The Thanksgiving Madagascar hissing cockroach conversation that ruined my Amazon recommendations

Parents 2.0 hosted early Thanksgiving on Sunday. The menu included Mom 2.0’s famous brisket, which she spices up with powdered Lipton Onion Soup, mashed potatoes, gravy, scalloped corn, salad with Italian dressing, and carnival squash with butter and brown sugar.

I passed on the squash. I don’t like it. I never have. Mom 2.0 suggested I try it.

“You’ve never had my squash,” she said.

I asked, “Does it have squash in it?”

“Yes,” she said.

“I’m pretty sure I don’t like it,” I said.

Mom 2.0 smiled and passed out the plates heaping with a delicious meal; She dolled my portions minus squash.

This is an old routine in our family.

I thought of Grandma Newcomb, who died about two years ago. Grandma Newcomb always tried to get me to eat her pickled beets. I don’t like pickled beets. I don’t think there’s any magic that even good cooks like Grandma and Mom 2.0 can do to make a pickled beat taste good.

You can do this with coffee. I don’t like coffee, but if you put enough milk, chocolate, peppermint, and other non-coffee flavors in the coffee, the beverage can be tolerable. Pickled beets and squash just aren’t as flexible, I think.

I enjoyed the short exchange and the warm thoughts of Grandma Newcomb on holidays, when I think she was her happiest with all her children and grandchildren with personalities big and small crammed into her little house on a former acreage on the corner of Douglas and Colfax avenues on the east side.

We ate custard tarts with fresh banana and raspberries on a graham cracker crust for dessert. We retired to the living room to visit.

That’s an old-fashioned concept, “having a visit.”

People connect all sorts of ways today: Zoom, texts, social media, and so on.

But Parents 2.0, both 72, come from a generation of “visitors.” They sit down and chat. Sometimes it’s family gossip. We update each other on our lives. We chat about the goings on about town. I’ve been with this family for 30 years. I can’t recall harsh words spoken on a holiday.

My Aunt Janell, who died almost four years ago, preferred playing dominos, cards, or a board game to watching football sprawled on the floor with bloated bellies on the verge of glorious snoring naps. Some of the kids and sometimes Mom 2.0 would play games with Janell while others watched the game. It was the kind of compromise people want to be more common on bigger issues than dominos vs. the Cowboys or Lions games.

We gathered in advance of the holiday because I have a lot of papers to write as the end of the semester approaches. My Aunt Janice, Mom 2.0’s younger sister, had plans on Thanksgiving, as did my Uncle Jim, Janell’s widow.

Janice remarked on the fabric pattern on the upholstered chair and rocking chair in the living room. The furniture salesman told my folks the pattern — a mix of browns, grays, and silvers — was called “Madagascar.”

“Like Madagascar hissing cockroaches,” I said.

“I hope not,” Mom 2.0 said.

I looked one up on my phone and showed a picture to them. They’re 2- to 3-inches long and maybe a half inch wide. The males hiss when you stroke them and when they’re showing off to mate.

My folks were unimpressed with the roaches as a topic for the visit, but I tend to be the oddest contributor to the group chin wags.

The peculiar source of the image I showed my folks perplexed me: I tapped on the link and sent me to a page on the world’s largest online retailer where for about $13, plus shipping and handling, I could get two Madagascar hissing cockroaches sent to me live by U.S. mail.

I’ve long thought the job of postal carrier was under-appreciated, but knowing their overstuffed bags sometimes contain hissing cockroaches bumped my respect to a new level.

The company that sells these “hissers,” as the big roaches are colloquially known, calls itself Honeybees100. These are most definitely not honeybees.

The description alone is magnificent comedy.

“Hissers are easy to breed make great pets!”

That’s good. Pandas look cuddly, but nobody can get the stupid bears to breed. Madagascar hissing cockroaches are invested in the survival of their species.

The seller also described the hissers as “bold” and “good in groups.”

I’m not sure what they mean by “bold.” Bold is the kind of word used in comic book titles and speeches by politicians. I like my bugs to be skittish and fearful of me. I am millions of steps above them on the evolutionary ladder. I demand respect. Your boldness offends me.

But “good in groups” is equally baffling. Who else are the hissers hanging out with besides other roaches and bugs?

I think this might be an overstatement by the seller. The hissers have 164 reviews by customers who bought a male and female package.

“In the package, the roaches had plenty of room to crawl, but they didn’t have food or water which resulted in eating four of the female’s feet and part of her legs,” a buyer wrote.

Maybe hissers are good in groups, but they have a real problem in pairs.

Reviewers heaped praise on the critters.

“My daughter absolutely loves these guys!” one said. “They get petted every day!”

The writer updated the review to note the hissers, which only live three or four years, both died within four months.

Another reviewer, who goes by the handle “madscientist,” wrote, “I love these beings so much!”

Beings. You just know this guy is a vegan.

“Very nice petbugs,” madscientist continued, making “petbugs” all one words on his own. “They even have some ‘personalities,’ ‘characters’ as their behavior are concerned!”

These Madagascar hissing cockroach lovers overuse exclamation marks.

The late author Elmore Leonard advised writers to “keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.”

We live in a culture of excess; I am certain there are more than 100,000 words written about Madagascar hissing cockroaches by enthusiastic owners who consider bugs pets.

This is not my tribe, but so it goes.

Live. Let live.

My effort to bring some amusement to the post-holiday meal visiting has resulted in a negative consequence for me.

Amazon logs your search history and uses it to make recommendations for things you might want to buy.

My recommendations trend toward new Captain America Funko Pops and hard-boiled crime fiction.

But recently, amidst the superheroes, femme fatales, and private eyes, I’ve found offers for such things as “1,000 medium-sized crickets” or “2,000 live mealworms.”

Amazon’s algorithm may think it has it’s revenge on me. But I’ll show them. Christmas is coming and some people on my list may find themselves surprised with what’s under the tree.

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.

Trying to extend unemployment? Prepare to bang your head against the bureaucracy

Our story so far …

May 2020: The local newspaper discards with your friendly neighborhood paragraph stacker in a round of layoffs amidst the pandemic.

August 2020: After months of fruitless job searching, Finney begins graduate school at Drake University to finish his master’s degree and become a schoolteacher.

December 2020: Finney takes a job as an assignment editor for one of the local television stations.

March 2021: Finney’s brief foray into broadcast journalism ends in an unmitigated disaster; his studies continue at Drake and a new unemployment claim is filed.

April 2021: After battling the voice-automated answering system of Iowa Workforce Development for weeks and employees who all gave different answers on different days, Finney reaches a real person, an angel named Anna. She discovers my identity has been stolen and someone tried to claim unemployment benefits in my name. She promises to correct the error. I was informed there was a lot of fraud.

May 2021: Iowa Workforce Development pays unemployment benefits after a three-week delay while they investigate the identity theft. Finney attends summer classes.

August 2021: Finney applies for two unemployment benefits related programs: Department Approved Training and Training Extension Benefits.

Department Approved Training allows a person seeking further education or retraining for a needed occupation, such as teaching, need not apply for nor submit job applications when filing for weekly unemployment benefits.

He is approved for this program.

Training Extension Benefits is a federal program managed by Iowa Workforce Development which extends unemployment benefits for up to 26 weeks to workers who’ve left a declining field, such as newspaper journalism, and are seeking education or retraining for a needed job; teacher is on the list.

Officials denied that program. A letter from Iowa Workforce Development states he was ineligible for the benefits due any or all of four reasons; one of the reasons is Finney did not leave a declining field.

This is particularly galling to Finney. Some 26% of newsroom employees have lost their job between 2008 and 2020, per the Pew Research Center.

Further, the decade long decline in newsroom employment struck mid-career workers — that’s people ages 35 to 54 — the hardest, again per Pew. Finney was 44 when his job was cut by the local newspaper and 45 when his job ended at the TV station.

Someone might argue this is an industry-wide age discrimination practice to rid payrolls of middle-aged workers whose wages have risen commiserate to their experience. But that is probably cynical thinking. Newspapers are mostly owned by corporations. And corporations are people.

The letter denying Finney Training Extension Benefits gives him 10 days to apply from the letter’s date of Aug. 11.

Finney contacts his caseworker at Iowa Workforce Development. She advises him that his TEB was denied because he had not exhausted his regular unemployment benefits.

Our man, by email, asks if he should appeal the decision to make sure he is not blocked from applying again.

His caseworker, in an email says, “No, you can still apply next month. … If you are denied then, you would also have the opportunity to appeal that decision as well.”

September 2021: Finney reapplies for Training Extension Benefits. He hears nothing for three weeks. He calls several times. He emails the help desk. He is told to call his local Iowa Workforce Development office located on the south side of Des Moines. He does. The person he speaks with tells him to call the main state offices of Iowa Workforce Development.

Eventually, he is told that there is no record of the paperwork he faxed in early September ever being received by Iowa Workforce Development.

Fine, Finney, says. I will submit the paperwork again. He sends the form and a copy of his student schedule for the fall 2021 semester.

He receives email confirmation that the paperwork was received; a decision should be reached within 10 to 15 business days, he is told.

November 2021: After multiple email exchanges with customer service at Iowa Workforce Development, our man is told by email “I am not even sure if the application (that you emailed on 10/08/21) has been looked at because I noticed I had mistyped your Social Security number.”

OK. People make mistakes.

Finney learns he attached the incorrect semester’s schedule and application to the email. He corrects this by sending his current schedule and his student teaching schedule for the coming spring semester.

Nov. 13, 2021: Finney receives, on a Saturday oddly enough, “Good morning Daniel. Unfortunately, once a decision is issued it can no longer be changed and new requests can’t be processed.

In your case the only option is to appeal the denial decision that was issued to you on 08/11/21.”

This is directly in opposition to what Finney was told by his caseworker months before. Also, the denial letter specified a 10-day period to appeal, after which the decision became final.

This, too, was something he had asked his caseworker about directly and told that he could let the grace period expire and apply the next month.

Finney calls his caseworker. She says she has never heard that you couldn’t apply again. However, she notes that she had worked for the unemployment office for five years, then left for some time, and returned recently. Perhaps a rule changed while she was away.

A cynic might think that the umpteen cuts to government staffing by administrations dating back to the first Branstad administration means updating new (or returning) employees on little details like the rules about applying for Training Extension Benefits is something that doesn’t happen as efficiently or as effectively as possible.

Thus, Finney’s caseworker gave potentially bad advice because no one bothered to tell her — and maybe she didn’t look up to be sure — that you can only apply for Training Extension Benefits once.

Then again, maybe she is right. The rules seem to be a mystery even to those who administer them.

Finney’s caseworker suggests he appeal the denial despite the expired grace period and include the relevant history.

Finney goes to the form to do this. Alas, it requires information that was on the denial letter. Finney foolishly threw this away because he was told he could reapply.

Finney requests a copy of his denial letter from August. A customer service agent promised to mail out a copy.

The letter has yet to arrive.

Finney is still in school. He finishes his last classroom work in December and will student teach in the spring. He fights on.

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.

Podcast: Big biz break ups, comics we read and liked, Matthew Perry haunts Paul at LA Fitness

HBO roots through trash with Brittany Murphy death doc; We didn't watch Hawkeye, but not because social media told us not to; Is Omnicron a COVID variant or Transformers villain Talking Paragraphs

Dan and Paul are two middle-aged men talking about things. There's no reason you should listen them as opposed to other people, but, then again, there's no reason you should listen to anyone about anything. Decide for yourself. We'll be here cracking wise and a decidedly mellow, maybe even lazy, pace. All we cost you is your time. — Send in a voice message: Support this podcast:
  1. HBO roots through trash with Brittany Murphy death doc; We didn't watch Hawkeye, but not because social media told us not to; Is Omnicron a COVID variant or Transformers villain
  2. Special 50th Episode anniversary party: Celebrity notes of praise, G.I. Joe guys they never made, and demystifying crypto
  3. In big business, breaking up is easy to do; Comic books we read and liked; Matthew Perry stalks Paul at L.A. Fitness
  4. Dan gets COVID, Paul sees a movie, #ChrisPratt vs. #wokism, and #HotHolidayToys
  5. If any of us had any guts, we'd delete Facebook or Meta or whatever, also why you should get an MBA but not aromatherapy at WalMart