A throughly restless spring break

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

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.
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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.

We should all delete #Facebook. Here’s why we won’t.

A made acquaintance with author Ramsey Hootman through Twitter several years ago. She followed my weight loss journey, which I chronicled in painful (and perhaps boring) detail for the local newspaper for several years.

Ramsey told me she modeled one of the villains in a book after me. It’s nice to be inspire art, regardless of how the final piece turns out.

One day, I made a negative (probably several) comments about how terrible I think social media is.

Ramsey took this personally. She sent several pointed tweets about how she met her husband through social media and her kids wouldn’t exist without social media.

I did what reasonable people who believe in polite discourse do when confronted with an opinion different than their own: I blocked her.

That was mean.

I should have just gone with mute.

I’m kidding.

What I really should have done is never typed the tweets in the first place. Everyone has an opinion about social media — good, bad, or indifferent.

Many people use social media to express those feelings, which feels ironic, possibly stupid.

If you hate social media so much, why are you spending so much time on it?

I thought about this predicament as the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and New York Times dissected the Facebook Files, a series of internal documents that show just how rotten Mark Zuckerberg’s empire is.

A lot of the reporting tells us things we could have guessed: Instagram, a product of Facebook (who recently changed the name of its parent company to Meta), creates damaging anxiety in young girls.

Facebook’s own data crunchers produced a report on how toxic the service was. The pooh-bahs at Facebook shrugged. So? People keep clicking, don’t they?

Facebook programmers have created an algorithm that takes advantage of every human weakness.

Facebook discovered people responded more often to stories that made them angry or sad.

So they pushed content at users that was more likely to make them react with extreme emotion.

Human beings are rotten at rational communication. We excel at tantrums, giggles, and sobs.

Thoughtful discussion requires calm to explore nuance and detail.

Facebook doesn’t care about nuance. Get angry. Comment. Get other people angry. Just keep clicking.

The longer your eyeballs are on Facebook, the more they can push ads, paid conspiracy theories, and pure lies at you to keep your mind inflamed, enraged, or depressed.

Here’s how insidious Facebook really is: The American newspaper, a nearly extinct medium, is so dependent on social media that even the pillars of the trade — the Times, the Journal, and the Post — use Facebook to promote and distribute their content.

That means their big scoops on the Facebook Files were posted and promoted on Facebook.

Every time someone clicked on a Facebook post by a newspaper about what a rotten, amoral monstrosity Facebook is, Facebook made money.

This is like firefighters arriving at the scene of a five-alarm fire at high-rise apartment building to find the hydrants pumped only gasoline.

If ever there were a company too big to fail, it’s Facebook.

Facebook and its sundry products, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger have 3.51 billion monthly users.

That’s almost 45% of the world’s 7.87 billion population. They would have more, but China won’t allow them.

It’s a dark day in America when you kind of envy the Chinese media landscape.

If any of us had any guts or principles, myself included, we’d quit Facebook forever. Delete the apps. Never get involved in whatever the hell the Metaverse is, which promises to be even more immersive.

But we won’t.

I won’t either.

I won’t because I like an audience.

I’m just as weak and vulnerable to the algorithms as anybody else. I obsessively check to see if people have liked my post or clicked through to read the columns, listen to my podcasts, or other media dalliances.

Sometimes they’re moved enough to send a donation (always welcome, by the way) and that feels pretty good, too.

Somehow, I believe that if a few people read my paragraph stacks, I’m still a city columnist and not a castaway from the news trade that I loved (and hated) so much for so many years.

That’s my weakness. I’m sure the algorithm knows that and other sad truths about this middle-aged fat man.

I may delete Facebook and Twitter when it comes time to look for my teaching job. I don’t think I’ve said anything terrible.

But those emotive communicators play for blood. They don’t just want an apology; they want a person’s livelihood and maybe a public execution, at least that’s how it feels.

To be fair, Ramsey Hootman was right. Some positive things come out of Facebook. My friend Mary raised a lot of money so I could afford knee surgery this summer and people continue to support me while I wait for word on training extension benefits.

I’ve got some time before I have to decide about Facebook and social media. I built up quite a following on social media. It seems like a waste to throw that audience away.

Then again, that’s the rub, isn’t it? They keep playing off my confirmation bias that it’s important to have an audience, that my writing isn’t valuable unless published, and on it goes.

The algorithm is all powerful. I am helpless to resist it.

Just like every other addiction.

Still, I’m glad social media’s algorithm helped Ramsey Hootman find love and have kids.

For what it’s worth, Ramsey, if you’re out there, I’m sorry I blocked you.


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.

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 have 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 families 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.