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.

And the verdict is in: I lost

I lost.

That’s the headline, nut graph, and closer.

Don’t even wait for the “du-duhn” sound effect from “Law and Order.”

The backstory: I lost my job at the local newspaper in Des Moines in May 2020. I went on unemployment.

I decided to go back to graduate school and become a teacher.

The unemployment ran out.

I got a job at a local TV station.

I was bad at it.

I was so bad the stress played with my mental health. I could barely talk to my friends and family.

I quit.

I went on unemployment again.

I stayed in school.

Someone stole my identity.

It took months to sort it out. I finally got my benefits, but they were close to running out in August.

I applied for a program Iowa Workforce Development offers called Training Extension Benefits.

The program offers extended unemployment to people who are leaving a declining field and entering a needed field.

I thought this was a good fit for me.

I left journalism, which is struggling.

Folks in Marion County know about that. An out-of-town company came in and suddenly the Pella Chronicle and Knoxville Journal-Express are ghosts.

Same thing happened in Altoona, Ames, Iowa City, Indianola, Dallas County, and on and on.

The big paper in the capital is now small, both in size and stature, and will soon only publish in print six days a week.

I would mark this as decline.

Meanwhile, the stories about the shortage of teachers are abundant.

The most egregious case came at Saydel when an absence of teachers forced officials at the northeast Polk County district to close the high school one day in November.

This seems like an area where they need some help. Barring total collapse, I graduate from Drake University this spring with a master’s degree in education and will earn my teaching license.

I’m student teaching now.

I put in my application for the extended benefits.

It was rejected.

The state said, in part, journalism wasn’t a declining occupation, and my field of study wasn’t a needed occupation.

I called my caseworker.

She said I should reapply when my benefits were almost ready to expire.

I reapplied in August.

I heard nothing for months.

I called and called.

Finally, I was told the original denial of benefits was the state’s final word on it.

I could appeal.

I did.

I gathered information that showed journalism as a declining field, some bad information I got from state workers along the way, and other evidence.

Weeks passed.

I finally had a phone hearing with an administrative law judge in the middle of my first week of student teaching.

How convenient.

I made my case. The judge seemed calm and dispassionate.

She said she would enter a decision in about a week.

Seven weeks passed.

I finally got a letter from the state last week.

My application for extended benefits was denied.

There was an explanation. I almost understand it. A lawyer friend is going to read it for me.

My lawyer friend said I can appeal but cautioned me the appeals judges tend to follow the rulings of the administrative law judges.

I’ll probably appeal anyway.

Why not?

I’ve got everything to gain.

I can’t work while I student teach.

I can barely function while I student teach.

I long held the notion that I would be a great teacher because I was a good writer and loved to help people be better writers.


The level of executive function it takes to be a teacher is far beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.

I love the work, especially when you can get some one-on-one time with students.

But anyone who says “Those who can do, those who can’t teach” is an ignorant fool.

I balance that against severe arthritis in both my knees. I had surgery to remove torn cartilage in the left knee in August.

I use a walker now. My knees hurt all the time.

Still, I persevere.

I show up every day trying to get better, to meet the intellectual, social, and emotional needs of my students.

I am a rank amateur, but I’m getting better with each lesson.

I didn’t want the extended unemployment benefits to live a lavish life.

I planned to use it for rent, insurance, groceries, and gas — the basics.

It took almost two weekly benefit checks to cover my rent — and I live in one of the cheaper market-rate apartments in Des Moines.

I fought for the benefits because I believe the program was designed for people like me. In fact, I have a friend who lost her job at the local newspaper a few years back and got the extended benefits program I was denied.

Why is my situation different than hers?

Who knows?

I’m just trying to survive, so I can thrive.

Money is tight and it will get tighter.

I had hoped this federal program administered by the state would help me.

It looks like I’m going to lose that battle.

What am I going to do?

I don’t know.

And that terrifies me.

It’s a terrible thing to be haunted by thoughts of financial ruin and failure, especially when I’m so close to graduation.

It puts stress on a mental health structure that’s not up to code after years of battling the threat of unemployment, actual unemployment, the pandemic, isolation, and a long list of other things I don’t care to list in public.

I’ll probably appeal, but that will take more weeks.

I recall a quote from the great 20th century philosopher Rocky Balboa: “You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward.”

So that’s what I’m going to do: Keep moving forward.

But I’ll take all the hope and prayers people can send.

Former journalist and future teacher Daniel P. Finney writes a weekly column 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.

Are there any safe conversation topics anymore?

My friend Memphis Paul and I record a podcast called “Talking Paragraphs” nearly every weekend.

Throughout the week, we pick up odd news stories and pin them for discussion on the podcast.

We try to keep the recording to an hour. We usually run long.

I edit the podcast. I started with just trimming long pauses and a lot of “ums” and other filler words.

But lately I’ve cut whole swaths of the podcast.

My friend Tyler guest co-hosted when Paul was without power after an ice storm in Memphis.

We talked for nearly 2 hours; about 45 minutes survived.

Tyler and I discussed an issue before the state legislature. Though, at best, about 100 people listen to Talking Paragraphs, he asked me to cut the section in which we talked about the issue.

I agreed.

I’m working to be a schoolteacher. I’ve found myself going silent in most conversations except with my closest friends far away from recording devices.

I used to invite comment and controversy.

Now it terrifies me.

We don’t have disagreements or disputes anymore. We barely have arguments.

We communicate in fits of rage and tantrums.

A disagreement, regardless of scale, is enough for someone to launch a campaign to have you fired, encourage others to spread lies about you on social media, and even physically harm you.

Accusations are as good as convictions in this rumormongering era of social media hysteria.

It feels as if everyone is willing to go to war against their neighbors over the slightest deviation from whatever line they’ve decided cannot be crossed.

Fred Rogers, the late children’s television host, once invited Margaret Hamilton on his show.

Hamilton played the Wicked Witch of the West in the beloved family film, “The Wizard of Oz.”

Hamilton donned her witch costume without the garish green makeup. She explained to children that it was her job to play make believe.

Rogers sang a song called, “Witches Aren’t Real.”

I recently told a group of people that witches aren’t real.

I was cautioned by someone not to say such things as someone in the group might believe in witches.

Of course, there are people who believe in witches. They’re small children who watched “The Wizard of Oz.” That’s’ why Mr. Rogers did a show on it.

I know there is Wicca, a pre-Christian religion who believe in the supernatural powers of magic, various deities, and nature.

Wiccans are real.

Witches aren’t.

I stand by this.

Still, I suppose some Wiccans could have overheard me disrespecting witches and organize a protest.

They might go after me on social media. They might publish my address.

That’s fine if they do. I publish it on my website.

I grew up with phonebooks where everybody’s addresses and phone numbers were published. People looked forward to the new phone books coming out so they could update their address books.

But that was before internet kooks took details about your life and twisted them into daggers and tried to cut out your heart.

I say witches aren’t real.

This, hypothetically, I hope, angers a Wiccan coven.

They could email me their displeasure. We could meet for coffee and take about it over sugar cookies.

Or they could go straight to demanding I get fired and never be allowed to show my face in public again.

People seem to like the latter option best these days.

It makes me sad, but I don’t know what to do it.

There seems to be no fidelity between humans anymore.

Our tribalistic nature is so dominate right now that we can’t just accept some people are different.

The editor of this newspaper has very different opinions than I do. We seem to get along all right.

I disagree with one of my closest friends on practically everything political, but we can talk for hours about “The Book of Boba Fett.”

But unreasonable is the new reasonable.

So, I cut what I believe to be thoughtful, calm talk about state politics out of my podcast.

I think hard about what subjects to pick for this column to make sure they are interesting enough to read but banal enough so as not to get someone to come after me and muck up my life more than it already is.

I try to pick “safe” topics, but what are those? Is there such a thing?

My late father was a salesman. He said he never talked politics or religion because his clients had different ideas about both topics.

That was good business, he said.

Today, I fear, good business is not saying anything about anything.

I’m muckraker at heart. I like to shake things up.

I restrain those tendencies these days. I find myself telling fewer jokes, laughing less, and casting my eyes down in public.

I don’t like a society where a person can’t be themselves.

There doesn’t seem to be much choice in the matter.

Perhaps I should heed the advice of my old friend, the best editor and one of the best humans I ever know: “You can’t listen yourself into trouble.”

Daniel P. Finney writes a weekly column 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.