Thursday, June 18, 2015

Done With Gun Violence

I doubt that my blog post will have much focus today. To my readers, I ask for your patience.

Last night, around the time nine parishioners of an African-Methodist-Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina, were shot to death, I was having dinner with members of my church’s small group at a local Panera restaurant. We laughed, broke bread, and prayed for one another. Normally, we would’ve met at the church that evening studying the Bible, praying for one another, and praising God.

People should feel safe at church to worship and pray. For this reason, I am stunned and angry to hear of the mass shooting yesterday evening at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Nine people died, including a state senator who was the church pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. A young Caucasian man allegedly sat in the pews for about an hour before opening fire on the praying group. He allegedly said told a parishioner during a break in the violence, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

Law enforcement authorities arrested Dylann Storm Roof this morning in Shelby, North Carolina. They are investigating this massacre as a white-on-blacks hate crime. Frankly, I’m surprised the suspect didn’t kill himself when he was confronted.

This violence has to stop. I realize that it’s a hackneyed phrase, but I use it out of frustration. President Barack Obama, in remarks made today at the White House, was also frustrated and saddened by the news of this latest mass shooting during his term. Among those killings were the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 26 people, 20 of them children, and another 2012 shooting, this time in a Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee that took the lives of five men and a woman.

“But let’s be clear: At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries,” a somber Obama told reporters with Vice President Joe Biden standing silently next to him. “It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it. And at some point, it’s going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it, and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively.”

Whatever the solution is, it isn’t arming clergy and parishioners. It definitely isn’t having armed guards at the doors of houses of worship. Furthermore, the idea of churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples locked to the public with security guards to buzz them in seems antithetical with beliefs that doors should be open to those who wish to worship.

So, dear readers, if you have suggestions on how to deal with gun violence in general and mass shootings in particular without arming everybody (including children) and closing gathering places, please let me know. As author and talk show host Tavis Smiley wrote in USA Today, “What kind of nation do we want to be? Who are we, really?”


Writing Diva

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Fleeing the Titanic: Short-Selling the “Money Pit”

This entry of “A Single Life” is the hardest I’ve had to write so far. I’m not proud of the financial choices I’ve made. However, if my experience can serve as a cautionary tale to someone reading this, I truly hope I’ve helped.

After having owned my two-bedroom, one-bathroom townhome for slightly more than eight years, I’ve thrown in the towel. I’m short-selling it. I do it reluctantly because I can no longer continue to pay a total of $2,400 in mortgage payment and monthly homeowners’ association dues. I should not be paying this much for a two-bedroom townhouse in a north Vacaville complex with renters making up half the residents.

I hadn’t planned to buy a home in 2006. However, a fatal shooting next door to my rental home in Fairfield prompted me to move. But I did so in fear, and I shouldn’t have. (I will try to limit my “should’ve, could’ve, and would’ve” statements in this entry.) I wanted to find a place that would allow me to keep my cat, Tuffy. So, after calling several mortgage brokers, one told me that I could buy a home without a down payment. In hindsight, I file this exchange under “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

So, armed with a Fannie Mae loan, I searched in Fairfield, Vacaville, and Elk Grove until my broker steered me to the north Vacaville townhouse I call home. The 40-year, 10-years-interest-only mortgage was for the full asking price of the home – about $299,000.

Two years later, shortly after the start of the Great Recession, the value of my home plummeted to $80,000. I, along with millions of other homeowners, learned a new economic term: “underwater mortgage,” in which the mortgage amount is more than the value of the home.

In 2011, I refinanced the mortgage through the federal Home Affordability Refinance Program, or HARP, hoping to lower my monthly payments. While I received a lower interest rate, the new mortgage lender added the principal and interest, so I ended up paying nearly $100 more each month.

Late last year, the Solano County Assessor-Recorder’s Office assessed my property at $150,000. While the increased value was encouraging, the last straw came when I received my annual escrow statement. Because of an increase in the property tax and insurance, my mortgage payment went up by $150 to $1,920. Add the $280 in HOA dues, that’s $2,400 a month. (The plurality of the dues goes toward water for the lush community lawn. During a drought, even.) The increased in my mortgage payment ate into my groceries budget. I was miserable and decided to look into selling my home.

I contacted a friend of a friend from church to find out what my options are. He turned out to be a local Realtor. After discussing the pros and cons of keeping the home, I signed papers allowing him to show my home.

What the Realtor neglected to mention is that, in addition to taking still pictures of my home, he videotaped the inside of my messy home and posted it onto You Tube. Had I known that my messy house would be on the Internet, I would’ve told him, “No!” But what’s done is done.

Long story short, we received four offers and accepted one from a young couple with a toddler daughter. Now it’s up to my mortgage lender to approve the short sale. Once the approval goes through, escrow should take between 30 and 45 days, my Realtor said. In the meantime, I am searching for a pet-friendly home, preferably a house over an apartment, because I have a piano and two cats.

Right now, I’m soured on the American Dream of owning a home. I will focus on paying my bills and boosting my retirement contributions. Maybe someday I will own a home. But next time, I will put some skin in the game.

Writing Diva

Friday, January 16, 2015

Hey, Academy, How About More Color and More Women?

The following is an open letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:

 Greetings, Academy voters,

After viewing your nominations for the 87th annual Academy Awards®, I thought, “These choices could be a topic of Saturday Night Live’s ‘REALLY?!! With Seth and Amy.’” For example:

  • You nominated “Selma” for best picture and best original song (kudos to John Legend and Lonnie “Common” Lynn for “Glory”) but did not give nods to lead actor David Oyelowo, who gave a towering performance as Martin Luther King Jr., or Bradford Young for cinematography, or, most glaring, Ava DuVernay for best director. You could’ve made history by nominating DuVernay, who would’ve been the first African-American woman earning a best director nomination and only the fifth woman. REALLY?! How about director Angelina Jolie for "Unbroken"? (Regarding Oyelowo, whose name you should learn to pronounce since he’ll be back, I get that you made room for Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper.” But this is his third consecutive nomination. Make room for someone else!)
  • I agree with four of the five leading actress nominees. You might as well engrave Julianne Moore’s statue now for "Still Alice" since she’s way overdue. But I’m scratching my head over your nomination of Marion Cotillard for “Two Days, One Night,” which hasn’t even been released in the Sacramento area, over Jennifer Aniston’s performance in “Cake.” (Sigh.) REALLY?!
  • Regarding the roster of nominated animated films, I am thrilled to see “How to Train Your Dragon 2” in the pack. But why not “The Lego Movie” too? REALLY?!
  • I’m not going to fault Glen Campbell’s nomination for best original song for “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” although I have yet to see his film debut in the Sacramento area. But I believe that his song may be the dark horse in this category. However, couldn’t you have made room for Lorde’s “Yellow Flicker Beat” from “The Hunger Games – Mockingjay Part 1” as a nod to younger viewers? REALLY?!
  • Finally, I am glad that you invited (best supporting actor nominee) Barkhad Abdi, (best supporting actress winner) Lupita Nyong’o, cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, costume designer William Change Suk Ping, and director Gina Price-Bythewood to join your august body last year. How about adding some more women and people of color since the Academy is 94 percent white and 76 percent men? REALLY?!

I’m done with my annual nominations rant. Let’s see how things turn out on February 22.

Writing Diva

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