Philip Seo

First published July 19th, 2018

Picture this: It’s 3 o’clock in the morning. You can’t sleep. You settle in front of the television to watch a rerun of Dirty Dancing. And then it hits you: Ask your doctor.

Even as your eyelids sag, some part of your primitive forebrain snaps to attention. Medical training has turned us all into multitaskers, and even as some part of you is desperately trying to fall asleep, another part of your brain has just woken up.

Then you hear it: Not to be used if you have a history of myocardial infarction or stroke. Some patients may experience a paradoxical worsening in their symptoms. Use with caution if you have a history of major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder.

Then the refrain hits: Ask your doctor.

Then you see it: Happy people, laughing at a picnic, on the beach or at a touch football game, with sunlight streaming down. Meaningful looks are exchanged. More smiles ensue. Clearly, something good is happening here, but what?

That is a little harder to discern, because you only started paying attention to the commercial when the anonymous announcer started to rattle off, in rapid succession, all of the medical diagnoses and issues that stand between you and that happy ending. If only you could take this pill, happiness could be yours.

John Oliver, host of the eponymous show on HBO, has an intermittent feature that he calls “How Is This Still a Thing?” He uses this feature to focus on anachronisms or oddities of American culture that persist, despite our inclination to think of ourselves as enlightened. Daylight saving time, which causes us to gain, and then lose, an hour of sleep every year. The penny, which serves to provide commerce with a level of precision that nobody wants. Columbus Day, which celebrates the man who did not discover America.

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