Off the Deep End is now available as an ebook via Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Cover photo by Espie Stewart

Cover design by Catherine Dunham

“Save Energy While Driving,” “A Railway Hygiene Etiquette Guide,” “Beguiling Train Voice Beckons,” and “Pat Answers Commuters” appeared in the Fredericksburg, Virginia, Free Lance–Star and are reproduced with permission.

All other columns are copyright Steve Dunham, 2000-2008.

Many of the columns appeared in the now-defunct Commuter Weekly, which was distributed on Virginia Railway Express and Maryland Rail Commuter trains.

Steve Dunham’s website: www.stevedunham.50megs.com

Email Steve Dunham: SGDunham@Verizon.net




Contents

Going in Crop Circles
Hunting for Santa
Runaway Chickens
My Time Machine
Office Survivor
The Rolling Breakfast Club
Pat Answers About Pesky Neighbors
Brainwashed by Teenagers
Bugs From the Government
Fridge Farming
The Third Degree
How I Discovered America


Going in Crop Circles

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2002

The grass in our back yard was flattened in a perfect circle. It was spooky. It looked almost as if a children’s wading pool had been sitting there. What could it mean?

I decided I had better spend the nights outside with a shotgun in case whoever—or whatever—had made the circle should decide to come back.

While out back defending my family, I noticed a pair of glowing eyes peering at me out of the dark woods behind our house. When facing an invasion from outer space, my motto is “Shoot first.” I’d already been asking plenty of unanswered questions.

I let fly with a couple of rounds. The eyes were gone, and I hastened toward the trees while shouting, “Honey, call the sheriff! Tell him there’s the body of a space alien in our back yard!”

As I stepped into the woods, I could hear a rustling movement, and then I stopped in shock. There was no body. Looking up toward the treetops, I expected to see a flying saucer hoisting a wounded alien, but there was nothing in sight.

I heard a siren then, and I could see flashing blue lights in the distance. I hastily put my gun away. When the deputy arrived, he said he’d gotten a call about gunfire in the neighborhood.

“Didn’t you tell him about the alien’s body?” I whispered to my wife, who just gave me a withering look.

Ignoring the mention of gunfire, I said to the deputy, “Come look at this.” I showed him the flattened circle of grass.

“You haven’t been filling up a wading pool, have you?” he asked. “You know about the water restrictions.”

“No, sir. I mean, yes, sir, I know about the restrictions, and no, sir, this circle was not made by a wading pool.”

“Looks like you got yourself your very own crop circle,” he chuckled. “Your own maize maze.” Then I recalled that we weren’t the only ones in the area with mysteriously flattened plants. It was late at night, but what better time to investigate the so-called maize maze a few miles away? Invasions from outer space usually take place at night. Once the deputy had gone, I drove to the farm that was famous for strange patterns in the crops. I brought the gun.

I parked half a mile away so that I could sneak up on the invaders. At the entrance to the farm, I stopped and listened. Something was moving in there. I tiptoed into the field, pushing aside the stalks of corn. Suddenly, there were no stalks of corn. They all had been crushed. I followed the path that seemed to lead onward like a maze. I had a feeling that I was going in circles.

Then I had a worse feeling: something was following me. Something was in the maze with me. I could hear footsteps with a strange gait, and unhuman breathing. And it was getting closer.

I started walking faster, trying to find my way out. Whatever was there in the darkness was after me. But I had the presence of mind to stop, turn toward the sound, and shoot. Then I blindly plunged into the standing corn and ran, the leaves brushing against my face.

Then I stopped and listened. Whatever was in there was no longer behind me. Maybe I had killed it. Then, for the second time that night, I heard sirens and saw flashing blue lights. This time I would not try to show the deputies a body. I was sure that, once again, there would be none.

Once I reached the car, I started the engine and drove with the lights off till I was safely away from the area. After one more look at the back yard, I slipped into our silent house.

When morning came, I found everyone at breakfast already. “Anything unusual in the paper?” I asked.

“A dead cow at a farm down the road,” my wife said. “Why would anyone kill a cow like that?”

“Cattle mutilation,” I replied. “Space invaders are famous for that.”

Steve Dunham investigates crop circles by day and hunts aliens by night.


Hunting for Santa

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2001

“Hang on! We’re going in low,” I called. We zoomed low over the housetops as bullets whizzed past. With an iron grip, I struggled to maintain control as we approached our target.

I heard a voice from below: “I got one, Earl—a twelve-point buck, I think. Will ya take a look at his nose!”

Yes, they got one. And I lost my lead reindeer on Christmas Eve as I, Santa Claus, braved the Virginia hunting season to deliver toys to the children—no toy guns, mind you. Earl must be the one who wrote to me asking for venison for Christmas. I couldn’t find him on my list of kids, naughty or nice, and no wonder: I could see now that he was a grown man. Well, I had some spare lumps of coal with me, so I would take a swing past Earl’s house before heading north.

Meanwhile I had toys to deliver, and we made a rough landing on the first rooftop. As I dropped down the chimney, I heard a child’s voice from the room below. Darn it, the parents are supposed to have the kids in bed by this hour. It was too late to stop, though, and as I plopped into the fireplace, a two-year-old girl gaped at me. Then she screamed. “Mommy! It’s the Grinch!” Double darn. Another job hazard: the uniform doesn’t get the respect it used to, and that impostor the Grinch is better known than the genuine article.

I hastily scattered the presents around the tree and bolted up the chimney. And people think this job is fun. Well, on to the next house. We were just taking off when I heard Earl and his buddy again. Blam! Blam! “Hey, Joey! I got one too!”

We wobbled into the sky as I tried to guide the reindeer through evasive maneuvers, but our leader with his light-up nose was gone, and now I was down to six reindeer.

A few years ago I tried using cows instead. Granted, flying cows aren’t as fast or as graceful as flying reindeer, but it was worth a shot, pardon the pun. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a literal problem, because some hunters will shoot at anything that moves, and people such as Earl got beef for Christmas instead of venison.

So here we were staggering through the sky with no lights and running on six cylinders instead of eight, as it were, and what was I to do? Shoot back? Believe me, I thought about it. But what would that do to my reputation? I may hate this job sometimes, but I think I would hate unemployment even more.

No, it was time to call in the heavy reinforcements. You’ve probably seen in the news each Christmas that the North American Aerospace Defense Command tracked a flying sleigh on Christmas Eve. It’s really true, and they don’t just watch me on radar, either. No, I asked them to keep an eye on things because of trigger-happy people such as Earl and Joey. What are things coming to when Santa Claus needs an escort from the Air National Guard? But when you gotta, you gotta, so I spent the rest of the night flying with F-16s on either side of me, and while I felt safer, the noise woke up all the kids.

I was exhausted when I got back to the North Pole. I’ll admit, the work is satisfying in a way, but I wondered whether I was getting too old for it—until I opened a letter from a little girl. As I sat there I began my reply: “Yes, Virginia is where I delivered your gift of venison this year. Next year tell your daddy to ask for duck for Christmas.”

Steve Dunham hunts reindeer and cows from his front porch in Spotsylvania, VA.


Runaway Chickens

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2004

“Fugitive chickens” are a problem in Bartow, Florida, according to a story in the Polk County Democrat. Yes, this is really true. The city has a law to protect all birds from any kind of harm, but really free-range chickens have pushed people to their limit.

Rather than enact intermediate measures such as a chicken leash law or a chicken pooper-scooper law, the city commissioners, “with stuffed, life-size toy chickens and roosters perched before them,” decided that any chicken running loose may be rounded up and turned over to the city manager.

Before you apply for the job of city manager in Bartow, thinking that the job perks include all the chicken you can eat, read the fine print: any chicken not claimed by its owner within three days will be deported—possibly taken to the city line, dumped, and told not to come back.

The city planned to hire someone to round up loose chickens. I guess this would be a cowboy type or maybe an exterminator with a catchy slogan such as “We take the foul out of fowl.”

Several people advised the commissioners that chickens are smart birds and not easy to catch. It’s better to sneak up on them at night. So I am thinking that any chicken planning to stay out late in Bartow had better carry several forms of identification, including a photo ID, or else learn some birdsongs and try to pass for some other species. “Honest, officer, I’m a canary! Cluck! I mean, tweet!”

Canary, indeed—as in coal mine. Any thoughtful reader will ask, “What are these ‘fugitive chickens’ running away from?”

Possibly the answer lies in another story, this one from the News Chief of Polk Online, describing the Polk County Health Department’s Sentinel Chicken Program. Flocks of chickens are stationed around the county and tested every week in case they have come down with St. Louis encephalitis, which is carried by mosquitoes.

According to the story, which cunningly carried a banner ad for the Trinity Funeral and Cremation Center, a nurse from the health department said that no chickens have caught the disease so far.

Despite this reassurance, if I were a chicken in the Sentinel Chicken Program, I would be a fugitive too, or at least heading out for a night on the town and perhaps buying some insect repellant while I’m there. When that visiting nurse from the health department came around for a bed check, she would find a rubber chicken in my nest. This would result in an immediate lockdown and quarantine while the health department tried to discover the cause of death and to isolate the disease that had caused it. Then the rubber chicken would be turned over to the Trinity Funeral and Cremation Center.

Meanwhile, I would be dumped at the city line and told not to come back, as if I would have to be told. If any human eyed me hungrily, I would say, “I just escaped from the Sentinel Chicken Program,” and they would all back away from me as I walked to freedom.

Steve Dunham tracks fugitive chickens.


My Time Machine

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2001

“I need that yesterday,” the client growled. I was tempted to reply that he should have brought the work in earlier, but I made the polite, proper response: “No problem. Come back yesterday and I’ll have it for you”—thanks to my time machine.

Time travel seemed like such a good idea. I could sleep late, get to work at noon, travel back to 9 a.m., work till 5:30, travel back to 3:30 and leave early—you can see the possibilities.

Sometimes people bring work in the door at 5:30 and want it the next morning. So I go home, go to bed, sleep late, and travel back in time to the middle of the night, then do the work. When I’m finished, I can go back to bed again if I feel like it.

Naturally, there are other benefits too. No longer do I send late Christmas cards or birthday presents. In fact, I can wait till the after-Christmas sales (well, I already did that) and buy things cheap, then go back a few weeks and mail everything early.

So what could be wrong with having all the time in the world? For one thing, I have to keep it a secret. An infinite amount of time isn’t free if other people find an infinite number of things to fill it up. Not only clients would do this; I have to hide my time traveling from my family, and that’s not easy. They would like to know why I am going to work late and coming home early, and I dare not tell them the truth. Instead I make noises about flextime and vacation days that I have to use up.

Another problem is that people get used to my doing things yesterday. The guy who growled at me had, paradoxically, already picked up his work the day before, but he had gotten used to that as his due. Now he wants everything “yesterday.”

Also, time traveling has made me lazy, so sometimes when somebody wants something “yesterday,” I say, “Come back tomorrow.” I can accept the work when I’m not so busy, travel back two days, and still keep everybody happy. Well, not everybody—there’s another problem. When I start traveling more than one day at a time, sometimes I forget where—er, when—I’m going. It’s confusing. One morning, I thought it was October, but I saw lit-up Christmas trees in a store window and realized I’d gone too far forward in time.

Finally, there’s the problem with having two of me around at the same time. “How could that be a problem?” you ask. I felt the same way. My wife, especially, should have been pleased: if she liked me enough to marry me and have me around all the time, wouldn’t two of me be twice as nice?

“Didn’t you just leave for work?” she will ask me.

“Yes, honey. I mean, no, honey.” Then she will look at me funny. Well, she always did that. Then I know it’s time for both of me to get out of the house and give her some space.

Now you’re probably wondering why I haven’t traveled ahead in time and picked up a sports almanac just like in Back to the Future. Well, I did, and all I learned is that I should bet against the Redskins, but I won’t get rich from it because the odds aren’t very long. The same goes for the Orioles.

And, you may ask, why haven’t I traveled back in time to save the world? Well, I have. Humbly, I admit that I could not do it alone. First, I had myself cloned, just like Dolly the sheep. Then I transported all my duplicates back to the late 1960s (I didn’t want all of my copies to be in their forties; I’m in my forties and don’t like it). Now there are thousands of me coming into their prime, and everything will be fine with the world. Trust me.

Steve Dunham does work yesterday.


Office Survivor

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2001

Our company, taking a lead from television, has moved to “reality-based” workforce reduction.

At one time, employee “termination” seemed to be the wave of the future, mainly because it was cyborgs from the future who disposed of the unwanted employees.

At our office, there was a woman in charge of the Person-Hell department. They called her Terminator. Partly human, mostly machine, she was the scourge of the surplus employee. Sent here from the future, where humans are “resources” and robots do the work, she eliminated anyone who was not a team player.

Once I received something about a “Staffer Day planning/execution meeting.” (This is really true.) I suspected that “staffer execution” might be meant literally, so I did not go.

Termination is falling out of favor, however. Corporations (at least legally) are people too, and they want to be liked. Bodies of employees lying about and terminators running around using the F word make a company seem unfriendly.

The immense popularity of the “survivor” shows has inspired a new way of getting rid of unwanted employees: let them get rid of each other.

Now each division is organized into “teams.” Every week we face challenges, such as trying to access the company intranet from home, or trying to find out how much vacation time we have left. Naturally, some people are better suited to these challenges than others are. I, for example, managed to do both of them. In the corporate Darwinian scheme, though, I do not receive company kudos or merit raises for succeeding; rather, I receive votes from other employees. The other team members are not so well fitted to survive, and at the end of the week we have to vote one of them off the team.

The company likes this reality-based aspect, because when it comes time to remove the losing team member, the company has an advantage over an employee who does not know how much vacation time he has coming.

If ability and intelligence at work were the only criteria, they could have declared me the winner at the end of the first week. As those of you playing the game know, however, ability and intelligence are not a guarantee of winning. In fact, they are not even required. The way to really get votes is through something we used to call “office politics.” In the “office survivor” game, we call it “forming strategic alliances.”

To put it bluntly, if you are friends with the right people you can be voted an office survivor, all other considerations aside. But there are other considerations, mainly that when all your enemies are gone you have to fight your friends. “Cunning” and “Ruthless” might be my middle names, but I still had difficulty when we got to the final round.

So here I am, sitting at home, and I can no longer get through to the company intranet or even discover how much vacation time I have coming.

But I heard that a company is hiring in Australia. Outback, here I come!

Steve Dunham plays Office Survivor.


So ‘Survivor’ Is Rigged

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2001

“Is Office Survivor a rigged game?” That’s what people keep asking me after revelations that some scenes in the TV show Survivor were staged, that contestants may have been coached, and that sometimes the rules were bent to help a certain player get ahead. Is it possible that Office Survivor is not always played by the rules either?

(In Office Survivor, employees are organized into “teams”; together they face challenges, such as filling out time sheets and meeting artificial deadlines. However, they also compete against each other, receiving votes from fellow employees, and each week someone is voted off the team.)

Having made it through several rounds of Office Survivor, I am now a “key player,” which not only reflects my popularity and skill, but makes me a tempting target for envious employees of less ability and intelligence. Also, several employees with whom I had formed “strategic alliances” were dropped from the team in earlier rounds. So some players are viewing me as vulnerable.

The sniping has already begun: “Were any of the scenes staged?” All right, yes. When I smoothly accessed the company intranet and found out how much paid time off I had coming, even to the tenth of an hour, that had been rehearsed. It took a lot of practice ahead of time, but let me emphasize that when I won that challenge, I did it live. Even though I had rehearsed it several times, each time, including the televised attempt, was a real challenge.

“Did anybody coach you with ‘suggestions’?” Yes again. To access the company intranet from home, I had to get help from the “information” technology people. However, this is true for nearly all the contestants. Everyone on the team needed help to pass this challenge. Also, before imposing one of the artificial deadlines, one client did ask me how long the work could reasonably be expected to take.

“Did anybody bend the rules to help you win?” I am getting tired of these questions. Let me just say, to anyone who is tempted to view me as a vulnerable target, “So what if Office Survivor is rigged? I still won.” That should impress you and make you think twice about asking any more questions.

Now here is the question that is on my mind, and on the minds of players and viewers: “Will these revelations affect the ratings?” That’s a major concern. Right now, Office Survivor remains the most popular game in the area. People keep playing not only because it’s fascinating, but because no one wants to lose.

As CBS said about the TV show Survivor, viewers “know the challenges are real, they know the emotions are real, they know the outcomes are real.” The same principles apply to Office Survivor. I predict that the game will retain its appeal through the next season, at least until “sweeps week,” when upper management cleans house, at the lower levels anyway. After that, they may come up with a new game, maybe “Who Wants to Be a Retiree?”

Steve Dunham wins at Office Survivor, even though it is rigged.


The Rolling Breakfast Club

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2000

Americans love to eat on wheels. One of the most popular features of rail travel has always been sitting at a table and eating while watching the scenery go by. That’s not an everyday luxury, though, so the passion for eating on the go has translated into drive-in fast-food stops, where we can grab our grub and keep going, gulping our food with one hand and holding onto the wheel with one hand. Or even less than one hand.

The practice of eating on the go reached its height of refinement in a carpool I used to be in. It was kind of like riding a bus, in that I was always waiting for it, even when I was driving. I would pull up outside the garden apartments where “Louise” (her name has been changed to protect the guilty) lived. I would usually shut off the engine, because there was almost always a wait—just like waiting for a bus, except that I could sit in the car while waiting.

By and by Louise would appear. She would have her purse slung over one shoulder; her hands would be full with a bowl of cereal, a cup of tea, and sometimes grapefruit or toast. When we got to work, mine was the only car in the parking lot that was full of dirty dishes. I resolved that if I could ever afford a van with all the options, it would include a dishwasher.

Sometimes on Saturday mornings I would clean out the car and find a fork or a plate or a plastic tumbler under one of the seats. I could have held a yard sale with the things Louise left behind, except who wants to buy dirty dishes?

We started to call our carpool “The Rolling Breakfast Club.” We imagined having a radio broadcast from the car. Louise wouldn’t have made a good talk show host, because her mouth was always full. But it still would have been an entertaining show.

Anyway, the fun mornings came when Louise was driving. Louise, like many women, thinks that those mirrors inside the car are there so that the driver can put on her makeup while she’s driving to work. But usually that had to wait, because she was busy eating breakfast. I’d be waiting outside, and Louise would pull up, ten minutes or so late, with her breakfast in her lap. I should have gotten her a lap tray for Christmas. She’d have a bowl of cereal in her lap, and a cup of orange juice between her knees. Her car had manual transmission, too—I never figured out how she worked the clutch.

Some mornings she didn’t have time to grab (grab, not eat) breakfast before leaving home, and we would stop at the McDonald’s drive-in window. She’d drive up US 1 with a breakfast burrito in one hand and her orange juice in the other. There were many moments when I wished she had at least one hand on the wheel.

At least it was an exciting way to travel to and from work.

All good things must come to an end, however, and eventually the Rolling Breakfast Club ran its last miles. Louise, I think, became a stunt driver in Hollywood.

Steve Dunham is a former professional dishwasher.


Pat Answers About Pesky Neighbors

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2005

Dear Pat:

My neighbor is always cutting across my yard. I have asked him nicely to stop but he insists on using our property as a shortcut. Now my nice lawn is scarred by the tire tracks from his pickup truck. I am frustrated and furious!

Trespassed Upon

Dear Trespassed,

It sounds like maybe you need to take an anger-management class. If you are angry, you need to ask yourself, “What’s wrong with me?” not “What’s wrong with my neighbor?” Meanwhile, I think you need to establish some boundaries to control your own emotions. With all the new homeland security products on the market, I think you could find some attractive concrete barriers to surround your yard. Just be sure your neighbor doesn’t get hurt driving into them, or you could find yourself causing even more trouble, and this time you would have to pay for the harm you’ve caused.


Dear Pat:

Several times a week after dark, my neighbor starts doing yard work. He has bright floodlights on poles and he turns these on and uses his power mower and gas-powered weed whacker and digs in his yard, making a lot of noise and keeping me awake till midnight. Isn’t this against the law?

Sleepless

Dear Sleepless:

Aren’t you just a little bit paranoid? Just because the poor man digs in his yard at night doesn’t mean you can practically accuse him of burying bodies there. And just because you go to bed early doesn’t mean the rest of the world has to adapt to your schedule. I am really tired of hearing you so-called “morning people” whine about people who light one candle to banish the darkness. How do you think we feel when you are out there mowing your yard at 10 a.m. while we’re trying to sleep? You need to get over your selfishness if you want to be a good neighbor.


Dear Pat:

Whenever I say good morning, my neighbor doesn’t answer me. I thought that maybe he is hard of hearing (he is kind of old), so I have tried shouting. I know he’s in there, because his car is still in the driveway when I leave for work. I know he’s not dead, because his paper is in the driveway every morning and gone every night. How can I get this old codger to act neighborly?

Friendly Guy

Dear Friendly Guy:

It’s high time you had a lesson in good manners. Standing outside your neighbor’s house at the crack of dawn and shouting, “Good morning!” is not going to get you the response you wish. Maybe he is hard of hearing, or maybe he is retired and is still asleep when you go to work. Please be considerate, because old people get lazy. The neighborly thing to do, if you want to talk to him in the morning, is to ring his doorbell like a civilized human being. If he doesn’t answer the door within a few seconds, just go to work and leave him alone. If you do this for a week and he still hasn’t responded in a neighborly manner, then stop trying. Maybe he is not a “morning person.”

Steve Dunham is an advice columnist dispensing neighborly advice under the pen name “Pat.”


Brainwashed by Teenagers

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2005

My kids insist that I have seen a movie called Matilda. I don’t remember watching it. “We can even tell you what you said about it,” the kids claim. Supposedly I said it was so-so as a humorous juvenile revenge movie, or something like that. The kids also claim that I have seen Jurassic Park III at least twice, whereas I am pretty sure I came in partway through the film and haven’t even seen the whole thing once.

Sometimes, they are so persuasive that I am half convinced. The rest of the time I am sure that they are trying to use a Jedi mind trick on me. Fortunately, Jedi mind tricks are not real, and so I am holding fast to my version of reality.

The teenage alternate universe is constructed of things I plausibly might have said—or not have said. For example, “You never told us that we had to wash the dishes every day!” Or “We didn’t know that we have to tell you where we’re going if we’re driving our own car!”

In the teenage alternate universe, the grass that is knee deep doesn’t look so tall that it needs to be cut. The laundry that hasn’t been put away must belong to some other family, who won’t mind even if their clothes are left out in the rain.

When they aren’t trying to disorient me with carefully constructed fantasies, they are trying to delude the rest of the world.

“You didn’t tell us that we had to do that homework the very same night!” they will tell their teacher, and if enough kids say it earnestly enough, the teacher might start to believe it. Next it’s “You promised us that we wouldn’t have any hard questions on the test” and “All our other teachers give us open-book exams.” That way lies madness. If a teacher swallows these stories, it’s easy enough to believe that the kids did all their summer reading assignments and their homework but left all the work home or on the school bus or somewhere—if there really were any summer reading assignments or homework. Maybe the teacher remembered a different, erroneous version of reality.

I could hope that the teenagers will outgrow this behavior, but I know it is unlikely, because I continually encounter adults who have their own little fantasy worlds and would like me to move in.

“We’d like you to meet with our manager again,” the dentist’s receptionist says, trying to trick me into paying for a few more years of braces. But I know very well that I did not meet with the manager in the first place.

“Here is the job we discussed,” someone else will tell me, except that the discussion was an email sent five minutes earlier telling me that a huge job would be coming my way. Surely I was just sitting around waiting for someone to provide some work for me.

Others claim to be familiar with Microsoft Office but use Word as if it were a typewriter.

Some other attempts to brainwash me involve science fiction. “I need this yesterday,” people tell me when bringing in a job. I play along with their daydream: I tell them that the time machine is out of order and that it costs extra and they couldn’t afford it anyway. Other fantasies involve the speed reading ability of Superman: edit a 100-page document this afternoon. Still other science fiction stories feature high-speed printing equipment, when people hand me a schedule that involves printing a million pages in a week.

It’s tempting to give in and believe the dream.

“No, we won’t fire you for résumé fraud. Word works exactly the same as a typewriter.”

“You need the job yesterday? No problem. Come back yesterday and it will be waiting for you.”

“Yes, we can catch all the major errors without reading the document and do it in two hours. Satisfaction guaranteed.”

“Sure, we can print as many copies as you want as fast as you want.”

All it would take is a little brainwashing of my own:

“Yes, you said you needed the job yesterday, but I’m positive it was tomorrow when you said that.”

“Sure, we can do it better, faster, and cheaper, but I thought you meant better than a chimpanzee, faster than a snail, and cheaper than the national debt.”

It might even work on teenagers: “But you promised that if I watched Matilda even once you would do all the yard work for the next five years!”

Steve Dunham is a Jedi mind trick practitioner.


Bugs From the Government

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2002

Wisconsin is suffering a plague of flies, and the plain-speaking, commonsense people of Wisconsin believe that the government is to blame. They say “they swear they’ve seen” black vans from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources “pull up to forest’s edge, swing open their doors and release flies,” according to the Chicago Tribune (this is absolutely true). There are also reports of black helicopters “releasing clouds of insects.” People refer to the pests as “government flies,” and that makes a lot of sense when the government calls the bugs “friendly flies” because the flies feast on caterpillar cocoons.

I have noticed that there are a lot of bugs around this summer. The air is also loaded with extra car exhaust (which, unlike Amtrak, is profitable and therefore OK with the government). Scientifically speaking, car exhaust should kill bugs. Therefore, if there are more bugs, they must be genetically engineered mutant bugs created by the government not only to protect bugs from humans but to prove that car exhaust does not harm the environment.

If you had millions of mutant bugs you had created, what would you do with them? Use them to create an expensive but dumb Hollywood sequel? No, you would try to get rid of them without anybody seeing you. You would try to make it look natural. You would paint your van black, unless you live in Spotsylvania, Virginia, where you are not allowed to wash your car and nobody can tell what color your van is anyway. You would drive up to the edge of a forest, open the van door, and shoo those flies out into the woods. If you were the government, you would also have black helicopters at your disposal.

Then if somebody mentioned that there were an awful lot of nasty flies around this summer, you would first of all deny having anything to do with it, and then you would say that they are good flies anyway.

So I consider it scientifically proven that the people of the heartland, who are close to the earth and far from Washington, DC, are correct in accusing the government of spreading a plague of flies in their state.

Here in Virginia, where we are close to Washington but far from Earth, we are having a lot of hot weather this year. A real lot of hot weather. Even in April. What, scientifically speaking, causes hot weather? Hot air. And (forgive me for stating the obvious) the biggest source of hot air is Washington, DC. Watch C-Span if you don’t believe me. So we are in the midst of another plague created by the government.

Also, not far from Washington, DC, the state of Maryland is under attack by voracious fish that can live out of water for three days. Our government claims that the fish came from China. If this were true, wouldn’t the United States be invading China right now in retaliation for this act of terrorism? Wouldn’t our government, at the very least, be sending black airplanes over China to release clouds of flies?

The fact that we are not at war with China proves that the mutant fish came from the same source as the mutant flies and all that hot air. The only thing to do is for citizens to take matters into their own hands. As several patriotic readers have said to me, “America is a great country. If you don’t like mutant flies and voracious fish and hot air, not to mention car exhaust, why don’t you go live somewhere else?”

I have a better solution. I will work to make a difference. I will run for president. My platform will be: No more mutant flies! No more mutant fish! Nice weather! Clean air! And all helicopters and vans must be washed and painted nice colors and clearly identified!

I look forward to moving into the White House soon, and when I address Congress, you can watch me on C-Span. Meanwhile, I’m going fishing, using mutant flies to catch mutant fish. I think I will need to fish with a shotgun.

Steve Dunham drives a black van for the government.


Fridge Farming

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, it’s a different story. I have another back 40: the back of the refrigerator. Away from light (except when we open the fridge, which is every five minutes), without warm weather, things do grow. The only nourishment they get is watering, because the inside of our refrigerator drips like the inside of a limestone cave.

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 weren’t 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, doesn’t 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 there’s 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 wouldn’t 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.


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.


How I Discovered America

By Steve Dunham, copyright 2002

“How would I get to India?” I asked a sailor friend.

“Sail east,” he answered.

“But didn’t Columbus sail west looking for India?”

“Yes, but look, there are mountains to the west. You would have to sail around America.”

“What about the Northwest Passage?” I insisted. “No one has found it yet. I believe that I could get to India by sailing west, just like Columbus.”

“But Columbus never got to India,” he said, and it occurred to me that my sailor friend had never been to India either. Every adventurer has doubters, thorns in the side, and I had mine. It was time to stop listening to well-meaning advice and start packing.

It was an auspicious day when I set sail down the Potomac River. I loaded the boat with plenty of beer, tasty snacks, and shiny balloons that I would offer as gifts to the natives when I arrived in India.

On only the second day of my voyage, the river emptied into a body of water so big that I could not see the other side. “So this is the ocean!” I exclaimed. I studied my compass for a moment and then steered north. Where so many others had failed, I knew I would succeed in finding the Northwest Passage.

Two days later, my wife called on the cell phone to ask when I was going to turn around and come home. She was rather insistent that I do so right away. “One more day,” I said, “and I will give you a new world.”

Then, providentially, I saw a river leading to the northwest. I hailed a boat going the other way. “What river is this?” I asked.

“The Patapsco.”

“Patapsco?”

“It’s an Indian name.”

“Thank you! Thank you very, very much!” So I was on the right trail! India lay up this river!

Although technically I had not promised to turn around if I did not reach India within one day, I knew that time was running out. However, the farther I sailed, the narrower the river got, until I could see that I was approaching a great city, probably Bombay.

With growing excitement I entered the harbor, and I could see that the shores were full of natives wearing colorful clothing. There was a palace-like tower with the words “Bromo Seltzer,” which I guess was Sanskrit for “Welcome to India.” Maybe that building was the Taj Mahal.

When I stepped ashore, I noticed that all the people looked like Americans. This was odd. And there was a sign reading “Information,” in English! Then I remembered that the English had ruled India for many years, and this must be their legacy. I stepped up to the booth and said, “I would like to see the Indians.”

“Oh, you just missed them,” said a woman in Western garb. “They were in town yesterday. But you could see the Redskins play.”

Indians, Redskins: it sounded like the same thing to me, so I thanked her and hailed a taxicab, which was an automobile, not one of the bicycle taxis I expected. “Take me to the Redskins,” I said, carefully pulling my shiny balloons into the car. When we reached the home of the Redskins, there was a festival going on, with people partying and eating, all wearing the national colors of India: red and gold.

Then a man came up and took a balloon right out of my hand, and handed me a five-dollar bill. Someone else did the same, and it kept happening till all the balloons were gone. I had encountered the fabled riches of the Orient!

Then I went to see what I had come for: the Indians (or Redskins) themselves. The national sport of India is something like a bullfight without the bull, and unfortunately the Redskins lost. But I had already seen enough to write ten articles for National Geographic. When I began my voyage home, I knew that I had earned my place in the history books.

Steve Dunham is a world explorer but was cheated out of having his name on any of the maps.