Monthly Archives: August 2013

That isn’t what “misinformation” means

On Wednesday attorneys working for Pennsylvania, under instructions from the Governor of that state, Tom Corbett, filed a brief with the state supreme court asking the court to stop the one county official who is issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples.

As reported far and wide, the brief included this brilliant piece of legal intellectualism:

“”Had the clerk issued marriage licenses to 12-year-olds in violation of state law, would anyone seriously contend that each 12-year-old . . . is entitled to a hearing on the validity of his ‘license’?”

A lot of people have taken issue with that analogy, and on Friday the governor issued a statement that did not backpedal, but tried to explain and deflect:

… the analogy was being taken out of context through a campaign of misinformation by the governor’s detractors. The reference to 12-year-olds was only meant to illustrate one group that is prohibited from marrying under state law, he said. But it’s an analogy, the governor feels was inappropriate, Hagen-Frederiksen said. The governor never said it or wrote it, Hagen-Frederiksen said, but his detractors are acting like he did. So Corbett wants to clear his name and wants the public to know, he doesn’t agree with it and he thinks it was an inappropriate analogy, Hagen-Frederiksen said.

Now, Corbett has only been Governor for two years, however, before that he was elected to two terms as the state Attorney General, had previously been a U.S. Attorney for many years, had served as acting state Attorney General for half a term, and spent many years before that as an assistant district attorney. One would think with all of that experience, he would have some idea how official statements about legal matters are drafted and sent to the courts, and how responsibility for what is said in them works.

But since he doesn’t seem to understand that, let me explain: Gov. Corbett, you instructed the state attorneys to file a brief, and you authorized them to file the brief on your behalf. So all of those news stories that say your administration filed it are absolutely correct. Further, even the headlines that elide over things are still accurate, because you authorized them to file the brief. It doesn’t matter whether you actually read it or not, you authorized it.

More specifically, you authorized lawyers to file a brief with the court on your behalf. As a long-time member of the legal profession, Governor, you ought to know that lawyers don’t speak to the court for themselves, they speak for their clients. As far as the legal system is concerned, you made that statement.

Your spokesperson has indicated (and emphasized by mentioning, twice, that you are away on vacation) that you hadn’t read the brief before it was submitted. If we are to believe that you didn’t read this brief which you authorized before it was submitted—a brief about what has become the civil rights issue of the decade and which is the subject of multiple political battles happening in your state right now—that calls into question your judgement, both legal and political.

The governor’s statement didn’t retract the brief. In fact, he said the logic behind the controversial statement is sound, just that the analogy is inappropriate. I could digress for some time about how argument by analogy is part of logic, but I won’t. The governor is standing by his statement arguing against marriage rights for gays and lesbians, and saying that he thinks it’s unfair that people thinks that proves he is biased.

I don’t know the governor, so I don’t know whether to believe him about not reading the brief beforehand. I strongly suspect that he at least read drafts of the brief before the final was filed. But if he didn’t, I suspect the reason he didn’t pay close attention is because he doesn’t think the matter is important. He doesn’t think the matter is important because he doesn’t think gay people (and non-gays who care about the rights of gay people) are important.

Thinking that any group’s civil rights are unimportant is a pretty strong indicator of bias, even without an “inappropriate analogy.”

Nightmare Theatre!

When I was a kid, just about every metropolitan area in the U.S. had at least one local TV station showing some sort of monster/mystery/sci-fi/horror movie program every week. Many of them ran on Friday nights, after the local evening news ended. A few ran on Saturday evenings, and fewer still on Saturday afternoons. And something that a lot of those shows had in common is that there was a host: a person who usually was dressed up as some sort of monster or other stock character, who would introduce the show, possibly banter with a sidekick, or otherwise provide a bit of color commentary to the proceedings.

Some people operate under the impression that the first horror host was Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (no, she didn’t begin hosting until 1981). Slightly more informed people point to Bob Wilkins, who hosted Creature Features on a couple of different Bay Area channels from 1971 to 1984.

Well-informed people aware that all of them were preceded by some years by Vampira (1954-56), who later tried to sue Elvira for stealing her schtick. [Given that the actress who played Vampira had been working with the station in ’81 and was to be an executive producer of the show that became Elvira’s show, and she left in a dispute over the casting of the host, you can understand.]

A few years after Vampira’s show went off the air (it was aired live, and virtually no footage remains), Screen Gems put together a package of 52 horror films and made them available for syndication. Stations all over the country began showing their own weekly horror shows under titles such as Shock Theatre, Nightmare Theatre, Sinister Cinema, Saturday Chiller, and so on. The shows were usually broadcast on either Friday or Saturday night, after the evening news.

One reason that every station that carried the show had its own host was simply technological. In the late 50s (and for some time after), the way non-network syndication worked involved physically shipping cannisters of film (and later videotape) back and forth. It worked a lot like the non-streaming version of Netflix. A station would subscribe to the show, the syndicator would ship movies out to the subscribing stations. After the station showed the film(s), they would ship them back to the syndicator, who would ship them to another station.

My understanding is that they shipped out four or five movies at a time, and that as long as the station paid their subscription fees, they didn’t wait until the last set had been shipped back before sending the next.

In this case, Screen Gems just provided the movies themselves. Some location stations just ran them with, at most, a voice-over announcer. Other stations came up with their own shows, inspired originally by Vampira.

During the years I was old enough to be allowed to stay up and watch such things, we were living in various small towns in Utah and northwestern Colorado, and one of the stations we got was KCPX channel 4 out of Salt Lake City, where each Friday night brought us Nightmare Theatre.

For a few years it went by the name of The 10:20 Double Nightmare, because it was a double feature and it started at 10:20pm as soon as the evening news ended. I remember that phase only because sometimes my parents would let me stay up late enough to watch the first movie, but I wasn’t supposed to watch the second. By the time I was allowed to stay up as late as I wanted on Fridays, the local evening news went all the way until 10:30, and the show had reverted by to a single movie.

Nightmare Theatre was hosted, during that period, by Dr. Volapuk. Which is to say that a man wearing a vaguely Dracula-like suit and cape, and a really awful rubber ghoul mask, would come out of the shadows, introduce the movie, and make a lot of bad jokes. He would make more bad jokes at the commercial breaks. Occasionally he would impart a bit of trivia related to the movies. At the end of the show, he would give a preview of the next week’s movie, and then end with his traditional sign-off, “I, Dr. Volapuk, have been happy to be your host tonight. Remember, Volapuk spelled backwards is cup-of-love. So in your nightmares tonight, dream of me…” and then he would laugh maniacally.

No, I have no idea what all that cup-of-love business was supposed to mean.

I didn’t know, at the time, that the actor in the mask was also the guy who dressed up as Fireman Frank every morning to host the cartoon show on the same station.

Nightmare Theatre showed a lot of the old Universal Monster movies (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Son of Dracula, Werewolf of London, The Mummy’s Hand, and so on), but also a lot of the Japanese kaiju genre of moves (Mothra, Godzilla Raids Again, War of the Gargantuas).

A lot of the nerdy interest in such shows got re-focused on newer things when Star Wars came out and kicked off a bunch of higher quality films of the fantastic. Relatively cheap high quality satellite feeds and other cable television technologies replaced the old model of shipping film around, so shows such as Elvira’s Movie Macabre, Mystery Science Theater 3000, or Cinema Insomnia could be produced in one place and seen in the niche of each market. Which has put stake through the heart of most of the local horror hosts.

All those Friday nights that I stayed up to watch those movies is probably why I often still get a hankering on Fridays for some cheesy sci fi or similar films.

Wanna join me?

My story, but not my truth

When I wrote, yesterday, about why fiction is not the same thing as lying, I may have given the impression that storytellers are in the business of imparting The Truth (the definitive article), or at the very least His/Her Own Truth when telling a story.

We aren’t.

I over-complicated things, I think, by including the anecdote about parables and a Biblical literalist of my past acquaintance. I’ll try to steer clear of anecdotes today.

First, I don’t believe in one and only one truth. Yes, in certain circumstances, such as certain types of mathematical problems, there can be one and only one correct answer, but that’s dealing with a very restricted system of factual discourse. Truth, with a capital-T, occupies a different realm than facts. There is always room for another way to look at things. There is always a circumstance that we haven’t considered—sometimes because we don’t have the necessary framework to even imagine the circumstance, yet.

When I tell a story, my first obligation is to tell the story the best that I can, while remaining true to the story. That means, among other things, not holding back. Bits of my self will be revealed in the story. A poet might say I leave a part of my soul in each story; I think of it more as my notions of what is True will be evident—not so much in the words spoken by any of the characters or even the narrator, but rather in the way that things come about. An author’s fundamental beliefs inform how the story is structured, what consequences occur, and how those consequences are framed.

I’ve written about characters whose worldview is diametrically opposed to mine, and I’ve written them convincingly enough that readers assume what the characters say is my belief. I’m not being deceptive when I do this, and it isn’t even something that I’m thinking about at the time I’m writing. Once I imagine a character, I have to write them as they would react and as they would speak. If I don’t, the character isn’t believable. And I don’t mean just unbelievable to the reader—if I stop believing in the character, I can’t write them any longer.

Most stories have more than one character, and often one or more of those characters are opposed to the others. That means that a little bit of each character’s truth has to be in the story, as well.

So even in the first draft stage, a story will contain a number of Truths, some of which contradict each other. And other than trying to remain true to the vision I had when the story first came to me, and to the integrity of each character, I haven’t been thinking about a deeper truth or meaning. I’ve been focused on the story. But there comes that ah-ha! moment, when the story comes together for me, when the story reveals a truth or two I hadn’t been thinking about to me.

But that’s just the beginning.

Once I have put the story together as best as I can and reveal it to an audience (whether I am actually telling the story, or writing it for publication), an entire new kind of truth enters the picture. Because each reader will receive the story through their own perspective, and each will find their own truths within it. They may also see and recognize the truths I saw as I wrote the story. They may see some of the truths I wove into the tale along the way. They may agree or disagree with any or all of them. But if the story works, they will also find a truth of their own in there. And it may well have little to do with any of the truths I put in or that I discovered.

Other readers will also find their own truths, and each may be very different than that found be any of the other readers.

And all of those truths are real.

And by truth I don’t mean a life-changing epiphany. Sometimes we have something like that. More often it’s something as simple and mundane as, “some people never catch a break.” Most often it’s something much more ephemeral, and hard to put into a single sentence.

It’s my story, and I poured some of my self and my truth into it, but once I tell it to you or let you read it, it’s your own meaning that you find.

My story, but in the end, your truth.

Not the opposite of truth

When I was 18 and a member of an evangelical touring choir, we were on a weekend retreat. We’d spent the day rehearsing, having a Bible study or two, and otherwise prepping for an upcoming tour. Of course, there was also time to socialize and otherwise get to know each other. And somehow one of those conversations turned into one of the guys asking me and the other sci fi geek why we liked reading lies.

I think my first response was to talk about the value of imagining what might be possible. I thought his beef was with science fiction specifically, but it soon became clear that he thought all fiction—including things such as Romeo and Juliet—were immoral collections of lies.

“If it isn’t a true story, then it’s a lie; and we shouldn’t listen to lies!”

I called his attention to parables in the Bible, and he became offended. The Bible is true, every single word, he insisted.

“But Jesus told parables. They are made up stories to illustrate a deeper truth,” I argued.

“No,” he said. “Jesus knows everything that has happened and will happen to all the millions of people who ever lived. And he told true stories that had happened.”

I just had to shake my head and walk away. As my great-grandpa, Shorty, was fond of saying, you can’t talk sense with someone who hasn’t got any.

I was reminded of this recently when a writer made a joke about writers and politicians, and how they both tell lies for a living. I’ve always cringed when writers referred to what we do as lying, because it isn’t.

Oxford’s definition of lie begins: “an act of instance of lying; an intentional false statement; an untruth; something that deceives; an imposture.” And if you look up imposture, it’s “a willful and fraudulent deception.”

Some people might say that “fraudulent deception” is a redundant term, but they’re wrong. A lie is intended to mislead or otherwise betray your trust. A story doesn’t do that.

A story may consist of a completely fabricated series of events happening to totally imaginary people, but for a story to work there must be at least a grain of Truth in it. When I create characters in a tale, they won’t resonate with the reader unless they are believable, and a storyteller can’t make them believable without drawing on true things about human nature.

When I tell a story, I am not trying to delude you into believing something that will harm you, or steal from you, or otherwise enrich myself by diminishing you. When I tell a story, I am trying to enrich both of us. I hope, in the process of hearing/reading my tale, that you experience some happiness, and perhaps have an insight or two. I hope that I will experience the joy of creating something and sharing it with you.

This doesn’t mean that when I tell a story I start off with a message that I want to convince you of. I have, foolishly, written some tales like that, and have always regretted it.

The best stories, instead, come from a place of wonder and curiosity. Sometimes, such as in one of the collaborative projects I’ve been involved with, it’s reading someone else’s story and having one of the characters in the tale pop up in my imagination telling me what happened next. Sometimes it’s walking down the street, listening to music, and seeing something on the ground that makes me ask, “How did that get there?” Sometimes it’s two characters springing to life in my head and arguing about something.

I don’t know what alchemy happens in my subconscious to create stories. I do know that when I’m writing the first draft, one of my motivations is to discover how it ends. Sometimes I think I know how it’s going to end when I start. And sometimes I’m even right, but I seldom know exactly how I’m going to get to that ending when I do. Other times I know very precisely how it ends, and all of my writing work is trying to figure out where the story starts, and then how do the characters get to that ending.

It’s exploring and figuring out all mixed up. I often learn something or find myself looking at something which I already knew in a new way during the course of finishing the story. And when everything falls into place I experience a moment of joy. That moment of joy is something which a storyteller feels compelled to share. Which is why we tell the story, or rewrite it until it’s ready to publish, or otherwise put the story out there.

Of course every writer dreams of the day when he can live off his storytelling. If someone is willing to pay me for a story, I will take the money. But hoping to be paid for a job well done is not about taking from the reader. What I hope has happened is that I’ve given them an experience which they enjoyed, found value in, and that they think is well worth the time and expense.

And as a reader, when you pick up a book, or open a web page, or sit down to listen to a storyteller, you are asking the author to tell you a story. You know, going in, that what he or she tells you will not be factually correct and the people she or he describes are not actual specific persons who did those exact things. You know it’s a story. You want the author to make you believe in the story for a little while. You’ve agreed to go on that journey of discovery, together. If it’s a story you enjoy, if it is a story that moves you, if it is a story that made you laugh, or root for one of the characters, or cry when one of them was hurt, then the story contained some kind of truth.

And that isn’t being deceitful. It isn’t manipulating. It sure as heck is not lying.

The limits of dreaming

It’s really easy to get caught up in our disappointments.

For instance, I’m one of the people who is very sad that the health care reform that is going into effect this October is not a real socialized medicine plan. I want a single-payer system, just like every industrialized country other than us. And saying that everyone can go to an emergency room regardless of ability to pay isn’t providing health care! I never want to read again a news story about a 12-year-old child dying of complications of a toothache because emergency rooms don’t treat ordinary toothache, and by the time the complications become life-threatening, it’s too late. I don’t want people to have to hold bake sales and kickstarters to pay for cancer treatments. We spend way more money on our medical system than any other country in the world and we have the worst coverage.

I’m disappointed that only 13 states (plus the District of Columbia and a couple of counties in other states) currently have marriage equality. I’m disappointed that we’re more than a decade into the 21st Century and there is controversy about the fact that courts say that the law ought to treat gay people the same as straight people. I’m disappointed that only two states have banned so-called “gay reparative therapy” for children. Further, I’m disappointed that kicking one’s children out of the house for saying they think they’re gay isn’t considered felony child abuse, subject to arrest, imprisonment, and having the rest of one’s children taken away.

I’m disappointed that I’ll never get to read that new Dirk Gently book (and whatever other books might have been written) because Douglas Adams died at age 49. And while we’re on the subject, I’m disappointed that Charles Dickens died before he finished the Mystery of Edwin Drood, and that Mark Twain died before he finished the Mysterious Stranger.

I’m disappointed that Doris Day has never won an Academy Award.

Not all my disappointments are big, societal problems, obviously.

My point is that it is easy to get lost in the weeds of disappointment. While some of our disappointments can be quite serious issues, even life-and-death issues, it’s good to take several steps back from those weeds to remind ourselves that there’s an awful lot of good and lovely stuff in the garden of life.

When I was a deeply closeted teen-ager, the very best future I could hope for was that maybe I could hide my non-heterosexuality and possibly find a woman who found me tolerable. I thought it much more likely that I would live out my life alone and unloved. I never dreamed I would meet and fall in love with a man who loved me enough to promise to stay with me the rest of my life (and did). Or that, after his death, I would meet and fall in love with another man who loved me as I was, and that we would not only be able to live together, but do so openly, and eventually stand in front of an assemblage of our friends and loved ones, exchange vows, and legally be pronounced married.

When I was in high school, two classmates who were accused (in separate incidents) of being gay were threatened with expulsion, kicked out of their homes by their parents, and wound up living with relatives in other cities. While many families still kick out their kids (or send them to therapy) if they admit to being gay, we also read stories of kids coming out in high school, junior high, and even elementary school with the full support of their parents. Many schools have straight-gay alliances and policies supportive of non-heterosexual kids.

When I was in my 20s, I was working on a science fiction story in which the President of the United States was an openly gay man, but I set it rather late in the 21st century, and even then, he had only become President because he’d been appointed a second-tier cabinet member, and in the course of a cataclysmic disaster, he was the only person in the line of succession left alive. We don’t have a gay president (and we don’t have any gay cabinet members), but we did have an openly gay man seeking the Republican nomination for President last time around. He appeared on the primary ballot in six states, and in some of them got more votes that candidates who got a lot more media coverage. More importantly, this last election cycle sent six openly gay candidates to the U.S. House of Representatives, an openly lesbian candidate was elected to the U.S. Senate (winning a statewide election), plus 74 openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual candidates were elected to state legislatures, and dozens were elected to city councils, school boards, and other government posts across the nation.

To sum up:

Just 40 years ago, the best future for myself I could imagine was I would be good enough at hiding my true feelings so no one would ever suspect I was gay. It was inconceivable to me that I could actually marry the man I love!

Just 35 years ago, it was inconceivable to me that ordinary schools would allow gay kids to attend openly.

Just 30 years ago, it was inconceivable to me that an openly gay or lesbian person could win elected office other than representing a “gay neighborhood.”

So, which thing that we thought was impossible years ago is going to happen next?

Making an exit

I’ve written before about my perpetually drunk neighbor, and his string of sometimes equally-dysfunctional roommates. The last few months I had been referring to him and his latest roommate as “Drunk and Drunker.”

When news got about that their new landlord was declining to renew their lease, I had predicted that they wouldn’t successfully vacate by the end of August. The many loud arguments heard from over there and the ever-growing pile of junk accumulating in their off-street parking lot seemed to cement that notion.

I was having flashbacks to a completely different neighbor who, some years ago when she was supposed to move out by the end of September, was so delayed that I came home on the evening of Halloween to find an enormous U-Haul truck backed just far enough into the driveway to not block the street (Yes, a month late, she spent that month sharing the place with the guy who had taken over her lease; not only that, when I talked to him the next afternoon, as he was carrying stuff into the truck, he asked me not to let the landlady know they they were still trying to get her stuff out that day). That was the Halloween where we got one, and only one, trick-or-treater. And since it was my godson, I’m not sure that counts. I totally blame the giant truck.

So I was a bit surprised when I heard people trying to maneuver a small rented truck into the harrow driveway between our two buildings this last weekend.

One of the people outside trying to call directions to the driver was another neighbor, a woman who lived above Drunk & Drunker. The other person was the sister of the perpetually drunk neighbor.

I had seen, earlier in the month, the same upstairs neighbor trying to cajole the perpetually drunk guy into calling about some apartments whose ads he had looked at. I had heard from our landlady that the upstairs neighbor had decided to spend a half hour every day trying to get the drunk guy to look at ads and call places. I knew that drunk guy’s sister and mother had both been coming over and trying to help with packing.

Not long after the truck pulled out Saturday afternoon, there was a knock at our door. The upstairs neighbor (a sweet woman who I think deserves a medal, and possibly sainthood) wanted to let us know that the rental truck had run over one of our solar decorative lights in the side flower bed. She had already swept up the glass and had the broken light in a bag that she was taking to the garbage. “I just thought someone should tell you, and I know you both come out here barefoot a lot, so you should be careful.”

I thanked her for both cleaning up and letting us know.

She repeated that she was sorry. So I pointed out that it wasn’t her fault, or her responsibility.

“I just… really like the pretty lights, too.”

There’s still a lot of junk in the parking space, but the line of lawn chairs, benches, occasional tables, and the ornamental birdbath have all been removed for the walkway in front of the apartment. The unplugged Christmas lights, the weird fake flower hanging baskets, and the ugly fake parrot have vanished from the eave. All of the familiar knick-knacks and gew-gaws are gone from their windows.

Which isn’t to say that they are bare. A new gew-gaw, which appears to be a ceramic Mr Toad of Toad Hall driving a wooden jalopy, has appeared on the sill of the living room window.

The other roommate is still there, with less than a week left to move out. And there’s still all that junk piled up in the parking space. Some of it I recognize as property of perpetually drunk guy.

So there is still plenty of evidence that my original prediction is going to be correct.

Watching music

The music video is an interesting art form. I have fallen in love with songs because of their video which I might not have listened to twice if I had only heard the song. On the other hand, sometimes when I watch a video of a song I already liked I find myself flabbergasted.

But never nonplussed.

None of these videos fall into the second category.

First, an Australian singer, Kim Smith, evokes an intriguing, cabaret-like atmosphere with his new single, “Jealous”:

Apparently I’m in an international mood this week, because next we have Brazilian singer, Thiago Pethit’s “Pas de Deux”:

I have several of Will Young’s songs on my iPod for a while. This video, “Losing Myself,” makes me want to buy more of his music.

That’s not what nonplussed means

“I don’t understand why anyone goes to see movies any more. And another superhero film? I couldn’t be more nonplussed.”

I followed up with the person who posted this to make certain I understood them. They meant that they couldn’t care less about seeing another superhero movie. And they expressed amusement that I didn’t know what nonplussed meant.

I sent them a link to an actual definition.

They stopped talking to me.

It isn’t used often, and I’m quite certain that if the word “nonplussed” doesn’t go extinct altogether, that very soon the word will come to mean “not impressed, uninterested, or unmoved.”

But that’s almost the exact opposite of what it means.

nonplussed adjective, 1. filled with bewilderment, 2. perplexed completely, 3. dumbfounded, 4. rendered speechless or incapable of further action.

The word comes to English from a Latin phrase: non plus, literally “no more,” as in “nothing more to do.” According to Oxford, it first appeared in English in the late 1500s as a noun meaning, “a point at which no more can be done, a dead end.” Within a century it had come to mean a state of being so exasperated by an intolerable event or insoluble problem to the point of being overwhelmed—a point when one is ready to throw their hands in the air and shout, “I can’t take any more of this!”

As time went on, it frequently referred to a situation during an argument or conversation in which one person says something so unbelievable or mind boggling, that the other person just stares back, speechless, perhaps with their mouth hanging open in consternation.

I remember I used to see the word a lot in books I read during elementary and middle school. There would be a discussion going on between two or more characters, and eventually one of the characters, instead of replying to a particularly witty statement of the other, would be nonplussed. I remember trying to work out the meaning from the context, and being confused until I got hold of a dictionary. Then I became rather fond of the word.

I think the problem (besides the fact that people aren’t being taught Latin and Greek roots any more) is that the word doesn’t look like it is describing something as energetic and frantic as “being exasperated to the point of being overwhelmed.” Flabbergasted or dumbfounded are active states. When a person is in that frame of mind they do things like a double-take, or their mouth drops open and their eyes bug out.

Nonplussed looks like a much more laid back, almost contemplative word.

Which is a shame. Dumbfounded and flabbergasted are great words, don’t get me wrong, but neither conveys both the idea of being perplexed and at one’s wit’s end in quite the same way as nonplussed once did.

However, language is a living thing. So I know in the long run it’s a losing battle. Right now, at least half the readers will think it means the person is unconcerned and cool as a cucumber if you do use it.

And that’s a real shame.

Warning: may prove harmful or fatal…

We put warning labels on all sorts of things. Sometimes people ignore them.

The only prescription allergy medicine that ever really eliminated my hay fever symptoms carried a warning about fatal heart problems that could happen if you took it at the same time you were taking certain antibiotics. A few years later, the warning list expanded to include additional prescription drugs. And then it had to be expanded, again, to include several over-the-counter medications and other substances.

Enough people ignored the warnings and had heart attacks, sometimes fatal, to cause the FDA to re-evaluate the drug. Their research indicated that most people would not heed the warnings about the over-the-counter drugs particularly. You know how some people are, “It’s not a real drug! It’s like aspirin!” So it was disapproved for sale in the U.S.

I didn’t want to have a heart attack, of course, but I really liked being free of the allergy symptoms. Several new drugs had been approved about the time that this one was removed that were supposed to do the same thing. Studies show that, for most people, the new drugs did at least as well as the old one, and a lot of people found one of them much better. Also, there hasn’t been much in the way of harmful side effects for the others.

Unfortunately, I’m not one of the people for whom any of the alternatives work as well. Sometimes I wish that I could go to the FDA and sign a waiver that neither I nor my heirs can ever sue over any problems with the drug, and keep taking it. The misery of really bad hay fever days makes the risk seem inconsequential.

During those days, I really resent the sorts of people who don’t pay attention to warning labels. Almost as if they are intentionally making life less pleasant for some of us.

At the other end of the spectrum are people who are overly-wary of warning labels. They know that some medications carry a long list of warnings, and they just don’t want to risk any of them. Part of the problem is that it is difficult to communicate risk on a small label, particularly to Americans, where mathematical education in public schools has long been inadequate. I remember one time trying to explain to someone that the odds of most of the harmful side effects of medications approved for sale in the U.S. are significantly lower than the chances of dying in an elevator accident. “Well, at least with an elevator, you have a chance to try to jump before the fall!”

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry at the number of ways that retort was wrong.

Of course, risk assessment isn’t a simple matter. For instance, a lot of people like to point out that statistically stairs are hundreds of times riskier than elevators. That’s only true if by riskier you mean the number of injuries and deaths that occur in a given year, rather than the number that occur per use. One reason more accidents happen on stairs than in elevators is because people use stairs more often than they use elevators.

Things become even more murky when you find out that half of the fatalities associated with elevators are maintenance and construction workers doing some sort of repairs near an elevator shaft. Even more surprising, almost one quarter of the fatalities associated with elevators fall into the category of people leaning against closed elevator doors while waiting for an elevator, or people not looking and simply stepping into the shaft when the doors open.

Leaning against an elevator door? Really?

I understand why someone such as myself is willing to risk some possible side effects in order to escape the misery of weeks of sinus headaches, itchy eyes, and scratchy throats. But why on earth would someone lean on an elevator door?