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"Wait a second. We knock out the turret to get the fighters. But to get the turret, we've gotta get through the fighters. We're dead."
Alex Rogan, The Last Starfighter
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You have two chests that you need to open. The key to chest one is in chest two, and the key to chest two is in chest one. Now what?

A Catch-22 Dilemma is a situation that a character cannot resolve or get out of, because they have nowhere to start working on it. Each step they must take relies on completing the step before it, but starting the first step requires already having completed the last one.

It generally appears in one of two types: either each of the objectives they must complete to progress rely on some other objective already having been completed first, or at least two of the objectives they need to complete are mutually forbidden.

Both types leave the character frustrated and with nowhere to start in solving the problem or escaping the situation.

Often, the solution lies in taking a third choice or Cutting the Knot. In games, finding the Dungeon Bypass the designer or GM overlooked is also an option. When time travel is possible, you can sometimes pull this off with a Stable Time Loop.

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The form of "You must submit Document A with your application for Document B, but you have to present Document B to get Document A" is a favorite tool of Obstructive Bureaucrats. Rules Lawyers or people attempting to cause problems by Bothering by the Book also use it, since in virtually any bureaucracy or set of rules, there's at least one set of rules or regulations that are interlocked or contradictory, and can be exploited this way.

In common usage, a Catch-22 Dilemma is also known as simply a "Catch-22", after the book of that name by Joseph Heller. We have a page for the book at Catch-22, which is why this trope page doesn't use that exact name. Other names for this kind of dilemma are a "Closed Logical Loop" or a "Circular Bind"; in engineering and programming, it's called "The Deadly Embrace"; another term in programming is a "Deadlock".

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The term covers two similar but not identical situations. In one, two things are conditions precedent to each other. In the other, a desired outcome has two conditions precedent, one of which rules out the other.

Related but different tropes:

  • Begging the Question: A logical fallacy where you claim to prove something simply by asserting that it's true (usually in slightly different wording; Circular Reasoning is similar, but with more than two steps intervening between the postulate and the assertion).
  • Chain of Deals: where a character trades Item A to get Item B, trade that to get Item C, and so on. A Chain of Deals may become a Catch-22 Dilemma if the last item is needed to get the first item ("There's a hole in my bucket...").
  • Logic Bombs are sometimes built on Catch-22 Dilemmas.
  • The Key Is Behind the Lock: A subtrope where an item is locked, and the key to the lock is in the item. You need to unlock the lock to get the key to unlock the lock. They are most often solved by finding some way to open the item without the key.
  • Morton's Fork: The same bad result occurs no matter what you do. The reason it occurs is different with each option, though.
  • Unstable Equilibrium: A losing RTS player needs more resources to adequately match their opponents, but the only way to get those resources is to take them from opponents...whom they can't match with the resources they have.


Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • One Piece:
    • Discussed in the Fishman Island arc, during a flashback: Vander Decken is talking about marrying Princess Shirahoshi for her latent powers, who was still 6 at the time. His subordinate then tells him about a national treasure, a kind of drug that can age up whoever consumes it, and it might solve the age problem. The problem is, as said subordinate points out, the treasure is tightly guarded by the royal palace and the only legal way to obtain it is... marrying the royalty (the princess, in this case). In the end, though, Decken just decides to wait until she's aged normally.
    • In the Thriller Bark arc, Gecko Moria steals Luffy's shadow, uses it to animate a giant zombie called Oars and sets it on the rest of the crew. One way to return the stolen shadows is to defeat Moria, and as the battle goes on it seems like that the only way to defeat Oars is to remove Luffy's shadow. At one point Moria appears in a special cockpit in Oars' chest, giving the crew this dilemma; They need to get to Moria to stop Oars, but in order to get to Moria, they need to beat Oars. Eventually, the crew gets around this by breaking Oars' spine so that that the zombie can't move, even with Luffy's shadow.
  • In Kaguya-sama: Love Is War Ishigami wants to quit the student council because Kaguya terrifies him, but he can't... because Kaguya terrifies him.

    Comic Books 
  • A Sturmtruppen story arc inspired by the Trope Namer focused on the efforts of a soldier to be declared insane, so he'll be able to ask for discharge on those grounds. After volunteering for a chore you had to be insane to volunteer for (namely, disposing of avariated nitroglycerine, more prone to explode than normal nitroglycerine. When he does volunteer, the sergeant actually asks him if he's insane), the sergeant is finally convinced he's insane, so he asks for a discharge... And the doctor points at the catch-22 in the rules, stating that if you ask for discharge on grounds of insanity you're not insane. The soldier is promptly stuck with the mission, goes actually insane, and is discharged on those grounds.

    Comic Strips 
  • FoxTrot had a comic where Jason asks Roger if he can hang out with his friend Marcus, and Roger answers "I'm okay with it if your mom is." Then when Jason asks Andy, she says "I'm okay with it if your father is." The comic ends with Jason reading a book on formal logic, trying to figure out whether they actually gave him permission or not. The next comic had Paige asking a similar question and getting the same answers... and she simply interprets that as an okay.
  • Invoked in Dilbert by Wally as an excuse for being unable to get any work done.
  • An early Peanuts strip has Charlie Brown lamenting to Violet that he wanted to build himself a workbench, but doesn't have a workbench to build it on.
  • A Beetle Bailey strip has the company run out of requisition forms, and discover that you can't requisition new ones without filling out a requisition form.
  • In the 2015 reboot of Bloom County, Opus is conscripted into being a Presidential candidate, which he does not want. In the strip seen here, a government official tells him he can't withdraw his candidacy, except by reason of insanity. When Opus tries that, the guy makes him swear he does not want to be President — which means he's clearly sane, and thus cannot withdraw. The official's desk actually has "Cancellations — Catch-22 Division" written on it.

    Fan Works 
  • In My Immortal: if you aren't a legit goff, Tom Rid won't give you the "real" goffic clothes. But you can't be a "real" goff without them, so you can't get the "real" goffic clothes unless you already have them. Oh, and you're not considered a true goff unless you know all goffic knowledge, but if you didn't have said information at some point, then you're a poser.
  • In Witches of Westfield Andromeda Tonks decides to resume the Healer internship she abandoned when she became pregnant with her daughter.
    Andromeda: It seems that there are some additional classes I'll need to sit as it has been a number of years since I dropped my previous internship. Sadly, in order to sit the classes I need to be in an internship, which I can't get without sitting the classes. It's all rather maddening.

    Films — Animation 
  • Sugar Rush Speedway in Wreck-It Ralph invokes this trope. The nine racers who will be on next day's roster are decided by a race held after the arcade closes, and the entrance fee is a coin; those who don't place in the top 9 don't get on the roster, thus can't earn any coins that day, so if they use the last of their coins to enter the qualifying race and don't place, they can never again be on the roster and thus can't ever get any more coins. This is done to keep Vanellope, supposedly a glitch, from racing, though why it hasn't yet caught any of the others is not explained. (Conceivably the coins can simply be shared between friends, but this is never stated.)

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Red Tails the brass are trying to decommission the Tuskeegee Airmen because they haven't scored any air-to-air kills. This is because they haven't been assigned to an area where such kills are available, officially because they haven't scored any air-to-air kills. In this case it's a blatantly obvious cover for simple racism on the part of the brass, and the problem is solved when the unit's major and his white boss who helped him set the unit up call the brass on their BS and basically browbeat them into letting the Red Tails provide the air support for an amphibious assault. They not only down several Bf-109s in the air, they follow them back to base and have a fun time blasting it to pieces.
  • Lampshaded by Alex Rogan in The Last Starfighter. The Ko-Dan have too many fighters for him to take out ship-to-ship, so the plan is to destroy a communications array on The Mothership to disrupt command-and-control. But to get to the comm turret, they have to get through the fighters. In the end they Take a Third Option they didn't know was available at the time of the conversation: they hide in a cave so they can hit the command ship from behind and get the turret without needing to hit the fighters, which are several kilometers ahead of the carrier.
  • Camp X-Ray: Ali hasn't done anything wrong, so he should be released. However, the very fact that he's been in Guantanamo means no country will take him in, so he can't be.
  • Akira Kurosawa's film Ikiru has an extended scene showing a group of frustrated residents being directed from one city-hall office to another to yet another, in hopes of registering a complaint; they wind up being referred right back to the first person they tried to complain to.
  • In the flashback intro to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Thorin is caught in one. He can't reclaim his kingdom without dealing with Smaug, but the only way he can see to defeat Smaug is to rally the armies of the other dwarf kingdoms, who will not answer his call unless he is king. Gandalf suggests that he Take a Third Option: hire a thief to steal back the crown jewels from Smaug's horde, at which point Thorin can be crowned king and call upon his brother kings for aid.
  • In John Wick: Chapter 2 John Wick is caught in such a scenario. The impossible task mentioned from the previous movie was accomplished using the help of Santino D'Antonio who is associated with the High Table (an international conglomerate of mafias), help that was provided using a blood oath. The Continental Hotel has a rule that all blood oath markers must be respected once cashed in, meaning the owner of the blood oath can force the recipient to fulfill any one task they desire on punishment of death if they refuse to comply. Santino cashes in the blood oath he has on John Wick, wanting him to assassinate his sister who inherited their father's leadership position at the High Table rather than him. John Wick who by this point is sick and tired of being an assassin refuses the blood oath, only to have Santino burn his house down as retribution for refusing; only leaving him alive because he still needs him to fulfill the task. Winston despite liking John Wick a lot more than Santino doesn't have the power to override the blood oath system and tells John that he must obey it or else his life is forfeit. Not even killing Santino will fix the situation because then the Continental will be forced to hunt him down and execute him, nor can he refuse for the same reason. The only way out of the Catch 22 is to fulfill Santino's task, and then he will have free reign to get revenge on Santino for burning down his house. note 
  • Angel and Big Joe: Angel needs his phone fixed. Joe tells him to call the phone company. Angel says "How am I going to call the telephone office if my phone's broken?"

    Literature 
  • The term was coined by the Joseph Heller novel Catch-22. It crops up over and over again there, in several forms:
    • Yossarian can be exempted from flying more bombing missions if the doctor does a mental evaluation and declares that he's crazy. But for the doctor to make that declaration, Yossarian would have to request an evaluation. Requesting an evaluation because he doesn't want to fly more bombing missions proves that he's not crazy, because not wanting to risk your life repeatedly isn't crazy at all.
    • An Italian peasant woman deals with soldiers who claimed that the actual text of Catch-22 did not have to be revealed when carrying out orders related to it, meaning that "they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing." (In simple terms, "We don't have to provide a citation of the rule that allows us to do this because the rule that we're claiming allows us to do this says we don't have to provide a citation of it.")
    • Captain Black issued an order that everyone had to sign a "loyalty oath", but did not allow Major Major to sign it, then began harassing him because he hadn't signed it and, when Major Major asked to be allowed to sign it, Captain Black continued to refuse to allow him to sign it on the grounds that he hadn't signed it when the order was first issued.
    • Major Major uses it himself, giving his aide orders that no one is allowed to see him while he's in his office. But people must be allowed in sometimes, so he orders his aide to allow them to see him when he's not in his office. (When he sees someone coming who he doesn't want to deal with, but who outranks him, and therefore could countermand his order to his aide, he jumps out the window.)
    • When Clevinger gets fed up with Yossarian ruining his bi-weekly educational sessions with pointless questions, he complains to Colonel Korn. Korn then makes it a rule that the only people who can ask questions during sessions are the people who never ask questions during sessions. The sessions are then discontinued altogether, since it is both pointless and impossible to educate people who never questioned anything.
    • A prostitute laments that no man would want to marry her, because she's not a virgin. But when a man expresses a willingness to marry her, she flatly turns him down — on the grounds that she's not a virgin.
    • After Doctor Daneeka is mistakenly declared to have been killed on a flight that crashed, he tries to get it fixed, but nobody will let him speak to the people who have the authority to correct this because they can't schedule an appointment for a dead man.
  • In Atharon, for a mortal to get an audience with the Avatar of his/her class so they can submit their (prayer) request, they need to make an appointment with one. To make an appointment with the Avatar, mortal needs to see! the Avatar of at least their discipline (other Avatars won’t do it, because they do not care about classes not related to their disciplines), after which it takes at least two months (up to several years!) until the Avatars make their decision whether to grant it or not. Except, a chance of mortal seeing any Avatar out in the real world is slim to none, because they rarely leave their audience chamber. To even get to the door of the audience chamber, a mortal has to pass a series of gruelling tests. You don’t like the rules? Luckily, there’s a shortcut: after mortal’s death, said mortal gets to see the Avatar of their class immediately, no tests needed! Unluckily for the mortals, they come to see Avatars to be judged and sent to heaven or hell, and are unable to make any requests or bargain with the Avatars at that point (because they’re dead). One of the POV characters resolves it by Taking A Third Option.
  • In Artemis, the best jobs in the titular Lunar Colony are outside the domes. To work outside the domes, you need a license from the EVA guild. To get a license, you need to pass their exams... and pay for your own suit. A new suit costs more than any middle-class Artemis colonist makes in a year... unless they work outside the domes. Jazz (the protagonist) nearly dies on the first page trying to do an end-run around their racket with a used suit, leaving her having spent thousands of slugs All for Nothing.
    • Bonus points; the precise reason that EVA jobs pay so well... is because there aren't enough certified suit users. It's textbook protectionism.
  • Isaac Asimov's "The Dead Past": Potterley points out the circular reasoning behind Foster's rejection of neutrinics. It's not offered in schools because the field is useless. Neutrinics must be a useless field because otherwise it would be offered in schools. Potterley concludes that the dilemma means the world government is trying to suppress scientific research into neutrinos and past-viewing.
    "It's not given because it's unimportant. And it's unimportant because it's not given." — Arnold Potterley
  • Discworld: In Soul Music, Musicians' Guild membership costs AM$25.00 (plus AM$15.00 compulsory voluntary pension fund contribution and AM$35.00 as a percentage of ... something). Without membership, a musician can't perform in Ankh-Morpork (at least, not for long), and without performing, there's no way the average musician can raise AM$75.00.
  • Empire from the Ashes: One such dilemma is a major reason why, in the first book, the mutiny aboard Dahak takes over 50,000 years to resolve: the spaceship's central computer is given orders by the captain to not leave the Solar System until the mutiny is resolved, and the rest of the crew has been forced to evacuate the ship. It also can't do anything until it receives orders from its new captain. However, due to sabotage in its onboard power plants, the computer is mostly out of action for 110 years after the mutiny, and when it finally comes back online fully, all of the bridge officers (who have communication implants) are dead, and all of the lifeboats used by loyal crewmembers, which have communications equipment, have been destroyed, meaning that no loyal officers can order the ship to pick them up, and the computer can't consider doing so. In the present day, the computer, which has developed full self-awareness, is noticeably embarrassed when explaining this to the protagonist, who actually drops the trope name.
  • P. G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster: In the short story "The Artistic Career of Corky", from Carry On, Jeeves (1925), Bertie Wooster explains a problem for budding artists: "You see, the catch about portrait-painting — I've looked into the thing a bit — is that you can't start painting portraits until people come along and ask you to, and they won't come and ask you to until you've painted a lot first. This makes it kind of difficult, not to say tough, for the ambitious youngster."
  • The Gordon Korman book Ungifted has Noah lament that the only way to get out of the gifted program would be an act of sheer genius, but that everyone displaying sheer genius gets sent to to the gifted program.
  • Land of Oz: In Paradox in Oz, Ozma meets a barber who impressed the princess of his land with his haircutting skills so much that she passed a rule decreeing that he must cut the hair of anyone who doesn't cut their own hair. The other barbers of the land didn't want him cutting their hair, however, so they asked the princess to amend the rule to say that he isn't allowed to cut the hair of someone who does cut their own hair, which landed him into the quandary of whether or not he's allowed to cut his own hair. (In short, the barber paradox.) The result being that he's let his hair and beard grow long enough to cover the entire floor of his shop because he can't decide what to do with them.
  • A minor example shows up in The Rithmatist when Joel and Professor Fitch are attempting to determine the properties of the new Rithmatic line they've discovered at the crime scenes. They know it is a Rithmatic line, because Fitch's chalklings react to it as one, but they can't figure out what it does. The obvious solution would be to draw the new line themselves and see what happens, but since you have to intend to draw a Rithmatic line to draw it (which is why all straight lines don't turn into Lines of Warding and so on), they have to know what the new line does before they can draw it.
  • In the Saga of Recluce nove The Death of Chaos by L. E. Modesitt, Jr., the protagonist, Lerris, arrives at a base where his consort is stationed. The guard at the gate refuses to let him in without a pass, and after asking several questions, Lerris learns the only people who can give him a pass are inside the base he needs a pass to get into, and the guard won't call anyone who can help. After a few failed attempts at reasoning with the guard, Lerris gets impatient and tries to enter anyway, resulting in about a dozen guards trying to hack him apart. Luckily, an officer who knows Lerris arrives to sort things out, and the guard who started the whole mess receives an (offscreen) chewing out for his behavior.
  • The Norlaminians of the Skylark Series are stuck technologically because their planet utterly lacks metal X, which is essential to put their advanced theory into practice. They do have primitive rockets, but all expeditions to the nearest X-rich solar system have failed. Though they can project themselves to other planets of their solar system, they cannot travel between stars this way, since that requires metal X.
  • Wayside School: In Sideways Arithmetic from Wayside School, the last True/False question is as follows:
    1. Statement 2 is true.
    2. Statement 1 is false.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Supernatural: The only thing capable of killing a dragon is a special dragon-killing sword, which can only be made by using the blood of a dragon when it's forged. This is explained in other material. (spoiler) 
    Dean: So you need one to kill one, but you got to kill one to make one. How does that work out?
  • The detectives in Law & Order have run into this a few times: they know evidence is somewhere, but can't prove probable cause to search the place. Essentially, to find the evidence, they need the evidence. Generally resolved by finding a weak piece of evidence that lets them search the place they really wanted to.
  • The season 2 premiere of CSI: Cyber has a sideplot of the team hoping to take down a revenge porn site and running into a common Catch-22 created by Fourth Amendment protections: they can't get a warrant without probable cause, but they can't get enough evidence for probable cause without a warrant. They try an end-run around it by checking to see if a victim's phone was hacked for the nudie pics (which would constitute probable cause to seize the servers as evidence), but it doesn't pan out.
  • The three main female protagonists on Friends run into this issue when performing a ritual to change their love luck.
    Phoebe: Okay, all right. Now we need the semen of a righteous man.
    Rachel: Huh. Okay, Pheebs? You know what? If we had that, we wouldn't be doing the ritual in the first place.
  • In The Monkees "The Monkees' Paw" episode, after Micky finishes talking with their union agent:
    Micky: He said we can't work until we pay our dues.
    Peter: And we can't pay our dues until we work.
  • Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.: In "Gomer, the Perfect M.P.", Gomer is on MP duty, with orders from Sgt. Carter not to admit anyone without proper identification, and in order for Carter to enter the base, he has to show his ID, which is impossible since it's in his wallet which is back at the base.
  • The Practice: Ellenor laments this trope when trying to save a man on death row in Pennsylvania. To get him off, she needs new evidence showing his innocence, which is DNA. She can't get it tested however, which is what she needs to do for that. They find a way around it and get the new evidence later.
  • Kamen Rider Zi-O: The way the series normally works, the Monsters of the Week are "Another Riders", evil versions of the heroic Kamen Riders who can only be defeated with the powers of the originals. However, this gets thrown off by Another Shinobi, who copies a Rider from an Alternate Timeline; the heroes can't travel to different timelines, so the only way they could get Shinobi's powers is by defeating Another Shinobi, which they can't do without Shinobi's powers. Eventually Sougo finds a way around this by convincing the present-day version of Shinobi to believe in himself, creating a bridge to the alternate timeline that gives them access to his powers.
  • Waco: As the FBI surround his compound, one of David Koresh's advisors tells him he's in a Catch-22 because he's had sex with multiple underage girls. Having sex with an underage girl who is at least 14 is statutory rape unless she's your wife, but claiming them as his wives would be an admission of polygamy.

    Music 
  • "Dear Liza (There's a hole in my bucket)": Henry needs straw in order to fix his bucket, but before he can use the straw to fix his bucket he needs to cut the straw, but first he needs to hone his dull old knife so it's sharp enough to cut the straw, but before that he needs to fetch water to wetten his grindstone so that he can sharpen his knife, but in order to fetch the water he needs his bucket, and his bucket needs to be fixed before it can hold any water...
  • "I Can't Defeat Airman". The narrator playing Mega Man 2 can't get through Heat Man's stage, noting it would be easier with Item 2, which is acquired by defeating Air Man — who the player can never beat. It goes on to note Air Man would be easier to beat with the Leaf Shield — but the player can't beat Wood Man either. Though it's not noted in the lyrics, Wood Man's weakness is the Atomic Fire you get from Heat Man so it's a unwinnable circle.
  • Alice Cooper's "Lost In America" is all about this trope.
    I can't get a girl
    Cuz I ain't got a car
    I can't get a car
    Cuz I ain't got a job
    I can't get a job
    Cuz I ain't got a car
    So I'm looking for a girl with a job and a car.

    Myths & Religion 
  • The Pirkei Avot, a classical Jewish text, states that God created the first pair of tongs, because you need a pair of tongs to fashion a pair of tongs.note 
  • In The Four Gospels Jesus taught that those who truly believe will be able to work miracles even greater than his. However, older laws against putting God to the test (sometimes translated as "tempting" god) still apply. The result is trying to actually use such abilities prevents you from using them. Jesus himself was crucified for enforcing this law; the religious authorities offered to believe him if he would but prove his abilities, but that's a literal God Test...

    Tabletop Games 
  • Paranoia: A large portion of the game's enjoyment is putting characters in these situations, often with the threat of death for failure, and letting them find creative, dastardly or amusingly violent ways to get out of it. A good example of this: Troubleshooters (Player Characters) get sent on a mission and are issued weapons to test while they go about the mission. But they also have to bring the experimental weapons back in prime condition. So the sod who gets issued 3 experimental grenades faces the dilemma of either using the grenades like he was supposed to, or bring them back in one piece, like he was supposed to. Failure in following any of the orders usually results in death by termination.

    Theater 

    Toys 
  • If you've got a Rubik's Futuro Cube but not the instructions, you can find out how to use the thing by the Help option, which is in the Red Menu — but if you have only just got the cube, chances are it's still in Beginner Mode, in which only the Blue Menu is available; so in order to find out how to unlock it so you can reach the Green or Red menus, you have to know how to use it. Of course, you can download a copy of the instructions.

    Video Games 
  • The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past has this in the form of a locked chest with its key locked inside: to open it, you bring it to a former thief who agrees to lockpick it for you in exchange for keeping his whereabouts a secret.
  • Pharaoh has a recurring situation where your housing starts devolving because it no longer has access to some services, most often because of a worker shortage. When housing devolves, several citizens are kicked out, reducing the workforce even further, causing the housing to fall to an even lower level, and so on. The only way to fix the situation is to increase the workforce and improve the services, which can only be done by getting new workers to move into the area...
  • Deliberately invoked in the 1980s PC shareware game Master Spy: you control four agents (one at a time), each in his own domain which he cannot leave except through the good exit door (or by returning to the safe house in the middle and meeting the other agents there), and once he leaves his domain, he's out of that game forever. If a loyal agent exits through the bad door with any ticket, or through either door without a ticket, he's trapped and you lose. The problem is that Agent A's domain has the ticket required for B to exit, B has C's ticket, C has D's ticket, and D has A's ticket. Fortunately for you, one agent is The Mole, and the aim of the game is to deliberately trap that agent as well as enabling the escapes of the loyal three; so to win you need to execute the escapes in precisely the right order.
  • The Riddle of Master Lu: In Beijing, there's a gate you might want to go through (not for any particular reason, it's just there), but there's a guard blocking your way, and he won't let you through without a pass, which you can get from behind the gate. It's just a throwaway joke since you don't actually go through the gate at any point, although travelling to the First Emperor's tomb at the end of the game may be implied to involve going that way offscreen.
    Ripley: "I'd like to go through there."
    Guard: "You must have a pass."
    Ripley: "Where do I get a pass?"
    Guard: "Through there."
  • In Kingdom Hearts I, Riku is recruited by Maleficent to gather the hearts of the seven Princesses of Heart in order to retrieve Kairi's heart. The problem with this is that Kairi is a Princess of Heart. In Maleficent's defense, she seems to have believed it would work by gathering the Princesses themselves. The circumvention is a doozy of a spoiler: Kairi's lost heart has taken refuge in Sora, which is a significantly easier destination than everyone thought. Riku (gets possessed by a guy who) uses the other six Princesses' hearts to create a Keyblade with the power to free Kairi's heart from Sora.
  • In Strife, a Red Acolyte in The Bailey drops an Order Key — which you need in order to get into the Bailey in the first place. Fortunately, this key is also dropped by a Grey Acolyte outside the Bailey, both making it possible to get in and making the second drop redundant.
    • Strife is also full of exits to other levels — most of which are to levels whose relevance to the plot was earlier, or which can only be opened from the other side, making them useless as sequence-breaking shortcuts.
  • In Digimon World Dawn/Dusk, if your Digimon loses battles, you lose friendship, best gained through winning battles, and it stops obeying you, leading to more losses... Worse in the case of Lunamon or Coronamon, the most powerful Mons in your party. If they lose in the prologue, you're doomed.
  • Parodied in Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando: a ways into the game, the duo finds a pair of jars that contain a rock and a wrench upgrade. A plaque reads "Use rock to break glass to get wrench to break glass to get rock." Clank is more than eager to try and logic it out... before Ratchet just breaks the new wrench's case open with his old one.
    Ratchet: Solved it.
  • Due to an Unwinnable by Mistake bug in Crusader Kings II's Conclave DLC, player characters ruling nomadic realms sometimes end up in a bind where the members of their realm council dislike them because they want more land, then disagree with granting vassal khans (including themselves) more land, because they dislike the PC due to wanting more land. A similar problem can come up with feudal rulers who are over the cap on held titles. The only solutions are to fire the councilors and get ones who will vote yes, or to pass a law removing the council's ability to vote on title and land grants. You can also sometimes get around it by granting land to one of their relatives.
  • Forges in Dwarf Fortress are necessary for most metalwork (weapons, armor, furniture, coins, etc.), but require an anvil to build. Anvils can only be made using a forge. If you embark without an anvil or have your only one stolen before it's used to build a forge, you'll be unable to do any crafting until a trade caravan brings one into for you to buy—assuming you have any money after spending so long deprived of metalworking. If you're desperate enough, you can also plunder it from another site and hope for the best, if starting the game off with a war against another nation looks worth it. The wiki article for Anvils points out the logical difficulty of this, similar to the Pirkei Avot example with forging the first metal tongs.
  • Accidentally in Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker: the Prince of Thieves Mon can only be obtained by filling the entire Monster Compendium. That is, you need to recruit or breed every monster in the game. The Prince of Thieves is a monster in this game, and is part of the compendium. There's an Obvious Rule Patch for this scenario, but the dev team forgot to apply it.
  • In Sam & Max Save the World, the duo must investigate a casino, but are forbidden from entering a specific door unless they are members of the Toy Mafia. To join, they have to talk with the head of admissions... who is right behind the door they can't enter.
    Max: This is what it would be like if Catch-22 had a meaner, older brother.
    Mobster: Look, I don't make the rules, I just blindly enforce 'em.
  • The Ploxis in Star Control 3 are fond of engineering these situations to entrap other races into servitude. For instance, the Doog owed the Ploxis a large debt which had to be worked off, but in order to do the work they had to buy materials from the Ploxis, which increased the debt. The solution, of course, is for the Captain to buy them out. Another one is the Clairconctlar, who have to serve the Ploxis until their queen says otherwise. Unfortunately the queen has been kidnapped and currently resides on a space station which the Ploxis have forbidden them to visit. Solving that one requires the Captain to commit a crime so heinous that the Clairconctlar would chase him anywhere - even to, say, a forbidden space station - to carry out a death sentence.
  • Discussed in BlazBlue: Central Fiction. In the Act 2, after Makoto fights Izanami, the latter gives her the "Azure", a magical light blue sphere that one can use to materialize their wish. Makoto's wish is for her to always be with her friends, Noel and Tsubaki. But her wish gets immediately undone... by Noel, unconsciously (It Makes Sense in Context). Izanami then tells Makoto to kill Noel so that said "wish-nullifying effect" could be gone... but then she points out that it means Makoto's wish, logically, can't be reality after all. Later in the plot, however, the heroes find the real issue behind Noel's problem, and in the end, Makoto gets her wish by herself.
  • A lot of games in the MMORPG genre usually involve this trope, especially if raiding is part of the endgame. Much like real life job hunting, players who are new and inexperienced to a particular raid and have the equipment for it find themselves unable to join 99% of raids precisely because they are new and inexperienced. The remaining 1% would probably involve joining a guild where they allow such things, and even then nobody would expect such a player to get by without a carry, whether or not they actually needed one.
  • The Outer Worlds: The First Town, Edgewater, is a Company Town that is periodically stricken by plague. There's never enough medicine to treat all the victims due to the Mega-Corp that owns the place cutting corners, so manager Reed Tobson follows company policy and reserves treatment to only "good workers"—here meaning "workers who aren't sick". For bonus points, it's strongly implied that the plague is at least partly due to nutrient deficiency: the town's diet consists entirely of its own canned fish, and beer.

    Web Animation 
  • Freeman's Mind on the Malevolent Architecture of Black Mesa: "Why would you have a ladder in an elevator shaft? To fix the elevator! How do you get on the ladder? You take the elevator that doesn't work! Who thought this one up?!"

    Web Comics 
  • In this strip of Freefall after their ship has been certified to fly, Florence mentions that the inspector didn't have to pass them because the ship is only provisionally certified and he is not required to pass them until they are fully certified. When Sam asks how they get fully certified Florence explains they have to fly the ship and even explains a Catch-22 to Sam (who thinks it's a wonderful thing to introduce to his species).
  • In Phillip Jackson's Sequential Art, panel 136, Pip has to play as a Level 1 serf, and needs armor and a sword to go on treasure quests. (He had a sword and armor upon first spawning in the game, but they were stolen by a Griefer who he tried to join a Pick-Up Group with.) However, armor and swords cost money, which is earned by obtaining treasures. Pip lampshades his dilemma, then solves it by killing grasshoppers to level up.
  • In Stand Still, Stay Silent, while the story didn't address it at the time, Reynir has this concerning getting a magic teacher in Adventure I. He awoke to his powers while in the middle of nowhere with just a handful of other human beings around. The two only mages he can reach, both in the dream and the real world (one of the members of the crew, and the latter's older cousin who relocated to otherwise mage-free Sweden), are of Finnish tradition and hence have magic that works differently from Reynir's. There seems to be a correlation between how close other mages are and how easy it is to reach them via the dream world. The space between mage sanctuaries is dangerous to wander in, and the oldest of the Finnish mages has told Reynir that he's really not supposed to leave his safe area at all, especially considering his current strength. This puts Reynir in a position of not being able to reach other Icelandic mages safely before he gets better at magic, but needing another Icelandic mage to make him better in a decent timeframe. Because of this, he's mostly relying on experimenting and praying his gods for a few pointers, with the latter possibly being an unreliable channel. In later chapters, he's working with variants of a rune he remembers seeing in his home farm once.
  • Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal
    • Parodied in this strip while discussing the book itself. A professor says that the book goes on so long that nobody finishes it, but since nobody finishes it, nobody can claim that it goes on so long.
    • Also parodied in "Skimmed", where a guy is too addicted to social media to stop using social media even though he doesn't like to be addicted to it.
    If I quit, I can't tell people how I quit! It's a Catch-22, sort of.
  • Parodically referenced in Sluggy Freelance in "The Isle of the Ployees", Riff's allegorical dream about corporate jobs. On the Isle of the Ployeesnote , Riff is charged with taming a pr'jeknote  called Catz-Twenty-Two, in the form of a giant cat monster. Naturally this is impossible, at least with the means available. There isn't a clear Catch-22 Dilemma in the story — the monster is just too big and fierce — but given the monster's name, the whole thing must be a reference to a case where a project is undoable because it involves one. Trying to get Mark and Tingnote  to approve new taming technology does involve something similar to this dilemma, since they demand completely opposite things.

    Web Original 
  • The Angry Video Game Nerd:
    • The Nerd sees Stalactite Spite this way in a Batman review. If you go under a Spiteful Stalactite, it hurts you, and to make it fall, you have to go under it. What a paradox. To make matters worse, the game in question, Return of the Joker, added ice physics to the stalactite rooms, to make it harder to get out of the way.
    • In the Tiger Games review, the Bullshit Man from You Know Whats Bullshit makes a cameo appearance and mentions scissors that come in plastic packaging that requires scissors to open.

    Western Animation 
  • Discussed in Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown during the initial organization of the girls' tent in a "democratic fashion". Peppermint Patty wants to prepare ballots, but the girls have to decide first on who passes out ballots.
    Lucy Van Pelt: Wait a minute! You can't vote unless we have ballots!
    Marcie: If we can't vote to see who will pass the ballots, how can we have ballots to vote?
    • She avoids that dilemma by asking those in favor of letting her pass out ballots to say "yes". The proposal is approved with unanimity.
  • In the Porky Pig's Feat cartoon, Porky and Daffy are presented with a massive bill, and the manager won't let them go until they pay their bill. Things don't get any better when Daffy loses the last of the money in a craps game. Since the manager has Porky and Daffy confined to their room, they can't go out and get a job to earn the money, and the manager won't receive the money Porky and Daffy need to pay their bills, since they can't leave the hotel.
  • Beetlejuice faces a Catch-22 in "Super Zeroes." As his own superhero Super Beetleman, he can't join a union of superheroes unless he has a membership card. And a superhero can only get a membership card by being part of the union.
  • In two episodes of The Proud Family, Oscar tells Penny that he wants her to start dating after she's married.
  • In the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "Patrick! The Game", Patrick makes his own board game out of several other game boards taped and glued together and starts making up rules as he goes along. When Squidward lands on the "go to jail" square on the Monopoly-esque game, Patrick tells him one of the only ways he can get out is to roll a 6, which he can't do because he can't roll the dice while in jail (the other way is for someone to say his name).
  • In one episode of American Dad!, Steve wants to go on a hunting trip with Stan, but Stan won't let him come because he's still a boy. When Steve asks how he can become a man, Stan stays it's simple: he has to hunt and kill an animal. Steve then lampshades that he can't do that if Stan won't let him join the hunting trip. He even mentions the book Catch-22, but Stan says that he doesn't read any books he hasn't already read.
  • In "Bee is for Bear" from the PBS animated Curious George, a beekeeper says that she can't remove a beehive from a tree unless the tree branches are trimmed down first. So they call in a tree-trimmer, who would be happy to remove the branches, if something is first done about the bees. It all comes to moot when a baby bear arrives and knocks down the hive.
  • Gilbert finds himself in one of these in an episode of Anne of Green Gables. Gilbert wants money in order to purchase a tripod, so he tries to get a job babysitting for the adults. However, the adults are uncomfortable leaving a child in the care of someone with no experience. Gilbert lampshades his predicament, lamenting that he has no experience, but how is supposed to get experience if no one is willing to take a chance on him? Fortunately, Anne provides a solution when she offers to babysit with Gilbert and oversee his attempts at childcare — since Anne is experienced, the adults are willing to let them both do the job, allowing Gilbert to get paid and get experience with a trainer.
  • In the Steven Universe: Future-episode "I Am My Monster", Amethyst remarks that the best person to take care of someone who turned into a monster would be Steven... except the person who turned into a monster is Steven.

    Real Life 
  • One that's all too common is "The Permission Paradox", where businesses offer starting-level jobs, but require that the person hired already have a certain level of experience. You can't get a job without having experience, but you can't get the experience without having a job.
    • Thankfully can be subverted via certain certifications or training courses that outright say that they count as a certain amount of experience.
    • Additionally, this is often a sign that the job is already meant for a particular candidate, but organizational rules or state regulations require that it is listed publicly for a time. Also alternatively, apply anyway; the posters may prefer to hire a candidate who has less than the required experience over having the job unfilled.
  • Certain type of jobs and careers (especially ones that pay well and/or have good benefits) require a certain educational background and/or a college degree. Going to college costs money. You need a job to make money. Cue the endless circle. Some ways around this are financial aid (which is limited), taking out a loan through the college, or being fortunate enough to have someone willing to help pay for your tuition. Many countries even have free tuition at public universities. Of course, not all options are open for many people due to certain circumstances.
  • Many employers prefer an uninterrupted work history in their job applicants. This creates a dilemma for unemployed applicants, since they're viewed as less employable since they don't already have a job (after all, a skilled or motivated worker would already have a job) so they don't get the job, which creates a larger gap in their work history and causes their references and experience to age and decay, which means they have an even harder time getting a job, leading to the situation where they can't get a job because they don't have a job.
  • One theoretical application of the Alcubierre Drive that would not require large amounts of exotic matter would be to use masses placed along the intended travel path, creating Hyperspace Lanes. Unfortunately these masses would themselves have to be moving faster than the speed of light, so you'd need an Alcubierre drive to make an Alcubierre drive.
  • Politicians who are not "front runners" in elections can't get votes even from people who support them above all other candidates because voters don't want to "throw their vote away" on a candidate who "can't win," but losing votes in this way is exactly what makes them unable to win. One solution that's gained ground outside North America is to switch from a first-past-the-post system (highest vote-getter wins, whether or not it's 50%+1) to a runoff system (50%+1 votes wins; if no one gets it, a second round is held between the top two candidates), or in the Anglosphere and nowhere else to Instant-runoff voting (AKA "alternative vote" in the UK and "ranked-choice voting" in the US), in which the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated if no candidate gets a majority, and the second choice votes on those ballots are added to the other candidates. Repeat until somebody gets at least 50%+1 votes.
    • Elections for a multi-member body (such as a legislature) allow for a third option in the form of Proportional representation, in which there are multiple winners assigned to each party proprtionally to its vote share; naturally, this system requires large, multi-member districts, or even electing the whole legislature on a nationwide basis outright, to work effectively, and if there are any single-member districts at all note  they only form one tier of the legislature's membership.
  • Building a credit score in the US tends to have this problem:
    • Some banks require you to have a credit score to take out a loan or get a credit card. In order to get a credit score, you have to pay back money owed due to loans or credit. Of course, there are ways around this, such as through secured credit cards or piggybacking onto someone else's credit by convincing them to co-sign with you.
    • Similar to the aforementioned "Permission Paradox", having a bad credit score can keep one from getting a job, but getting a job is the best way to improve a credit score.
  • The music composition software Finale PrintMusic, as well as the one for the Magic: The Gathering fan software Magic Set Editor, has a pretty big flaw with their user registration system on their forums. If your account should happen to get locked due to inactivity (and only about 3 months of inactivity will qualify), then it is essentially impossible to get back into it, because you must contact a forum administrator to re-enable it, contact information is found in user profiles, and user profiles cannot be viewed unless you are logged into an account. You can't even make a new account (at least, without setting up an entirely new e-mail address) because the old information is still in the system and cannot be reused.
  • To sign up for Sky services, including internet, you need an email address. To get an email address, you already need internet access. Fortunately, you can borrow someone else's or the like. In rare cases, your original order may run into a problem, in which case you need to sign up again. You can't use the email address you used before because it's already registered with Sky. One way around this, is to use plus-addressing (e.g. if myname@example.com is blocked, use myname+sky@example.com) to create an address which looks different but isn't.
  • UK telephone service provider Lycamobile has a similar problem. You are not told what the phone number of your new SIM card is; to find out, you have to dial *132#. This code only works if you have credit. To get credit you have to top-up, to top-up online you need to register the SIM... and to register it, you need to know the number. The way to break this deadlock is to make the first top-up using a voucher, but if you're housebound and have nobody to go and buy a voucher for you, you're screwed.
  • Stack overflows in programming are often caused by a function needing information from some other function, which in turn needs information from the first function (more functions may be involved), creating an infinite sequence of calls back and forth filling up the stack.
  • Similarly, deadlocks are a significant danger in multithreaded programming. Basically, thread 1 has a lock on resource A, and is waiting for resource B to become available. Thread 2 has a lock on B and is waiting for A. So they each sit and wait for the other to finish, bringing your program to a grinding halt.
  • In object-oriented programming, a class whose constructor takes an instance of the same class as an argument would not be able to be instantiated (unless it's nullableWhat? , in which case one could just pass null as the argument).
  • To get identification paperwork, you need to prove your identity. Which is the purpose of identification paperwork. Thankfully, multiple forms are issued, so you can, for example, use your birth certificate to get your passport. If you lose something along the way, though, good luck.
    • There was a case in Canada of a young man whose identification had actually been destroyed due to becoming a foster child. He ultimately used his criminal record to get a driver's license.
  • The curious case of the now-defunct Lakes Mall in Lauderdale Lakes, Florida. The owners of the then struggling mall, in 1989, were faced with a unique problem: "The owners [of the mall] aren't paying off their mortgage, the mortgage holder charged in a foreclosure suit filed this month. We can't, says the owner, because the mortgage holder — which also leases space in the mall — isn't paying its rent." So the mall owner can't pay the mortgage owner because the mortgage owner can't pay the mall.
  • Often the case with many high schoolers looking for a job to earn enough money to purchase an automobile. Many of these low level jobs ask if you have a reliable way to get to and from your job. In other words, you need a car to get a job in which you're saving up to get a car. Some countries/cities try to go around this by offering cheap ways for students to use public transport...only for businesses to counter by outright requiring a driver's license and a good driving recordnote .
  • During World War II, the International Labour Organization was faced with the potential of this. They were an agency of the League of Nations, but were autonomous enough to keep running despite the League's issues. The problem they realized was that one thing they by their constitution couldn't do was change their constitution without getting approval from the League — so if the League ceased to exist in any sense capable of giving approval, then the constitution couldn't be changed and they'd be stuck as an agency of an organization that no longer existed. Ultimately they just decided that such a situation meant that article of the constitution was no longer in effect, allowing them to amend the constitution using their internal procedures and follow along when the rest of the League's remaining assets and institutions were transferred over to the United Nations.
  • A classic one for computer users is booting up a computer without a keyboard attached to the system in some manner and get "Keyboard not detected, please press F1 to continue."note 
  • Way back in the days of minicomputers and mainframes with very expensive memory, as much as $1 a bit (in the 1960s) or $1 a byte (in the 1970s) it was very important to make programs not use a lot of memory, or the computer didn't have a lot of memory. So someone got the idea of the "overlay," a feature where only part of the program was loaded into memory, and parts you weren't using weren't loaded until you needed them. For example, a word processor wouldn't need the printing function until you wanted to print something, so when you did want to print the editing part could be "swapped out" and the printing part is "swapped in" from the overlay. How this was done was a part of the program called the "overlay manager" that decides which part needs to be brought into memory and which part does not. This was a great idea until someone decided they could save even more memory and put the overlay manager in with the overlays...
  • A Truth in Television version seen frequently in Police Procedurals is created by laws restricting search and seizure, such as the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. A careful criminal can entrap the police by leaving little enough evidence at a scene that the police cannot get sufficient probable cause to be granted a search warrant. They need evidence to get the warrant to get the evidence. The usual solution is to Take a Third Option, often by flipping a witness.
  • In the 2010 Supreme Court case of Berghuis v. Thompkins, defendant Van Chester Thompkins was considered a suspect in a fatal shooting in Southfield, Michigan. After being advised of his Miranda Rights, Thompkins was interrogated by the police; he never stated at any time that he wanted to rely on his right to remain silent, nor did he want to talk to the police, nor did he say he wanted an attorney. According to the court records, Thompkins remained virtually silent throughout the interrogation, and the police decided to make an appeal to his consicence and religious beliefs, asking him if he believed in God, prayed to God, and asked him if he asked God to forgive him for shooting the victim. Thompkins answered yes to each of the questions, and when he realized what happened, he made a motion to suppress his statements, claiming that he had invoked his right to remain silent, had not waived it, and that his self-incriminating statements were involuntary. The court dismissed the motion and sentenced him to life imprisonment without parole. Later, when his attempted appeals were rejected by the Michigan Court of Appeals and the Federal District Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th circuit reversed the decision. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that Thompkins' silence during the interrogation didn't constitute invoking silence, and he waived that right when he knowingly and voluntarily made a statement to the police.
    • In other words, merely being silent doesn't invoke the right to remain silent, since voluntarily and knowingly remaining silent constitutes a waiver of the right to remain silent, and a suspect has to invoke one's Fifth Amendment rights orally and unambiguously in order to properly remain silent.
  • This is often a problem that arises with new technology or media formats:
    • This is what doomed high-quality optical audio disc formats such as Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio. The publishers wouldn't release disks because not enough people had players... but the public wouldn't buy the players because there weren't enough discs for it.
    • The gaming industry's relationship with the Linux operating system can be described this way. Not many people play on Linux because developer support is relatively limited, and developer support is limited because not many people play on Linux. Starting to be averted with services such as Steam getting ports to some distros (Valve even wrote their own gaming-optimized distro for their Steam Machine gaming PCs).
    • This can also affect game consoles too. If a console launches with a poor lineup of games, its launch sales will be poor, which then makes publishers hesitant to release additional games. Usually, it takes a publisher taking a risk on an ambitious game that becomes a Killer App for a console to catch on, or publishers grinding it out with popular games at the beginning of the generation while they wait for the console to catch on.
  • Steam Workshop has many addons that require multiple other addon, which requires the previous addon.Example  Since most addons don't need to be installed in a specific order, you can just install the other addons right after.
  • Team-based multiplayer games can easily get to be this. You have to play and practice to "git gud" and be beneficial to teammates, but to not be The Millstone and get trashed talked by people who think you should just quit, you have to be good to begin with. If you have friends that you can group up with it helps since they're likely to be more patient and help you out, but if not, good luck.
  • An insurance company once had a rule against issuing car insurance to anyone who had not yet registered the vehicle in their name. That was in a state that required anyone trying to register a vehicle to provide proof of insurance in their name. The company eventually changed that rule.
  • Applying for healthcare, insurance, and other similar necessities will have you pay your premiums based on your income and the type of services you get will also depend on your income. It's quite common seeing people who make too much money to qualify for getting health insurance for free and not make enough money to actually afford the medication and doctor visits.
  • Looking up a word in a dictionary to find out how it's spelled. In order to find it, you have to know how to spell it. In most cases, you can get close enough, but with a word like 'pneumonia' you won't find it in the N's.
  • Many chess problems have an obvious-looking solution that runs into this in some form. "In order to execute a mating attack, I have to push my opponent's king into a corner, but if I do, he'll be stalemated before I can reach mate." The real solution usually involves a completely different line of thought.
  • For transgender people, access to medical aspects of transition, such as hormones and surgery, often requires some pre-set amount of time spent living as the identified gender. However, the acceptance of a trans person's gender by society at large may depend on their having medically transitioned. (Eg: you can't change your gender on your passport or other ID without surgery, but you can't use your ID if it doesn't match the gender you present as, so you have to continue presenting as your assigned-at-birth sex just to live your life, so you can't get surgery.)
  • Our current rocket technology is limited by this principle. To go faster, you need more fuel, but that also makes your rocket heavier. Because it's heavier, you need more fuel to move it, which also makes it heavier. This even has a name, "the tyranny of the rocket equation".
  • Debtor's prison of any man unable to pay alimony or child support. He can't make any money while he's locked up, but as his debt only grows he can't be released. Meanwhile, the ex and kids get nothing anyway, and the taxpayer has to foot the bill of keeping him fed and housed in jail.
    • A similar, real example: man couldn't keep up with child support even with a full-time job, so his driving license was suspended, so he lost his job.
    • This problem was far more pronounced in earlier centuries, where debt of any kind could land one in prison and prisons not only prevented an income, but charged for room, board, and such pleasantries as not being tortured (I.E. the "easing of irons.") The prisoner's only hope was to beg, get help from friends, family, and accomplices, or otherwise cut deals.
  • Cigarette smokers face a particularly harsh one when they are faced with a smoking-related health scare. The fear of illness produces anxiety and depression, which in turn heighten nicotine cravings. The withdrawal on top of the worry can cause quite the miserable experience.
  • Substance addictions invariably turn in to Catch-22 situations. The only thing that makes you feel better about your problems is taking the substance, but the substance is creating the very problems that you are using it to escape from.
  • In the early days of organ transplantation, the idea of matching donors wasn't fully understood. This meant that potentially fatal organ rejection was a constant issue for patients. To get around this, they were often given drugs to keep their immune system from attacking the new organ. This often worked, but a weakened immune system left them vulnerable to other diseases, including cardiovascular disease, kidney failure, and even cancer.
  • These contradictory parking signs in Montréal.
  • Some sports teams, like the Dallas Cowboys, are regularly featured in nationally televised games because they draw higher ratings than other teams. And why do they get higher ratings? You guessed it, because they're regularly featured in nationally televised games.


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