glad you brought that up.    I did some research, and it is true.  Nitrogen in pee can kill greenery if it is constantly doused.    The real question is what to do about this... dogs have to pee somewhere, and they don't like to do it on asphalt. 

I yelled out my car window at you the other day when you were walking down 6th Street. Dunno why, but I saw you and what came up, came out: HEYYYY GENE WEINGARTEN! Haha. Anyway, I have worked as a reporter, too, and I can't see taking the pipe. I don't smoke and have never been a recreational drug user so it would have been natural for me to say "no thanks." How is the reporter SURE that turning away the pipe would ruin the relationship and taking it would enhance it??

I remember!  You are a hottie!   So you would have done fine in that group whether you took the pipe or not.  


In the same situation, I would not smoke the pot because I believe illegal is illegal. I've never smoked pot or done any other drugs. However, I don't think that what you did was necessarily bad because you don't have a moral problem with smoking pot. You didn't do it to deceive the subject of your story, it's something you likely would have done in another time and place. And it seems like you understood the consequences and accepted that you could possibly lose your job for it.

As to the last part, yes.    That was sort of my ultimate point:  Had I been fired, I would have accepted that, and not slammed The Post.   They would have been acting consistently within their rules.   I took a gamble for my story. 

Presumably the writer was also smoking pot while these conversations w/ Bob and his friends were going on. Therefore, his note taking may not have been as precise as it would have been had there been no pot. How do we even know that the story he wrote is accurate? (saying "I'm not that stoned" is like saying I'm not that drunk; but do you want those people behind the wheel? People who are stoned/drunk can never really get an acruate view of how stoned/drunk they are. I work in law enforcement, trust me I know this as a fact. Every DUI driver thinks he is not that impaired. Videos clearly show a different reality.) Honestly, the truly professional option would have been for the writer to decline the pot saying "its not my thing anymore, but feel free to go ahead and smoke it yourself.)

Well, do you think a reporter should never have a drink or two while reporting?    If you think that, then you are consistent, and we'll just disagree.   If you DON'T think that, then I think your argument is illogical. 


There sure seem to be a lot of angry moralists on the chat today. Or are you just putting them at the front of the queue just for our entertainment? If so, it is working. I am laughing quite hard at the RIGHTEOUS indignation at your HORRIBLE law breaking by, GASP, smoking marijuana! You should have lit up a Marlboro with him, that is just fine.

Yeah, I know.   I'm not understanding why people don't see the difference between breaking a rule and being fundamentally dishonest.    Of course Washington IS rule-obsessed. 

Okay, we're done.   Thanks so much for a spirited discussion.   We'll meet in the updates. 

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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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