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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

I’m Not Kidding: What You Need Is a Placebo

In the late spring of this year  I was directing a play called “Bad Seed” and my leading actress was having major private problems, among them was that her middle-aged father had had a major heart attach and she was the primary member of her family having to cope with this shocking event while at the same time holding a fulltime job as an administrator at a law firm and, of course, starring in my play.  She is a terrific actor, one who memorized her huge part almost immediately and performed it well, but she told me she wasn’t sleeping at night.  “One or two hours at most,” was her sheepish confession.  I was very worried and I quizzed her about various possibilities: warm milk, over the counter sleep aids, doctor prescriptions.  “Tried them all; didn’t work.”  This went on for over a week and my concern deepened.  I sat down and told her all about my own reactions to my father’s sudden death (see Related Posts below), so she understood I’d been through something similar to her current nightmare.  However all I could come up with was sympathy and empathy. 

Then a seasoned veteran actor in our cast, named Rosemary, took our leading lady aside and told her, “I’ve got just what you need: my magic blanket.”  What?  Yes, a “magic blanket” and Rosemary assured our actress lead it would envelope her in sleep as soon as she wrapped it around herself and settled down.  Smiling, our grateful actress took the blanket, somehow knowing it was just what she needed.

And here’s what will amaze no one reading this: it worked!  Sleep came and things got much better physically for the sleeper.  A week later I asked her if she still was using it and she smiled and confessed that if she didn’t wrap up in it she still couldn’t nod off, but if she embraced herself in Rosemary’s magic blanket she conked right out. 

What was going on here?  The answer is that this blanket, a placebo, was exactly what was called for.  My actress didn’t believe in magic, knew it shouldn’t work, but also knew it would.  How could that be?

Readers of this blog will know that I don’t believe in magic either, nor cult phenomena, or anything other than what we know scientifically or can guess from established facts.  But science knows that placebos have always been powerful medicine.  Recent studies have proven this, and that’s what this post is about.  By coincidence I’ve just read two articles within weeks of each other, one in The New Yorker [see] and the other in Reader’s Digest [see], reporting on the amazing results that testers are having with trials involving the announced administration of placebos.  By “announced” I mean that the patients were told they were being given placebos, but even so had major success from taking them, just as my actress did with her “magic” blanket.

What they are proving is the power of the human brain to work wonders in self-healing.  From our earliest cave days remedies were urged on sufferers by wise old women or men or self-proclaimed experts of all kinds, and some of these remedies (many of them) worked even if these “experts” were deficient in expertise. And (we all know this) some things today’s doctors prescribe are almost identical to cave healers’ remedies. Doctors, sometimes after a drink or two, will tell you that more than once they’ve written prescriptions for vaguely disguised sugar pills.  Even more important, placebos can help with depression, chronic pain, and many other maladies.  Much of the relief people feel from acupuncture is thought to come from the placebo effect (patients, blindfolded and treated with toothpicks but thinking they were feeling traditional acupuncture, had the same success).

That said, a placebo can’t mend a broken leg of course, nor other truly physical injuries, but it can (in the case of the Reader’s Digest post) help with writer’s block, or with calming yourself down enough to make crucial free throws in a basketball game, or, as with my lead actress, going to sleep in difficult times.

Even if you really know it’s a placebo?  Yes.  As the articles cited above attest that turns out to be unimportant.  What is important is that you feel the need for a talisman, something to help push you over the top of your problem—even if it’s improbable—so that you have done something to clear this stumbling block and now can resume normal life. 

There is even a movement to sell placebos in drug stores labelled frankly as such: “Placebo.”

So, my readers, if you get into one of those strange situations where you feel you need something quirky to get you back to normal, what the hell?  Take a placebo.  Or create your own out of your grandmother’s favorite remedy for the blahs (chicken soup can work wonders).  These things are all cheaper than paying a doctor to give you a sugar pill and direct you to take it once a day.  A warm blanket can help with many problems.

Good health to you all!

Related Posts:

“The Death of Robert Whaley,” September 7, 2010;

“Rape, Biology, and Tricks of the Mind,” January 8, 2015,

“How to Take a (or Many) Pills Easily,” May 26, 2010;

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Why Everyone Should Care About Transgender Rights

Today is Trans Day of Remembrance, reflecting on discrimination, including death, of trans individuals.

Federal law has long banned discrimination on sex and gender, a move originally made to protect the civil rights of African Americans with (a quirk of political history) women thrown in as an afterthought.  When the question about the scope of the Civil Rights Act was addressed the courts originally ruled that “sex” did not include “sexual orientation.”  But in the last few years a number of federal courts changed their minds about this and held that “sex” does extend protection to gays.  Other federal courts disagreed and the matter is likely headed to the Supreme Court.  The Obama administration sided with a broad reading, protecting sexual orientation, and also issued regulations that “gender” should be interpreted to protect transgender individuals who believe they were born as the wrong gender and work to change that as they get older.

But Barack Obama is no longer our president and the Trump administration, having already decided that trans soldiers should be tossed out of the military, has recently circulated a proposed change in federal regulations that would state “Sex means a person’s status as male or female based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth,” adding that “the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate, as originally issued, shall constitute definitive proof of a person’s sex unless rebutted by reliable genetic evidence.”  For the New York Times article on all this see

If adopted this change would encourage the states to enact so-called “bathroom” bills that would require transgendered folks to use restrooms of the gender they were born with, even if they have so dramatically changed themselves that they no longer conform in any way to that gender. 

Upset at this, George Godwyn, who is not himself transgendered, went on Facebook with this entry:

I posted a picture of Buck Angel, a transgender adult film actor, in a few of large, sometimes huge, Trump groups. The picture showed a very buff, ripped Mr. Angel from the waist up, shirtless, with a shaved head and sporting a Fu Manchu mustache. He is an extremely masculine looking guy. With the picture I included the question “This person has a vagina. Which bathroom should they use?”

Here is a picture of Buck Angel:

Mr. Godwyn continued:

I thought at least some of these people will realize how silly it would be to want this man to use the ladies room. How socially awkward and alarming that would be, in so many situations. Putting aside how dangerous it would be for the man, simply on the basis of the immediate, practical effect on the other diners in the given Applebee’s or wherever it was happening.

The post got hundreds of comments, finally thousands. Immediately. The Trump supporters had a very clear answer and they were adamant about it. Almost no one answered with “the men’s room”. A few said things like “if they’ve got a vagina, they use a woman’s room, if they have a penis, they use the men’s room.” But the majority of the of the commenters had an answer I hadn’t considered at all. These people had worked out a very simple solution to the problem of transgender people and the norms revolving public restrooms.

They wanted transgender people to die.

They were quite explicit about it, very blunt. “They should die.” That simple. That concise. “They should die.”

Let me be entirely clear about this – they knew what they were saying, they knew exactly what they wanted. They didn't want a trans man in the men's room and they didn't want a trans man in the woman's room. They wanted the trans man to be dead.

Mr. Godwyn himself received death threats.  A full account of what happened can be found in his subsequent Reddit post from which I took these quotes:

Transpeople are in fact murdered with horrifying frequency, particularly male to females, and these crimes often go unsolved or result in ridiculously small punishments meted out by judges or juries who have little regard for the deceased victims.  Consider that current statistics indicate that 1.4 million people in the United States are transgender.  Should their lives be lesser?

I have quite a history with the gay rights movement in Ohio, being one of the founders of Stonewall Columbus, the leading gay group in Columbus (established in 1981).  See the Related Posts below for many of my discussions about the battles to allow to have gays have the same rights as everyone else—no more, no less.

When the gay rights movement was finally getting major traction in the 1970s and 80s one of the first questions was whether to include bisexuals in the categories of people to be protected.  Believe it or not, some controversy existed as to this.  Many studies showed that there were actually very few true gay male bisexuals.  Most men claiming that title ultimately turned out to be on a path to coming out as a gay man.  But the evidence was strong that a goodly number of women really were bisexual in orientation.  And, as someone pointed out to me at the time, if these folks will join our cause if we let them , why not swell the gathering chorus demanding fair treatment for sexual minorities?

Next came the demand that a “T” be placed at the end of LGB to represent the transgender/transsexual people who are clearly discriminated in truly ugly ways.  At a time when the homosexual community was struggling to accomplish anything at all it was hard to add this new sexual minority to the battle, and the LGB community has a shameful history of resistance to doing so;  see  But in this new century at least the issue is settled: trans people are certainly entitled to the same protection that all LGB people have been seeking.  This is a no-brainer.

And it makes sense to say that straight people’s misunderstanding of what is going on is not grounds for treating sexual minorities—all of them—as subject to different rules in a civilized world.  Sexual minorities are discriminated against because of an inborn characteristic having to do with sex that is different than problems encountered by the large majority of people.  Plus transexuals have the same acceptance problem as homosexuals.  All the LGBT lettered babies are born into a straight-dominated world that doesn’t understand them, a world that thinks what they want to do sexually is a choice (and a bad, even evil one at that), and condemns them for making that choice.  The answer to this mess is the same too:  educate the populace to understand that LGBT individuals should be judged on merits having to do with matters other than sexual orientation or gender identification.  Let's use Martin Luther King Jr.'s standard: the content of their character.

All the scientific and sociological evidence supports the biological assertions in the above paragraph.  Gays can’t choose who to be sexually attracted to; trans people are born knowing what sex they are even when it does not match the body they inhabit.  No one is making this up, and the social problems caused by misunderstanding these issues must be solved in favor of treating all people equally.  Give everybody a chance to make the most out of the life they have been handed.
If you doubt homosexuality is a natural biological phenomenon, look at the scientific evidence.  Even in the animal kingdom it’s routine.  In the 1999 book “”Biological Exuberance” Dr. Bruce Bademihl, in incredible detail, explores the more than 450 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, insects worldwide who engage in homosexual activity.

Gays are largely winning the public acceptance battle, but---damn it---the trans community is in trouble.  The chief reason is that the nature of transgender problems sounds too bizarre and foreign for most people.  But if you are a mother whose three year old son tells you that “I’m really a girl, Mama,” you’ll have to confront a very different future than you had planned.  How parents (and society) react to this statement makes all the difference.  Forcing the child to behave and adopt the trappings of the birth sex—the usual choice—does not work, any more than forcing gay people to marry the opposite sex does.  As soon as the trans child figures out what is really going on and how to escape, he or she sets out to do what can be done to become the person he or she knows is the true center of their universe.

These struggles are huge, scary, and very hard for people who are born into the “right” sex (“cisgender” people: those happy with the sex assigned at birth, i.e., most of us) to understand.  Or, even understanding, then empathizing with.  Want to see what it would be like?  Test your empathy for the dilemma?  Hmm.  Try this: Watch at least one episode of the FX show entitled “Pose,” which tells the incredible story of the trans community in 1980s NYC  (eight terrific episodes so far), acted mostly by trans actors themselves.  Season One is available on cable’s FX channel:; or on Amazon Prime.  If you watch the first episode you will watch them all.

Mr Godwyn’s Reddit post on how astounded he was at the hatred he encountered by supporting transgendered people only emboldened him further.  Here is his conclusion:

I don’t care who you are, I don’t care where you are in the political spectrum, I don’t care how fucking liberal or leftist you are, I don’t care how feminist you are, if you don’t support trans-rights, you are not on my fucking side. I don’t give a fuck about your bio–essentialist arguments, I don’t give a fuck about your history with men, I don't care about your pissing eight year old or your bigot grandmother. Frankly, I don’t give a fuck about your traumatic sexual assault if it means you’re going to take it out on some fucking teenage girl who doesn’t want to have to use a bathroom with a bunch of frat boys and have the same fucking thing happen to her.

Here's my own final thought.  We are in a world in which decisions are being made about who is worth protecting.  Me?  I choose everyone. 

Now make your choice.

The Trans Memorial Flag

Related Posts:

“The Aging Gay Rights Activist,” March 24, 2010;

“The History of Gay Rights in Columbus, Ohio,” June 4, 2012; 

“Homosexuality: The Iceberg Theory,” April 25, 2010; 

“Must a Baker Create a Cake for a Gay Wedding?  What Will the Supreme Court Likely Say?” September 28, 2017;

“Does the Bible Condemn Homosexuality and Gay Marriage?” June 29, 2014;

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A Prediction: Brett Kavanaugh Will Resign from the Supreme Court Within Two Years

Well, by golly, it sure looks like Trump and the Republicans in Congress have succeeded in putting a man on the Supreme Court who has a past involving ugly behavior with women (especially in his early drinking days).  But Brett Michael Kavanaugh appears to have reformed and now is a model of how a man should behave when dealing with and hiring women, and good for him for that.  However, his past is still there, somewhere.  It isn’t going away.  People are going to find it and display it for the world to consider.

Almost all of us have some incident or incidents in our personal history where we did not behave in accordance with the image we have of ourselves, nor observe standards we hold ourselves to in our normal lives.  These things are incredibly painful to think about.  And we don’t think about them—or try not to.  Now imagine how horrible it would be to have debated on television with millions of people watching!  Yikes!  Poor Brett!

Here’s Justice Kavanaugh’s problem.  If the allegations against him are true (as many people, myself included, believe) there are lots of witnesses still around who saw or experienced this debauchery  when Brett was intoxicated and partying.  Women/girls were pawed, insulted, roughly handled, assaulted, and, in some allegations, even raped.  Now that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford has opened the door for women to come forward, we are going to hear from lots more of them.  Attorney Michael Avenatti, a legal bulldog with his jaws firmly clamped around Kavanaugh’s leg, is finding more and more of these women to speak up, tell their stories, and these tales are all going have very similar threads: drunken behavior making an otherwise fine man do indefensible things. 
Avenatti is not alone.  With a saga this good, a historical event inevitably unwinding day by day, and a public fascinated by this train-wreck-in- progress, digging into Kavanaugh’s past will be the favorite sport not only of story-hungry reporters but also historians (professional or not) who want to see where the trails lead, and thus the unraveling begins.  Names, etched in history, are going to be made from this investigation.  Mark Judge, Kavanaugh’s boozehound friend, has clammed up so far, but at some point someone is going to get him to talk. 

Lawsuits are highly likely to be filed against Brett Kavanaugh, and his status as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court will not shield him even slightly from such troubles.  Legal nightmares will take up a lot of his time and keep him in the news while he gamely tries to concentrate of the legitimate business of the Supreme Court.  In Maryland and the other jurisdictions in which these events supposedly took place there is no statute of limitations for rape or attempted rape.  How will it look when People v. Kavanaugh is on the nightly news for months as the trials takes place?


One of the Justice’s problems (a difficulty, alas, we all have) is the matter of “confabulation.”  Confabulation is the mental trick by which we all rewrite our own history, changing the details, telling the story slightly each time, building up false memories, often of events that when refigured are completely the opposite of what really occurred.  I’ve written about this before when it happened to new anchor Brian Williams, causing him to resign from his NBC Nightly News post [see Related Posts below].  Here’s how it always happens: the first time we relate a story about what occurred it's usually more or less right.  The second time the story changes slightly but we don’t notice it.  The third time it’s quite different, and so on.  You can be certain this plays a part in Kavanaugh’s reactions to the charges against him.  His versions of his conduct as a teenager (which he will believe with all his heart) will omit much that he really did.  Everyone does the same cleansing process with their memories.  I do.  You do too.  But confabulated events in our own minds are not thereby made factually true.  And when the evidence of what really happened is displayed for all to see, shocking us to our core, doom can follow swiftly.

If this happens either Kavanaugh will be forced to resign or Congress will take steps to impeach him.  There have not been many impeachments of federal officials in our national history, but the majority of those that ending in a guilty vote were of federal judges.

I may be very wrong about this case.  Kavanaugh might be totally innocent in spite of that damning high school yearbook (exhibit A in his trials), and if so there is nothing worth pursuing.  The scandal will piddle out, or at least be no more than an ugly incident in his past like that of Justice Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill from 1991 when lesser allegations of sexual misconduct were made against that jurist.

But I doubt that’s the result here.  And I suspect every night when Kavanaugh’s head touches his pillow he says a silent prayer that he won’t wake up to morning news with headlines screaming his name.  Every night.  For years.

Related Posts:

“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013:

“We Are All Brian Williams: Confabulation Muddles All Our Stories,” April 20, 2015,

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Telephone Trees and Other Horrors of the 21st Century

I will turn 75 this September so, readers, let me take you back to a world from the last century where things worked like this: 

1.  When you called the phone number of a business or governmental agency a real person answered your call and promptly directed you to the appropriate area of the entity.  This real person spoke English in a clear fashion and could be reasoned with if there was a problem.  I know this is hard to believe, but try.

2.  Life did not revolve around a little machine that you were required to carry with you at all times lest you miss important messages (emails, texts, popup warnings) or be stranded without entertainment.  If you were going to be detained and wanted something to amuse yourself you carried a physical book.  I know this sounds crazy.

3.  You were not exposed to unwanted advertisements in every direction you turned and particularly not when trying to do something important like seeking help in an emergency or troubling situation.  It would have been considered rude to begin a contact with a prospective customer by forcing him/her to first view and then delete an ad.  Businesses doing so would have been shunned into bankruptcy.

But what I miss most about these “good old days” was that the entities with whom you had dealings were very good (on the whole—there were, of course, exceptions) with listening to your problem and suggesting a solution.  Nowadays when you face a problem, say a difficulty caused by your television cable company, there are a number of gloomy steps you can anticipate before you ever get to the final person who might be able to help you.  You can bet you’ll spend something close to an hour before there's any chance of a resolution.

Consider my dilemma of last Saturday.

As a certified Chicago Cubs fan since 1968 (see Related Posts below for the evidence) I have been thrilled since the Cubs finally won the World Series (after a drought lasting since 1908).  My enthusiasm led me this year to signing up (at a cost of over $170) with Spectrum for access to the Major League Baseball channels that broadcast most games on a daily basis.  Every day I hunt up and record the Cubs game and DVR it so that I can watch it at my leisure later in that day or the next, skipping commercials and rain delays and replays and conferences on the mound, etc.  It takes me about two hours to watch a game, and faster if the Cubs get far ahead or behind.

Every so often the game I have chosen fails to record, but this is rare, or was until this past weekend when for two days in a row scheduled recordings failed to materialize. 

With considerable dread (since I have had these dismal telephone battles with Spectrum in the past) I put in a call to Spectrum and encountered the usual telephone tree, starting with a cheery recorded female voice asking me to answer a series of questions (“Is this call in connection with the account listed for the phone number you have used to call us today?”).  I endured various mechanical queries until I was given choices for the next step, and I chose “Cable Box,” hoping it would be right.  Reaching the next branch on the tree I was told there would be a wait but that they would call me back if I wanted them to, so I chose that option and hung up.  Ten minutes later a real person in the voice of a woman who sounded like it had been a long day for her asked me to describe my problem.

I launched into an explanation of all of the above, adding that I was paying extra for this service and it was annoying to have it fail me, and then asking how it could be fixed.

“You’ve reached the wrong department,” was her laconic response.  “Let me transfer you to the television branch.”  Trying not to snarl I replied, “Please,” and waited through about two minutes of flute solo until a young man with a confident voice asked how he could help me.  I took a deep breath and recreated my story once again, with the same plea about wasted money, and then waited for his expertise.  “Sounds like you should have rebooted,” he commented dryly.  This annoyed me.  I have in the past rebooted the cable system when told to do so, but didn’t know it was expected of me for any and all problems.  The man smugly replied, “Oh, you should reboot every two weeks to keep the system running properly.”  I felt anger rising in me.  “And how would I have known this?” I asked.  He ignored by question and merely repeated, “It’s just what you should be doing.  Of course we could send out a man to look over the problem in a day or two, but if you’ll just reboot regularly that should solve the problem.”  Suppressing words I first learned in my Navy days and tamping down the urge to demand that some of my wasted money be refunded, I muttered that I would try it and clicked off. 

I did reboot and since then have successfully recorded one game, but I’m still pissed.  Now I must train myself to reboot every two weeks to solve problems that Spectrum itself creates, and (like most consumers in 2018 I'm resigned to accept that it was all my fault) I will probably adapt to this regimen.  I abandoned up any attempt to press Spectrum for a refund of some of my money.  The amount is too small and even though I could make them do it (I’m a Professor of Law and a nationally known expert on consumer legal rights) it would take more effort than it's worth.  Pursuing this with the smug young man I'd been talking to would have led me further into the Spectrum telephone maze before I got to their legal department and explained how easy it would be for me to file a complaint in the Small Claims Court and the joy it would give me to put a garnishment on Spectrum’s bank account if the company didn’t promptly pay up.  I have done such things in the past when sufficiently angered, but recovering, say, $4.84 wouldn’t be a wise expenditure of my time, however pleasurable it would be to annoy Spectrum in this way.  You have to pick your battles, so I surrendered on this one.

But consider what sheep we’ve all become in 2018.  The corporations with whom we must deal (and governmental agencies, etc.) really don’t care if their consumer complaint systems are efficient from the consumer’s point of view.  Their major concern is to set up a system convenient (and cheap as possible) for the company.  The electronic voices get no pay and don’t drain corporate coffers in the way human operators would.  And once most people realize that there is no simple solution that will help, many of them will just live with the agony rather than spend an inappropriate amount of time scaling that telephonic tree, wasting a productive part of the day.  Apparently there’s no profit in making things easy for your customers once you’ve hooked them.

So, damn it, I’m a sheep because I can’t be anything else if I want to watch those Cub games.


[Click to enlarge]

Related Posts:

"My Sad Tale of Being a Chicago Cubs Fan," May 27, 2015;

“My Battle with Sony To Get a Refund on a DVD Player”;

"The Payment-In-Full Check: A Powerful Legal Maneuver," April 11, 2011;

"I Threaten To Sue Apple Over an iPad Cover," April 8, 2011;