Steve Dunham’s Trains of Thought
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Derailed trains of thought
“Après moi le déraillement”

Off the Deep End: Junk Mail Junkie

Do You Want a Flat Stomach? 
Feed My Cows 
Funding the Cow Campus 
Money in the Mail 
The Third Degree 
Junk Mail Junkie 

Do You Want a Flat Stomach?

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2002

“Literalman, get off the couch.” How did they know I was spending too much time on the couch? (“Literalman,” in case you never read to the end of my columns, is one of my screen names.) I had the sense not to open this e-mail message, which I really did receive, but how did they know I was a couch potato?

I’m paranoid enough; I didn’t need evidence that they are watching my living room through binoculars. I expected the next message to be “Don’t say a word.” Instead, it was “Body fat loss—no cravings.” Now they were starting to play mind games with me and, as you know, I was at a disadvantage. Maybe they weren’t necessarily watching my house. Maybe they were following me around and noticed that I was carrying a few pounds extra. Or they might have been doing both. Maybe they had the bathroom scale wired. They definitely knew how much I weighed, and they followed up with a blunt order: “Literalman, lose weight now!”

The next e-mail said, “Tighten stomach with electricity.” I almost opened this one out of curiosity. Was I supposed to swallow batteries? Or surgically insert electrodes into my stomach? Or let them do it? I don’t think so!

Do I even want a tight stomach? I guess it would fill up with food faster if it were tight, so I would have to eat less, or maybe eat small portions continuously. I’m not sure how that would help.

The following message said, “Thunder thighs be gone.” Now, wait a minute! I admit, I could afford to part with a few pounds, but I do not have thunder thighs! If I were sensitive about my appearance, I probably would have taken the bait and started believing that I do have thunder thighs. As my co-workers and fellow commuters know, however, I am not sensitive about my appearance.

Still, I am not immune to advertising, and some of these messages held a certain appeal: “Body fat loss—no cravings,” for example. I do crave attention, and maybe my behavior would improve if I craved it a little less. Or did it mean they would end my craving for body fat? It’s true, I do crave it. Not human body fat, but, yes, fat from pigs and cows. I eat way too much of it, and then it does turn into human body fat—on me.

I was about to dismiss all these e-mail messages as spam advertising until they turned ominous: “1 hour and bye bye thighs.” So now they were threatening to maim me. I had one hour till the hit men arrived—maybe less if they were already outside.

The threat, I assumed, would be followed by a demand. What could they want from me? My 1987 Plymouth? All they did was notch up the tension with another threat: “Flat stomach and no work.” If I didn’t meet their demands, I would be legless, have my stomach crushed, and be out of a job.

I had seen enough thriller movies to know that I didn’t dare call the police. The only thing to do was give in and hope these anonymous extortionists would leave me alone.

In the end, they got it all. I said yes to everything they wanted, and their endless demands keep appearing on my computer screen: buy airline tickets, sign up for a credit card, buy a credit report. And they knew they had me, and I knew it too, when I read their next message: “Literalman, get out of debt!”

Steve Dunham would like to lose a few pounds but does not want his stomach or any other organs flattened.

Feed My Cows

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2001

Dear Mr. Dunham [the letter said]:

I know that you are a friend of the cows. It makes me sad that Feed My Cows Ministry has not heard from you in five years. It makes the cows sad, too.

Did you know that, every day, cows are being turned into hamburger? That’s why this letter is so important! I need you to help me save the cows, Mr. Dunham! Here in Stafford I can look out my window and see the cows with tears in their eyes just waiting for your help. I and the cows are praying that you will respond generously to this appeal.

The sad look on their faces is asking, “Who will feed us? Does Mr. Dunham care? Who will give us a place to live? Will Mr. Dunham help?”

Where are we going to house the poor innocent cows? We have to build bigger barns, that’s how! (Read Luke 12:18, Mr. Dunham!) I and my family and friends are counting on your sacrificial donation. You read my spring emergency letter, didn’t you, Mr. Dunham? I’m sure you didn’t throw it away. Not you, my friend. Yes, that’s why you’re on my mailing list, because you are my friend.

You read my summer crisis letter, didn’t you, Mr. Dunham? Then you know how desperately I need for you to send money.

Now, as the leaves begin to fall, we face a new financial crisis! Where does all the money go? That’s what our faithful donors want to know. What am I going to tell them? Once again, the money is gone. This is bad news for the cows.

In fact, if I don’t hear from you right away, we may have to close the barn doors of Feed My Cows Ministry! That’s right, Mr. Dunham! Think of the poor cows out in the cold this winter! Where will you be on Christmas Day? You’ll be sitting in a nice warm house opening presents with your family while the cows are out in the snow. Can you hear them mooing?

Don’t wait till Christmas to think about the cows. It may be too late then. The time to help is right now! Right now, while you feel guilty about celebrating Christmas with your family! Right now, while the tears are forming in your eyes! Right now, while the checkbook is right there!

Yes, Mr. Dunham! Write out a generous donation to save the cows! Sign the check! Put a stamp on the envelope! Take it to the Post Office and mail it before you change your mind!

There, now don’t you feel better, Mr. Dunham? I thank you, and the cows thank you. The baby cows that haven’t even been born yet are praying for you right now.

When Christmas comes around, I will send you a plastic pin to wear, to show everyone that you care about the cows. I will send you a greeting card with a reply envelope so that you can send more money. When I get back from my cruise, I will send you a cow pie chart showing how I would like to spend your donations to help the cows. And count on it, my friend, you will hear from me again as soon as I get low on money.

Steve Dunham writes fundraising letters for Feed My Cows Ministry.

Funding the Cow Campus

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2003

Uh-oh. I got another fundraising letter from Feed My Cows Ministry. Here it is. I made it all up. There is no reference to any real person or organization (to the best of my knowledge, there is no such thing as Feed My Cows Ministry; it is a figment of my imagination).

Dear Mr. Dunham [the letter began], did you know that cows have guardian angels? Of course you did, because you used to be one. Poor, innocent cows used to look to you for protection. Why haven’t we (the cows and I) at Feed My Cows Ministry heard from you? When I look out into the field, I can hear the cows saying, “Moo! Mr. Dunham has abandoned us!” Doesn’t that make you feel guilty, Mr. Dunham? How much longer will the cows have to wait before you help them again? If you do not make a Pledge for the Cows soon, I may have to drop you from my mailing list. You don’t want that to happen, do you Mr. Dunham? My appeals go only to my friends. You want to remain my friend, don’t you, Mr. Dunham?

Your previous generous sacrificial donation made it possible for me to go on a cruise. Cruises are good for me, Mr. Dunham, and good for the cows. When I go on a cruise, I always have such good ideas about how to help the cows.

Here’s my latest idea, Mr. Dunham: I will build a campus where people can come to learn about the cows. This will cost many millions of dollars. You see, a farm would cost less, and cows could live there, but people (generous donors like you) might not come to a farm. So instead, I want to build a Cow Campus. I will invite people who make a generous donation to come visit the Cow Campus where they can learn how to help the cows. It will be a comfortable, even luxurious, place to study. Best of all, it will not be a farm. You heard me right, Mr. Dunham! There will be no cows on the Cow Campus. I want donors to be at ease, not distracted by smelly, messy cows. See what good ideas I have when I go on a cruise! (Needless to say, there were no cows on the cruise ship, either.)

I know what you are thinking, Mr. Dunham. You are saying to yourself, “I am ashamed that I have not helped the cows in such a long time. I had no idea that Feed My Cows Ministry was having such brilliant ideas about how to help the cows. I will sit down right now and make a generous, sacrificial donation.”

I knew I could count on you, Mr. Dunham! Let me assure you that after your check clears, I will send you an invitation to visit the Cow Campus. You must realize, though, that this is such a tremendous project that it may take a while for me to raise all the money. In the meantime, you might get some more fundraising letters from me, your friend.

Maybe you would like to avoid that. Here’s how: You could make a big difference today if you made a Pledge for the Cows. Please promise me today that every time you see a cow, every time you think about a cow, or every time someone says the word “cow,” you will send me money. You know what that will make you, Mr. Dunham? A guardian angel for the cows! Yes! Right now the cows are thanking you. I can see them out in the field, gazing at the spot where I will someday build the Cow Campus, and saying, “Moo! Thank you, Mr. Dunham! You are our friend!”

Steve Dunham is a friend of the cows.

Money in the Mail

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2002

Peeping through a window in the envelope were the words “Pay to the order of Stephen Dunham.” One time it was a fundraising letter (this is really true), and the words “Pay to the order of” were not on a check at all, but on an appeal for money (talk about turning the tables quickly!). So what happened to the money for me? The gist of it was that God would pay me back. I think God might pay those fundraisers back.

However, that was an isolated instance. Most envelopes I get with the words “Pay to the order of” peeping through the window are genuinely offering me money. It might be a rebate check for the purchase of a new car. True, the amount of the check might be only $500, whereas most of the cars I have purchased have cost several times that amount. So the dealer is willing to give me $500 in exchange for, say, $15,000, and will throw in a new car too. OK, as soon as I get 29 more of those checks in the mail I will go down and see the car dealer.

Other donors are even more generous. Banks (to use the word loosely) are always sending me checks for thousands of dollars. I am not sure that these are real banks, because one of them has a huge office building near our house and even though they are soliciting me as a customer, I cannot get in the door past the guard. My personal presence may be unwelcome, but curiously they continue to offer me money. All I have to do is promise to pay them back double (if it takes a few years) or with no interest at all if I send all the money back next month. Theoretically I could do this full time, depositing the thousand dollars in a real bank, earning $1.67 in interest, and making a dollar in profit after subtracting postage, envelopes, and so on. It’s nice to know I have another career to fall back on.

Checks in larger amounts (say, $5,000) come from “banks” that have discovered how much equity we have in our house. They are willing to lend me lots of money at a reasonable-sounding amount of interest, with one catch: if I don’t pay on time, they get to keep the house. This reminds me of the most generous donor of all: our government.

I have heard the government compared to God and to Santa Claus, but the branch of the government most likely to send me a check is usually compared to a supernatural being on the other end of the spectrum, even to the point of having the word “infernal” substituted for part of its name. Now, if an ordinary company sends you a modest amount of money by mistake and you spend it, you would have a very good chance, legally, of not having to pay it back. (Please do not take this as legal advice.) If you had a hostile jury and a hanging judge, then you might have to give the money back. This is not the case with money mistakenly sent you by the government. They will insist that you pay it back with interest and possibly with penalties for being so stupid as to have accepted the money in the first place.

Before you become angry at our government, consider that this is an exceptionally efficient way of doing business. I am thinking that if the I stands for “infernal,” possibly the S stands for “Sopranos.” “Steve,” you are whispering, "hadn’t you better be careful what you say about the IRS? Aren’t you worried about black helicopters landing on your rooftop at night?” Not at all. The government may be a little heavy-handed at times, but they know where to get the money back if they want it. Right now the black helicopters are circling a car dealer and an office building labeled “bank.”

Steve Dunham has gotten rich on checks sent to him by strangers.

The Third Degree

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2003

“Obtain a prosperous future, money earning power, and the admiration of all,” said the email. I already had the third item but I was definitely interested in getting the first two, especially on the cheap, and they would have to be cheap, or why bother? Prosperity and earning power are already available by more strenuous means, such as diligent labor (though this doesn’t always work) or fraud, connivance, and theft (these don’t always work either).

So how would I obtain prosperity and earning power without strenuous effort? “Diplomas from prestigious non-accredited universities based on your present knowledge and life experience. No required tests, classes, books, or interviews.”

This sounds similar to how I got my first two degrees. I actually got my doctorate first (this is really true). Through virtually no merit of my own, Immaculate Seminary, a place I have never laid eyes on, if it even exists, sent me a diploma naming me a doctor of philosophy in theology. This has gained me the admiration of all, if not prosperity or earning power. It also provides a secret weapon against people who are not in the field of medicine but insist on being addressed as “doctor,” by virtue of their degree in some specialty not nearly as admirable as philosophy in theology. “Don’t make me bring in my diploma,” I can say.

I also earned, or at least partly paid for, a bachelor’s degree, and this diploma actually did give me some credit for my knowledge and life experience, although the college, which was accredited, was fairly strict about what it would give credit for.

The missing link, so to speak, in my education (or chain of diplomas) is a master’s degree. Here, it seemed, was my opportunity: “Bachelors, masters, MBA, and doctorate (PhD) diplomas available in the field of your choice.” I am leery of an educational institution that does not know that “bachelor’s degree” and “master’s degree” contain an apostrophe.* However, I might overlook such faults if the price is low enough. I’m sure I could neatly add an apostrophe to my diploma if necessary. (As a side benefit, I have figured out where some people who cannot spell “master’s degree” must have gotten theirs. “No one is turned down,” the ad promised.)

So what field should I choose? Something that would be impossible for me to actually learn, such as French or mathematics? No, I wanted prosperity and earning power. I would want to become an oil magnate or a Fortune 500 CEO. Perhaps I would become a master of business administration.

The ad promised a “diploma within days!!!” By the time you read this, I should have my third degree and be well on my way to prosperity.

*Or maybe I was not being literal enough. Maybe the advertisement was offering me a bachelor or a master, in which case I am not interested.

Steve Dunham is acquiring a master’s degree.

Junk Mail Junkie

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2000

Hope springs anew every day. Except Sundays and holidays, that is, when there is no mail delivery. Like the soldier far from home awaiting mail call, like the pioneer waiting at the station for the afternoon train to bring news from the folks back East, I anxiously await each day’s mail, but not for magazines, though they’re nice to get; certainly not for the bills; yes, it’s the letters I eagerly watch for. Not personal letters from friends or relatives, which require a written reply. No, I watch for those letters marked “Personal and Confidential,” and especially “Mr. S. Dunham, you may already have won ten million dollars!”

These letters can be answered by licking a few stickers and attaching them in the right place to indicate what color car I would like to win, and to indicate that, no, I do not want to order anything this time, despite the threat of being taken off the mailing list. This small effort offers the promise of immense reward. Beat the Early Bird deadline or be the first person from Virginia to return my non-order, and my winnings—if any—will be even greater. The fine print cautions me that the actual prize drawing will not be held until 2025, but what does that matter? Any day I could win really big in one of the sweepstakes I entered 25 years ago!

But financial gains beyond the dreams of avarice are only the beginning. “Direct mail” (as opposed to “first-class” mail, which as we all know travels by indirect routes) puts me in touch with something higher, namely somebody else’s avarice. This is a spiritual experience, and not just because I feel vastly superior when I see how low others have sunken. No, the personal and confidential letters I receive, individually signed by machine and liberally spiced with genuine imitation underlining in what looks like blue marker, direct me on the paths of righteousness and holiness, which, conveniently for our American culture, can be measured in dollars and cents. They encourage me to listen to God. And if I listen to God, they tell me, I will hear Him saying that I should write out a check for a heck of a lot more than I was contemplating. No wonder the letters are personal! No wonder they’re confidential! They’re offering spiritual direction specifically for me!

Ye of little faith will say, blasphemously, that thousands of other people receive (it hurts me to write this) identical letters, also marked “personal and confidential,” and that I am not the only “dear friend” of countless crusaders for righteousness.

If I were not truly loved and prayed for by my “dear friends,” why would they be sending me valuable gifts? I have amassed a hoard of shiny trinkets and baubles and full-color bookmarks, not to mention a certificate attesting that I am a Guardian Angel in several senses of the word. Can these lavish displays of generosity by my dear friends be written off as crass, money-grubbing commercialism? Does receipt of an aluminum coin with a cute dog stamped on it make me feel obligated? Of course not. These, as the letters say, are my friends. We have a close relationship. They love me, and so do the “literally millions” of souls who are praying that I will be generous. And the choirs of angels will rejoice when I write out that check. That’s sincere appreciation!

Yes, I admit it: I’m addicted, but not to drugs. There’s no hope in dope, but there is hope in each day’s junk mail.

Steve Dunham hopes for junk mail.

More “Off the Deep End”

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