Crime and Courts, des moines, Des moines police, Iowa, life, Media, News, Unemployment

Iowa Workforce Development bigwigs hide when reporters come asking question about fraud, data breach

Scott Carpenter, a reporter for KCCI-TV, called me Monday. He was working on a story about Iowa Workforce Development, the fancy name our state government gives the unemployment office.

Carpenter asked me if I was willing to be interviewed. I declined. I’ve got nothing against Carpenter. I don’t work for the news media anymore. I like the idea that I can say no after nearly 30 years of almost always having to say yes.

Still, I talked to Carpenter about my situation for a few minutes. I told him he could use my name in his story if he wanted. He didn’t. That’s OK.

Carpenter asked me if I’d heard anything about a data breech at the unemployment office. I hadn’t. They told me my identity had been stolen and that attempted fraud may delay payments indefinitely, which I’ve written about on this blog.

I watched Carpenter’s story on KCCI’s website Monday evening. He got an interview with a disabled vet who went three weeks without an unemployment check. Carpenter asked for a Zoom interview with someone from the unemployment office to clarify the fraud problem.

He received a message from Ryan Ward, Iowa Workforce Development deputy director. Ward’s message read, “Iowa Workforce Development does not have the availability to do a Zoom interview and Iowa Workforce Development has not suffered a data breach.”

Ward made more than $153,000 in the last fiscal year for a job titled “public service executive.” I don’t know what that job title entails nor do I begrudge a man his salary, but I fail to see much public service in Ward’s email to Carpenter.

There seem to be some legitimate questions about the security of data at the unemployment office. And there are a lot of questions that remain unanswered. We need those “public service executives” to step up and tell us what’s going on even on days things aren’t going so hot.

I don’t know Ward, so I’m going to take him at his word despite my skeptical nature. Maybe he was busy Monday. Maybe all the people who could answer a few questions were busy.

But what I find odd is that later in the day someone at the unemployment office dusted off a laptop and put out a news release that “reports an increase in recent fraudulent activity related to unemployment insurance.” They talked about criminals using sophisticated algorithms to steal data and attempt fraudulent claims for people’s unemployment benefits.

Fucking algorithms, man.

Algorithms have ruined society. Facebook algorithms pushed racist and fake news. Some hackers used algorithms to jack up the prices of stores that were otherwise on the brink of extinction. Russian hackers used algorithms to interfere with the 2016 election. Sports team use algorithms to make games in all sports duller and more predictable.

If only there was an algorithm to get an obese paragraph stacker through graduate school so he could teach kids how to sling sentences.

I digress.

The news release denied a data breach again and then churned up a bunch of boilerplate language about keeping your data safe.

The news release, as such things often do, left more questions unanswered than answered.

For example, the release says the fraud uptick occurred “recently.” Be specific. Was it the last month, the last six months, Tuesday, how long? And if you can’t – or don’t want to say the time frame – tell us why you don’t want to tell us.

The release says this is a national issue and they’re working with national partners on the issue. How? What are you doing? How are you doing it? Is it yielding any positive results? Have you involved federal agencies?

The disabled veteran KCCI’s Carpenter interviewed says he’s been without a check for three weeks. I haven’t missed any checks yet, but they told me last week I likely would start missing checks because of the fraud investigation.

But I sent Iowa Workforce Development copies of my driver’s license and my Social Security card.

If they want, I’ll come down to the office and somebody can look at me leaning on my cane from six feet away through binoculars.

Or Google me. There are pictures of me on the web from various jobs in the news industry. I have not lived a quiet online life.

What I’m saying is I’ve proven my identity. I’ll bet that veteran has, too. If you know who we are, pay us our benefits and don’t pay the fraudulently set up accounts.

How did “don’t pay anybody” become an option? What is Iowa Workforce Development going to do about that?

The told me I would get back pay. I’m OK for now. My big bills are paid. I’m stocked with groceries. I’ve got my graduate studies to work on, but the longer this goes on, the tighter things will get.

What about those families who can’t go a week, let alone a month or more without their unemployment benefits?

The snide answer is we should all get jobs.

Well, I’m trying. It just so happens that thing I’m very good at, writing newspaper stories, is not a thing valued by greedy corporate hustlers and slimy hedge fund managers.

So, I’m learning to be a teacher.

Until then, I’m going to need that benefit, like thousands of other Iowans.

And it would be nice if Ryan Ward, deputy director of Iowa Workforce Development, would earn some of his $153,000 annually by answering a few questions and letting us know when they’re going to fix the problem.

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. 
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des moines, Iowa, life, Media, sports

Drake says ‘bye, bye’ to Coach Jennie; departure reminds Des Moines it’s a stop, not a destination

Former (sigh) Drake women’s basketball coach Jennie Baranczyk.

Congratulations to Jennie Baranczyk on being named coach of the Oklahoma Sooners women’s basketball team.

I mean that.

But it hurts to say it.

Last week, Baranczyk was the Urbandale kid who starred at Dowling Catholic High School and then the University of Iowa before eventually taking over her hometown Drake women’s basketball team. She was, in my mind, one of Des Moines’ brightest lights.

Now she’s the big boss for the Sooner women’s team.

Good for Jennie.

Brutal bummer for Drake and Des Moines.

I covered the Drake women’s team early in my career when they had another superstar coach, Lisa Bluder. Covering teams was the highlight of my career, which is sad since it happened before I was a full-time journalist.

Bluder left for Iowa 20 years ago. I loved — and still love — Bluder, her assistants Jan Jensen and Jenny Fitzgerald, a pair of Drake alums.

But it still hurts a little that they coach the Hawkeyes.

I understood it.

Iowa is in the Big Ten, a so-called Power Five conference. They’re the biggest and best schools when it comes to sports. Plus, Bluder was from nearby Lin-Marr. She was moving up and going home.

Baranczyk gave Drake nine magnificent seasons, including six 20-win seasons, three NCAA Tournament bids and two consecutive seasons where her Bulldogs posted undefeated conference records.

Now she’s off to ply her skills for the Sooners, another Power Five school.

I’m happy for Baranczyk. I’ve only interacted with her a few times, but each one was terrific. I felt uplifted every time. She’s fun and driven. She made my beloved Drake women’s team winners.

What more could I ask of her?

Well, maybe I could beg her to stay.

But I’m a realist.

That Baranczyk left Drake for Oklahoma is a fact of life, one that Bulldog fans are well used to by now.

Remember when Keno Davis, the great Tom Davis’ son, took Drake men’s team to the NCAA Tournament back in 2008? The younger Davis got $1 million to go coach Providence.

Drake couldn’t come up with the cash. Well, there were rumors that some boosters cobbled together a competing offer, but the administration didn’t want the basketball coach to be paid more than the university president.

Regardless, Keno went to Providence and the men’s program endured a series of mediocre coaches until Drake hired Darian DeVries, who got the Bulldogs to the NCAA Tournament this year.

Drake rewarded him with an eight-year extension. We’ll have to wait for a couple years of federal 990 form filings to find out how much cash is involved, but I’d put a nickel down that DeVries makes more than the university president now.

That said, if DeVries took the Bulldogs to the tournament a second year in a row, nothing in that extended contract would prevent another Power Five school from scooping him up.

This is the sad song of mid-major basketball schools. It’s all about the coaches, but once you get good ones you can’t hang on to them.

I’m a Des Moines native. This is my hometown. I moved away for a few years. I didn’t like it. I came home. This is my place.

Over the years, I’ve learned to stop taking it personally when bright lights such as Baranczyk leave for more money and bigger stakes in other places. Everybody has the right to pursue their highest levels.

But the losses still squeeze the heart.

The reality is for so many high achievers, Des Moines is a stop on the journey, not a destination.

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. 
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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, 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.
Iowa, life, Winterset

How I pissed off a bunch of my old friends by writing about racism in the small Iowa town I grew up in

I pissed off a lot of people — old friends from Winterset, mostly — the last time I wrote in this space. I’ve been stuck as to what to say since.

The intent was not to upset people or settle 30-year-old grudges. There was a time in my life when I would have enjoyed that, but I hope I’ve outgrown the need to provoke simply for reaction’s sake.

In reality, it was another childish ideal that caused me to write about racism I witnessed — and was regretfully party to — while I grew up in Winterset: I keep trying to get people to think about things from a different point of view.

One of the many reasons I became a journalist is because things my family endured — and feared — while I grew up in Winterset. My family went broke refurbishing a red-brick mansion about 4 miles west of Winterset. We were so broke that we didn’t have enough money to cover the big windows at the front of the house.

So, we hung sheets for privacy, probably unnecessarily because visitors whizzed by at 55 mph or more and the house was a good quarter mile away from the road.

People made fun of us for our window coverings. Well, I don’t know if they did or didn’t. My dad worried that they did. He was ashamed of his financial status and, real or imagine, he worried the community would judge him for not having enough money for expensive drapery.

After my dad died, my mom and I lived in a small house by the high school. My mother struggled with addiction to opioids — stuff that isn’t even legal to prescribe anymore — and probably a series of undiagnosed mental illnesses. For reasons unclear to me, she decided to pay a service to mow our lawn instead of buying a lawnmower and letting me do it.

The dye was cast. That doughy Finney boy was so lazy he wouldn’t even mow the lawn at his own house for his poor, elderly mother.

This perception of me was so ironclad that it was thrown in my face multiple times, sometimes by teachers. No amount of my attempts to correct this rumor with the fact that my mother, while crazy, was still the adult in the house and the idea not to buy a lawnmower was hers, not mine.

I took to journalism in part because I thought I could set the record straight with facts and supporting information. I believed a well-reasoned argument should be at least be considered.

Small towns can be wonderful. They can also be vicious, especially on the matter of rumormongering.

The last time I wrote, I tried to ask my classmates from the small town I’m so found of to think differently about the things we said and did as they related to one of our classmates of Asian descent after the deaths of Asian-Americans in shootings at Atlanta salons.

Not everyone bullied the classmate in question, nor did everyone use racial epithets that I described, but a lot of us did. I did. And I admitted I was ashamed and had changed as an adult.

The discussion started off nicely enough. Some people apologized. The person I was writing about thanked me for the piece.

This changed.

The subject of the column started calling people out for things done more than 30 years ago. By name. And those folks weren’t too keen on being associated with racist acts. And other people remembered events differently than she did.

I received text messages from the subject of the column with screen shots of the arguments and the caption “I’m having so much fun!”

The arguments heated up. Some people came to me directly and asked me to moderate comments. I appealed twice in comments for everyone to settle down and just think about what we were talking about from a different perspective.

That was a failure.

Then the subject of the column turned on me. She asked me to take it down. I declined. The rhetoric intensified. I banned her from the page and deleted the comments.

I know one or two people put some thought into what I wrote about last week. But many didn’t.

What a waste of time and energy.

I still love my friends from Winterset. I would not be who I am today without them. It still hurts a little that I wasn’t able to graduate with my class, but that worked out OK, too.

But this small-scale incident is one of the large-scale reasons why I don’t know if I could ever be a journalist again.

Almost nobody wants to think. People are quick to yell. The facts are elusive and made irrelevant by the stubbornness in all our minds to see things in a way that supports our existing conclusions.

Nobody likes to be challenged. Journalism is the act of challenging.

Or it was.

Today it’s about Fruit Loops pizza.

I digress.

The whole affair reminds me of a story about the poet and author Charles Bukowski. A reporter rode with Bukowski on an airplane sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, when Bukowski wrote strange screeds for the alternative newspapers in California.

Bukowski was drunk. He clawed at the flight attendants and made a boorish fool of himself.

Some weeks later, the reporter saw Bukowski’s byline in one of those alternative papers. He told the story on the plane, except in Bukowski’s version it was the reporter who was a lout and Bukowski who looked with embarrassment.

The reporter ran into Bukowski sometime later and asked him why he said that.

“Hey,” Bukowski said, “I’m the hero of my shit.”

I think we’re all a little bit like Bukowski. We all want to be the hero of our own shit. And we’re willing to lie to ourselves hard enough that we actually believe 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. Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311. Zelle: newsmanone@gmail.com. Venmo: @newsmanon. PayPalpaypal.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, Iowa, life

Alas, poor snow days, we knew ye well

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

The digital invades our daily lives in uncounted ways, but the war on snow days may prove the cruelest cut.

I watched the school closing scroll across my TV Sunday night. Many closed, but others moved classes to an all-virtual model — the innovation that kept school going during this tragic, tedious pandemic.

The snow day – or the cold day – isn’t quite dead, but the end is near. Soon nobody will ever get an unscheduled day off. They’ll just open their laptops and carry on.

I suppose it’s a small loss, but once again the culture of “always on” pays an unwanted dividend.

Children once pressed their noses against window glass with anticipation only matched in events with birthday cake or Christmas presents.

They pestered their teachers the moment the first snowflake fell: “Do you think they’ll let us go home early? Do you think they’ll cancel school tomorrow?”

The teachers did their best to restore order, but the dreams of snowball fights, snowman building and the raw thrill of being out of school when you were supposed to be in school swallowed up any chance to teach and learn.

Most of the time the anticipation proved much ado about nothing. But there were those days, those delightful days when the snow piled too high or the wind blew the cold too hard so that even the most stalwart superintendent surrendered and called off school.

Oh, what magical days. We slept late. If we could go outside, we built snow forts, sought out the biggest hill in town and sledded as we let loose shrieks of joy.

If we couldn’t go outside, we played video games or read comic books. We quarreled with our siblings, ate too much sugar and stayed up too late.

That’s all but over now.

Maybe today’s kids would just as soon slog through school in so-called virtual days. The students must be used to them by now after enduring them so long.

I’ve no interest in debating the pedagogical merits of virtual versus in-person instruction. That’s left for parents, students, educators and, unfortunately, politicians.

But I will say this much: You may squeeze a couple droplets of learning into a virtual school day, but there will never be a virtual snow day.

The simple pleasures are the ones we miss when we prize efficiency and convenience above all else.

We wonder why our lives are so overburdened and crammed, why everything seems so relentless and extreme.

Maybe when things get so intense, we should remember snow days – a day when Mother Nature told us to take a break in the middle of the obscenity that is February in the Midwest and go play.

Daniel P. Finney is offering a 25% discount on all navy blue towels and bedding at ParagraphStacker.com.

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. And I got a nasty tax bill for daring to have health insurance while I was unemployed. All donations are greatly appreciated and needed. Visit paypal.me/paragraphstacker.

des moines, humor, Iowa, life, obesity

One day at Brown Shoe Fit Company

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

I needed new shoes. I usually buy New Balance. Those are appropriate sneakers for middle-aged men. I’ve long outgrown shoes for style. My shoes are all function. And that’s what New Balance makes.

I usually buy my shoes at one of the sporting goods stores at the big mall in West Des Moines or one of the discount shops that sells last year’s model.

But I’ve got degenerative arthritis in my knees. There’s inflammation in my meniscus from a slip on the ice and tendinitis plagues my Achilles tendons.

My stimulus check arrived and I decided to treat myself to a higher-end model of New Balance to help me negotiate the treacherous winter.

The last time I went to the sporting goods store, the kid who helped me wasn’t even sure if they sold shoelaces. I’m not making that up. So I called Brown Shoe Fit Co. in West Des Moines.

I liked the name. I liked the idea that what they do there is sell shoes and shoe-related things like shoelaces and some socks. There wasn’t a hunting section or a sports jersey department.

There’s nothing wrong the big sporting goods company. I was just raised by people who “had a guy for that.” My parents had a plumber, an electrician, a baker and so on.

When I was a boy, there were scores of independent craftsmen who survived on the loyalty of people who were satisfied with the service and preferred dealing with the same person rather than obsessively seeking a bargain.

That reads more critical than I intend. Things change. I buy most things from Amazon except comic books. I try to support favorite businesses when I can.

This time I needed a shoe guy. I had a shoe guy when I was very young. His name was Pete. He worked at a shoe store in Park Fair Mall. I’m old enough to remember when Park Fair Mall was still a shopping hub on the northeast side.

Pete knew I only wanted one thing when I came into the store with my parents: Keds Tail Lights. They were navy blue canvas with a yellow diagonal stripe on the side and a bright red-orange circular reflector on the heel — just like the tail lights on a car.

I remember the day my parents took me to finalize the adoption. They made me dress up and wear a pair of saddle shoes. Chuck Offenburger would have been proud.

I was unimpressed. The saddle shoes were too tight and I kept complaining they hurt my feet. My parents urged me to keep quiet about my discomfort lest the Polk County judge think they were bad parents who failed to provide proper shoes.

I don’t remember how old I was, but I didn’t want to mess up the deal. I kept quiet. The judge signed off and my life as a Finney began in full.

To celebrate, we drove straight to Pete’s store and I got a new pair of Tail Lights. I don’t remember when I became too old to wear Tail Lights, but that must have been a sad day.

Since Pete, I haven’t had a regular shoe guy. I just went wherever. Sometimes I bought bargain. Sometimes I bought mid-range.

I now needed something higher end. I went to Brown Shoe Co. A man introduced himself just when I walked into the store. I worried this was going to be a hard sell.

“What can I get you?” he asked.

I told him I needed some better shoes and explained my ails. He motioned for me to come to the back of the store. The guy took off like a rabbit.

I’m an obese man living in a world designed for average sizes. I looked at the chairs, all of which had arms and narrow seats. I was in trouble, I thought. There’s no my big butt would fit in these chairs.

The salesman disappeared into the backroom. He came out with a wide bench in his arms. He set it down between a couple chairs and offered me the seat.

At that point, the guy could have sold me a pair of red stilettos with taps and bells on them. That is a smart salesman. He anticipated a customer’s need before the customer had to vocalize it. I would vote for this guy for president.

The thing is, it’s not unusual for an obese person to be noticed. But it’s exceptionally rare for an obese person to be treated humanely, with kindness and gentility. This guy did it unprompted.

He brought out several pair of more expensive New Balance, but he hit a home run on the first pair. He explained all the features to me. I tried to pay attention, but in the end, all I cared about was they were comfortable.

The salesman laced them up for me, put my old pair in a box and walked me up to the registers. I paid. I thanked him for bringing that bench out. It made my day.

I took his card. I immediately lost it, of course. But I have a new shoe guy. And I know where to find him next time.

Daniel P. Finney feels better about using a cane to walk by thinking of it as his “whacking stick.”

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. The new semester is underway. All donations are greatly appreciated. Visit paypal.me/paragraphstacker.