Saturday, April 30, 2011

Financial Literacy Month: All's Well That Ends Well? Nope.

A N O P E N   L E T T E R T O   P E O P L E   O R   
E N T I T I E S W H O   A R E   U N L I K E L Y 
T O   R E S P O N D.  (Inspired by McSweeneys)

Dear Bank of America Bill Payer Team and Chase Mortgage Team:

Your two institutions supposedly provide services such as safeguarding our money, making sure our bill payer transactions go through or making sure our mortgages are serviced.  But you fell down on those functions recently and no hollow-apologied form letter you can concoct will just make our doubts, annoyance and lack of faith go away.

This all started because the simplest, most straight-forward thing: a monthly recurring bill pay event for a mortgage payment that had processed correctly 4 times prior--for some reason--did not go as planned this past February.

On 2/17/11, I received an email notification from Chase Mortgage that our monthly payment for the mortgage was officially late (not received as of 2/15/11).  But upon checking with our bank who has all our money (Bank of America), I discovered that a recurring bill pay event had indeed posted 10 days earlier on 2/7/11.  

By 2/28/11, I had spoken to so many of your clowns and was a hair’s breadth away from losing my patience.  To add insult to injury, someone at Chase let me know the funds had still not been located in their system and they were going to report us at the end of the month to the credit bureaus for not paying our mortgage.  Talk about a hostage situation.  I had little choice but to pay our mortgage again in the month of February.  

Bank of America who holds our money also told us Chase refused to speak to them directly about this issue or any client accounts because Bank of America was a 3rd party.  To break the log jam and optimize my time chewing out both institutions simultaneously, I volunteered to do a conference call with Bank of America AND Chase.  

Here are other more infuriating things I learned on that call:
  • Bank of America cuts physical checks to Chase (does not wire) and there are a limited (read: arbitrary) number of payments that can be sent to any particular Chase lock box destination (payment address on our mortgage statement) in any one day.  When they exceed that set number, Bank of America will send payments for Chase to another lockbox address that they know of.
  • Bank of America on their own initiative changed the payment destination of our 2/7/11 recurring bill payer event from an Arizona address (indicated on the statement) to a Kentucky address--without so much as notifying us.
  • The payment arrived to the Chase Kentucky lock box and our mortgage number was noted on the check.  Chase Mortgage cashed the check but did not credit our account--without so much as notifying us.  It was put into a holding account for some unknown reason.
  • Because we initiated this payment within the grace period (on the 7th of each month) and not 5 days before the due date (on the 1st of each month), Bank of America was not going to take care of the late fee.  Luckily, Chase graciously reversed it themselves. 
The call in a nutshell: It started off that each bank insinuated the other messed up, next they each revealed some of the inner-workings of their respective banks, when it became obvious that they had both been inept and careless, the reps reverted back to their own douchey, condescending scripts and finally the blame came to rest on me for not initiating the payment 25 days prior to it’s due date. (25 days--that is absolutely ridiculous)

But miraculously the next day on 3/2/11, Chase found the  “lost” funds and posted it to our account.  Oh oops...

This little exercise in futility has earned both Bank of America and Chase to lose our trust and confidence.  If you cannot handle something simple like this, as routine as this, why would we ever place anything else important in your hands?  Yes, mistakes happen but you took up hours of my time to sort out and coordinate your own jacked up systems then pulled some b.s. technicality to try and blame me for it.    

I really wish I could choose who holds our mortgages because there would be a reckoning.  But I can decide who holds our funds and pays our bills.  Bank of America, consider yourself on notice.

A plague on both your houses,
Kali Sakai

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Living In One of the Whitest Cities in the US

THIS article in the Seattle Times about the recent 2010 census revealed how "white" Seattle and Portland are. While Seattle is the 5th most white large city in America with 66% of its residents saying they are non-hispanic/white, Portland is the most white large city in America with 72% saying that.  It's kicked off several discussions about race, racism and it's affects on our area.

KUOW's Conversation Show on 4/25 covered this and discussed some interesting stories callers had/have while living and working in the Seattle area.  Based on that pool of experiences, it's a toss-up as to whether it's better or worse here than other big cities with more color mix.  I also called in at the end to make some comments regarding being mixed race.  That's a whole other topic of conversation but as more and more people are multi-ethnic, how do you count "whiteness"?  Is it only if you are 100% or can you combine two hapas to get one white person?  That's a little glib maybe, but something I'm still curious about.
Audio: Part 1 LINK & Part 2 LINK
(On Part 2 @15:22 is where my comment starts)

Bruno and the Professor, one of my favorite news/views podcasts about American and international politics, culture & ideas discussed this article too.  They brought up an interesting concept called "consensus-based culture" which is that Seattle is so full of domestic and international immigrants (~66%) that the cultural mores are inevitably "explained" to everyone coming in and basically an understanding occurs such that "you can be of any religion or culture you want as long as you assimilate into this society."  I found that fascinating because while I am not Seattle-born, I am still a western Washington State native so the "rules" aren't very different than what I grew up with so I don't really notice it.  (Except for the "Seattle Freeze" phenomenon which is specific to this city and why Seattle folks are so aloof--but I digress.)  I'm sure Seattle's culture is a starker contrast for Ken who grew up in Maryland--a place where race is much more top of mind because you can see diversity everywhere you go.  Also interesting comments from the guys about voter districting as it pertains to race and the history of it.  Click this LINK to listen.   (Race discussion starts at 20:00)

And after putting this article out on Facebook today, many friends who have lived in different parts of the country indicated that more diversity in population is not necessarily correlated to less racism.  But I think that's a common assumption--the more exposure you have to something, the more you understand and integrate with it.   So to explain what friends are seeing maybe it could be if you don't get any distance or perspective on a cultural/racial basis perhaps you keep fomenting the deep-seeded prejudices and create your own tight-knit group within that society so that you never fully integrate.  Or in defense of those who think Seattle is color-blind maybe if you have less occasions to test your racism you are by proxy "less racist"?  
I don't know, that last one is a stretch.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Symphony Rules

I think I was 15 when I heard a live symphony orchestra for the first time.  It was in a church and my high school boyfriend's mother played violin in this group.  I never forgot that sensation, that tickle in my ear upon hearing live stringed instruments.  There is no other way for me to describe it but live music especially violins, violas, cellos, basses...taps into something deep and is unlike any other experience.   But as naive as I am about classical music, I have learned that there are rules, etiquette really, for when you attend the symphony.  But I am a multi-tasker at heart and much to my musician husband's chagrin, I still like to thumb through my program and shift around in my seat.  If a piece bores me, I busy myself thinking of what I will say about it when it's over and look around at other patrons.  I know, it's borderline behavior but sometimes it's hard to stay focused.

Also as a non-musician, I acknowledge the extent to what I absorb of the classic masterworks is small.  The complexity and emotion is apparent but there is so much more.  This realization was reinforced when I tried to play a violin recently.  Our friend Mika is among other things a talented violinist and let me try it.  Just holding the bow was an eye-opener.  It looks so simple but there is this "peculiar" way to position one's fingers.  I felt like I would drop it at any moment.  Then figuring out how hard to press the bow on the strings--those musicians make it look so effortless.  But it is the exact opposite.   The life-long dedication, talent and achievement distinguish them from the rest of us.  I suppose they are like athletes that way.

So as I've grown older, I have made efforts to have some small ongoing exposure to the symphony.  Last Friday was one of those nights.  It was a program with Prokofiev, one of Ken's favorite composers.  I too like the Russian composers, they have more dramatic and angsty music which definitely appeals.   But it was in the recital hall with a chamber group instead of with the entire symphony in the main auditorium.  Immediately I noticed the patrons were dressed down more than usual.  (Was it "casual Friday" at the symphony?)  Clearly modern times and the "Seattle laid back attitude" mix to deem Birkenstocks as acceptable footwear and a clean fleece pullover as a fitting dress shirt.  But I digress.  A paying guest, regardless of their fashion, is a welcome sight these days.  But I still can't help but feel bad for the performers.  Looking a little nicer than what you'd wear for a trip to the store is a fair reverence to them and their dedication. 

However, cringe-worthy things started happening between the 3rd and 4th movement of the first piece.  That was when people broke into applause because they thought the first piece was over.  In fairness, the musicians did finish with their bows up in the air and after a little bit of flourish but there were four movements listed.  So a lot of people got faked out and we all starting clapping.  That seemed to set the tone for the rest of the night where people just burst into applause between movements, like someone had opened Pandora's box and anything goes.  No doubt, we are not the first Seattle audience to clap prematurely (this week) but it shows me how pretentious I can get about it.   Then to top it all off, they gave a standing ovation.  There were good aspects, particularly the 2nd and 3rd pieces but Seattle, from my observation, loves to give standing ovations.  All the time.  Even if it's mediocre.  So how can you discern good from great here?  That is my question.  Ken thinks I sound so snobby when I say that but it's like giving everyone an "A" or a trophy.  Every performance doesn't merit the highest honor.  Okay, I'm done now.

And yet, this clearly illustrates how alienating it might be for someone to go to the symphony for the first time so therefore they don't.  With the news of Philadelphia's Orchestra filing for bankruptcy, it's scary.  I looked around at the audience (as I am wont to do) and noticed Ken and I were some of the youngest people there and there were not many in our age group.  That does not bode well for this musical tradition being kept alive.  Sure there are a number of kids who learn musical instruments and play in youth symphonies/orchestras which work closely with the professional symphony but why am I not seeing or hearing about more of my peers attending or enjoying the symphony?

When the Seattle Symphony rep called us a month ago to remind us to renew our season tickets, I had a frank talk with her.  Why aren't you guys doing more with movie composers? I asked.  When Lord of the Rings was going, they hosted Howard Shore, the man responsible for scoring that epic trilogy.  They had multimedia screens with projections above the full symphony with hand drawn sketches and photos of the locations where the movie was shot.  People I had never seen showed up for this (young people) and in costume.  It was an amazing event with lots of energy.  Granted this is not traditional symphony but I liken it to a gateway drug.  Get people in the building (which is amazing on it's own) and have them see that going to the "symphony" isn't as stuffy and inaccessible as you may believe.  I suggested they try to get Danny Elfman up here.  That would be amazing.  I think there has to be a way to instill interest and that might be in the form of using popular culture.

It is a good thing that they have made their packages very flexible and of varying sizes.  Clearly we don't have a lot of time or money to see tons of performances.  So we go with their smallest package of 3-4 performances for the entire 9 month season.  That's doable and keeps us connected.  This next season, I chose a non-traditional series that features world music so we can have a little break from the masters and hear some new/different stuff.  In the past, we've tried small packages featuring music of Mozart, Beethoven, Chamber Music, the Russians (Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich) and famous classical guitarists.  So there is variety and new stuff to hear/see from the symphony.  Perhaps they are not doing enough outreach to "unlikely" patrons or perhaps they're resistant to taking too many liberties with classic work.  I know there is a new musical director as of this year.  He's 36.  The outgoing guy is 64.  Perhaps we will see some changes after all...

Friday, April 22, 2011

Yeah, I said it...

Grey's Anatomy, which once held a place in my heart like no other show, has been on a downhill slide for several seasons.  It's no wonder with the constant reshuffling of cast members, the try-every-combination coupling and the lazy writing, resulting in ridiculous plot lines.  So when they announced a few weeks ago that they were going to do a musical episode (a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Scrubs) well color me jaded, but I was all "impress me."  They do have cast members who CAN sing but that doesn't mean the SHOULD.  Fans were tripping over themselves to gush how much they loved it but there was another camp who just as adamantly proclaimed it sucked.  I went up on ABC's Grey's Anatomy Writers blog and told them which group I sided with...
"This musical episode was silly, indulgent and unrealistic (even for Grey's). As a fan from the very beginning, I have hung on as this show has slowly lost it's way and became a joke. What once was smart, compelling and fun is now the shell of it's former self. Using gimmicks like this musical abomination is insulting and tired.

I had thought the arc that included the hospital shoot-up at the end of last season was a resurgence of the brilliance I saw in the second season but this current season has been one heaping disappointment piled upon another. How can you guys be proud of this?"
What does this mean for my future viewing?  I'm willing to go on record and say I'll stick until the end of the season.  They'll probably give Meredith a pregnancy/baby in the finale just to soothe die-hards like myself but I'm really not sure what else this show has to offer me anymore.  But if anybody has any new perspective on the show that might reboot my attitude, I'd love to hear it.

Financial Literacy Month continues...

While this is a little political in tone, the explanation is stark and eye-opening.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Stuff Sidney is up to...

Since we have a whole blog devoted to Sidney, I don't tend to write about her directly here very often.  But she just recently turned 19 months and she's really a pistol, as they say.  Funny, clever and definitely knows what she wants.
  • Tonight in the bath Sidney was able to count to ten (with a little coaching from Daddy).  It was delightful to watch and funny when she said five comes after two.  
  • In the last week or so, I've noticed that she interacts in an "engrossed" way with her stuffed animals and voicing what they are saying.  She can play with them for extended periods of time and is quite content.  And then for no apparent reason, she will vigorously rub monkey's face on her face.  It's quite surprising.
  • She gleefully strides about the house, shrieking and squealing like giving a proclamation that something awesome is about to happen.
  • She LOVES Caspar Babypants (kids musician) especially his song "Run Baby Run" which has lots of fun physical directives (running, singing, clapping, spinning, jumping).  Of course she requests the song everyday but expects her father and me to act it out with no participation by her whatsoever.  Yes, we will be your entertainment for this and every evening.
  • She is also getting more and more willful where sometimes if I have to take something away from her (because it's dirty, dangerous or just came out of the cat) there are instant tears and she will plop down on her butt where ever she is and wail like I just told her giant talking tacos who poop ice cream don't exist.  Oh wait... Occasionally a rational explanation will work to calm her but usually I have to brush up on my car salesman skills for a bait-and-switch routine.  "You can't have the creme brulee torch but you can have this cheap piece of plastic that lights up and makes noise.  It's just as cool--really."

    Friday, April 08, 2011

    Internet Hazards: Impersonation

    With a personal blog about family trips, all things baby, stuff the cat does, lists of NPR financial shows and general musings from a geeky domestic project manager (SAHM), I don't expect the world to be knocking down my door.  But imagine my surprise when I checked my Google Analytics the other night and saw a surge of traffic on March 31st & April 1st that was 100x my normal daily traffic volume.  At first I thought it was a mistake, then I looked for the content people were hitting.  It all seemed to concentrate on this picture.  (It is one of my favorite and few with a celebrity.)  

    As I traced the hits back to their source, a site called "Reddit"--a social news website owned by Conde Nast Digital on which users can post links to content on the Internet. Other users may then vote the posted links up or down, causing them to become more or less prominent on the reddit home page. (Wikipedia), I started to worry.

    Reading through various cascades of comments and links, I was able to piece together that someone had gone onto Reddit into a section called "Ask Me Anything" where famous people or people who have particular jobs/interests dialogue with others.  Someone claimed they had been an intern at the Daily Show and used my picture with Jon Stewart as proof of who they were.  But I guess the impersonator had cracks in his story and had earlier revealed himself to be a man as well as provided other weird information so the community began to suspect foul play.  People pretend to be people they aren't on the Internet all the time (so that's no surprise) but this guy was actually giving hopeful, interested folks completely misleading advice on how to get in at the Daily Show.  That is where the community drew the line and launched into deconstructing this person. 

    What was most odd to me personally was seeing strangers try and prove that this person was a fake by delving into my background through LinkedIn and my blog to see if anything tied me to the Daily Show professionally and if they could substantiate what they knew of him with what they found about me.  Some of the folks came up with interesting possibilities like the Daily Show perhaps allowing a stay-at-home-mom intern or me as an intern speaking through the account of a husband/boyfriend/male coworker because I would not be taken seriously as a woman on the internet.  I found it fascinating, creepy and exhilarating all at once.

    When I stumbled upon the discussion, it was already 5 days old so there were many users calling the "intern" a sham.  But I could see that there were still some lingering questions especially those who thought I might be speaking through a male counterpart.  So I posted my own statement which can be seen in the link below, along with the rest of the main string of conversation.  It devolves a little bit (so be warned) but as a study of Internet culture and behavior it is both inspiring to see a community seek the truth for itself and worrisome to see that it's so easy to lie with no recourse on the Internet.

    Sunday, April 03, 2011

    Happy Financial Literacy Month!

    In celebration of April as National Financial Literacy Month, I'll be posting some economic-themed over the coming weeks.  
    I wanted to start off with where I find much of my information and inspiration to learn about money and the economy. On the surface, those may be some of the most dreaded topics to talk/learn/write about but especially with all of the economic upheaval over the past few years, I’ve taken a keen interest. I compare having a general understanding of economics, investing and money management to knowing how to use a computer, having an annual health checkup or getting your car's oil changed regularly--it just needs to happen.  
    It's sometimes daunting with all that things one *should* know.  With all the chatter, advice, hysteria and Jim Cramer on CNBC--no wonder people feel overwhelmed.  But here are some resources I use to stay educated. They break it down, keep it applicable and make it interesting.

    Favorite Financial NPR Radio Shows:
    Marketplace (weekdays)
    Marketplace Money (weekend)
    Planet Money (podcasts a few times a week)
    Freakonomics Radio (bi-weekly podcast)

    The Elements of Investing
    Super Freakonomics

    Websites: Helps you budget & track expenses by tying into your bank, credit card & loan accounts.
    Google Finance Provides research on stocks, mutual funds, bonds with news from the companies

    Deal-based websites and programs:
    Groupon Do you love deals? Do you buy stuff or go out to restaurants or need a massage? Check out this marketing sensation if you have not already.
    Living Social Groupon has spawned LOTS of imitators but who can complain? The more deals the better. This is another good offering of the group shopping phenom.
    Offermatic The same promise of Groupon but without the redemption aspect. Plug in your bank info and it tracks your spending and if you spend a certain amount of money with a vendor they work with, they just issue you a rebate. Automatically. Very slick but still very new. I think we've received ~$40 back for not changing our spending habits at all. Can you tell I'm a fan?

    New take on investing/lending/borrowing:
    Lending Club Do you like the idea of 3rd world micro-lending but wondered if it could be done here in the US? We'll here's the answer to that. You get to play "bank" and put your own hard-earned money into the pot and choose people to loan it to. There are descriptions and analysis done on the folks applying for money. Sometimes it's for debt consolidation, sometimes it's for a wedding, sometimes it's for moving cross-country. You get a story, a credit rating and an interest rate determined on how risky the loan. The riskier it is, the higher the % rate. So you could score big with a return or you could have a default. With investment minimums of $25, you can spread the wealth around and see if you can loan better than the banks. It's like a game except it's real life.

    Other Financial Resources:
    Dave Ramsey Our friend Sean really likes this guy. He's all about eliminating debt.

    If anyone has any other financial information resources that they'd like to share, please post a comment.

    Saturday, April 02, 2011

    House Warmed (last weekend)

    Yes, I am a week late posting this. But it's taken that long to decompress. Not from the party so much as the weeks gearing up for the event. Ken and I did this last time where we set a date for a Housewarming party very soon after moving in so it would FORCE us to get projects done, boxes unpacked, things organized, art up on walls and decorating done. It's a deadline that gives us an undeniable mandate to get sh** accomplished and then consume a whole bunch of wine with our friends.  But the pressure gets intense because we leave things (especially art hanging) until the very end.

    Ken's mom was here for a week spanning the party (thank god) and she was able to referee help make suggestions.  Though I don't feel "decorating" is on my top ten best things I'm good at list, I do have good taste.  (This was in dispute a few nights before the party when we recreated the 'When Harry Met Sally' Wagon Wheel Coffee Table argument regarding good taste.  Substitute my WSU Cougar clock for the Wagon Wheel Table.)  The clock remains but it's in the far corner.  Winning!  I like sentimental art and possessions around even if they don't necessarily match or go with the house.  Ken appreciates "visual aesthetic" above all which does not consider sentimental value among an object's merit.  

    While my Depeche Mode tour posters, shark photographs and inspirational sayings written in calligraphy will never see the light of day again, we are in a spirit of compromise so the much maligned WSU Cougar clock and a sequined WSU logo that my friend Amy sewed for me are displayed.  And my Mulan movie poster is up--that was non-negotiable.

    So to the party, simply put, we have great family and great friends.  My Mom, Cindy, Dad and Ken's Mom were all here.  They helped with food, the baby, logistics, photography and drinking wine (well 3 of the 4 did that).  Our friends (some of whom we have not seen for awhile) filled this house with laughter and well wishes.  A surprise outcome of the event was discovering that we have a Toddler Thunderdome in our basement.  We moved all the toys down there and the 20+ kids who showed up had a blast.  We were thrilled to maintain an adult upstairs and a very kid-friendly area downstairs.  Bodes well for the future.

    We chose this Ranma together at an Asian Antiques shop 2 days before the party.  We were amazed at how perfect it fit the mantle area and the tenor of the house.  I think this is the first art we've "picked" because usually art just "happens" to us.
    Sidney was the belle of the ball and loved hanging out will all the kids who came to her house.  

    Despite my best efforts to minimize a "shoe farm" from springing up, I guess it can't be helped when you have no actual foyer and people need to take off their shoes.  We need a "shoe valet" or something.
    Note to self: more savory items next party and meat, definitely some meat.
    The Moms--all smiles
    Cheers to a great party!
    Thanks to Karen for lending her serving tower and trays.

    After party jubilation