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

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Back to Life

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