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.
Zelle: newsmanone@gmail.com.
Venmo@newsmanone.
PayPalpaypal.me/paragraphstacker.
Meal Train: https://www.mealtrain.com/trains/5ek08z/updates/


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.

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.

Incorrect.

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 newsmanone@gmail.com.


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.

Fighting breast cancer, she still helps others

My friend Patty Graziano stopped by with a foil pan of stuffed pasta shells. She brought the dish as a donation to a fundraiser set up by my friend Mary in advance of pending knee surgery. You can still donate here if you’re of a mind to do such a thing.

I met Patty several years ago when I was a columnist for the local newspaper. I saw her at Barnes and Noble, a place I used to haunt. Patty usually sat with a different kid each night.

Sometimes her arms gesticulated wildly. She smiled often and laughed loud. The children seemed entertained and focused.

She obviously was some kind of tutor and one with a big following. I observed her several times and never saw her with the same kid.

I approached her one night in the most awkward way.

I walked up to her table and said, “I’ve been watching you.”

Sometimes I forget how big I am, not just in girth, but in height. Patty’s eyes widened. I quickly produced my business card and photo ID to explain I was a writer who wanted to write about her.

Patty demurred. What was so interesting about a tutor?

I find the people who don’t think themselves to be very interesting often have the best stories.

She worried a story about her would result in a bunch of requests for services, but her schedule was booked.

I pressed her and she told me her story.

Patty and I became friends. When I wrote about dealing with chronic depression and anxiety, she often sent positive messages and told me stories from her own life.

I often think of Patty’s relationships with her students.

When I worked for one of the local TV stations, I booked her as a source for one of the reporters.

I suggested to one of the morning producers that they make a weekly segment with Patty, which they did last year during the school year.

Patty’s segment might have been the one positive thing I did in my brief run in TV — and all I did was suggest it. People who know what they were doing — which was never me — made it happen.

Patty marched right into my apartment and gave me a big hug. I offered to take the dish from her. She waived me off and marched into the kitchen and put it in the fridge, complete with reheating instructions.

I wobbled back to my recliner with my cane.

She plopped down on my living room floor, and we caught up.

Patty and her family recently visited Disney World. She built lightsabers and flew the Millennium Falcon with her children, nieces and nephews along for the ride.

The positivity just blasted out of her. Being in her presence is like driving west on I-235 in the early fall when the sun is setting right in your eyeline. She’s almost too bright to look at directly without wearing sunglasses.

We weren’t wearing sunglasses.

We were wearing masks.

Patty and I are both fully vaccinated.

But Patty is fighting breast cancer.

She has surgery later this month. She’s taking no chances. She doesn’t even want to get the sniffles from allergies.

She talks about the surgery with the detachment of the scientist she is, explaining the procedure and process. Yet, she never hides her humanity.

“There has been constant crying,” she told me.

Patty chooses to embrace hope.

She explained how different generations of her family reacted to her diagnosis.

Her parents, she said, are terrified. Her husband and peers, people in their 40s, are worried. But her children?

“They’re like, ‘yeah, lots of people get breast cancer and survive,’” Patty said.

The advancements in science comfort Patty. Two generations ago, her diagnosis was a likely death sentence. Now her chances of survival and remission are very high.

I like the way Patty’s mind works. I keep her in mind when I envision the kind of teacher I will be. I can’t match her energy — nothing short of a supernova could — but I will strive to match her earnestness and enthusiasm for subject, students, teaching, and learning.

Patty teaches me lessons all the time.

Her Instagram account often includes videos where she talks about the difference between frogs and toads or the parts of a flower in her garden.

The day she visited, she taught me the biggest lesson yet.

This was a woman who was facing a far greater health threat than a torn meniscus. Yet, Patty still took time to drop by and visit a friend and bring some food at that.

My eyes well up with tears just thinking about the kind of decency she embodies.

I see the hand of God in my life through the kindness that’s been heaped upon me by family, friends, readers, and often total strangers.

I worked as a newspaperman so long that my negative thoughts about humans only intensified when I wrote about what my late friend, Des Moines Senior Police Officer Dan Dusenbery, called “all the savage things that people do to each other and themselves, intentionally or unintentionally.”

By the time my career ended amidst the news industry’s obsession with online metrics, I began to think of myself as a failure, a man born too late to have done anything meaningful.

My paragraph stacks flowed out of my fingers into the keyboard and then disappeared into the cacophony of noise that is American life, sometimes hated, occasionally liked, but mostly ignored.

Then I hear from people such as Patty.

And I begin to think maybe it mattered, perhaps not on the grandiose scale I hoped it would, but still, it mattered.

If all I had to show for 27 years as a newsman was a friendship with Patty Graziano, that would be enough.

But all of you have shown it’s so much more than that.

I struggle to accept the enormity of that gift.

You’ve lifted my spirits and pushed me to keep moving forward, to be a better man, and always, always, always put love first.

Thank you, again.


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.