The joys of a boy and his toys

The Hall of Justice crashed down and Batman and Black Widow fell into the abyss; all were the victims of a single push that accomplished more than a thousand assaults by the Legion of Doom.

The Batmobile was overturned and Robin lay twisted beside the wreckage.

All manner of cars — from Scooby-Doo’s Mystery Machine to a G.I. Joe jeep — coagulated into a traffic calamity for the ages.

It seemed nothing could slow the rolling disaster embodied by a real, live human toddler except the magic elixir of chocolate milk in a sippy cup.

Otis visited Camp Daniel with his father and my friend, Andrew, on a recent evening.

Andrew’s wife had been exposed to COVID-19 and was isolating pending a test.

I invited he and the boy to hang out while she rested.

I haven’t been around small children in many years.

When I was younger, my cousin’s children were toddlers. Many of those “kids” are in college or married with children of their own now.

Otis is a sweet-natured boy, like his parents. He likes “trucks,” which is his catch-all phrase for cars of any kind. He pushes them around on the floor. He loves the turn of their wheels. He loves their crashes more.

My house is a sort of monument to pop culture past and present. Otis cased the apartment, guided by his dad, for cars and gathered up as many as he could find.

He was found of the A-Team van, Ecto-1 from “Ghostbusters,” and “The Transformers” Optimus Prime, but only in truck mode. I transformed Optimus into his robot mode. Otis lost all interest. He is a wheels man, not a robot man.

Andrew asked me if there was anything that was off limits; He would steer Otis away.

I am a collector, but I also believe comic books are meant to be read and toys are meant to be played with. Aside from a few pricier statues, everything was fair game.

I never married or had children.

There are a lot of reasons for that, but that’s the way it is.

But there is something about a child with a toy that touches me in a deep place.

The visit was inspired a week or so back. Andrew came by to help me with a project. I’ve struggled with some basic tasks since knee surgery, arthritis, and obesity have limited my mobility.

I decided to tidy up my desk, both inside and out, and pulled three large trash bags of detritus from the big, gray steel World War II surplus desk.

Andrew dropped by for a beer or two and carried out my trash. I gave Andrew a big bucket of old cars, some newer, but many that dated back to my childhood.

He said he should bring Otis by. It was a joke, I think, because he worried, I think, that I would be overprotective of my collectibles.

But I said sure. So when the opportunity presented, Andrew texted an offer of a visit and pizza.

I enjoy my pop culture menagerie.

I look at a Darth Vader action figure or a Transformer and remember happy moments fueled by imagination as the forces of good and evil did battle on shag carpet in the house on Lynner Drive.

That pales in comparison to watch in a relatively new human explore those same adventures for the first time.

On occasion, Otis would come to the edge of my recliner and say, “Up! Up!” I would heft the boy onto the arm of my chair. He would delight in rolling cars off the side of my belly.

I thought back many years ago, when my dad would stretch out on the living room floor after dinner for a nap. I would jump on his belly. We would wrestle for a while before we both fell asleep.

Otis’ bedtime approached and he and his dad helped clean up the disaster area that my living room floor had become.

The Hall of Justice returned to its perch, with Batman overlooking. The Batmobile parked in its usual spot and Robin was none the worse for the crash.

All the toys went back to the shelves and boxes.

Otis and his dad went home.

I rarely have company, much less such energetic company. I was exhausted. I texted Andrew.

“How do you keep up with that much energy?” I asked.

“You don’t,” he replied. “You just get used to being tired.”

That I believe.


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.
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How I learned the real meaning of generosity

My friend Tyler is faithful Lutheran. He became my friend out of a Christian act of kindness in March 1991 and we have remained so despite the different paths our lives of taken. He is married to his sweetheart, Sarah. They have two daughters.

Tyler and I differ on a great many things, but we both believe in moderation, grace, and kindness. His grace toward me has been an especially great gift during my recent struggles with health, school, money, and so on.

Tyler happened to text me on a particularly stressful day a few weeks back. My unemployment had run out and there was a problem with my student loans at the university — one that could have prevented me from registering for student teaching and potentially derailed the long plan to finish my transition from journalist to teacher.

Tyler agreed that was stressful.

He offered to come by for a chat.

I asked if he was in Des Moines. He works here, but he lives in Ames.

No, he said. He was at home. But it’s not that far of a drive.

The time was late evening after dark. He was willing to drive 45 minutes to comfort his friend and, after a time, drive back. That’s 90 minutes on the road for an act of kindness.

As most longtime readers know, I suffer the affliction of depression and anxiety. Sometimes I see only shadows on sunny days. I feel trapped with no way out.

Then I am reminded of people like Tyler, whom God sends to me in the darkest moments and says, “You’ll be OK. You will survive.”

Tyler is a blessing of 31 years.

But he is not the only one.

There are always Parents 2.0, whose love is the kind of strong that you can lean your back against it and know it won’t fall no matter how hard the winds of change blow.

There is my friend Sara, who helped me reorganize all three of my closets to accommodate my bad knees. In the front closet alone, I can do something quite spectacular because of her work: Hang up my coat. She made two visits to my home and made my closets so organized that I am afraid to take something out for fear I will mess it up.

There’s my friend Don, a retired vice president from Drake University. Sometimes I call him just to hear the undiluted enthusiasm for living in his voice. We chatted for about 45 minutes one recent day. By the end of the talk, I felt like Lazarus. Don’s belief in people, their resilience, and their potential to do good is unwavering.

He helps me believe in me, and that is no small feat.

There is my friend Mimi, with whom I have dinner once a week. I often call her when I’m despondent. She offers that motherly shoulder for my burdens. I always feel lighter after a chat with Mimi. Most of the time, we talk about the state of the world, her three sons, or her late husband Steve, a mentor and friend to me and a loving husband to her.

Then there are the 199 people who made 248 donations, first to help pay for my knee surgery in August, and again to help me cover expenses now that unemployment has run out.

(You can still donate if you’re so inclined. Visit this link or any of the links below this column.)

I know some of the names: family, friends, readers, classmates, acquaintances, and so on.

But most of the names are strangers. Many are anonymous.

When I think about these acts of generosity, I tear up.

What have I done to deserve this kindness?

Lord knows, I’ve lived a flawed and sometimes foolhardy life. I don’t deserve this kindness.

But that kind of thinking disrespects the faith those people have placed in me.

They’re pushing me to keep moving forward, to finish school, and become the teacher I promised I would be.

What did I do to deserve their faith?

Nothing.

Yet.

My job now is to live up to the promise that they see. I have work to do. I don’t wish to become a good teacher. I want to be a great one.

I want to take every experience I’ve endured since I lost my job at the local newspaper — unemployment, struggles with government benefits, financial instability, physical health challenges, poor insurance, and many more — and turn them into empathy for what students and their family face.

I will find a way to help students learn, be the light that Don is in my life, to go the extra mile the way Tyler does, be the ear they need like Mimi, or the helper that Sara is.

The message of this charity is not about what I deserve.

These are the examples of the kind of person I want to be in my new career and in the next part of my life.

That makes it a little easier to swing my swollen legs over the side of the bed, rub them down with lidocaine, pull on compression socks and strap on two knee braces before I take a first step in the morning.

Because I need to keep moving forward, not just for me, but for all those who’ve put their faith in me.

I promise all of you: I am humbled. I am honored.

And, most of all, I am motivated.


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.

I’m not a dad, but I make dad noises

Morning begins with curse words. I slide myself to the edge of the bed. I draw circles around both knees with prescription lidocaine gel. I rub it into both knees until the skin is warm.

Next, the girding begins.

I pull on compression socks up to the knees.

I strap on a brace on the left knee, still recovering from surgery to remove two bits of torn meniscus last month.

I pull on a compression sleeve on the right knee, which just has the usual amount of arthritic pain.

Then I stand.

I am not a dad, but I make dad noises.

I’m uncertain at first, timid.

Sometimes the tendons in the left knee are so tight I can’t get full extension.

Sometimes I wobble and sit back down.

Eventually, I find enough support to walk to the bathroom.

I take small, mincing steps. There are no bold strides in these legs now.

I worry there never will be again.

I am in physical therapy.

I do exercises to loosen and strengthen the atrophied legs.

The cartilage tear in the left knee came in late June, but it only exacerbated the degenerative arthritis condition in both knees.

I can’t remember the last time I took a step with confidence.

I am obese.

That gives others cart blanche to judge me, to tell me what’s wrong, to offer their unsolicited solutions, or simply to scold.

I could explain that obesity is one of many symptoms of trauma. I work on it actively with my doctor and behavioral therapist.

But why bother?

Being fat is a sin in country where millions of people are fat. I have arthritis. I must deserve it.

It’s like going to the funeral of someone who died of cancer and asking, “Did she smoke?” If so, is the grief any less?

I wrote about my downtrodden mood a while back. A reader wrote in to say she didn’t contribute to my surgery fund to hear me say “I can’t.” Or it was something to that affect. I deleted the comment.

I never promised anyone who donated to my surgery that I wouldn’t struggle, that I wouldn’t have bad days, and that I wouldn’t write about them.

I only promised I would get their surgery and do my very best to become a good teacher in whatever community hires me. If the expression of pain and sadness is a disappointment, I apologize for nothing.

These paragraphs are always raw emotion.

If the message was meant to be a “ha, ha” poke, a lame attempt at inspiration, or some other uplifting note encased in sardonic wool, it hit me exactly the wrong way at precisely the wrong time.

The fact is I hurt.

I hurt a lot.

And it’s not just the knees.

I’m humbled by using a walker. I shouldn’t be. There’s no shame in using tools you need to get where you need to go. Where I need to go is class so I can finish my degree and become a teacher.

I struggle with my obesity.

I hate it. I hate that I didn’t recognize the connection between my psychology and my eating habits years earlier when it would have been easier to build new schema to negotiate the world.

The thing that frustrates me most often about obesity is the idea that people think it’s tough love when they tell me how fat I am.

Do they think I did not notice? Or perhaps they thought I was proud of my body that barely works and hurts all the time.

I don’t know.

All I ask of people is that they respect each other’s dignity. If I want to talk about my health, I will. I’ll reach out. I’ll confide. It’s my call.

I’ve got a doctor. I’ve got a therapist. If I am not progressing at a rate that satisfies others, well, how do you think I feel?

There are not magic solutions.

I get it. Some people try a diet and, boom, they lose a bunch of weight and they feel great. They want to pass it on.

A couple of things: No solution is universal. If it was, pharmaceutical and other medical companies would have bought up the rights to these programs decades ago and they’d be prescribed by doctors.

I tried a program recommended by friends. I gained weight. I dumped it and went back to what I was doing: cutting calories, eating better foods.

Secondly, these programs are often expensive. I’m living off unemployment and that ends this week. After that, who knows what I’ll do. But I’m pretty sure it won’t be signing up for an expensive commercial diet plan.

If this reads a little angry, it should. I am angry.

I’m angry with myself.

When struggling, the tendency is to look back and see every mistake we made and blame ourselves for not recognizing the dangers, not planning better, not having a back-up plan, and so on.

I know that’s fruitless. I do it anyway. I’m good at beating up myself.

I’m angry with others, too.

I share here. This is public. People can comment. Almost everyone is positive. But every now and then you get a sock to the jaw from someone you know — and even someone you don’t know — and it really stings.

I try to avoid assuming bad intentions. I learned this from my friend Ross Peterson, the radio host and relator.

I choose to believe these things are said to be inspirational or out of love. They’re just expressed imperfectly. That I understand. I’ve worked with letters most of my life and I still struggle to express myself precisely the way I want.

Here is what I want people to know:

I’m dealing with a lot of shit right now.

I’m taking some classes that aren’t easy for me.

I’m recovering from knee surgery.

My arthritis hurts bad.

When unemployment runs out, if I don’t get approved for an extension through the federal government, I must appeal to an administrative law judge. That’s a lot of stress.

But despite all the stuff I’m dealing with, I am trying to be better.

I don’t want to just be an adequate or good teacher. I want to be a great one. I want to be the teacher that students look forward to seeing each day. More than that, I want to be the teacher students learn stuff they can use from.

I’m actively working on my physical and mental health. I’m in physical therapy. I’m in behavioral therapy.

I may complain. I may groan. I may cry out. I may make dad noises.

But I promise all of you I’m doing the best I can.


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.