Crime and Courts, des moines, Iowa, life

An Iowa State Trooper killed in the line of duty, a school shooting and another Black man killed by a cop in Minneapolis? These are the days I don’t miss journalism.

Many days I miss being a journalist. The job could be great fun. And the people, oh the characters, I met. There are so many stories I don’t dare share publicly that still make me laugh. I also worked alongside some of the most entertaining humans one will ever know.

This proves less and less so every day, especially as our nation seems to rack up tragedies as senselessly and randomly as the point system on ESPN’s Around the Horn.

Friday, a man shot and killed 27-year veteran Iowa State Trooper Jim Smith after an incident in Grundy Center.

A Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, police officer shot and killed Daunte Wright, a Black man, during a traffic stop. The Brooklyn Center chief said he believes the shooting was accidental.

Brooklyn Center is a suburb of Minneapolis, where a year ago George Floyd, also a Black man, died after a Minneapolis cop leaned on Floyd’s neck with his knee for nearly 9 minutes. That former officer, Derek Chauvin, stands trial for Floyd’s murder less than 20 minutes by car away from where Wright died.

A Knoxville, Tennessee, student shot and wounded a police officer at a magnet school. The student died when police returned fire. As the pandemic wanes, so raises the sadly familiar fear of our schools as targets for spree killers rather than institutions for learning.

Some of my best work and fondest memories came on the night police beat for the local Gannett Outlet Store. The beat also drained me of my humanity.

Trooper Smith died in the line of duty. The reporters from the wire services, the newspapers, radio stations and TV stations dig in. They want details about Smith’s life. Family. Children. Hobbies.

Many times, reporters find themselves at the door of someone who has suffered a terrible tragedy: the loss of a loved one by violence. This always churned my guts. I couldn’t help but think the last thing in the world I would want was some stranger on my front stoop knocking on my door and asking me to tell them all my secrets.

If I were still practicing the trade, I might have had to knock on that door.

I chocked down my distaste for this work with the advice of Tom Alex, the Register’s longtime day police reporter. He always said it was better to have someone call you a son of a bitch and slam the door in your face before you wrote the story than write the story and then have somebody call and call you a son of a bitch because you got it wrong and didn’t even try to talk the victim’s family.

But near the end of my career this was not enough. The digital age demanded push alerts and real-time updates to website stories. We sometimes wrote from notoriously inaccurate scanner traffic. We clawed for every piece of information and pushed it out.

Reporters were given less and less time to work with police officers and develop sources. There was a time when cops and reporters got to know each other as people. Now reporters demand things and cops fear reporters are pushing a political agenda with each question.

It’s a stalemate that is detrimental not only to news reports but the trust in both institutions, neither of which can afford to lose more ground with an increasingly distrustful and divided public.

That same stalemate occurs in reporting on the racial implications of the trial of Chauvin and the truth of Wright’s death at the hands of police in the same metro area.

Passions burn. Attempts to find the truth that contradict our preconceived notions about what and why caused these deaths. The pick-your-confirmation bias media force us to parrot the angry talking points that agree with what we agree with what we’ve already determined are the facts.

Most you’re-with-us-or-against-us narratives are false, but the public has no patience for non-binary ideas. Somebody is a good guy. Somebody is a bad guy. Pick which one and scream on social media.

Half of journalism jobs disappeared between 1990 and 2020. The anemic reporting staff that remains is ill-equipped and poorly experienced to vet the issues of the day let alone foster meaningful and healing discussion.

They try, but most outlets are owned by greedy corporate hustlers and hedge funds whose only point is to turn $1 into $2 as fast as possible in order to make a handful of rich white men fractionally richer.

Today’s journalists are forced to beg for subscribers in their social media feeds and use metrics — what people clicked on yesterday — to decide what to cover the next day. Sometimes this means news outlets make fools out of themselves trying to get too many bites out of a one-hit feature story like Fruit Loops pizza. Other times, it means worthy projects are abandoned because the online audience has lost interest.

This is not a one-to-one. News outlets, even the ones I make fun of, do try to keep the public informed.

But the public does not want to be informed. It wants to be affirmed.

The problem, of course, is we are all merely human and, by definition, flawed and prone to mistakes.

Our only hope is to recognize is that our flaws unite us and the correction can only be found in a collective offering of grace.

Many days I miss the newsroom, but mostly I miss the people and the memories. When I think of the task before them, the challenges they face and they pain and suffering they witness, those are the days I’m glad to be a civilian, knowing the phone won’t ring with an editor asking me to go ask strangers to tell me their secrets.

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification. 
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311. 
Zelle: newsmanone@gmail.com. 
Venmo@newsmanone
PayPalpaypal.me/paragraphstacker.

Crime and Courts, des moines, humor, Iowa, life, Unemployment

What’s the best revenge against someone who tries to steal your unemployment benefits? Hint: It involves Taylor Swift #fearlesstaylorsversion

I called Iowa Workforce Development late last week and by happy coincidence Anna the Angel answered the phone.

I called because I wanted to double-check that my benefits were on track to arrive on time.

This was more a triple or quadruple check. The first few times I called with questions on my benefits, I got into a verbal shouting match with a robot answering machine.

I followed that by a useless encounter with an unemployment office employee who seemed most interested in not answering calls from the public.

This series of frustration eventually landed me in the care of Anna, who seemed to give a damn whether or not I got my benefits.

She worked out some kinks in the paperwork and sure enough, benefits arrived. Another bureaucratic wrinkle meant I would wait two weeks to receive a check rather than the customary one.

That inspired me to call the unemployment office. You’ll forgive me if I’m skeptical of the agency’s ability to get things right.

Anna checked and to no one’s surprise, there was a problem. Apparently, somebody tried to file for unemployment benefits under my name.

Identity theft isn’t a new problem. I’ve lost track of the number of letters telling me my data has been compromised or text messages from my credit union telling me somebody tried to use a debit card in my name in a place I’ve never been.

I often joke that if someone is serious about stealing my identity, they’re welcome to it.

They can deal with the obesity, the mental health issues, the aches and pains, near-constant self-doubt, and the bird poop on the hood of my big black car.

Heck, if somebody stole my identity, my credit score would probably go up.

The upshot is that Anna the Angel of the unemployment office is on the case. She alerted the fraud department. The downside: I might not get paid on time. Again.

This adds stress to a stressful time. I’m 45 years old trying to learn a completely different career coming off a spectacular failure in my last job and getting my job cut at the one place I invested more of my heart and talent than anywhere else.

Restrictions on cash flow tighten the grip around the throat like Darth Vader force-choking an Imperial admiral.

But I chose to look at it another way.

Somewhere out there, there’s a fake me. They’re trying, at least for the benefit of a few hundred bucks, to pretend to be Daniel P. Finney.

I don’t know what Fake Finney was doing Sunday.

But OG Finney (that’s “original gangster” for my older readers) finished his linguistics homework. He fixed a few of his toys that needed glued. Finney finally retrieved one of the Millennium Falcon models and a Spider-Man figure that had fallen behind his bookshelves in the bedroom.

OG Finney picked up the new Taylor Swift CD, her remake of “Fearless.” Her voice flowed out of his car speakers like an enchantment as he drove about the metro with his windows down on a postcard-perfect day with periwinkle skies.

OG Finney ate a burger and fries from B-Bop’s in Clive. He sat on a bench by the trail with the sun on his arms and the breeze across his bald head.

He stopped by Snookies for a twist cone in a dish and played a few more songs off that Taylor Swift CD.

He got home and watched TV shows where things blow up and the good guys win.

He feel asleep reading a Conan the Barbarian comic book.

Whatever swindles Fake Finney was up to on Sunday and whatever hassles that may lead to for OG Finney, the real me, it’s all trivial in the end.

Sunday was a good day.

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification. 
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311. 
Zelle: newsmanone@gmail.com. 
Venmo: @newsmanone
PayPalpaypal.me/paragraphstacker.

baseball, des moines, humor, News, sports

Why they should move the MLB All-Star game to Des Moines

Major League Baseball decided to pull this year’s All-Star game out of Atlanta because of Georgia’s voter disenfranchisement laws.

That raises the important question: Where should the game be played?

The obvious answer is Des Moines.

Here’s nine reasons why:

  1. We could probably get Caitlin Clark to throw out the first pitch and Luka Garza to sing the national anthem.
  2. We have Froot Loops pizza.
  3. Imagine the social media boom when sluggers get their picture taken on the rocket ship slide and carousel at Union Park.
  4. Raygun will make a T-shirt.
  5. The local Gannett Outlet Store will do so many stories on it, you guys. So. Many. Stories.
  6. We gave hundreds of millions in tax breaks to Google, Facebook and Apple — some of the world’s richest companies — to put warehouses full of servers in farm fields. Our legislators are willing to peel the gold off the Capitol dome to associate themselves with greedy corporate hustlers who run MLB.
  7. We love competition. Example: Iowa hosts the first-in-the-nation Iowa Caucuses, a contest in the presidential nomination process that is so important the winner is sometimes settled by a coin flip a week after everyone has moved on. Think what we could do to speed up a baseball game!
  8. When Iowa disenfranchises voters, we still allow beverages for those waiting in line, unlike those creeps in Georgia. Those beverages could be Major League Baseball’s officially sponsored sufferage drink
  9. Lots of old white men in this town — MLB’s target audience.
Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification. Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311. Zelle: newsmanone@gmail.com. Venmo: @newsmanon. PayPalpaypal.me/paragraphstacker.
baseball, des moines, humor, Iowa, life, sports

It’s #OpeningDay for MLB … so why am I feeling so ho-hum?

The Major League Baseball season began Thursday. ESPN was already busy ruining the fun of the game as my beloved New York Yankees warmed up for their game against the Toronto Blue Jays.

New York’s starting pitcher is Gerrit Cole; the network commentator immediately calls Cole the “Yankees’ $300 million man.”

Cole makes a lot of money because he is an excellent pitcher. I don’t begrudge him his money.

But baseball commentary — as does so much of sports talk — quickly trends to economics.

NFL and NBA shows talk about salary cap room. Baseball shows talk about labor disputes.

This is not what I want to talk about on opening day. I can tolerate it in the dead of winter if only because I prefer baseball talk to bracketology.

Like the players, managers and umpires, fans take a while to get into midseason form. Thursday, for example, I was too slow to hit the mute button on my remote before the camera switched to Aaron Judge, the power-hitting Yankees outfielder. The first comment is potential drama over Judge’s contract.

Sweet relish on a hot dog! The man hasn’t taken a swing in a game yet this season and we’re already talking about his future financial situation. Am I watching ESPN or CNBC?

This is a long-term irritation. People say baseball doesn’t translate well to TV. I say TV is bad at broadcasting baseball games.

Fox Sports broadcasts rely on the extreme close-up on pitchers and managers as if they were shooting a soap opera rather than a sporting event. Fox national baseball broadcasts often include Joe Buck as the lead play-by-play man.

I like Buck. He has a sense of humor about himself. He takes the hate directed at him in stride. I don’t want to add to that, but the fact remains that I would rather chew a full roll of aluminum foil than listen him patter for a game.

ESPN focuses on where their commentators sit. Sometimes they’re next to the dugout. Sometimes they’re sitting out in the outfield like everyday fans. Gosh, aren’t those ESPN baseball commentators fun? It almost makes you forget the baseball game they’re supposed to be covering.

I have said this before, but it needs repeating: I would pay extra for a network that played the games with five or six camera angles and only the sounds of the game and the ambient noise inside the stadium.

ESPN redeems itself only through Tim Kurkjian, the nebbishy, squeaky-voiced talker who can discuss pitching mechanics as easily as he spins anecdotes of current players and connects the game to the stories of its rich history.

I have a soft spot for Kurkjian. He’s an old newspaper guy. He started his career at the defunct Washington Star, the same newspaper where my journalism mentor, Robert D. Woodward, worked. Woodward was the greatest teacher I ever had. He died last year, and I miss him

Kurkjian is still a reporter, which most commentators are not and never have been.

Maybe that’s the heart of my gripe about TV coverage and baseball. There aren’t many reporters left and there are even fewer writers.

I regularly watch “Pardon the Interruption,” which stars former Washington Post columnists Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon.

Their daily arguments remind me of the ones that regularly broke out in newsrooms at the beginning of my career, before greedy corporate hustlers turned newsrooms into “information centers” and drained the color and flavor from newsrooms to the point they could have been insurance companies.

On a recent episode, Wilbon quoted a line from one of Kornheiser’s old columns.

“I was a good writer,” Kornheiser said. “So were you. But that’s not what we do anymore.”

Writing hasn’t gone away from baseball. My friend Derrick Goold covers the St. Louis Cardinals with a team of brilliant writers at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The Post-Dispatch is a newspaper and people who work at newspapers are an endangered species that is still actively hunted.

Baseball is and has always been a numbers game. Those numbers lose meaning without words to give them perspective.

When I was a boy, I learned who won the previous day’s baseball games from that morning’s box scores. I excitedly studied. I read the long stories about the Midwestern teams and the shorts about teams farther away.

I subscribed to Sports Illustrated to get longer stories about all kinds of baseball people. I subscribed to Baseball Weekly, a USA Today product, for the same reason.

Sports Illustrated is terrible now and Baseball Weekly is dead.

The fan has more access to information and numbers, even the dreaded economics, on their smartphones than I ever did with the newspapers and magazines I read.

Yet something is missing. Baseball needs storytellers.

Baseball is more than numbers. Baseball collects the lore of yesteryear with the ongoing narrative of today. That’s what brings generations together.

But when we start talking contracts and salaries on Opening Day, it makes me feel distant and far away from the game I used to love so much.

Baseball gets good TV ratings in the markets where teams are popular. But the World Series ratings are seemingly worse every fall. Baseball officials worry about how to connect the game of old white men to a diverse new generation.

That’s a legitimate worry. They should also worry about middle-aged fans like me, who’ve lost their Opening Day enthusiasm. If baseball isn’t getting new fans and the old ones are losing interest, what do you have?

Baseball’s story is fading.

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification. Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311. Zelle: newsmanone@gmail.com. Venmo: @newsmanon. PayPalpaypal.me/paragraphstacker.
des moines, humor, Iowa, Unemployment

Update on Anna, the angel of the unemployment office

My phone rang this morning at the unholy hour of 10:30 a.m. Unemployment has few advantages, but unquestionably one is sleeping in.

I answered groggily and managed to choke out a greeting.

“Mr. Finney, this is Anna from Iowa Workforce Development,” the caller said.

I perked up. Anna, regular readers will recall, rescued me from the endless loop of robot answering machines and suicide-inducing hold music at Iowa Workforce Development, the fancy government name for the unemployment office.

I had run afoul of the unemployment bureaucracy due to a paperwork error. To the bureaucrat, a paperwork error is a mortal sin and those who commit one must be cast into the lake of fire.

The bottom line was I was looking at four weeks without a benefit being paid. Each time I called the office and wound my way through the Byzantine process to reach a person, I got a different answer.

Finally on Tuesday, I reached Anna, who fixed my problems and put me track to get paid. I would have offered my hand in marriage, but I think Anna’s smart enough to see an unemployed middle-aged journalist as a high-risk, low-reward investment.

Today, Anna called me to say that she didn’t want me to worry about the benefits statement on the unemployment website.

I hadn’t checked it yet, but Anna had. It showed that only one of the payments I’m due had been authorized.

Anna, apparently out of a sense of near-extinct concept of due diligence, checked on my case when she got to work Wednesday. She saw a small error, had it corrected and then called me to let me know it would be resolved within a day.

I told Anna she was a superhero. If I knew her last name (and had been paid my unemployment), I’d send her flowers.

We hung up and I rushed to the window. The sun was in the clear blue sky. A chilly March wind blew.

But there was no sign of the apocalypse.

Anna is quite clearly the real deal: a public servant who believes in helping the people who need her.

Until Tuesday, I would have assumed such a person was as rare as the fearsome snipe or the elusive jackalope.

Now I know governmental customer service is no longer a myth, like the leprechaun, but rare, like the four-leaf clover.

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification. Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311. Zelle: newsmanone@gmail.com. Venmo: @newsmanon. PayPal: paypal.me/paragraphstacker.
des moines, humor, Unemployment

A month without unemployment benefits? How robot customer service answering systems made being unemployed worse

I’m unemployed. That happens. Jobs don’t work out. Sometimes it’s no one’s fault. Most of the time it’s the fault of greedy Wall Street hustlers whose lone way to goose profit margins for the past 30 years is cutting jobs.

This was the case at the end of my newspaper job. It wasn’t at the end of my TV job. That one was on me: I was bad at the job.

Regardless, this is why we have unemployment. We decided as a society that it was better to give people a cushion when these changes happened than to increase the homeless population and give foreclosure departments and repo outfits more work.

I’ve used unemployment a few times in my life. The teachers warned us as freshmen at Drake that we wouldn’t spend our whole lives in one job. I tried anyway. I failed often.

Most of the time, applying for unemployment is a breeze.

This recent attempt was a disaster.

I made a mistake, which fouled up the works from the start.

Government bureaucracy is less forgiving of paperwork errors than retired English teachers are of typos.

The suggested means of dealing with problems on the Iowa Workforce Development webpage, which is the fancy name for the unemployment office, is to email. You’ll get a response in a business day, they say.

That seems simple. But bureaucrats have very rigid interpretations of that sort of thing. Does the day start the moment the email lands in the inbox, or does it start the moment someone opens the message, or does it start on alternating days following a new moon? It’s impossible to tell, but there is likely a webpage filled with rules longer than most religious texts with less sex and violence.

I’m old-fashioned. I like to talk to a person on the phone. The unemployment office recommends against this. They have a very high call volume, they say. This makes me feel better. I’m not the only person who wants to talk to someone on the phone.

So, I called with my question. My question was: “Why am I not being paid unemployment benefits?”

It turns out the mistake I made was applying too late in the week after my final paycheck from the previous employer. I should have filed on the Sunday or Monday after that, but I filed on Friday.

The problem is there would be a 10-day waiting period to evaluate the claim, check with former employers and so on before I could be paid. That seemed reasonable.

Ten days came and went. I checked the status of my claim and it was still in review status.

I called again.

I should mention that each time one calls the unemployment office, you must navigate one of those robot answering machines that requires you to press buttons and sometimes talk to a machine that cannot understand spoken language.

Here is a partial transcript of my recent call to the unemployment office:

Robot: I know you want to speak to agent. Please tell me what problem you are having so I can route your call to the appropriate person.

Me: I’m not getting paid.

Robot: I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that.

Me: I’m not getting paid.

Robot: I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that.

Me: I’m not getting paid.

Robot: I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that.

Me: I’m not getting paid.

Robot: I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that.

Me: I’m not getting paid.

Robot: I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that.

Me: I’m not getting paid.

Robot: I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that.

Me: I’m not getting paid.

Robot: I’m sorry I could not be of assistance. Goodbye.

Now that’s a mean trick. The robot said “goodbye,” but there’s a pause. Then it says, “Please stay on the line for the next available agent.”

I’m not making up the repetition. I counted it. It took five times for the robot to admit it was useless and route me to a person, which is all I ever wanted in the first place.

If McDonald’s sold burgers and fries this way, they would be out of business by the end of the week.

I was placed in queue. Music played.

I don’t know what section of the music store businesses and governments select music from, but I am fairly certain they either send someone who is legally deaf or whose misanthropic attitudes toward their fellow humans is so great they want to exact whatever suffering necessary to make the process of seeking customer service so painful people just won’t bother.

The music played for a few minutes until another robot came on the line. Employment opportunities abound for robots.

This robot offered me the opportunity to have the unemployment office call me back when it was my turn in queue. I took them up on that offer and dug into my schoolwork.

A man called back about an hour later. I forget his name. I am going to call him George.

I asked George why I wasn’t getting paid.

George said my claim was still under review.

I asked George why that was.

George said it could be lots of reasons.

I asked George if he could pick one just for fun.

George looked at my claim. It seems that I filed late and the 10-day waiting period for the claim had not passed.

I told George the 10-day waiting period passed Friday.

George said sometimes it takes longer than 10 business days.

I asked George why the unemployment office says it takes 10 business days if it’s more of a willy-nilly-whenever-the-spirit-moves-us kind of deal.

George was unamused. To be honest, I wasn’t feeling very amused either.

George said the earliest I could expect to receive benefits was the middle of April. 

I reminded George previous agents had said it should be sometime this week.

George said the problem was my claim came at the end of a benefit year. (I applied for unemployment in March 2020 during a furlough.) I needed to open a new claim for a new benefit year.

I got the sense George was not engaged in customer service but instead choosing from a set of flash cards designed to end the call as quickly as possible.

I told George I had already applied for a new claim, but that should be irrelevant to the previous claim for which I have not been paid.

George said the unemployment office would want to contact my employers for both claims and would prefer to do this all at once rather than two separate times.

I found this difficult to believe. These inquiries are done by form letter. The employer has 10 days to contest a claim. If they do not contest the claim, the benefits are paid. None of my former employers were going to contest the claim.

Further, when has a government agency ever balked at sending computer-generated form letters?

I said goodbye to George.

The line between a worried mind and a mind overrun by anxiety is thin for those of us who live with certain brain chemical disorders. I panicked at the prospect of going a full month or more without income.

I called my friend Randy. He suggested I call the unemployment office back and talk to someone else. Randy gives good advice. He’s also good for gab at lunch. If you get a chance to have lunch with Randy, do it.

I called back. I went through the five times of the robot not understanding me and the other robot offering to have an agent call me.

The woman who called me back was named Anna. Anna was an angel.

Anna found a glitch in my paperwork. She corrected it and went to talk to someone to make sure the review could be taken off.

Great, I said to Anna.

She asked if she could place me on a brief hold.

Sure, I said. Then the line was disconnected.

Oh goddamint, I thought. I found the one person who was actually going to help me and my cell phone service decides to drop the call.

Defeated, I dialed the number for the unemployment office again, but before I could finish, Anna called me back. She told me she had fixed the problem and I should see the review status change in the next day or so.

I still wouldn’t get paid on Friday, but I would likely see benefits – including back pay – early next week.

I thanked Anna. She was the first person at the agency that made me feel like I was a person rather than an annoyance.

I am sure lots of people are upset and cruel when they deal with customer service people at the unemployment office. I understand this. The prospect of going nearly a month without benefits you’re entitled to can be vexing in the extreme. I’ve certainly gnashed a few of my teeth in this ongoing process.

But a person like Anna can actually help.

I hope that for every George, there’s three Annas, but I think the math is more like for every George and Anna, there are three robot answering machines, some terrible hold music and one or two more reasons for people to give up due to overwhelming irritation.

I am glad I worked with Anna. I repeat: She was an angel.

Angel is the appropriate word, because getting answers out of the bureaucracy takes nothing short of divine intervention.

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification. Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311. Zelle: newsmanone@gmail.com. Venmo: @newsmanon. PayPalpaypal.me/paragraphstacker.
des moines, News, Winterset

Recognizing the anti-Asian racism of my Iowa youth

A childhood friend texted recently. She was angry about the gunman who attacked a series of Atlanta spas, killing eight people including six of Asian descent. She worried about the attacks on elder Asians in San Francisco.

My friend is of Chinese descent. Her father was an Iowa farmer who fought in the Vietnam war. He met and married a Chinese woman. They settled in Winterset. They opened a Chinese restaurant on the edge of town.

My friend struggled growing up. She was the only minority face in our class and among a very small number of minorities in Winterset. This is typical of most small towns in Iowa.

But until recently, until the protests over George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer last summer, I never bothered to look at the world from my friend’s perspective.

She was the only person who looked like her. We grew up in the 1980s and anti-Asian talk was common. Parents remembered Vietnam. Grandparents remembered World War II.

People still gave cold stares to anyone who bought a Japanese car.

People used regularly the racial slur “chink.” My friends did. I am ashamed to admit, I did, too.

We referred to her, our classmate and peer, like that in casual conversation. I remember it clearly and it turns my stomach.

I offer no defense. There isn’t one. I spoke in ignorance. I thought only of myself and trying to be cool or thought of as the funniest guy around.

Not everybody behaved that way. She named classmates who were kind, who were friends she treasured.

I apologized to my friend for the words I used, my immaturity and my ignorance. She said I was never the problem and she didn’t remember being angry with me. It was small comfort.

My friend endured a lot. The anxiety she suffered from daily bullying and racial insults gave her an eating disorder in high school. She lost her hair. Can you imagine being a teenage girl and losing your hair?

I had moved away by this time to finish school in Des Moines. The story goes that one day my friend wore her wig and another classmate, also a friend, pulled it off her head and ran down the hallway as she chased him.

My friend took her grievances to the school counselors. She complained of the bullying and racial epithets. One counselor, she said, just stared at her without blinking. Another told her she would need to toughen up.

The counselor told her parents – in front of her – that she would never succeed in college.

They were wrong. We were all wrong. She graduated from Iowa State. She went on to become a famous hairdresser in Chicago. She worked “The Jerry Springer Show” and “Jenny Jones.” She moved to Florida and began competing in Iron Man competitions around the world.

She’s married now and lives in California.

She told me a sweet story about her daughter coming home from second grade one recent day. The private, Christian school her daughter attends celebrated multi-cultural week.

Her daughter learned that her friend was from Africa. The child was so excited to have a friend from Africa and wanted to know more. My friend spent time with her kids looking up facts about where the child grew up.

“I wish I had grown up with this kind of inclusiveness and I loved that my own daughter saw things as they should be,” my friend said.

I spent most of my life rolling my eyes at things like multi-cultural week. I never bothered to understand the violence inherent in my words as a child and too far into my present.

In mind, I didn’t understand hatred toward Asians. From the perspective of a white man, they seemed to acclimate so well. Many own businesses. Their children were high achievers in school.

The fault in that thinking, of course, is that it’s from a white guy. I haven’t lived in world where I have to bite my tongue every time someone uses derogatory words at or near me.

I didn’t have to suppress my culture – reading comics and playing video games – because it was the dominate culture. I missed out on learning about my friend’s experience because of white privilege.

White privilege gets mocked in the conservative community. I see white privilege as having the freedom to ignore the struggles of others, especially Black and brown people and the LGBTQ communities, because the culture doesn’t force them to see it.

My friend could never ignore or rise above racism because it was always there, in her face, every damn day.

She’s doing well. She’s happy.

Then some asshole in Atlanta shoots eight people to death at massage parlors. More assholes beat old men in San Francisco.

And my friendship with my classmate helps me see those events better, understand the sinister underpinnings of racial hatred that had always been present in my life – all the way back to grade school.

I ignored it because I was allowed to. Now I understand a fraction better. All it took was the suffering of a fellow human being and classmate to finally shake me awake.

What, I wonder, will it take for me and the rest of us to do something about it?

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification. I’m freshly unemployed and have a big tax bill to pay. All donations are greatly appreciated and needed. Visit paypal.me/paragraphstacker.

des moines, Faith and Values, life, Media, mental health, People

Losing friends in the 21st century: blocking phones, unfollowing social media accounts, mean-spirited mail — can’t we all just drift apart?

From the desk of Paragraph Stacker Daniel P. Finney of Des Moines, Iowa.

“You’re sorry, all right,” the familiar voice said. “Give me a call.”

The message came from a former friend. We made two solid goes at being close friends. Both efforts ended badly. I was not up for a third go.

I admired my former friend. He was an excellent journalist. He should have been writing for the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. His understanding of the economy, particularly labor and banking, were unparalleled by any journalist I’ve ever met.

He came from a hardscrabble upbringing in the Bronx. There were family issues. Those are his story to tell, not mine. But I think those hard knocks early in life gave my former friend a puncher’s mentality to daily life.

He decisively labeled hustlers, chumps and fakers on the job, often with great volume. Sometimes I was a chump in his view. Sometimes I wasn’t. I didn’t agree, but it didn’t matter. He decided. He was never wrong. Just ask him.

We met at the paragraph factory in Omaha. I learned a lot from him, more than most peers and elders in the trade. He inspired me to push boundaries both as a reporter and as an individual. I became less timid and more confident during the first tenure of friendship.

Things broke down. The story is old. The details are fuzzy. I felt betrayed. He felt betrayed. We went our separate ways. It was the early 2000s. There was no social media, so people drifted apart; friendships ended.

That’s probably the natural order of human relationships before technology upended things.

We got back into touch almost a decade ago. Eight years had passed since our initial falling out. I called him for help on a business story. I mentioned an opening at the local shop. He applied. I vouched for him. The bosses hired him.

It worked out for a while. We rode again. We ate dinner. We hung out. But the Midwest is probably too uptight a place for him. Eventually there were clashes with the bosses. Then he got sick with spiking high blood pressure.

His doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong. He blamed stress at work. That could be true. The shop was in the midst of a stressful period that started, by my estimation, in 1996 and continues to this day.

The shop started doing screwy things. They made everyone apply for their jobs. There was a catch: There were fewer jobs than there were people. I got a promotion. My former friend’s job was cut, as were those of several of the best people I ever worked with.

My former friend said he was happy for me. But he posted cruel things about me on social media. He accused me of brown nosing management and later alleging I copied a story. Both were untrue, but I never bothered to respond to him directly.

I have no doubt he believes the things he said about me to be true. I knew who I was and what I had and hadn’t done. I didn’t owe anyone an apology. I decided to walk away without confrontation. Consensus is elusive to even the most reasonable people. We were not reasonable people.

His recent call surprised me. I figured he’d had enough of me. I had had enough of him. I did not call back. I texted. I was not welcoming. He replied with similar snark. I thanked him for all the things he taught me. I wished him peace in his future. I heard he’d gotten remarried. I hoped they were happy, but I didn’t care to hear from him anymore. I blocked his number.

Cutting someone out of your life is harder than it used to be. Instead of just not talking to one another, you’ve got to block phone numbers, unfollow and block social media accounts. It’s almost as big a hassle as having people you don’t like in your life.

Can’t we just drift apart?

I was on the other end of this kind of issue earlier this month. A former colleague from the local shop visited in January 2020. She came out to cover the caucuses with a particular interest in Andrew Yang, the fellow who believed in giving $1,000 a month to every American.

She stayed a month. She made for a good roommate for a one-bedroom apartment. She kept to herself, made very little noise, came and went as she needed and cleaned up after herself (and me) far beyond necessary.

I should add that there was no romantic entanglement. There never had been and neither of us desired one. We were just friends. We watched a few movies and some TV. I can’t imagine an apartment with two people being quieter.

She went back to New York to address some family issues. Things ended poorly. She ended up living in an apartment with a sketchy maintenance guy. I was unemployed and we talked a lot late at night. I would text periodically to see how she was doing.

We kept in touch. She decided to move to Washington, D.C. That didn’t work out. Then she moved to Texas, I forget which city.

We chatted a few times. She was sad, as people are after sad events. I tried to be supportive. Mostly it was all pleasant. She’s a comedian, so sometimes we traded jokes.

One day I texted her that I thought of her every time I looked in my bathroom closet, where two bottles of hair product sat. “As a bald man, I suppress my seething rage.”

I meant it as a joke. She took it seriously — that I truly, deeply hated her because of a couple of bottles of hair product in my closet. We had a brief and unpleasant text exchange in which she accused me of gaslighting her.

I reject that. I’m not trying to convince her something didn’t happen. We both agree I said what I said. We disagree on the intent and meaning.

In the end, she texted, “I still love you.” To prove it, she blocked me on the phone and all other channels. I reciprocated. I didn’t give it much thought. When people want to go, I say let them go.

About a decade ago, I lost a really good friend over a joke I made on Facebook. I still miss him. I tried several times to revive that friendship, but there was no reply. I finally took the hint. I decided after losing that friend that you really can’t change people’s mind. A person has a right to their opinion, even if they hate you.

Last week I got a parcel from New York. It was from my most recent former friend. She sent back a “Late Night with David Letterman” sweatshirt I gave her after her visit in January 2020. It didn’t fit me. It never fit me. I thought about having the logo cut out and framed somehow. I loved that show so much.

She wrote on the envelope “Peace be with you and peace be with this sweatshirt.”

Humbug. You can’t block the U.S. mail. So it goes.

I tossed the whole parcel, sweatshirt and all, into the trash bin.

I went inside, poured a mug of tea and called one of the few friends who haven’t blocked me.

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification. I’m freshly unemployed and have a big tax bill to pay. All donations are greatly appreciated and needed. Visit paypal.me/paragraphstacker.

des moines, humor, Iowa, life

Bojangles vs. the Bear

From the desk of friendly neighborhood paragraph stacker Daniel P. Finney of Des Moines, Iowa.

There should be a rule for national sports broadcasts that you can’t air commercials for restaurants that aren’t in your market.

I watched Notre Dame vs. Wake Forest on ESPN on a recent evening. One commercial showed a delicious chicken meal. It looked so good I wanted to make note of the restaurant to try it in the future.

The restaurant was Bojangles’ Famous Chicken n’ Biscuits. The closet location to Des Moines is Marion, Illinois, about 7.5 hours southeast.

I won’t be trying that anytime soon unless somebody in my family gets sent to the federal prison there. Even then, it’s a push.

The best fried chicken I ever had in a restaurant was at the Bear in Ankeny. They managed the impossible: a perfectly crisp, flaky skin with the juiciest meat underneath.

I ate at the Bear a lot with my dad when I was young. My mom was sick and spent time in the hospital. My dad would visit my older brothers who lived in Ankeny. They would talk adult things while I devoured the salad.

The side salad impressed me: croutons, purple cabbage, half of a hard-boiled egg and one of those wrinkled, juicy hot peppers. I always gave that to my dad in exchange for his egg.

The fried chicken came in a kids’ portion, but I wanted no part of that. I got a full leg and thigh with a wing and breast.

My mouth waters at the thought of that delicious white meat. It came out so hot you could watch the steam against the dim candlelight on the table.

The fried chicken came with your choice of side. I got steak fries. I think I’m the last person in America who prefers steak fries. More people probably like sweet potato fries than steak fries. But I loved them, slathered in Heinz ketchup that took two years to come out of the bottle.

The Bear was so popular in Ankeny they opened a second one. They called it Bear II. I never went there. It eventually closed, though me not going there was probably not the cause.

The original Bear stayed opened until a few years ago. After I moved back to Des Moines in 2005, I hung out with a group of guys. We called ourselves the Royal Order of Big and Tall Men, Local 47.

We had nicknames. There was the Kid, the youngest; the Slake, the eldest; and Joy Without Pleasure, younger than me, older than the Kid. His nickname was an inside joke. Most of our talk was.

The Slake didn’t eat chicken, but he loved the cavatelli. I think I got the Kid to try the chicken. I don’t remember what J.W.O.P. ate. He was an independent fellow. But it was a grand time, the kind you remember years later even if you can’t recall a thing said.

I have this picture in my mind of the Kid laughing so hard he almost choked on his drink. At least I think it was there. That happened a lot to the Kid in those days.

The Bear closed abruptly a few years back. There were rumors as to why, but nothing lasts forever. I never had that delicious fried chicken again.

And I won’t have this damn Bojangles chicken either, because just like the Bear, it isn’t here. Even if it was, it wouldn’t be as good as the Bear.

But I can at least thank their out-of-market ad for this fond memory.

Daniel P. Finney abides.

ParagraphStacker.com is free, reader-supported media. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification. I’m freshly unemployed and have a big tax bill to pay. All donations are greatly appreciated and needed. Visit paypal.me/paragraphstacker.

des moines, humor, obesity

The perils of cremation company advertising

From the desk of friendly neighborhood Paragraph Stacker Daniel P. Finney of Des Moines Iowa:

I’m trying not to take it as an omen that the first piece of mail after the end of my job at the local TV station was from a cremation company.

The brochure boasts over 20,000 Iowans have placed their trust in the company. I’m not sure how to take that statistic. Read another way, it could say: We’ve burned the bodies of a lot of dead Iowans – and you could be next!

A cremation company is a tough thing for to advertise. If cremation were laundry detergent, they would add a different color to the powder and call it “new” and “improved.”

But it might be bad for a crematorium to boast about it’s “extra strength” 1,800-degree furnace.

I joke here, but I plan to be cremated. I would do a traditional funeral, but I’m an obese man and I don’t know six guys strong enough to carry me.

I want my ashes mixed with buckshot and I want my buddies to have a spread with buffalo wings, Tasty Tacos and steak fries with all the Diet Mountain Dew and Coors you can drink. Whatever’s left in the Folgers can can be mixed in with some fireworks, you know, for the kids.

I want my buddies to take turns blasting my mortal remains into the sky while having a good time and listening to some boot-stomping music with their shit-kickers on.

Please don’t think me maudlin. I am of sound mind and body, although body is a bit rickety.

I’m just amused to be getting the cremation solicitations. The brochure especially impressed me with its “48-state Travel Protection.” You drop dead in the lower 48, these fellows will come get you and burn your corpse.

That’s dedication.

Not only will they cremate your remains, they’ll do it with “Iowa Values.”

That’s good. I don’t want some sumbitch with Tennessee values disposing of my remains. For all we know those bastards use the metric system down there. By God, my husk will be burned by people high on ethanol fumes and high fructose corn syrup the way my ancestors always imagined.

I mentioned the cremation brochure was thoughtful. There’s a small disclaimer at the bottom of the page: If this advertisement has come to you at a time of illness or sorrow, please accept our apologies.

I see where the company is going with this, but I think they’re missing their mark. These fliers ought to be going out to the hospices and ICUs. This is where your potential customer base is.

I’m 45. I’ve got a few dents in the side and the engine burns oil, but I’m still on the road for another few thousand miles. Hell, I don’t have a job, but I’m not ready for the cremation negotiation.

But I’m going to fill out this note cart asking for “FREE” information about cremation if for no other reason that it’ll give me a reason to walk out to the mailbox each day looking for new angles on this cremation situation.

Daniel P. Finney is journalist in transition. What that really means is he needs a job.

ParagraphStacker.com is free, reader-supported media. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification. I’m freshly unemployed and have a big tax bill to pay. All donations are greatly appreciated and needed. Visit paypal.me/paragraphstacker.