Saturday, November 23, 2013

signs of our time

There is an old joke that goes something like this:

A man is flying in a hot-air balloon and realizes he is lost.  He lowers the balloon and shouts to a man on the ground: "Excuse me, can you help me?  I don't know where I am."

The man below says: "Yes, you're in a large red hot air balloon, hovering 30 feet above this field between 40 and 41 degrees North and 120 and 124 degrees West."

"You must be a lawyer," says the balloonist.

"I am," replies the man.  "How did you know?"

"Well," says the balloonist, "everything you have told me is technically correct, but it's of absolutely no use to me, and I still don't know where I am."

Trips north often leave me feeling that way.  Take this sign from a Denny's restaurant in California.

It is posted right behind the cashier -- a perfect place to see it; but on your way out, not on your way in.  And that is exactly what happened to me.  I never saw it until I was paying my bill.

"Kafkaesque" has become a cliché.  But it was the first term that jumped to my mind when I read the sign.

The good folks at the California Department of Public Health were concerned enough for my health that they wanted to be certain I knew there are chemicals that cause "cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm."  And some of those chemicals may be present in the food or beverages served at the Denny's in Carlsbad.

When I saw he sign, I chuckled and asked the cashier if they had been serving a Love Canal special to the early bird diners?

She responded that the signs are in every restaurant she knew in California.  But she had no idea what the death-dealing chemicals might be.  Nor whether that precatory "may" morphed into an "are" on the actual plates that are slapped down in front of Denny's diners.

Don't get me wrong.  I am not a Pollyanna about the negative (and positive) effects that chemicals have on our lives.  I am just not certain that these broad warnings do much other than to raise the already-high level of hysteria that Americans seem to be living under.

Most scientists would probably shake their heads at the "causes cancer" portion of the sign.  Few chemicals "cause" cancer.  At best, chemicals contain a risk factor of being implicated in health concerns.  But that subtlety is missed in today's reductionist world.

Yesterday, I read an article in the newspaper that gave the impression that eating nuts would prevent both cancer and heart disease.  Due to my recent heart episode, I am always looking for things I can eat -- especially things I like. 

Despite what my doctor told me, nuts went back on my list.  Until I got to the end of the article.  Buried deep in the story was a disclaimer that the effect of nuts on preventing either disease was something like 11%.

So, what did I learn at Denny's?  Well, the first thing I already knew.  Don't eat at Denny's.  Not because of those ethereal death warnings, but because the food is terrible.  It always has been.

From the sign I learned, don't take your health advice from sign-writing bureaucratic lawyers.  The information may be technically correct, but it will be of absolutely no use to anyone. 

And you will still not know where you are.

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