Derailed trains of thought
Après moi le déraillement
By Steve Dunham, copyright 2000
Commuter Weekly said it got more mail about this column than about anything else it had ever printed. Personally, I got only one complaint, from a guy who also had left
But the prize goes to a woman who still lives in
The Evil Empire had a society so repressive, economic conditions so bad, and an environment so polluted that the government had to build a wall to keep its own citizens from running away. Until the wall came down, though, and we saw what was behind it, you may have wondered whether the stories you heard about
When I was a young man living in Boston, I thought, like other
Getting in was easy. There are bridges and tunnels connecting
The harsh Whitman regime frowned on foreign journalists who stick their noses into state secrets. While the propaganda disseminated in other states gave a picture of forested hills, pristine beaches, happy industrial workers, and smiling peasants, the reality was far different. Here was a sullen populace, angry at each other, suspicious, aimless but always in a hurry, wandering among their grimy surroundings. They were without hope. This, they believed, was life. But would I escape alive to tell the tale?
My papers and moneytheyre hungry for real cashwere confiscated, and I was assigned to a work battalion picking up medical waste from the beaches. I thought sourly that the
Later they moved us across the state, through the smog, to the bank of the Delaware River (Delaware is an Indian word that means dont drink). On the way, we were put to work on a road crew, where we had to lean on shovels in the blazing sun. Later, on a bus taking us to a new location, we crossed the Raritan River (Raritan is an Indian word that means big toilet). Once we reached the Delaware, we went to work cleaning up the river front, replacing the graffiti on buildings where wind and tide had washed it away.
Across the river we could see Pennsylvania, and time and again we would look wistfully towards that distant land.
Then one night I saw an opportunity to escape. The river seemed less than a mile wide, the guards werent looking, and I thought I could swim it. Dont risk it, said one of the other prisoners. If you swallow any water youll be dead before you reach the other side.
I had to chance it. Quietly I slipped into the river. Gently I swam towards the other side, being careful to keep my head above the surface. Once, a boat passing in the dark cast up a wake that splashed some water into my mouth. It tasted like lima beans. Instinctively I spat it out.
At last I dragged myself up on the Pennsylvania shore. I was surprised to find police waiting for me. Another wetback, one of them said.
No! I cried.
Im from Massachusetts, and I request political asylum. I have just escaped from
Steve Dunham is seeking an asylum.
By Steve Dunham, copyright 2002
Im in line to inherit a farm. In line is about the size of it, too: the owners arent old or sick, and Im not a member of the family, but if no other heir should be available, Im sure I would be at the top of the list.
These generous friends even invited me down to see the farm. They described it as a mix of fields and wooded hills and rustic buildings. Oh, I would love to walk around and see it all, I said.
No, no, you cant do that! they answered. People come on the property without permission and shoot at anything that moves.
Are you sure this farm is located in Virginia and not Bosnia? I asked.
Oh, yes, its in Roanokeby which they mean, It is so far from anywhere that youve never heard of it, but youve heard of Roanoke, right? It is not in Roanoke, or even particularly close to Roanoke.
I did go visit my future farm, and immediately started planning improvements, such as a firehouse pole so that I could slide down from my bedroom to the dining room as soon as the dinner bell rings. Obviously, I wont be the one cooking dinner, so I hope the farm comes with servants. And guards.
The changes wont be limited to the inside. This place is definitely in a war zone. Once I have established myself in the farmhouse, the next step will be to retake the territory. Well begin with a defensive perimeter around the buildings. Wont the poachers be surprised when we start shooting back!
Then I will lead handpicked volunteers to assault the hill. After liberating the woods, we will construct a blockhouse on top of the hill, and build a high wall around the property. It will become known as the Roanoke Wall. Technically it wont be in Roanoke, but it is so far from anywhere that no one has ever heard of it, but theyve heard of Roanoke, and I want tourists to come and see the wall and the battle monument and the winery that I will establish. None of this will be free, by the way.
After the grateful local citizens have elected me King of the Holler, I will settle back to enjoy my retirement. All I will have to do is greet the visitors and watch the money roll in, until the day when people start fighting over who will inherit the farm from me.
Steve Dunham is only 24 years from retirement and plans to settle on a fortified farm in the Roanoke Valley.
By Steve Dunham, copyright 2002
Despite the propaganda put out by a nationwide conspiracy of farmers, supermarkets, yuckitarians, and mothers, the truth is that vegetables are not good for you.
Vegetables are, essentially, weeds. Some are a little bit pretty, the way dandelions are, but vegetables are not flowers, and they especially are not food. In fact, they are generally produced by unnatural processes, which accounts for their bad taste. In fact, the ones that taste the worst are those produced by the most bizarre and arcane methods.
Zucchini is one of the vegetables most commonly mistaken for food. It grows like kudzu in the South or crabgrass in the North. This is because the land is so polluted. Wherever the soil has been contaminated with chemicals, anyone trying to grow pickles will get zucchini instead. (This was an honest mistake at first, because, as everyone knows, pickles are not vegetables.) However, some gardeners, perversely trying to create something we already have too much of (kind of like cloning cats), were not content to use zucchini for something appropriate, such as compost. No, they had to take their home-grown disasters and foist their oversupply of mutant pickles on relatives, co-workers, neighbors, and friends, who soon became ex-friends or moved away.
Cauliflower is yet another weed that masquerades as a flower, although in name only, because it looks like neither a collie nor a flower. Unlike most other vegetables. It is appropriately used for autumn centerpieces, and regarded (correctly) as poisonous.
Then there are Brussels sprouts. These are distant relatives of cabbages but, as Im sure youve noticed, they are much smaller. Cabbages themselves are bad enough (they can be pickled and made into sauerkraut, which is okay on hot dogs, but that is pickled cabbage, and, again, pickles are not vegetables). I believe that Brussels sprouts are made from cabbages using the same ghastly recipe that South American headhunters used to make shrunken heads.
Kale is a creation of 20th-century science gone amok. In a century known for overkill, it should be no surprise that a madman should want to take society beyond spinach. Kale is synthetic spinach, created from petroleum by-products. It found its way into stores when the Navy confiscated all the countrys spinach for a project to develop lower-arm strength in sailors.
Broccoli is yet one more instance of our governments policy failure. It has been shown to cause adverse reactions, such as revulsion, in both children and adults. Yet when the opportunity came for Presidential action, George Bush (who has been president for as long as I can remember) was content to exercise his veto power, instead of providing the needed leadership. When the situation called for a national crusade against broccoli, coupled with appropriate legislation, rather than ask Congress to enact laws against, or at least require warning labels on, broccoli, Bush decided he had enough on his plate, and was content to tend his own garden. As a result, he lost the election. (So how come hes still president? Am I forgetting something?)
At this point, you are fully convinced of the harm that vegetables can cause, unless you are a yuckitarian, in which case, you are asking, Steve, have you actually tried zucchini, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, or broccoli? That is a rude question. The answer is yes. I was raised in a yuckitarian home. But we also ate meat, and once I had tasted flesh I became a carnivore, and I have been one ever since.
Steve Dunham likes to eat cows.
By Steve Dunham, copyright 2001
Out in the back 40, I should have watermelons, apple trees, potatoes, peaches, nectarines, and green beans. I have planted seeds, pits, nuts, and whole fruit in the back yard, and not one plant has sprouted as a result. The same goes for pine cones and acorns that I have diligently buried and watered. As a farmer, I look like a failure, at least on the outside of the house.
On the inside of the house, its a different story. I have another
This environment is perfect for growing things. The peaches are really fuzzy. So are the apples, oranges, and various vegetables. In the back of the fridge, I do have a green thumb. The green beans are really green. So is the entire green bean casserole. Potatoes, which refuse to grow outside in the dirt where they belong, sprout roots.
These amazing results are on the frontiers of agriculture. The refrigerator is a ready-made science project. If it werent so heavy, it could be a traveling exhibit. Eventually I intend to donate it to the science museum in Richmond.
Meanwhile, though, I have another kind of farming project going on, though it is more akin to gold mining. I am seeking grants from foundations and from more gullible sources, such as the government. The Effects of Light, Temperature, and Electrically Powered Irrigation on Produce in an Artificial Environment sounds plausible, doesnt it? If I can get a hefty sum to study my own refrigerator, then maybe I can get more money for comparison studies with, say, the refrigerator at work. In fact, for a control element in the studies, I think I will need money to buy a new refrigerator at home.
Then theres the question of what to do with those fuzzy vegetables and fruit after I collect my research grant and get a new refrigerator. Certainly they could be put on display in the museum. On the other hand, I have a long list of people to whom I would like to give rotten vegetables and fruit. Tailgaters and telemarketers come to mind.
The Effects of Rotten Fruit on Rude, Selfish People might be my next project, and I wouldnt even need a grant. Lots of people would pay to participate. All I would have to do is sit back and watch the fruit go flying, watch the money roll in, and keep an eye on my refrigerator to see what else is growing.
Steve Dunham conducts science experiments in his refrigerator.
By Steve Dunham, copyright 2003
When the great blackout of 2003 struck
This, as you now realize, is about philosophical principles, in particular one called Occams razor: that for any phenomenon, the simplest explanation is most likely to be correct. In other words, if you open your fridge and the light bulb doesnt go on, you dont say, Wow! I bet a massive blackout has struck the Northeast and left millions of people without power! No, you say, Darn. That light bulb in the fridge burned out and I cant find my chocolate milk. An emergency, perhaps. A catastrophe, no.
You are now probably saying to yourself, I always thought philosophy was a bunch of hokum. In fact, I know doctors of philosophy who seem to have a few light bulbs burned out.
Not so fast, as Hamlet told Horatio. Its true that in an emergency, such as the great blackout of 2003, William of Occam would still be looking for a refrigerator light bulb, or possibly a circuit breaker switch, in the dark of night. All mysteries would be dismissed as misunderstood everyday things. Flying saucers would be explained away as swamp gas (not that you see swamp gas every day). Poltergeists would be nothing more scary than the wind whistling through the trees and branches brushing against the house.
Yes, certain philosophies are basically worthless when confronted with the real world, which is why I have philosophized up my own principle, called Dunhams razor. (I can hear some of you expressing doubts already, particularly those who know I havent shaved in
This is the perfect philosophy for the paranoid. Everyone really is out to get me, which I knew all along. They are probably out to get you too.
When the fridge light would not turn on, not only was there a massive blackout, it was planned by the government or possibly caused by an attack from outer space.
If you are afraid of the dark, you have good reason. I dont have to tell you what is lurking under the bed and in the closet and scratching at the outside of the house trying to get in. You already have imagined the answer.
With Dunhams razor, there is no such thing as being caught unawares. Whatever goes wrong, you knew it was going to happen.
The only drawback I have found to my philosophy is that I find it difficult to communicate with the William Occams of this world, who cruise from day to day in blissful ignorance. Actually, it must be more than that. They dont really believe the simple explanations. They are just putting on an act, and they are out to get me.
Steve Dunham is a philosopher.
By Steve Dunham, copyright 2001
Free Haunted House, said the sign at a mobile home dealers lot. (This is really true.) Well, I said to myself, there are some things you cant even give away.
Well, that turned out not to be true. Why, I asked myself, should we be paying more than $800 a month for our mortgage when we could get a house for free?
The next afternoon I was down at the lot. I would like to see the haunted house, I said. Its really free?
Sure. Go on back and see it.
They werent kidding. I could see why they couldnt sell this one. It really looked haunted.
When I opened the front door, it creaked, and I saw a bat flying around the ceiling. It was dark, but I could see eyes glowing at me from a jack-olantern. There was spooky organ music coming from somewhere.
I stepped into the living room, and there was a creepy guy in a cape who looked a lot like Dracula. Uh, do you work here? I asked.
Velcome, he answered. I could see that his teeth were very pointy.
Does this place have plenty of closets? I inquired. He turned to open one and I swear there was a skeleton in it. This place would need some cleaning up.
I decided to take a look at the kitchen. There was a real witch standing there cackling and stirring a bubbling, steaming cauldron. Hi, I said, and ducked out.
The bedroom was next. It was dusty, and there was a huge black spider hanging down from the ceiling. On the dresser was a glowing skull, and the eyes in a picture on the wall seemed to follow me. Then something grabbed my ankle, and I looked down to see an arm reaching out from under the bed. I stamped on it with my other foot. Ow! said a voice.
Not a very scary spook, I thought. I was a little disappointed because mobile homes dont have basements, but it did have a utility area. From behind the door I could hear maniacal laughter. It looked like the room was half laboratory and half funeral home. There was an open coffin with a body in it, and some kind of half-human-looking guy attached to some weird machinery.
Id seen enough. I trotted out the door and back to the sales office. Ill take it! I announced.
Yeah, buddy. Ha-ha. Have a nice day.
It took me a few hours to find a truck to tow the house to our property. When I got to the mobile home dealer, everyone was gone, but the free haunted house was still there, so I hitched it up and away I went.
It didnt seem so scary with all those weird characters gone, and it took a while to clean out all the cobwebs and the rest of the mess, but once I was finished, it looked almost like any other mobile home, so I considered it a real deal. Every now and then, I will find something strange, like a hand in a drawer or a witchs hat on the shelf in the closet, so I can understand why they were so eager to part with this place. But, to me, its home.
Steve Dunham lives in a haunted house in Spotsylvania, Va.
By Steve Dunham, copyright 2000
Have turned 80, do not recommend it, will never do it again, said Otto Kuhler, a noted industrial designer. Im sure he was right. Im only halfway there, and I do not recommend turning 40. I will never do it again.
One thing that happens as you crest the hill is an increasing familiarity with modern dentistry. I once was young, and now I am old, wrote King Solomon. And when I was young, root-canal work was something that happened only to older people. It sounded ominous, as if the dentist was ripping up a tree, roots and all, and digging a canal in its place. This is an apt description.
My own voyage across the Styx and into the netherworld of canals and roots began, of course, in the waiting room, which despite cute wallpaper and a Muzak version of Live and Let Die piping happily over the radio, had all the cheer of death row. The condemned sat staring at their feet, awaiting their turn at having their mouths excavated. I picked up a copy of Modern Dental Golddigging and was relieved to learn that the suicide rate among root-canal patients is declining.
At last a voice said, Mister Dunham, Doctor Hacker will see you now. I followed the haggard-looking nurse into a little room. There were bars on the window. I heard the door slam shut behind me, and a deadbolt lock turning.
Youd might as well cooperate, said
With an iron grip, she forced me into the chair and secured the straps. Then she put something like wheel chocks in my mouth, because root-canal work involves having your mouth open for hours. (When I went back to work and complained about how much this hurt, they all laughed and said my mouth is open all day anyway. And when I said that my face
Well, back to the story. The dentist moved his equipment into position. There was an excavatorsome kind of power shovel. He had something like a jackhammer for digging into the tooth, and a set of drills and files for really making a canal in there, for all the blood to flow through, I guess.
The nurse took a shot of whisky, to steel her nerves for the coming ordeal. And then I blacked out.
When I came to, my head felt like someone had been playing The Anvil Chorus, using my head for the anvil. I heard
Then he said to the nurse, Okay, you can untie him and let him go.
I staggered out toward the waiting room. Little did I know that the worst was yet to come. Root-canal work hurts the wallet even more than the body.
They gave me a choice of paying $5000 cash, having a lien on the car (the smartest move, because almost any car, and especially our car, costs less than root-canal work), or putting the whole thing on my credit card. The last option was the natural one, because canals are not dug in a day, and I would have to come back. Twice. Obviously, I would not live through two more of these torture sessions, and my wife would be able to use the life insurance to pay off the credit card bill. And she would live happily ever after, until, that is, she needs root-canal work.
Steve Dunham has canals in his mouth.
By Steve Dunham, copyright 2003
Did you know that your ancestors were aliens? asked the young woman. They came from outer space and planted the first seeds of life on earth.
Im used to being asked What planet are you from? so the question did not catch me off guard. Actually, I said, I was born in New York, which technically is not another planet. Some of my kids are from Neptune, though. (All of these are really true facts.*)
The woman was from a group called the Real-aliens, and it turned out that she wanted me to join the group and get cloned.
Why in the worldor any other worldwould you want to do that? I asked her. So that decades from now there will be genetic copies of me running around?
We are offering you immortality, she said. Reading between the lines, I took that to mean that they didnt have many volunteers.
There is one big hole in your plan, I said. Maybe I am a genetically superior specimen, but theres more to my success than that. How can you replicate my upbringing? I had to walk ten miles to school through knee-deep snow. My mother had to walk twenty miles to school through waist-deep snow. My kids dont have to walk anywhere at all.
My brother and I had one toy to share. My mother had no toys whatsoever. My kids have so many toys that I am tripping over them.
Are you trying to reverse the evolutionary process?
You sound warped, she said, but well take you. Well make sure that all the Steve clones have the ideal upbringing.
This did have a certain appeal. My own kids werent getting an ideal upbringing. For one thing, they had too many toys. For another, they didnt have to walk to school in the snow. All right, I said. Ill do it.
The process was routine. All they needed was a fingernail clipping. Now my DNA is in a test tube somewhere, being duplicated into thousands of copies of me. Dont be alarmed, though. They wont be overrunning the Earth in a few decades. My genes are going back to Neptune.
* Neptune, NJ.
Steve Dunham is a Real-alien now.
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