des moines, life, News, People, politics, Unemployment

IRS refund delays put school plans at risk

The time: 12:39 a.m. The place: My cluttered 635 square-foot apartment a fart and armpit noise away from Drake University. I’m hunched over my elegantly aging laptop with Warren Zevon’s “Poor, Poor Pitful Me” blasting in my eardrums at top volume and my Oska Tigers ballcap screwed on my bald head.

My body shakes with anxiety. It’s been that kind of day. Or yesterday was that kind of day. These wee, small hours of the morning posts are tricky bastards when it comes to the timing of things.

I checked my credit union balance this afternoon. I needed to get some allergy pills.

I wanted to save back a few bills for when my buddy, Memphis Paul, hits town next week. We don’t close the bars anymore, but I was thinking of a nice trip to the Amana and the Ox Yoke Inn restaurant with a stop in Iowa City at Prairie Lights Books and Cafe.

To my surprise, my online tax preparer had deducted about $240 from my account, leaving me in the all-too familiar position of being flat-ass broke.

Bad balance juju

What fuckery was this?

I indeed used the company’s software to prepare and file my taxes. But they were to take the money out of my refund, not my bank account.

My refund was big enough to cover the prep fees and take care of a couple months’ worth of rent with change left over.

Said refund has yet to arrive in my account. Apparently, the previous president of the United States was not fond of the IRS, particularly their auditors, and gutted the staffing for the agency.

The pandemic forced federal employees out of their enclaves and taxes filed by paper form piled up for the 2019 tax year and the beginning of the 2020 filing season.

IRS hell

My refund has been tied up in IRS hell since my return was filed and accepted on April 15. Normally it takes 21 days to process. We are at 68 days and counting.

I’ve tried to get the IRS on the phone. This usually meant hours on hold with a recording bleating the woes of the understaffed agency. A few times I got to a point where even the recording gave up on the charade and said, “Call back tomorrow or send us an email.”

Only the federal government can stick its middle finger so squarely in your eye without fear of reprisal.

I tried to make my elected officials work for me, which on face value seems as foolhardy as chewing tinfoil to improve your car radio reception.

The futility of representative democracy

Calling your elected representative: The last refuge of the desperate.

I dialed up the offices of Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley and Rep. Cindy Axne.

Ernst’s office didn’t return the call. Maybe she takes personally all those columns where I called her “Dollar Store Sarah Palin.” That’s fair. Ernst seems exactly the kind of person who is only interested in helping the people who scratch her back.

Grassley’s office called and sent me a privacy form to fill out. I did so. I’ve not yet heard back from his people.

Axne’s office emailed me the form. I sent it back the same way. The next day someone called back and said they would assign it to a caseworker who deals with IRS problems.

They warned me this is an ongoing problem and they’ve dealt with a lot of calls about it. I’m supposed to hear something back this Friday.

Companies inside of companies

So, back to the online tax preparer, whom I’ve done business with since 2001. I paid the company the extra dough for 24-7 support because if there was a year shit was going to go sideways on my taxes, it would be the year I lost two jobs and lived off unemployment.

I dialed the tax prep company up and got a man on the phone within minutes.

The reason they hit my bank account: It’s the fine print, the man said. In the fine print, I agreed to pay the online tax preparer even if my refund never shows up.

We did send you three emails, the man said.

I searched my mail. I found nothing.

He read my email address to me. It was an address I hadn’t used for years and it isn’t the one I log into the tax prep site with.

Ah, well there was the rub, the tax prep man said. I changed my email with that part of the company, but there’s this other company that handles the money transaction side of things.

That part of the company sent emails to an address I no longer use warning me of the pending transaction. If I had replied to one of those messages, they would have extended my grace period.

But I don’t check that email. So, I’m out that cash. It’s legit. But it still sucks.

Hopeless against the merciless

I don’t know what a citizen is supposed to do. You can’t fight the IRS. You can’t get them on the phone. The government works about as well as going uphill in roller skates in an ice storm.
I’m unemployed. I need that money, which the law says is my money and should be returned to me.

This wouldn’t hit so hard if Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds hadn’t cut off the pandemic assistance unemployment, which tacked an extra $300 to unemployment insurance.

Reynolds seems primarily concerned that restaurant servers get back to work for substandard wages and earn their tips rather than make a living wage.

I’ll remind you that the $300 unemployment booster came from federal money and didn’t take a cent from Reynold’s budget. And the money ended in September anyway.

If Disney keeps up with this “Cruella” franchise, they might consider Reynolds for the lead role.

Job market is great for servers

Some jerk already has their pity “Get a job!” response keyed up. Yeah. I’m trying.

Funny thing about that, though. I had a job for 23 years. I worked at different shops. But I did well until one day I made too much money for the greedy Wall Street hustlers and the put me on the bricks.

By then, I hated my job and what it had become so much, it was almost a relief to be cut loose from the toxic trade.

What I quickly learned is the skill set I have may have value to other careers, but I have zero skill in translating what I can do to what people need done. I’ve paid companies to help me with it.

The closest I got was a short engagement with a TV station that was an absolute disaster because I was totally out of my element.

Trying to be a better person

But what I’m really trying to do is get a new career. I’m studying to be a teacher, to give back to the institutions that gave so much to me and maybe pass along what I’ve learned.

I’m am trying to be a better person. I’m trying to grow out of this miserable experience. And, yeah, I wanted to go for a nice meal with my buddy whom I haven’t seen in three years.

The time is 1:43 a.m. Zevon’s “Mr. Bad Example” blasts. Boy, that man knew how to sling a savage lyric.

I get it. This is America. There are winners and losers. And if you’re a loser, it’s your fault. Nobody gives a shit about the runners-up let alone the last guy to cross the line. And if you don’t make it? Hey, you might as well not exist.

Reminds me of another Zevon tune: “Lawyers, Guns, and Money.”

Somehow, I got stuck between a rock and a hard place

And I’m down on my luck

I’m down on my luck.

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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baseball, des moines, Faith and Values, humor, Iowa, life, obesity, People, sports, Winterset

My two dads: Double blessings on #FathersDay

Willard and Bob

I suppose you could say I had three fathers. There was a man who donated his portion of the potion that makes a baby to my biological mother, who in turn gave me up for adoption at birth.

I have no idea who that man is. It’s a mystery I never tried to solve. I hold no animus against the man. These kinds of things happen all the time, but the man is no father to me.

Adoptive dad

G. Willard Finney was my real father. He and my mom, Kathryn, had four biological sons. Mom cared for more than 100 foster care babies. She kept two of them, my sister, and then me, some 19 years later.

They were 57 and 56 when I was born, too old to adopt an infant. But you get a good lawyer. A family member knows some people at the courthouse. Rules get bent.

Willard was born in 1918, about three months before the end of World War I. He grew up on an Iowa farm during the Great Depression. He drove a Ford Model-T. He served in the Navy during World War II, loading ships in Florida.

The salesman

He worked as a wholesale salesman at Luthie Hardware in Des Moines and eventually struck out for himself and became a manufacturer’s representative. He travelled across the Midwest and West on behalf of companies he represented from paper goods supplies to tool makers.

Willard was a talker; an affable man who shared stories over coffee and drinks. He was a manly man by his era’s standard. He loved to hunt with his sons and grandsons.

What a mystery I must have been to this man. I had no use for outdoor play, was so of afraid of swimming that I faked illness before every lesson, and showed no aptitude for sports, neither playing nor watching.

Generational differences

Once, on a fishing trip to Minnesota, my dad brought snacks out on our rented boat: Colby cheese, Braunschweiger sausage, sweet pickles, Ritz crackers, and sardines.

We fished with leeches that morning. Willard used his pocketknife to split the leeches in half and wrap around each of our hooks. When lunchtime arrived, he pulled out the vittles from the cooler. He made himself a mini-sandwich with the Braunschweiger spread on the cracker with a piece of cheese.

He offered me some. I asked for a knife to cut off some cheese. He offered his pocketknife; the same one he’d just used to cut leeches in half. I made a face and complained it was gross.

Willard rolled his eyes. He swished the blade around in the lake water and then handed it to me. That’s how men handled sanitation in Willard’s day.

From the Great Depression to ‘Doctor Who’

How I must have frustrated him. The report cards always said the same thing: I had the ability but didn’t try. I found school dull. Willard believed school was crucial. How is it I could remember the names of all the monsters in “Star Wars,” but struggled with my multiplication tables?

Sometimes I felt distance from this man from another age.

But I remember a hot day in July 1988. We drove from Winterset to the Johnston studios of Iowa Public Television. The station hosted a tour stop for a U.S. tour of “Doctor Who” actors and memorabilia.

For years, Willard had mixed me a glass of chocolate milk with Nestle’s Quik. I was allowed to have my milk and watch the episode of the British serial story of a time traveler and his friends fighting bullies and monsters across the universe.

Unconditional love, Part 1

Willard never watched an episode of the show with me that I recall. But he gladly drove me to Johnston to see the tour. He listened to the speaker, an actress from the show, talk about an episode that upset London police because it portrayed some bobbies as scary monsters.

Willard leaned over to me and said, “They take their police seriously over there.”

Over there was in England. I was over the moon. Who would imagine that my father, survivor of the Great Depression, World War II veteran, and outdoorsman would be sitting at a “Doctor Who” convention with his youngest son not only engaged but enjoying himself?

This was my first lesson in unconditional love.

Willard — Dad — died that December. Mom died about a year and a half later.

Enter Dad 2.0

Eventually, I landed with Parents 2.0, Bob and Joyce Rogers, a kindly east Des Moines couple.

To be fair, Joyce had a harder go of it. My relationship with my mom was complicated and often abusive. A child therapist once told Joyce: “You have the toughest job. You have to make him like a woman.”

She did. And I love her dearly. But I did not make that easy.

I took to Bob because I had a good relationship with my father. That made it easier to accept another male caregiver. But I was always touchy about using the words “father” or “dad.” For me that was Willard’s chair, and no one could sit in it ever again.

I was wrong. Bob filled the dad chair magnificently.

A quiet man

Bob embraced quiet. He did not always need the radio or TV on. He read a lot. He took long walks on his lunch break and went to the library to check out books on history or the works of James Fennimore Cooper.

Bob, too, was an outdoorsman. He was Boy Scout. He fished and camped. I went with them, sometimes joyfully and sometimes sourly. I was a teenager. Mood swings were common.

The first year we were a family, we took a camping trip to Lake Ahquabi near Indianola. Bob and I pulled enough crappie out of the lake that I spelled out “Dan and Bob” on the picnic table.

The photo is tucked into one of the scores of photo albums he and Joyce assembled of family activities through the decades. Bob was the family photographer, a talented one at that. He probably could have been a news photographer, but he made his way as a printer for one of the local banks.

Another ‘Doctor Who’ connection

I knew things were going to be OK between Bob and I because when I was moving in, he spotted one of the cardboard sculptures I made in Winterset art class. He asked me if that was K-9 from “Doctor Who.”

In the early days, especially that first lonely summer when I hadn’t made friends at school yet, Bob and I would stay up late on Fridays and Saturdays to watch the old Universal Monster Movies on the local UHF channel.

Bob liked the mummy movies. I liked the “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Bob talked about the shadows and lighting in the movie with the admiration of a fellow artist.

Good sports

Bob watched a lot of sports with me. We watched the 1991 NBA Finals, the first year Michael Jordan’s Bulls won the championship. I rooted for Magic Johnson and wanted another win for the Lakers. I remember rolling around the floor, cursing and shouting as the Bulls demolished the Lakers in five games.

Bob sat quietly on the couch and didn’t say much. I would look over my shoulder at him occasionally. I kept thinking, “When am I going to get into trouble for cursing or making all this noise?” I never did. I was testing how much of me, even unpleasant sides of me, would be allowed in the house. I was wholly accepted.

Bob and Joyce aren’t one for sports. They showed up at their nieces’ and nephews’ games through the years. But to go to pay money for a professional ballgame wasn’t their idea of a good time.

Now they’ve been veterans of dozens of baseball games. They have a favorite park, Wrigley Field. The went to every game because they knew I loved it.

‘Easy out’

Bob and Joyce took a two-week vacation on the last week of July and the first week of August each year. On the first year I lived in their house, Bob spread out the Sunday sports page. It contained the entire Major League Baseball schedule for the upcoming season — back when newspapers printed such things.

He had me sit with him on the floor. Bob talked about places they wanted to visit on vacation and asked me to help him find a couple of places where we could go to baseball games.

We picked Detroit and Chicago. The Yankees played the Tigers. The Cubs played the Mets. This was at old Tiger Stadium. We found parking near the park. Bob paid the guy extra for what the money taker called “an easy out.”

It indeed proved to be “an easy out.” After we watched nearly every car who attended the game leave, we easily pulled out of the lot. Time was of the essence. The campground locked the gates at midnight.

We didn’t make it. So, Bob, Joyce and I all had to climb an 10-foot fence and drop down the other side. We left the truck parked by the road, not knowing if it would be there in the morning.

The missed curfew was a bit of bad luck that was worrisome in the moment, but I’d seen Don Mattingly hit a home run, one of only nine he hit that year.

Bob had taken a photo of Tiger Stadium at dusk, a beautiful picture that I’ve lost my copy of in the many moves. I would love to have a framed, poster-size copy. I think it’s the best photo he’s ever taken. We could title it “Easy Out.”

Unconditional love, Part 2

We still laugh about that story today. Bob has been my father for 30 years, more than twice the time spent with Willard. I still love Willard, and I miss him. I would give just about anything to play checkers with him one night again. The man had heart disease and he died. So it goes.

But 30 years with Bob and Joyce in my life has brought a stability and steady stream of kindness that I never thought possible when I was just the child of Willard and Kathryn.

I think of all the ballgames Bob and Joyce attended either to cheer me on, or rather my friends because I sure didn’t play, and all the stories of mine they read, all the meals, all the moments, and again the math adds up to what I once thought was myth: unconditional love.

The tendency is, I think, to consider parenting as a job done by adults for children. That isn’t so. That’s just a starting point. I came into Bob and Joyce’s life when I was a sophomore in high school.

But they were there for me through the end of high school, college, my first job all the way up to today, when I’m a weak-kneed obese middle-aged man trying to remake his life after his career finally put him to the curb.

The steel of consistency

A few weeks I fell off the back steps at Bob and Joyce’s house. My right knee buckled, and I landed on my side. Right beside me in an instant was Bob, his arms gripped around mine like a vice.

In that moment, I didn’t just feel a boost to help me stand. I felt every time they’d picked up when I’d fallen, every time they showed up for me, cheered me, congratulated me, complimented me, and plainly loved me not for who they would want me to be, but just for who I am.

With Bob’s — Dad’s — arms around me I felt the steel in my spine that only comes from knowing I am loved and supported no matter how deep I struggle or low I feel.

On Father’s Day, which was Sunday, I count myself doubly blessed to know two great fathers who contributed to the man I am today.

There are few straight lines in the lives we lead, but when we find one — like the love of fathers for their children — follow it all the way to the end.

Here’s to Willard and Bob, my two dads.

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. 
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Iowa, life, People

America strikes back! Parents 2.0’s Fourth of July party returns as pandemic fears fade

America is back. I declare that with full confidence based on a single fact: Parents 2.0 are hosting their annual July 4 celebration at their stately east Des Moines manor.

They canceled last year during the pandemic.

That made sense.

Many who attend are elderly. They were the highest risk.

I didn’t know if the show would ever go on again.

Parents 2.0 are both 72. Putting on the event is a strain. They pace themselves well, but it takes a toll in the heat of the summer.

But it’s back.

My folks fill the garage with picnic tables.

They spread out a quarter city block of food on the workbench.

Annual vittles include at least two meats — turkey, pork, brisket, or ham.

There’s always baked beans with bacon, scalloped corn and potatoes, potato salad, deviled eggs, relishes, salad, and a few snacks people bring.

The big red cooler is filled with pop. The smaller coolers on top with spigots hold water and iced tea.

There probably won’t be iced tea this year. Grandma Newcomb made the iced tea, which mostly she and I drank. She died last fall at age 92. So it goes.

Dad 2.0 puts on patriotic music on the CD player hooked up to some old speakers salvaged from a demolished elementary school.

Friends and family come.

The adults eat and talk. Everybody compliments the yard.

My parents take yardwork seriously. I once saw Dad 2.0 edge the front lawn with a butter knife. I’m not making that up.

My parents plant their flowers at a specific time each spring so that they’ll be in full bloom by July 4. It works every year. I’m not making that up, either.

The littles kids sit in a big wading pool set up in the driveway and squirt each other with water guns.

Sometimes there’s a water side in the grass or badminton.

There used to be basketball, but the kids who liked that game grew older and rounder and the ball stayed idle. Parents 2.0 took down the basket, backboard and pole a few years ago. No one noticed.

The party went on.

Don’t expect any fireworks or booze. People act foolish when they drink, which my parents have no patience for. Just as good a time can be had without libations, they’ll say.

They’re right.

My parents don’t care for fireworks. They’re noisy and they make a mess in people’s yards.

Noisiness is being a rude neighbor, which is anathema to my parents’ ethos. And I already told you how seriously these people take a well-maintained yard.

The whole house is decked out with every kind of American flag and streamer decoration you could imagine.

My friend Paul usually visits over the July 4 weekend. We get our picture taken on either side of the Iowa flag.

We have considered not having the photo taken, as it records the ravages of time on our bodies and hairlines better than we both would prefer.

Thus, my parents’ Fourth of July party marks the time.

I came to live with Parents 2.0 in 1991. I was slim with a thick head of brown hair. Now I’m obese and bald.

Nobody cares. Fill your plate. Grab a seat. Tell us what’s going on with yourself.

I’ve missed the party twice in 30 years as a family. I spent the summer of 1999 in Washington, D.C., working for USA Today. I watched the fireworks from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

And, of course, there was no party last year because of the pandemic.

The party is on its third and fourth generation of nieces and nephews.

Many of the people who attended the first one, in 1977, are dead now. So it goes.

Others have grown up and moved away.

The day ends with homemade ice cream in two flavors: pineapple sherbet and vanilla. I’m a sherbet man. It tastes like heaven.

My friend Rebecca, long married and moved away to Wisconsin, says she thinks of that ice cream every Fourth of July no matter where she is.

I love sharing the party with my friends, especially the strays like me who never married or have lost a spouse.

I would invite all of you, dear readers, but Mom 2.0 says she has enough trouble coaxing RSVPs out of the people she invites.

Well, mother-o-mine, mark me down for at least one. Hopefully, I can coax Paul out of Memphis and the accounting paperwork he’s perpetually buried under.

I mean we gotta go, right? Who knows how many more of these parties there will be? Maybe one day my folks will decide enough is enough.

As long as the party goes on, I’m going.

My friend Yvonne, who was my guest a couple of times, said it was the most American thing she ever did.

My folks’ July 4 party is the picture I have in my head of what America is. Friends and family sharing food and drink and taking time to be together.

There are no political lines or religious lines. There are just lines for the buffet.

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. 
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life, People, politics, Unemployment

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds earns another gold star for cruelty

“Bad? Son, the fan didn’t just get hit this time, it got smothered!” — G.I. Joe No. 1, 1982

Gov. Kim Reynolds is an inspiration.
This week she inspired me to have a panic attack.

Reynolds announced Iowa would no longer participate in the federal pandemic assistance program. That program paid unemployed people $300 a week in addition to their state benefits. The money came from the feds rather than the state budget. The program was set to end in September.

Why Reynolds wanted to get out of a program that helped some of her vulnerable citizens that came at no cost to her is beyond me.

Maybe she wanted another gold star for cruelest move by a chief executive.

But that’s the way it is with Reynolds. She’s the governor.

If you don’t like it, it’s your problem, not hers.

She’s right. Losing $300 a week of income was, in fact, my problem.

I was using that money to help get through graduate school at Drake University. I plan to become a journalism and language arts teacher.

If all goes well, and I have no reason to expect that it will, I’ll be signing a contract with a metro district by this time next year and beginning the second half of my working life as a teacher.

Reynolds said she quit the pandemic assistance program because the state had more job openings than unemployed people. People were using the money to stay home instead of going back to work.

That’s a fun fantasy based on a dangerous fallacy.

Reynolds seems to believe all jobs are the same.

They’re not.

There are a lot of fast food restaurants around town offering $14, $15 and even $16 per hour for help. Maybe I could get one of those jobs.

Except I can’t. I have arthritis in my knees and back. I can’t stand for an 8-hour shift. I’d be fired by the end of the second day if I lasted that long.

Arthritis, obesity, depression and anxiety are all health issues. I need physical therapy and medication.

I bought the cheapest insurance available off the exchange. It’s not really health insurance as much as it is catastrophe insurance. If I have a heart attack or get hit by a car, I’ll be able to go to the hospital.

But in terms of wellness, it’s garbage.

But, as our inspiring governor would say, citizens’ health barriers to employment are their problem.

I don’t understand politics. I never have. I had a great political science professor as an undergrad at Drake, Dennis Goldford.

He said politics was “the only process we have, peacefully, for enabling us to live together with people with whom we have significant differences.”

We’re not seeing a lot of this art of compromise anymore.

We’re seeing “you’re with us or against us” mentality stoked by a mass media that targets its messages at partisan purists and leaves the rest of the country behind.

This leads to politics without compromise, which means no matter who gets elected, a lot of people are screwed.

I think that’s how someone like Reynolds gets elected governor. She doesn’t compromise. If it’s not a problem for her, her party or her donors, then it’s not a problem.

The rest of us are on our own. We, as Iowans and Americans, have become hardened in our hearts to others. We want what’s ours. Everyone else can fend for themselves. Anyone who struggles is a loser. It’s not my problem, pal, it’s yours.

That’s Reynolds’ thinking. That’s a big swath of Iowa and American thinking. Never compromise.

Fine.

The income hit hurts.

I’ll survive.

Why?

I’ve got a lot of help. I’ve got family. I’ve got friends.

I’ve got the federal government happy to loan me money to go to graduate school.

I will probably die in student loan debt.

I don’t care.

Because I am going to be a teacher. I think I’ll be a good teacher, maybe even a great one. Maybe I’ll be a better teacher than I was a journalist.

I don’t know.

But I have been fighting for survival since I became a ward of the state on my first moment out of the womb.

I got adopted.

I lost my folks before I was 14.

I lived with another family and thrived.

I struggled with mental health. I spent myself into bankruptcy and considered suicide many times.

I got therapy and medicine.

I worked in newspapers.

Newspapers kicked me out.

And in the dead middle of my life, I’m learning a whole new trade and getting by each week by the skin of my teeth.

Hit me, life.

Beat me to my knees, bad luck.

Ignore me with your vast indifference, Gov. Reynolds.

I stand. I keep moving forward with the tenacity of a cockroach.

I am resilient.

I will overcome my problems.

And one day, when I see someone struggling that I can help, I’m going to remember the legacy of Reynolds and do the opposite:

I’ll help.

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. 
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des moines, Faith and Values, humor, Iowa, life, People

An ode to Mom 2.0 on #MothersDay

Angry. I was so damn angry. Or at least that’s what I projected so I could hide just how scared I was.

I was 15 years old in late March 1991.

Things were going poorly.

Dad died in 1988 after a long, terrible battle with heart disease. I watched my father shift from an icon of manliness to a gray, withered and cold body with barely enough life left in him to keep his eyes open.

Worse than watching him die was knowing when he was gone, I would be left with Mom, who had lost herself to undiagnosed mental illness and opioid prescription drug addiction.

She died in 1990. She fell down stairs on the night before finals of my freshman year at Winterset High School. She lasted about two weeks in the hospital. That was it.

There was an effort to live with a family in Winterset after my folks died. It failed for reasons too complicated to get into here.

I needed a home.

I didn’t want one.

I wanted a room with a mini fridge and a TV. I would get through school. Slip a few bucks under the door once a month. I’ll make my way.

This was a little bit more than the law would allow.

Two choices presented themselves.

Choice one: Enter the foster care system from whence I came as an infant back in June 1975. I met a nice guy with a beautiful house on Hull Avenue. You could see all of downtown Des Moines from his back deck. We chatted. There was a hang-up. He traveled for business. I would stay at a group home during his trips.

Choice two: My late mother’s hairdresser and her husband, a printer, never had kids. They offered to take me in.

I didn’t care.

I was beat down flat inside. Nobody was ever going to have an emotional connection with me again. I was not going to hurt like that again. Ever. Not going to do it. Forget it. Don’t bring it up.

The hairdresser and the printer made their pitch, showed me the room I would have and talked about camping trips.

They sure seemed nice.

I didn’t trust it.

Everyone goes away in the end.

It all ends in hurt.

The hairdresser played her ace. She offered cake. I declined.

“Are you sure you don’t want a piece of cake?” she asked with a tone that said, Everybody wants a piece of cake, kid.

I acquiesced.

It was German chocolate cake. It was amazing. It tasted like home.

To this day, the hairdresser, known in these columns as Mom 2.0, does not believe she made German chocolate cake. She only made one in her life.

Well, that was the one.

I moved in. It wasn’t happily ever after. It took work from all of us to make a family.

You don’t see it happening at the time.

But now, 30 years later, I see myself relaxing a little bit with each passing day.

That first summer, when I really only knew one kid in the whole neighborhood, I was cold.

Mom 2.0 would come home from work and shout, “Hello.”

I would pretend to be asleep because I didn’t want to interact.

It was an asshole move.

But to this day there’s always a little bit of me who believes Mom 2.0 will react to me like Mom 1.0 did. I won’t go into detail here, but that’s a truly terrifying thing. The good news is it never happened.

Mom 2.0 and I had more quarrels than Dad 2.0 and I did. I went to my first therapist with my new family. The doctor told Mom 2.0 that she had the toughest job of all: She had to make me like a woman. That’s how twisted my thinking was after Mom 1.0.

The truth is Mom 2.0 and I are a lot alike. We communicate emotively. Dad 2.0 is the quiet, thoughtful one. Mom 2.0 and I tend to vent our frustrations at top volume.

The space between frustrations has increased over the years.

I became a man, with all the strengths and flaws that implies.

They became family, the line of people who will always be there to tell me that no matter what, I’m good enough and I’m OK.

I needed that lift a few weeks back. I visited for dinner. I fell off the back stoop. There they were, the two of them in their 70s, with their arms around each of mine, gripped like vises and helping me stand up again.

That’s family like I rarely saw it in the first 15 years and am so deeply thankful to have had the last 30 years.

So, it’s Mother’s Day.

This is a sad one. Mom 2.0 lost her mom, who was 92, last fall. Dad 2.0 lost his mom a few years back. They always made a Mother’s Day plant gift for each mom. This was the first year they didn’t have to do that. There were no moms left to deliver them to.

Well, Mom 2.0 is here for me. I wouldn’t dream of trying to pick out a plant that would fit into her perfectly manicured lawn and garden.

The only thing I think appropriate is to remind her that the seed she planted in me is still growing strong after all these years.

That seed, of course, is love.

That angry kid 30 years ago didn’t know much about love.

Thanks to Parents 2.0, I do.

I love you, Mom.

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, People, Unemployment

I am having an series of unfortunate events that are draining the life out of me

Sunday.

Woke up at 7:30. Filed for unemployment.

Well, I tried to file for unemployment.

I forgot my pin.

The stress of fighting identity theft for the past few weeks jarred four numbers from my head.

I tried too many combinations. The system locked me out.

This is going to be trouble.

The only way I can unlock my account is to call the unemployment office Monday morning and reset the password.

I guarantee this won’t work. It won’t because every time I’ve called the unemployment office in the last month, they’ve told me a dreadful story about identity theft and how my benefits were tied up by some fucking algorithm.

The result being I won’t get paid until the anemic fraud investigators at Iowa Workforce Development stumble across my case at the bottom of the paperwork avalanche.

To recap, I’m not getting my unemployment benefits because someone else committed a crime.

The unemployment office people told me to keep filing. I have.

But Sunday I forgot a code.

Now I’m condemned to the hell of calling the unemployment office, a mixture of talking to a robot that will keep me on hold no less than 5 minutes. Then the robot will ask if I want a call back.

Sure.

When that person finally calls back, they’re going to ask for my birthdate, Social Security number and other data.

And then the unemployment office caller will tell me that my birthdates don’t match.

I will again point out that we’ve known this for some time.

But here’s the nasty trick.

I bet a hard nickel this failure to remember this damn four-digit code on Sunday morning will result it yet another hassle in filing for benefits — likely resulting in me getting shorted a week whenever this mess is finally sorted.

Honestly, I hate to keep bitching about this.

I would rather talk about the five best food stands at this year’s Iowa State Fair or five things we learned at the Cyclones/Hawkeyes spring game.

And regular readers know I’d rather scrub my face with a carrot peeler than talk about those topics.

Here’s the thing.

This foul-up with the pin code was caused because the unemployment office made me change the code.

Of course I forgot. I have something like 700 passwords. Every time I change one, I forget it by the next time I lose it.

The loss of the pin wouldn’t be such a hassle if it weren’t tied to this giant clusterfuck with unemployment office.

That hangs over my head all week except for Sunday. That’s the day when I put in my data and then slack off to watch film noir, read a comic book or take naps.

I botch this thing first off and it revs up the anxiety meter.

There’s a problem. I can’t fix it right now. And it contributes to another problem.

And pretty soon it’s 9 p.m. and the only thing I’ve done all day is worry about a thing I can’t fix until Monday — if at all.

Dear readers, I promise to get off this endless, whiny diatribe soon.

It’s been all consuming.

Maybe I’ll have a list of something or some goofy food product to write about to breakup the monotony.

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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des moines, Faith and Values, Iowa, life, Media, Newspapers, obesity, People, Unemployment

The story of falling down: ‘It’s just a lot of shit right now, Bob’

The Rogers-Finney clan about 24 years ago, from the left, Bob Rogers, Joyce Rogers, and their second-hand son, Daniel Finney.

My right knee buckled and I fell off the back stoop to the driveway. Arthritis plagues my knees and lower back. Weather changes exacerbate the already maddening condition. My obesity makes it even worse.

The fall came at the end of a visit to the home of Parents 2.0, the kindly east Des Moines couple who raised me after my first set of parents died.

Parents 2.0 are vaccinated. I’m half vaccinated, with the second shot to come early next month. We decided we’re comfortable visiting.

We ate lasagna with garlic bread and fresh salad. Dessert was strawberry shortcake.

We chatted after dinner and we all took naps. Afternoon turned to early evening and I decided to go home. Mom 2.0 gave me a hug and plastic sack with a quart of homemade chili and a leftover piece of lasagna.

I stepped off the back step and something went wrong. I don’t know if I missed the step or seized up because of the pain in my right knee.

It felt as if I was falling down forever, caught between the moment I knew I was going to fall and the impact with the cold concrete driveway. The chili and lasagna took a flight. I landed on my left side.

My friend Megan Gogerty is trying to win a rolling skating contest by skating every day in 2021. She posts funny videos on Instagram about roller skating and reading “War and Peace.” Megan has diverse interests.

In a recent video, she mentioned that it’s better to fall on your side than your back or front. Maybe I had that in mind when I crashed, but I landed on my side. I don’t know if it hurt any less, but I walked away without any broken limbs. So, Megan, if you’re reading, thanks.

I rolled over on to my belly and then my right side. My right shoe had come off. This must be how turtles feel when they’re stuck on the back of their shell.

My parents came out to help me up. This embarrassed me. I’m 45 years old and weight more than a quarter ton. Here two 72-year-old people were trying to put Humpty Dumpty together again.

I rolled on to my belly, got one leg under me and kicked another one behind. My folks each wrapped their arms around arms.

They both have a pretty good grip, especially Dad 2.0. They raised me to my feet and quickly sat me down on the picnic table. Mom 2.0 collected the scattered leftovers sack and went inside to repackage them.

Dad 2.0 sat with me on the bench, his grip like a vice on my right arm.

“Are you hurt?” he asked.

I knew he was asking about my physical condition. That’s not the question I answered.

The long virus year hurt us all in multiple ways. I lost my job. I lost two jobs. I was basically housebound for a year and my body suffered because of it. I was trying to get through school and become a teacher.

Some asshole stole my identity with algorithm and now I can’t get my unemployment check because the government leaders take six-figure salaries to make sure their offices make dealing with them as difficult as possible.

I’ve applied for rental assistance from the county. If things don’t work out soon with the unemployment office, I may be visiting food banks instead of Hy-Vee for groceries.

I could lash myself a billion times for every penny I wasted on comic books or treats instead of building up an emergency fund that everyone says you need and almost nobody does.

Nearly a year has passed since I was a practicing journalist. Most days I’m glad. I don’t want to go knocking on doors of the people who suffered tragedy to ask them to tell me their secrets anymore. I don’t want every paragraph I write to be subjected to the hideous system where my art is put on a spreadsheet and its value decided by how many people clicked on a goddamn link.

Yet, being away from the newsroom, as battered and empty as it was when they kicked me out, still burns. And that makes me angry.

I don’t want it to hurt that I got laid off by the one institution I ever wanted to work for, but it does. I know the place isn’t what it used to be, and it’s never been what I fantasized it would be.

But I always loved having my byline in the newspaper – even in the last few years, where I started to hate what our company had become.

They told us in college, way back in the early 1990s, that our generation would not work in one place. I was going to prove the exception and get a job at the local newspaper and worked there until I died.

It didn’t work out that way. The teachers were right. I was wrong. I don’t know why I’m still upset about it.

But in that moment, sitting on that bench with Dad 2.0 by my side, I felt more frightened and more vulnerable than I had at any point during these recent personal disasters.

I cried. Not much. But a tear in each eye that streaked down the cheek, hot on cool skin.

I know I have many blessings, Parents 2.0 chief among them. I have a handful of good friends who love me as I love them. I have shelter and TV and comic books and toys stacked floor to ceiling. I know I’m not the saddest case in the world. But that’s a fallacy of relative privation, the rhetorical concept that just because your problems aren’t the worst in the word does not mean they are not significant problems for you.

So, when my dad asked me if I was OK, I said: “It’s just a lot of shit, Bob.”

He still held my right arm. He looked at me through his bifocals and I could feel his sadness and worry.

“I know,” he said.

And we sat there together on the plank of the picnic bench, father and son, with the cold wind blowing across our faces on an early spring evening.

My mom joined us. I started to jabber about being a failure. She stopped me.

“It will work on,” my mom said. “It always has. It always will.”

I make a practice not to disagree with my mom. She’s right more than any of the teaches I ever had. They helped me stand and gathered my cane. They walked me out to my car and told me to be careful.

I thought again of my roller-skating friend, Megan. She recently wrote a lovely essay titled “A Reminder That This Is Impossible: And yet we’re doing it anyway.”

I find it best to avoid disagreements with Megan. She is right a lot, too.

My parents helped me to my feet. I leaned on my cane and waddled out to my car. I drove off to try and keep on keeping on in the age of impossible.

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.

des moines, Faith and Values, life, Media, mental health, People

Losing friends in the 21st century: blocking phones, unfollowing social media accounts, mean-spirited mail — can’t we all just drift apart?

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

“You’re sorry, all right,” the familiar voice said. “Give me a call.”

The message came from a former friend. We made two solid goes at being close friends. Both efforts ended badly. I was not up for a third go.

I admired my former friend. He was an excellent journalist. He should have been writing for the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. His understanding of the economy, particularly labor and banking, were unparalleled by any journalist I’ve ever met.

He came from a hardscrabble upbringing in the Bronx. There were family issues. Those are his story to tell, not mine. But I think those hard knocks early in life gave my former friend a puncher’s mentality to daily life.

He decisively labeled hustlers, chumps and fakers on the job, often with great volume. Sometimes I was a chump in his view. Sometimes I wasn’t. I didn’t agree, but it didn’t matter. He decided. He was never wrong. Just ask him.

We met at the paragraph factory in Omaha. I learned a lot from him, more than most peers and elders in the trade. He inspired me to push boundaries both as a reporter and as an individual. I became less timid and more confident during the first tenure of friendship.

Things broke down. The story is old. The details are fuzzy. I felt betrayed. He felt betrayed. We went our separate ways. It was the early 2000s. There was no social media, so people drifted apart; friendships ended.

That’s probably the natural order of human relationships before technology upended things.

We got back into touch almost a decade ago. Eight years had passed since our initial falling out. I called him for help on a business story. I mentioned an opening at the local shop. He applied. I vouched for him. The bosses hired him.

It worked out for a while. We rode again. We ate dinner. We hung out. But the Midwest is probably too uptight a place for him. Eventually there were clashes with the bosses. Then he got sick with spiking high blood pressure.

His doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong. He blamed stress at work. That could be true. The shop was in the midst of a stressful period that started, by my estimation, in 1996 and continues to this day.

The shop started doing screwy things. They made everyone apply for their jobs. There was a catch: There were fewer jobs than there were people. I got a promotion. My former friend’s job was cut, as were those of several of the best people I ever worked with.

My former friend said he was happy for me. But he posted cruel things about me on social media. He accused me of brown nosing management and later alleging I copied a story. Both were untrue, but I never bothered to respond to him directly.

I have no doubt he believes the things he said about me to be true. I knew who I was and what I had and hadn’t done. I didn’t owe anyone an apology. I decided to walk away without confrontation. Consensus is elusive to even the most reasonable people. We were not reasonable people.

His recent call surprised me. I figured he’d had enough of me. I had had enough of him. I did not call back. I texted. I was not welcoming. He replied with similar snark. I thanked him for all the things he taught me. I wished him peace in his future. I heard he’d gotten remarried. I hoped they were happy, but I didn’t care to hear from him anymore. I blocked his number.

Cutting someone out of your life is harder than it used to be. Instead of just not talking to one another, you’ve got to block phone numbers, unfollow and block social media accounts. It’s almost as big a hassle as having people you don’t like in your life.

Can’t we just drift apart?

I was on the other end of this kind of issue earlier this month. A former colleague from the local shop visited in January 2020. She came out to cover the caucuses with a particular interest in Andrew Yang, the fellow who believed in giving $1,000 a month to every American.

She stayed a month. She made for a good roommate for a one-bedroom apartment. She kept to herself, made very little noise, came and went as she needed and cleaned up after herself (and me) far beyond necessary.

I should add that there was no romantic entanglement. There never had been and neither of us desired one. We were just friends. We watched a few movies and some TV. I can’t imagine an apartment with two people being quieter.

She went back to New York to address some family issues. Things ended poorly. She ended up living in an apartment with a sketchy maintenance guy. I was unemployed and we talked a lot late at night. I would text periodically to see how she was doing.

We kept in touch. She decided to move to Washington, D.C. That didn’t work out. Then she moved to Texas, I forget which city.

We chatted a few times. She was sad, as people are after sad events. I tried to be supportive. Mostly it was all pleasant. She’s a comedian, so sometimes we traded jokes.

One day I texted her that I thought of her every time I looked in my bathroom closet, where two bottles of hair product sat. “As a bald man, I suppress my seething rage.”

I meant it as a joke. She took it seriously — that I truly, deeply hated her because of a couple of bottles of hair product in my closet. We had a brief and unpleasant text exchange in which she accused me of gaslighting her.

I reject that. I’m not trying to convince her something didn’t happen. We both agree I said what I said. We disagree on the intent and meaning.

In the end, she texted, “I still love you.” To prove it, she blocked me on the phone and all other channels. I reciprocated. I didn’t give it much thought. When people want to go, I say let them go.

About a decade ago, I lost a really good friend over a joke I made on Facebook. I still miss him. I tried several times to revive that friendship, but there was no reply. I finally took the hint. I decided after losing that friend that you really can’t change people’s mind. A person has a right to their opinion, even if they hate you.

Last week I got a parcel from New York. It was from my most recent former friend. She sent back a “Late Night with David Letterman” sweatshirt I gave her after her visit in January 2020. It didn’t fit me. It never fit me. I thought about having the logo cut out and framed somehow. I loved that show so much.

She wrote on the envelope “Peace be with you and peace be with this sweatshirt.”

Humbug. You can’t block the U.S. mail. So it goes.

I tossed the whole parcel, sweatshirt and all, into the trash bin.

I went inside, poured a mug of tea and called one of the few friends who haven’t blocked me.

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. I’m freshly unemployed and have a big tax bill to pay. All donations are greatly appreciated and needed. Visit paypal.me/paragraphstacker.

humor, life, Media, Movies, People, Pop Culture, reviews

The sham of asking for feedback on customer service and why companies should know no news is good news

From the desk of friendly neighborhood paragraph stacker Daniel P. Finney of Des Moines, Iowa.

I called the cable company about a problem with my internet service.

A computer answered.

We are already off to a bad start.

The computer asked me to press numbers on my phone to direct me to the proper human who could help with the problem.

I used my smartphone, which really means I touched glass where a number appeared.

I found myself nostalgic for the old push-button phones from Northwestern Bell. Those phones couldn’t take a photo or play games, but they were well-built and heavy enough to be used as the murder weapon in a blunt-force trauma homicide.

Somehow the ability to push that button really hard made me feel better about these phone tree answering services.

The computer routed me to what it believed to be the appropriate place. I waited for a human to come on the line.

The computer asked a final question: “Would you consider taking a brief two-question survey after your call about your customer service experience? Press ‘1’ for ‘yes’ and ‘2’ for ‘no.’”

This is an odd time to ask this question. I hadn’t had a customer service experience yet and I was already being asked to rate it.

I declined the offer.

I always do.

Don’t put the responsibility of reviewing your employees’ performance off on me. I just want to get my Disney+ streaming the latest episode of “WandaVision” in HD.

I buy a lot of products from a large online retailer. They often send me emails asking me to review a product such as a book or toy.

This offends me.

I make my living as a writer. If you want me to sling sentences for your $1.7-trillion online retailer, pay me. I charge $1 per word.

I would also consider deep discounts.

I’m realistic. They aren’t going to pay me. I’ll be a good sport.

Here’s a review of every product I ever bought from them: “[Insert product name here] was probably fine or I returned it for a refund.”

Cut and paste as needed.

This obsession with rating and ranking knows no bounds. I watch a movie on Netflix, they want me to give it a thumbs up or thumbs down.

Roger Ebert should sue. Of course, he’s dead. This probably keeps his litigation to a minimum.

EBay wants me to rate every transaction. The feedback system supposedly kept scofflaw sellers from ripping people off.

But everybody gets ripped off by somebody at some point on eBay. I’ve always gotten my money back.

Even if you want to give negative feedback, eBay makes you go through extra hoops to do it.

So why bother?

My feedback is I didn’t ask for a refund.

A favorite restaurant of mine offers discounts to frequent customers. They sent me an email asking me to rate my experience every time I used the card.

I blocked their email address.

I still eat at the place. That’s my feedback. I’m a repeat customer.

I understand that consumers want to have a say in how they are treated by the businesses with which they deal – especially the massive, monolithic and borderline oligarchic corporations that dominate modern consumer life.

But I believe most of the ways they gather feedback amounts to a wooden suggestions box on the breakroom wall with a slot for comment cards that fall right into a trash bin.

I struggle to believe that if I rate my customer service experience at the internet service provider poorly that this will lead to any meaningful change.

I don’t believe they record calls for quality and training purposes. I believe they record calls for evidentiary purposes in case of a lawsuit.

What ticks me off about the whole thing is I’m being asked for my opinion when I know damn well they don’t care and they’re going to keep doing what they’re doing.

My recourse is either to change where I buy things or accept a certain level of cruddy service.

Press “1” if you agree.

And if you disagree, just stop reading.

Daniel P. Finney saw a werewolf at Trader Joe’s. His hair was in a bun and he smelled of beard oil.

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, Faith and Values, obesity, People

Meet the guardian angel of my parking lot

From the desk of friendly neighborhood paragraph stacker Daniel P. Finney, Des Moines, Iowa.

The acrid smell of hot tires filled the air, accompanied by the futile roar of my car’s engine and the squeal.

Once-white snow sullied by exhaust fumes and tire rubber sprayed the vehicles behind me in my apartment parking lot.

I rocked my body in the driver’s seat and the car joined my rhythms, but still the rear wheels failed to climb the pile of plowed snow that entombed my car in the space.

Nine inches of snow fell on the city overnight. I knew this trouble well. I bought my car, a 2012 Dodge Charger, because it looks cool.

And it does.

But it handles poorly on snow and ice, especially in the apartment parking lot where the plows clear the main paths but leave small mountains of snow behind the occupied spaces.

I was stuck.

I would be late to my new job that I still struggled to learn. Panic bubbled in my gut.

Then a young woman knocked on my door. She offered to push while I pounded the gas.

She appeared fit, but even the strongest of CrossFit athletes would be at a disadvantage pushing my two-ton car with my girth in the driver’s side.

I suggested she drive while I push. I leaned into the car with my hip, one of the few times my obesity helped. We freed the car in about three hard tries.

I thanked her.

“No problem,” she said.

I went on to work.

The snow melted and refroze over the next few days. A light snow fell one Sunday morning as I made mincing steps to my car.

A voice behind me said, “Did we need more of this?”

I didn’t look up, but grumbled, “No, definitely not.”

I biffed it on a patch of ice hidden by the light snow cover and crashed hard on my right side.

I stayed down for a minute. I wanted to assess if I had broken anything. I had not.

The ground was very slippery in a wide swath around me.

I managed to twist myself around to sit on my butt, but efforts to stand might have reminded observers of a Donald Duck cartoon.

Except one onlooker. I heard a familiar voice in my ear. It was the person who had walked out ahead of me toward the parking lot.

“Are you all right?” she said.

I looked up. It was the same young woman who helped get my car out of the snow a few days before.

She’s apparently been appointed my guardian angel.

“I’ve been better,” I said.

She offered a hand. I worried that my girth would pull her down. I slid over to my car.

I took her hand and used the car to steady myself. I was upright. I thanked her again.

“No problem,” she said.

“I never asked your name,” I said.

“Maddie,” she said.

Maddie, it turns out, is Maddie Smith, a rower on the Drake University Women’s Crew team.

I don’t know how many people would stop to help an obese man who fell on the ice or to push someone out of snow.

But Maddie Smith was there for me twice.

She is from Des Moines and a graduate of Dowling Catholic High School. She is a credit to her faith, family and herself.

We talk a lot about how terrible everything is in the world. This story doesn’t make those things any less true.

But this story does contain one of the few proven remedies for things to improve: unselfish kindness.

Daniel P. Finney apologizes to neighbors for any tremors caused by his recent fall.

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 starts soon. All donations are greatly appreciated. Visit paypal.me/paragraphstacker.