Monday, May 5, 2014

You Get What You Need



I want to thank readers of the previous blog entry “Long Walk to Financial Freedom: Cutting the Cable Cord” for your support and comments. Since that entry, I bought a digital antenna for my television for $21 at Target. I get nine channels, including KCRA 3 (Sacramento NBC affiliate,), KOVR 13 (Sacramento CBS affiliate), KUVS (Sacramento Univision affiliate; hey, I need to improve my Spanish comprehension!), and KMAX (Sacramento CW affiliate).

No ABC shows? Maybe KXTV News 10 in Sacramento doesn’t offer a digital channel. If that’s the case, BOO!

Furthermore, I’m putting my DVD player to good use. I started checking out DVDs from my library, including “Lost: The Final Season,” “TheBig C: First Season,” and “Person of Interest: First Season.” I was surprised to find so many current titles at my local library. This could work!

I can’t use Roku because it requires an Internet connection, which I gave up with my television cable connection. I will wait about six months before I restore my Internet connection. In the meantime, I use the computer at, where else, the local library.

I still miss watching television that doesn’t break up because of bad reception from my antenna. But I’ve heard that a budget reflects one’s priorities. My biggest priority is getting myself out of debt.

I may not get what I want in terms of programming. But I have what I need. Oh, and my library has Seasons 1 through 3 of "Game of Thrones!"

Writing Diva

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Long Walk to Financial Freedom: Cutting the Cable Cord



(Note: This entry is the first of an occasional series on getting myself debt-free.)

Hello, my name is Writing Diva, and I need to get my financial house in order.

I hit rock bottom earlier this month when I prepared my household budget and realized that to live within my budget, I would have to forfeit food. Not happening.

One might wonder how I arrived at this nadir. Regardless of the salary cuts I have endured as a California state employee from 2009 through 2012, I am responsible for how I handle my finances. I neglected to ask myself repeatedly the basic question, “Can I afford it?” (I should have asked myself that same question in late 2006 when I bought my townhouse shortly before the housing bubble burst. But that’s a topic for another entry.)

My credit card payments couldn’t be cut. I could pay on time but only the minimum amount. As for my electricity/gas bill with Pacific Gas and Electric Company, I could cut my electricity usage, including air conditioning.

But the deepest cut came through my cable bill. On April 19, I canceled my television and Internet services. I still have my landline phone because I couldn’t bear to give up my phone number, which is easy for most people to remember. However, I will shop for a cheaper phone service.

Cutting cable was difficult. Every time I would try to cut my cable bill, my provider Comcast would either cut 10 percent from my bill or offer another slate of channels in addition to limited basic. I would watch my shows (“Scandal,” “Grimm,” “Mad Men,” “The Good Wife”) without complaint.

On April 19, however, I said, “Enough.” I unplugged the set-top box and took it to the Comcast store in Fairfield and canceled my television and Internet access.

When I left the store, I felt proud of myself until I arrived home. Silence. Nothing to turn on. No “Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.” No PBS, which meant farewell to “Downton Abbey” and “Nature.”

I think I’ve went only a handful of days in my life without the blaring of a television set nearby. I admit my life is so pathetic that I sometimes plan my days around what’s on the tube.

I read a historical romance that had an unexpectedly poor payoff. I’ve been searching for a part-time job online through the county library computers.

I expect to get a break in August when two loans are paid off and I receive a small (2 percent) raise in pay. But the walk just started.

Writing Diva

Thursday, January 16, 2014

2014 Oscar Nominations: An Embarrassment of Riches



Like an eager child on Christmas morning, I got up and turned on CNN at 5:37 a.m. today to watch this year’s Academy Award nominations. After Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and actor Chris Hemsworth finished announcing the nominees in the major categories, I noticed several surprises and major snubs.

Two big ones: No Tom Hanks for best actor in “Captain Phillips.” (What?) No love for indie “Fruitvale Station.” (Boo!)

OK, here are some of the major categories with surprises and snubs:

Surprise: “The Wolf of Wall Street” getting in because it’s such a divisive film. Although the American Film Institute named it one of the top 10 films of 2013, audiences rated by CinemaScore gave “Wolf” a “C” grade.
Snubs: A sour note for “Inside Llewyn Davis.” “Blue Jasmine,” director/writer Woody Allen’s take on “A Streetcar Named Desire,” was also left out, as were “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and “Saving Mr. Banks.”

Leading Actor: Christian Bale, “American Hustle”; Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”; Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”; Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”; Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Surprise: DiCaprio, who won the Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy or musical.
Snubs: In one of the most competitive leading actor races in years, there were bound to be egregious exceptions. The last time Hanks received an Oscar acting nod was in 2000 for “Castaway.” Robert Redford, whose last acting nod was for best actor in 1973’s “The Sting.” He performed most of his own stunts in “All Is Lost.” Joaquin Phoenix, whose character had a love affair with a computer operating system in “Her.” Idris Elba, who portrayed antiapartheid leader and South African President Nelson Mandela in “Mandela:Long Walk to Freedom.” Up-and-comer Michael B. Jordan, who played the ill-fated Oscar Grant in “Fruitvale Station.” Forest Whitaker, who gave a subdued but strong performance as Cecil Gaines in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”

Leading Actress: Amy Adams, “American Hustle”; Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”; Dame Judi Dench, “Philomena”; Meryl Streep, “August: Osage County”; Sandra Bullock, “Gravity.”
Surprise: Although critics were split over “August,” hey, she’s Meryl Freaking Streep! She has earned her 18th record acting nomination.
Snubs: To make room for Streep, Emma Thompson’s portrayal of cantankerous author P.L. Travers in Disney’s “Saving Mr. Banks” was overlooked.

Supporting Actor: Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”; Bradley Cooper, “American Hustle”; Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”; Jonah Hill, “The Wolf of Wall Street”; Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club.”
Surprise: Two, actually – Cooper and Hill.
Snubs: It would have been nice to honor the late James Gandolfini for “Enough Said,” whose gentle character closely matches his real-life persona. Also left out: Daniel Brühl for Ron Howard’s “Rush” and “Saturday Night Live” alum Will Forte for “Nebraska.”

Supporting Actress: Sally Hawkins, “Blue Jasmine”; Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”; Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”; Julia Roberts, “August: Osage County”; June Squibb, “Nebraska.”
Surprise: Hawkins, who wasn’t nominated for this year’s Screen Actors Guild awards.
Snub: Oprah Winfrey of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” who was nominated for a SAG award.

Director: Alfonso Cuarón, “Gravity”; Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”; Alexander Payne, “Nebraska”; David O. Russell, “American Hustle,” Martin Scorsese, “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Surprise: Actually, none.
Snub: The problem with having up to 10 best picture nominees is that not all the directors can be nominated. No Paul Greengrass for “Captain Phillips.” No Spike Jonze for “Her.”

Surprise: I hadn’t heard of “Ernest & Celestine,” the story of a destitute bear who befriends an orphan mouse, until today. The film is in French.
Snub: “Monsters University,” one of the few instances that a Pixar animated feature was left in the cold.

Documentary: “The Act of Killing,” “Cutie and the Boxer,” “Dirty Wars,” “The Square,” “20 Feet From Stardom” (Yay!)
Surprise: Can’t say because I’m unfamiliar with the first four films.
Snub: No “Blackfish”?! The documentary about the capture of killer whales for amusement parks was both heartbreaking and chilling. I saw the trailer and was enraged.

The 86th Academy Awards, hosted by Ellen DeGeneres, will be held March 2 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Duck, Duck, (Jim) Crow



I don’t watch A&E’s “Duck Dynasty.” Frankly, I avoid most, if not all, “reality” shows. When I heard that Duck Commander Company founder Phil Robertson made disparaging comments against the LGBT community an interview with GQ magazine, I shook my head at his uninformed outspokenness. But when he said that African-Americans were happy before the Civil Rights era, I took offense and felt that I had to take Robertson to task.

“The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them,” Robertson told GQ. “I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

The A&E cable network suspended Phil Robertson “indefinitely.” While he is on suspension, I suggest that Mr. Robertson take some time to research the effects of Jim Crow laws on African-Americans and the United States as a whole.

Mr. Robertson can start by reading The Warmth of Other Suns by Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson. The book chronicles the Great Migration of blacks from southern to northern and western states. Most African-Americans living in the oppressive Jim Crow South left to find better jobs and build new lives. Even during the period from 1915 to 1970, they found covert, institutionalized racism in jobs and housing.

If reading is too time-consuming or even difficult for Mr. Robertson, then I suggest talking to people who lived through the Jim Crow era. My 88-year-old father, for example, fled his boyhood home of Gould, Arkansas, in his late teens to escape the mental and physical oppression of the Deep South. He traveled to California, served in the Navy during World War II, and worked in Northern California for most of his life, retiring in his late 80s. He can share his experiences, as can his younger brother, whom I’ll call “Uncle G.” Uncle G, a retired real estate agent, saw his best friend lynched by a white mob when they were boys. He shared this story with me as part of a family history project. He was clearly traumatized by the memory.

So, I ask that Mr. Robertson take the time to educate himself before spewing uninformed comments from his mouth and shooting A&E’s cash cow “Duck Dynasty” in the foot.

Writing Diva

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Back to Life

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TB54dZkzZOY

Exactly 20 years ago today, I died.

Not of embarrassment, but of complications from double pneumonia.

For less than a minute, I suffered cardiac arrest, and my medical team from John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek performed CPR and shocked me back to life. During this life-saving effort, I "dreamed" that I was floating above my body, feeling peaceful. I don't think it was a dream, though.

Backing up three weeks: I had worked on a three-day series of articles for the San Ramon Valley Times on "AIDS in the San Ramon Valley." The reports were among the best I had ever done. But the work took its toll on my body: I came down with the flu.

After a week of coughing and not taking full breaths, I consulted my physician, who diagnosed me with pneumonia. I asked him, "Shouldn't I be in a hospital?" Instead, he prescribed antibiotics and sent me home.

Bad decision.

I went home to Sacramento to allow my parents to care for me, and my physician called me back for another exam. By the time my parents and I arrived in Walnut Creek, I was short of breath, and my heart was beating erratically. My physician finally had me admitted on July 31 to John Muir Medical Center, where my attending physician was a cardiac surgeon I had interviewed for a news story.

After my family left my hospital room, I realized the difference between me and my parents and siblings was that I could not leave the hospital without risking my life.

The next day I underwent a procedure that involved putting a scope down my trachea to view my lungs. I woke up in the intensive care unit with a breathing tube and a feeding tube down my throat. My first thought was the equivalent of "WTF?"

Although I couldn't speak, I could write, barely. I motioned for the nurse to bring me a pen and pad of paper. I wrote, "Me die?" She responded that the medical team was doing what it could to keep my alive.

During my morphine-induced state, I saw an Episcopal minister pray over me. I thought, indignant, "I'm not dying yet!" I was tested for hantavirus, which I didn't have. I was awakened by nurses to cough.

What does dying feel like? As if your soul is a candle, and its flame is flickering to just a glowing ember before finally going out.

Three days after my near-death experience, I left the ICU and returned to a regular hospital room. I learned from a nurse about my almost meeting my Maker. I was stunned. My siblings told me that the night before my near death, Dad was crying and praying nonstop. I have never seen my father cry. Still haven't.

I spent 16 days in the hospital, 8 of them in ICU. I was out of work for a total of seven weeks. I didn't regain my full speaking voice until two months after I left the hospital.

Often I wondered why I lived when others have died in similar circumstances. It may be that I still have a purpose in life I have to fulfill before I die for the last time.

Writing Diva

Monday, July 29, 2013

Hot Fun in the Summertime

There are times when a single life can be fun. A hot summer Friday night was a great example.

Last Friday I was coming off a long, stressful work week. I wrote on my Facebook page, "I'm in dire need of getting my groove on." I had planned exactly that: I was going to a "Meetup" with some acquaintances to see the R&B/dance band the Time Bandits in Andrews Park in Vacaville. The gig was part of a summer series of "Creekwalk" concerts.

I met several members of the Meetup group seated in their camp chairs under the shade of a sycamore tree about 75 feet from the Creekwalk stage. The Time Bandits from nearby Fairfield were playing some infectious soul and dance music ranging from the 1960s to present day. I strutted and bumped to songs ranging from Kelly Clarkson's "Walk Away" to The Temptations' "I Can't Get Next to You." I think I fulfilled my daily dose of cardio in front of that stage.

The only guy in the group, whom I'll call "Gary," arrived with his camp chair. We met each other in late December during a meetup at a downtown Vacaville karaoke bar. The last time I saw Gary was in January at a dinner for another group. I found him to be a laid-back, solid person. He's probably 5'9", slim, and shaved bald. We greeted each other before he set up his chair next to mine.

The group members would chat among themselves despite the deafening music. I asked Gary why he wasn't dancing yet.

"I don't feel comfortable dancing with people I don't know," he replied.

"You know me," I thought but kept to myself.

Gary finally got up the nerve to get on the dance floor and ask a woman to dance. I shrugged and enjoyed the evening from my camp chair. There had to be at least a thousand people there of myriad races and ages, from a 7-month-old girl smiling in the arms of her dancing mother to a grizzled war veteran rolling in his wheelchair with his date. The heat subsided as the delta breeze picked up slightly. Everyone was friendly and encouraging of each other.

Later, the band started playing "My Girl." Gary stood and extended his hand to me. "Would you like to dance?" he asked.

I took his hand, stood, and said, "Sure."

We danced to song with a crowd of maybe 200 people under a waning moon.

After the dance, Gary thanked me and left shortly thereafter. I left a short time thereafter.

The evening gave me a sense of joy. And neither the arthritis in my right foot nor the plantar fasciitis in my left bothered me, even when I was boogieing.

So, if you see me with what I call "happy cheeks," you know why.

Writing Diva

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Nelson Mandela: Bittersweet Birthday



Today, anti-apartheid leader and former South African President Nelson Mandela is marking his 95th birthday in a hospital bed in Pretoria.

Although his doctors say his health is steadily improving from a lung infection, at the risk of sounding pessimistic, I sense this may be the last birthday that he and his family celebrate.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner spent 27 years in prison after being convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government. Following a successful international lobbying campaign, Mandela was released in 1990. Shortly thereafter, he embarked on a world tour, which included a visit to U.S. cities, including Oakland, California.

As a reporter for the Fairfield-Suisun City Daily Republic, I covered his final stop of his U.S. tour at the Oakland Coliseum. I pestered my city editor, saying that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event and that all San Francisco Bay Area media needed to cover this, especially since I knew several Solano County residents who would attend Mandela’s visit. My city editor relented.

When I arrived at the Coliseum on Saturday, June 30, 1990, I was surrounded by 58,000 people and media crews from throughout California and other countries. I worked the stands and interviewed two Vallejo residents and Seretha Jefferson of Fairfield, who wore a broad-brimmed straw hat and flowery dress to see Mandela. Once on the ground, Mandela appeared onstage, as music played and the chorus sang: “Freeeee Nelson Mandela!”

I admit at that point I lost all objectivity and danced and cheered on the field. Epic journalism fail.

Quoting The New York Times story of his Oakland visit, “the deputy president of the African National Congress smiled broadly and told the crowd, ‘Despite my 71 years, at the end of this visit I feel like a young man of 35. I feel like an old battery that has been recharged. And if I feel so young, it is the people of the United States of America that are responsible for this.’”

My story ran in the Daily Republic on page 1 as a sidebar to Associated Press coverage on Mandela’s visit. I was humbled to have been half a football field from greatness.

My prayers are with Mr. Mandela, his family, his friends, and his country.

Writing Diva