Friday, August 12, 2005

Minnesota: The State Where Absolutely Nothing Is Allowed

An old column by Joe Soucheray made it to the St. Paul Pioneer Press... from September 14, 1988. This dates back before his weekly Garage Logic radio show, and he mentions a phrase he still uses these days... that Minnesota is "the state where absolutely nothing is allowed".

I reproduce it here in total as the Pioneer Press will only make the column available online for another few weeks.

Radon in rec room is new low in Gopher State

Publication date: Sept. 14, 1988

The minute the news came on the television about the excessive levels of radon gas in Minnesota, I imagined myself to have difficulty breathing. We were sitting in the lowest room in the house, what the agents used to call a rec room.

"If you are sitting in the lowest room of your house," the anchorman said, "you could be susceptible to excessive levels of radon gas, which causes lung cancer."

We looked at each other with eyes the size of saucers. My first thought was a simple one. I thought it wasn't fair. I quit smoking to avoid lung cancer, and now I could be getting lung cancer from sitting in my own lowest level. We had been sitting in the lowest level of the house for a year. At our other house, we didn't sit in the lowest level to watch the news. We sat in the middle level, where radon is not nearly so dangerous. Now we were sitting in the lowest level of the house — and had been for an entire year.

I loosened my collar.

"You should have your house checked immediately," the anchorman said, not even bothering to add that it would probably cost a fortune to do so and that virtually overnight dozens of new radon-testing companies would materialize, many of them eventually to be proven about as efficient as the frauds who come through every year to allegedly apply sealers to blacktop driveways.

I got out of my chair, woozily, I thought, and went for a flashlight.

"Where are you going?" the others asked me.

"For a flashlight," I said, looking around the room as though to detect radon in the act of seeping in.

"You can't see radon gas," the others told me.

They were right. I sat back down, heavily, I thought.

"Radon," they told me, "is a colorless and odorless radioactive gas formed by the breakdown of uranium, an unstable element found in varying amounts in almost all rocks and soils."

"I knew that," I said. I wanted a cigarette. On the off chance that I was slowly getting wiped out by a gas I couldn't see, I'd prefer a gas I could see.

We continued to watch the news, only to discover that Minnesota is one of about six or seven states where radon is thought to be most excessive.

"Is it hot in here?" I asked. "Or is it just me?"

The difficulty I had breathing seemed real. The experts can tell me that radon is colorless and odorless, but I could see it, like dry ice on a movie set, sending wispy curls of smoke and fog through the house.

"I don't think we can win," I said.

When I thought about it — and nothing makes you think harder than a bulletin about radon in your house — I began to realize we are pretty much on track to do each other in here in Minnesota. I mean, I have been making a joke for years about the notion that Minnesota might become the first state in America … Where Absolutely Nothing Is Allowed!

Now, I am afraid that I have been right all along.

We can't smoke, can't eat meat, can't pop popcorn if it offends others in the same room or same building. We can't drive without seatbelts. We cannot offend anybody, even accidentally. We can't ignore exercise or become overweight.

And now, the ultimate. Minnesota is the first state in the country where you can't even live in your own house.

We will, of course, live in our houses. What are we going to do, leave? Can you just see it, an endless stream of Volvos heading for Iowa, mattresses lashed to the roofs?

Things will change, though.

Now, when listing the amenities in a house, the agents will have to add picocuries, the unit of measurement for radon: "Three bedrooms, view of creek, fpl, dbl garage, new kitchen and only 12 picocuries, $140K."

We sat a little longer down there in the lowest level and discussed our options, which seem to be getting fewer every day, every week, every year. Moving was out of the question. We'd probably test for radon and then move the television room to a higher level in the house, maybe the roof. Don't worry, though, we'll keep our distance from the screen. Televisions give off freon, or rayon or microwaves or X-rays or nicotine.

They give off something. The experts say so.