The ghosts of the past haunt my contacts list

The best Rolodex I ever saw belonged to Tom Alex, the dayside police reporter for the Des Moines Register.

You needed two years of CrossFit just to twist the wheel.

When one managed to crank the wheel, business cards rained out.

Most pages had six or seven entries hastily crossed out with the new contact shakily scrawled in with blue or black ink.

I worked as the night police reporter for several years and thumbed my way through that Rolodex many times.

I worked as a newspaper reporter for 27 years, but I never had a Rolodex.

Younger readers, if there is such a creature, will need to Google Rolodex.

I embraced technology and sought to be what edgy tech magazines such as Yahoo! Internet Life and Wired magazines called an “early adopter.”

Younger readers will also have to Google “magazines.”

And “Yahoo!.”

I used a cutting-edge Palm Pilot as my Rolodex. A Palm Pilot was just like an iPhone except it didn’t make phone calls and the screen cracked when dropped on a bar floor.

There was also no texting or social media.

There was a Tetris app.

My friend Jeff also owned a Palm Pilot. Jeff showed me how to upload databases into the device.

He uploaded the phone number and address of every Register newsroom employee. It was more than 200 names.

The data had a quirk. Everyone’s name was in ALL CAPS. This was in 1999.

I note this because I decided the contacts list needed cleaning. I realized how old some of the names were because they remained in ALL CAPS.

Over the years, my contacts list swelled to more than 5,200 people.

Some were duplicates, of course, but I found this task of winnowing down my bloated list more troubling than attacking a poorly organized linen closet.

Some of my contacts were dead.

I am not so nostalgic as to keep a dead person in my contacts in effort to keep their memory alive.

Yet when I came to my old friend and mentor Steve Buttry or my buddy Ken Fuson, the best writer any of us will ever know, I hesitated to delete either. It somehow made what has been final for years that much more final.

So it goes.

Other people deleted much easier.

One was a murderer. I knew him as a community-minded south Des Moines lawyer.

A few years back, he killed his wife and two sons and then himself at their home in Minneapolis.

There were a lot of cop contacts. I’ve been out of the journalism game for more than two years. I haven’t needed to call a public information officer in the middle of the night as a civilian.

Also, I think one or two of those guys are dead, too.

One of the cops that stung to delete was my old friend Dan Dusenbery. A Marine during the Vietnam War, he worked his whole career as a patrol cop.

Dusenbery had the best cop stories.

My favorite was the time he and his partner were ordered to clear out one of the city parks where teenagers were parking to make out.

His partner got the idea to work harder, not smarter.

They pulled into the park and flashed their spotlight into some nearby trees.

After a while, one of the kids asked what they were doing.

Dusenbery and his partner told the kids a murderer was on the loose and might be hiding in those woods.

Pretty soon there was a string of taillights leading out of the park. Dusenbery and his partner never had to get out of the car.

Dusenbery died a few years back. He was the kind of guy you hope is a cop in your hometown.

I trimmed out several former girlfriends or people I wished had been girlfriends or people who wanted me to be their boyfriend. That last pot was the smallest.

I felt pangs of nostalgia, but not hard enough to keep the numbers. What would we talk about?

The hardest contacts to let go were estranged friends — or people I’d had a falling out with over the years.

One guy got mad at me about a joke I made on Facebook. He vowed never to speak to me again. He’s stuck with that. I’ve respected his wishes.

Another was a best friend, as close as I imagine brothers to be.

But misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and my own guilt put a gap between us that has grown into a chasm with years.

By the time I was done, I had whittled the 5,200 down to a manageable 250.

I put down my phone feeling a bit cleansed — as if this minor exercise in digital cleaning served to knock some of the detritus off my soul.

Alas, the next morning I awoke to discover some unknown restore feature on my smartphone put all the contacts I deleted back on — even the murderer.

I bet this never happened to Tom Alex, who left his Rolodex behind the day he retired and hasn’t seen it since.

Former journalist and future teacher Daniel P. Finney writes columns for the Marion County Express. Reach him at

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for, 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.

The Oscars just keep getting easier to ignore

They held the Oscars on Sunday.

I didn’t watch.

I played Van Morrison’s greatest hits while I made lesson plans for school.

The Academy nominated Morrison for “Best Original Song.” He didn’t win; that was as close as I came to the Oscars.

I used to watch the Oscars as a boy. I grew up in Winterset in the days before the rehab of the Iowa Theater. My parents and I seldom went to movies in Des Moines.

The kinds of movies I wanted to see weren’t the kinds of movies that won Oscars.

But I liked movies a lot.

I watched the Oscars to see clips of the movies.

I watched “At the Movies” with Chicago movie critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert when it was on PBS for the same reason.

These clips proved cultural crib notes. My friends seemed to see more movies than me, so I would memorize the scenes I saw on Siskel and Ebert or the Oscars and pretend I’d seen the films.

I wanted to fit in more in my younger days.

The watched the Oscars in 1998. I rooted for “As Good as It Gets,” one of my favorite films with Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, and Greg Kinnear.

The three actors took the top awards, but the movie lost to “Titanic,” which I hadn’t seen and still have not seen.

The media, as it often does, beat me senseless with stories about how much people loved “Titanic,” how girls swooned as Leonardo DiCaprio slid off the door and died. The radio lambasted me with that tortuous Celine Dion song, “My Heart Will Go On.”

I hated “Titanic” having not watched a frame. That’s terribly unfair, but when it comes to entertainment, I reserve the right to be irrational.

This leads me to the 2022 edition of the Oscars.

I saw two of the Best Picture nominees, “Nightmare Alley” and “Licorice Pizza,” especially the latter. I’m a sucker for a good coming-of-age movie.

The movie that won, “CODA,” I knew nothing about and had heard nothing about before the Oscars.

I probably won’t watch it. It streams on Apple+; I have more pressing financial needs.

I saw Andrew Garfield and Benedict Cumberbatch were up for Best Actor, but it turns out not for the film I saw them in: “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”

The biggest problem with the Oscars is that it’s boring. I don’t care about what the actors wear on the red carpet nor do I care about their thoughts on Russia’s war against Ukraine or even the evening’s event.

Therein lies the Oscar’s’ other biggest problem: Somebody is always selling their worldview and labeling anyone who disagrees as some kind of hate monger.

Actors are artists and, as such, often passionate. I am a writer, a kind of artist, and I am often passionate.

Actors have aired their political beliefs at the Oscars for decades.

Marlon Brando famously sent a Sacheen Littlefeather to the 1973 awards ceremony to refuse his Oscar for playing crime boss Vito Corleone in “The Godfather.”

Littlefeather spoke against the stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans in film and chastised the United States government for its violation of treaties.

This sort of thing started before I was born and continues.

I don’t know what political drumbeats were struck Sunday.

I do know Will Smith punched Chris Rock over Rock’s joke about his wife, which is either a new low or a new high for the Oscars. I really don’t know how to tell the difference.

Before the show, I know Sean Penn threatened to smelt both of his Oscars if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy were not allowed to speak.

I would think Zelenskyy would have better things to do than talk to the swells of Hollywood. My understanding is the Russians are murdering civilians, blowing up hospitals, and waging war against Ukraine.

I fail to see what an appearance on the Oscars does for Ukrainians, other than make a collection of America’s richest and most detached from reality people feel slightly more important.

Russia’s actions in the Ukraine are abhorrent. They make me sad for people displaced and killed for seemingly no reason.

The atrocities scare me. If the U.S. gets directly involved, that raises the threat of nuclear war to its highest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

That’s the endgame.

These kind of world events reminds us how small we are. I can empathize, cry, protest, and shake my fist at the sky about what Russia is doing all I want.

But it will do nothing other than shake up my already jangled nerves and blood pressure.

This must be hard for celebrities. People look up to them. They see them as leaders and heroes, even though they really are not.

It must be especially hard for celebrities to face a crisis like the war in Ukraine.

Their outsized fame misleads them into thinking their speechifying can change the world the way their characters do on screen.

They can’t.

They, like the rest of us, can do other things: Donate to the Red Cross, the world’s greatest humanitarian organization or support other groups that help refugees.

Nothing said on the Oscars by celebrities will matter either.

There was a political dust-up at the 1978 Oscars. You can look up the details online, but presenter Paddy Chayefsky, the writer of the excellent movie “Network,” said, in part, “winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed.’”

Former journalist and future teacher Daniel P. Finney writes columns for the Marion County Express.

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for, 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.

A throughly restless spring break

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

One day, hopefully soon, I will write an update and it will be lovely.

I’ll talk about my new teaching job and how I’m looking forward to it.

I’ll go on about how well my arthritic knees are responding to aquatic therapy.

I might have even lost a few pounds.

Surely my mental health will have improved.

One day.

I hope.

This isn’t that day.

I hoped spring break, which ends Monday, would be a time for rejuvination.

I picked up a chest cold at school the last week before break. My doctor diagnosed it as an inflammation of my asthma. She prescribed a steroid inhaler.

The inhaler works great except for one side effect: It plays hell on my anxiety.

Such a side effect normally tortures me enough in more steady times.

These aren’t steady times.

I’m trying to finish graduate school, earn my teaching license, and survive on the thinnest of financial margins.

I made it through midterm. I received my report. I talked it over with my mentor teacher and my supervising teacher. It seemed a fair assessment. 

I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but my mentor teacher and the Drake professor overseeing student teaching assured me that my development was on par with where they expect novice teachers to be at this point in student teaching.

Alas, a brain affected by acute anxiety rejects positive information. I’ve written before that most problems occur in the space between emotional reaction and intellectual understanding. Feelings overrun facts and thoughts run haywire.

I took the midterm and my wild thoughts decided I had already failed as a teacher and that I was going to die broke and alone and my nest dispatch would be from temporary housing at a YMCA.

I didn’t do this on purpose. It’s just a bad thinking pattern developed as a survival method to deal with childhood trauma. It’s the same bad thinking that leads me to overeat to morbid obesity.

So when the steroids hit the bloodstream with already jangled nerves, that was cherry bomb in the toilet. Everybody I’m in close contact with knew I was depressed and tried to assure me I was going to be OK. My teachers tried. Parents 2.0 tried. Friends tried.

The trouble is they used intellectual reasoning and the chemical malfunction I was dealing with mucks up emotional reactions.

The combination of physical illness and mental health struggles put me to sleep for the first four days of spring break.

My therapist finally helped me reason out the situation and come down from the rush of negative emotions.

Then I got my vaccine booster shot. That made me sick with fever and chills for about three days. I suppose a few miserable days are a good trade for avoiding the full force of a potentially lethal virus infection, particularly with my comorbidities, but it’s still no fun.

So spring break week has come and gone and all the books I was going to read for fun and all the schoolwork I was going to accomplish remain in the same state they were before break began.

There’s a possibility that would have happened even if I had been healthy, but I want to believe my better intentions would have prevailed if I wasn’t fighting a double- or sometimes triple-whammy of health problems.

There is a bit of good news. A friend of mine, a fellow former paragraph stacker, left the trade to become a lawyer. He reviewed the administrative law judge’s rejection of my appeal for a special benefits program that would extend my unemployment.

He and his boss offered some suggestions for an appeal, but my friend told me the appeals judges almost always side with the administrative law judges.

But an appeal costs me nothing but time. I appealed. The state is moving in its usually speedy way. The form says it could take up to 75 days. I would guess that figure will be doubled and add five more days for that.

I did my taxes. That was a brutal bummer. I’m due a refund from the feds that will be completely wiped out by my tax bill in Iowa. So the hope that a tax refund would keep me in rent, groceries, and gas for a month or so dwindles.

Some hope rests in some federal government deciding what income might be declared tax exempt because of the pandemic disaster. My tax software company says the feds haven’t decided this yet. No rush. Taxes are due in less than a month. 

Why would we expect the federal government to serve the people in any speedier fashion than any other government?

Ah, but why bother with politics at a time like this.

As my friend Todd often reminds me, the only way through troubles is straight through them.

I hate to trouble all of you again with my tales of woe. I hope you know how much each of you has helped me. These contributions have kept afloat during one of the most challenging times in my life. 

I’m learning to be a teacher while I’m also learning to live with the disability from my arthritic knees and facing financial struggle. It’s a lot of stuff to worry about all at once and, frankly, sometimes it gets to me.

But you people, you floor me. I don’t know many of you personally. I dare say I don’t know most of you personally. Yet you give and give. You send positive messages.

I hear the negative ones, both in my own thoughts and from others. 

I want you to know how much your letters have touched me, how much your faith in me becoming a good teacher keeps me going when the doubts mount.

And, yes, money is important. I wish I never had to talk about money, but we live in the real world. The electric bill is due every month, just like the rent, insurance, and other bills.

I’m hanging in there. I live frugally. I clip coupons now. OK, an app does it for me, but I never did before. 

So, this is a day I wish never comes, a day in which again I ask for your help. I need your support. Don’t overextend yourself for me; your first duty is always to yourself. 

For those who do help, I will remind you of the promise I’ve made many times before: I will become a teacher and eventually a very good one. I will pass on all that I have learned about writing and creativity and passion for a craft. I will be honest, tender my truths with kindness, and be the person you believe me to be.

And one day, soon, I hope, this will be a different kind of message.

Blessings to you all.

Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.
Meal Train:

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for, 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.