Iowa, life, Winterset

How I pissed off a bunch of my old friends by writing about racism in the small Iowa town I grew up in

I pissed off a lot of people — old friends from Winterset, mostly — the last time I wrote in this space. I’ve been stuck as to what to say since.

The intent was not to upset people or settle 30-year-old grudges. There was a time in my life when I would have enjoyed that, but I hope I’ve outgrown the need to provoke simply for reaction’s sake.

In reality, it was another childish ideal that caused me to write about racism I witnessed — and was regretfully party to — while I grew up in Winterset: I keep trying to get people to think about things from a different point of view.

One of the many reasons I became a journalist is because things my family endured — and feared — while I grew up in Winterset. My family went broke refurbishing a red-brick mansion about 4 miles west of Winterset. We were so broke that we didn’t have enough money to cover the big windows at the front of the house.

So, we hung sheets for privacy, probably unnecessarily because visitors whizzed by at 55 mph or more and the house was a good quarter mile away from the road.

People made fun of us for our window coverings. Well, I don’t know if they did or didn’t. My dad worried that they did. He was ashamed of his financial status and, real or imagine, he worried the community would judge him for not having enough money for expensive drapery.

After my dad died, my mom and I lived in a small house by the high school. My mother struggled with addiction to opioids — stuff that isn’t even legal to prescribe anymore — and probably a series of undiagnosed mental illnesses. For reasons unclear to me, she decided to pay a service to mow our lawn instead of buying a lawnmower and letting me do it.

The dye was cast. That doughy Finney boy was so lazy he wouldn’t even mow the lawn at his own house for his poor, elderly mother.

This perception of me was so ironclad that it was thrown in my face multiple times, sometimes by teachers. No amount of my attempts to correct this rumor with the fact that my mother, while crazy, was still the adult in the house and the idea not to buy a lawnmower was hers, not mine.

I took to journalism in part because I thought I could set the record straight with facts and supporting information. I believed a well-reasoned argument should be at least be considered.

Small towns can be wonderful. They can also be vicious, especially on the matter of rumormongering.

The last time I wrote, I tried to ask my classmates from the small town I’m so found of to think differently about the things we said and did as they related to one of our classmates of Asian descent after the deaths of Asian-Americans in shootings at Atlanta salons.

Not everyone bullied the classmate in question, nor did everyone use racial epithets that I described, but a lot of us did. I did. And I admitted I was ashamed and had changed as an adult.

The discussion started off nicely enough. Some people apologized. The person I was writing about thanked me for the piece.

This changed.

The subject of the column started calling people out for things done more than 30 years ago. By name. And those folks weren’t too keen on being associated with racist acts. And other people remembered events differently than she did.

I received text messages from the subject of the column with screen shots of the arguments and the caption “I’m having so much fun!”

The arguments heated up. Some people came to me directly and asked me to moderate comments. I appealed twice in comments for everyone to settle down and just think about what we were talking about from a different perspective.

That was a failure.

Then the subject of the column turned on me. She asked me to take it down. I declined. The rhetoric intensified. I banned her from the page and deleted the comments.

I know one or two people put some thought into what I wrote about last week. But many didn’t.

What a waste of time and energy.

I still love my friends from Winterset. I would not be who I am today without them. It still hurts a little that I wasn’t able to graduate with my class, but that worked out OK, too.

But this small-scale incident is one of the large-scale reasons why I don’t know if I could ever be a journalist again.

Almost nobody wants to think. People are quick to yell. The facts are elusive and made irrelevant by the stubbornness in all our minds to see things in a way that supports our existing conclusions.

Nobody likes to be challenged. Journalism is the act of challenging.

Or it was.

Today it’s about Fruit Loops pizza.

I digress.

The whole affair reminds me of a story about the poet and author Charles Bukowski. A reporter rode with Bukowski on an airplane sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, when Bukowski wrote strange screeds for the alternative newspapers in California.

Bukowski was drunk. He clawed at the flight attendants and made a boorish fool of himself.

Some weeks later, the reporter saw Bukowski’s byline in one of those alternative papers. He told the story on the plane, except in Bukowski’s version it was the reporter who was a lout and Bukowski who looked with embarrassment.

The reporter ran into Bukowski sometime later and asked him why he said that.

“Hey,” Bukowski said, “I’m the hero of my shit.”

I think we’re all a little bit like Bukowski. We all want to be the hero of our own shit. And we’re willing to lie to ourselves hard enough that we actually believe it.

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: @newsmanon. PayPalpaypal.me/paragraphstacker.