Personalized books aren’t just for the little guys anymore

December 21, 2011 – Here’s a novel idea.

If you’re wondering what to get that special couple in your life, why not have a romance novel crafted and personalized just for them.

You can do it easily at Yournovel.com by answering a series of 26 online questions about the couple. Although it might require some pretty tricky investigation on your part to find out her pet name and her favorite color of lingerie, many of the questions are basic, such as their names, the city they live in, and what type of car he drives.

Customers can also choose other features, such as location and storyline, they can put the couple’s photo on the front cover, and also decide whether it will be a mild or wild ride. While the site claims the wild version may be a little racy, they don’t handle requests for x-rated material, even though it is often requested.

Yournovel.com was created 20 years ago by Kathy Newbern-Fletcher and her husband, J.S. Fletcher. The husband and wife writing team, who also moonlight as travel writers, cooked up all of the 20 storylines available, and say their novels also make terrific wedding gifts.

I don’t quite buy into the wedding gift idea unless you know the couple really well and plan to also give them a nice gift along with it, but it could make an awfully fun holiday gift. And think of it this way – a couple’s gift makes it easier because it helps you cross two gifts off your list at once. It won’t save you much cash – the personalized books are pricey, ranging between $40 and $100 – but it will save you precious time. It also might be an interesting gift option for your own sweetie pie.

Of course, it’s too late to consider a personalized novel this year, but there’s always 2012 to look forward to. And Valentine’s Day is just around the corner.

The changing faces of today’s home buyers

December 20, 2011 – Even though the sales of new and existing homes have decreased over the past few years due to a sluggish real estate market and a weak economy – in 2003, we saw 7.5 million homes sold, and in 2010, only 5 million sold – certain patterns emerge.

Statistics show that today’s homebuyers are older, the median age increasing during the last 10 years from 34 to 39. They also show that although most buyers are married couples, single-person households, especially single women, are a growing part of the equation.

Senior citizens comprise another demographic group of homebuyers. They are moving out of their empty nest and into smaller, more practical housing.

Extended families make up a new batch of homebuyers. Senior citizens living with their children, young adults moving back with their parents, and divorced singles with children are marrying each other and combining families.

Finally, minorities and immigrants are the fastest growing home-buying segment in the United States. In fact, Hispanic and Asian populations are forming households more rapidly than any other ethnic groups and will be buying a large number of houses from now well into the 21st century. A steadily increasing number of African-Americans are also buying their own homes.

During the last decade, nearly 40 million people immigrated to the U.S., compared with an average of 3.3 million a decade in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Will those immigrants have a great impact on the real estate market? Many analysts believe they will, and plenty of mortgage lenders have the insight to see the  business opportunity ahead, and  have created programs for immigrants to help. See your mortgage lender for more details.

Appearing younger can help in the workplace

December 19, 2011 – There’s talk of officially increasing the retirement age to 72, as people are working longer and longer these days whether they want to or need to for financial security. But that may not be such a bad thing since studies show that working longer is good for your physical and mental health.

So, you’d think that all of the experience in motion would be a good thing for the workplace, right? Unfortunately, our youth-obsessed society doesn’t respect the old adage with age comes wisdom. And I’m not even referring to ripe old age. Once you’re over 40, especially at work, it’s hard not to be perceived as being over the hill.

So how do you compete?

Here’s some humorous and yet sound advice from the subject matter experts at theladders.com that can help. These tips won’t erase the years, but they can take 10 or so years off your perceived age, which is a plus at work or when going on a job interview.

Who made the most impact on our world this year?

December 18, 2011 – Barbara Walters names her most fascinating people of the year, Katie Couric copied her style to talk about the most influential events of this year, and then there is Time magazine’s Person of the Year.

It’s the time of year for those “best of” lists, folks, and my favorite list maker, ranker.com is covering everything just like the top journalists and publications. You can’t escape it. Not even here.

But there is one major difference in Ranker.com’s Most Influential People of 2011 – the Ranker community — which means you and me —  selects the people on the list so we have the final say on what’s what.

That actually makes all of us among the most influential, doesn’t it? Well, at least it makes it more interesting.

Flash, sparkle and holiday cheer: Chris Isaak turns it way up for Philly area fans

December 17, 2011 – California crooner Chris Isaak performed at the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Cherry Hill last night, and I was one of the lucky audience members who witnessed his stellar performance.

The small auditorium held an audience of only 1,000, and boasted acoustics so perfect and pure, Isaak mentioned it several times. He performed with his six-piece band, Silvertone, and together they’ve been on the road making music for 26 years.

Not only were we treated to a few holiday classics in the first half of the show – Isaak is a self-proclaimed lover of Christmas music – but he also shared his collection of hits including “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing” and “Wicked Game”. The second half of the show paid homage to his just released album, “Beyond the Sun,” a tribute to legendary Memphis recording artists Roy Orbison, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash.

Isaak is as sexy and he is silly as he delivered tunes such as “Ring of Fire”, “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You”, and “Pretty Woman”. It was a wildly entertaining and dazzling live performance complete with a mechanical Santa with gyrating hips, and plenty of flash courtesy of a smoking piano that exploded during his performance of “Great Balls of Fire.”

“We are not shoe-gazers,” the crooner said in reference their style. “We don’t show up late in a T-shirt; we dress like we’ve raided Liberace’s closet and we give it our all.” The band was dressed modestly compared to Isaak, who donned a red suit with plenty of silver sequence, and then a suit made of mirrors for his encore performance.

Isaak admits his latest recording is truly a labor of love and hopes the record opens up musical horizons for people who may not be familiar with Memphis-style music. Obviously, he feels the same about performing live. He loved every moment on stage; it showed through his amazing vocals that sound exactly like his recordings, and his witty and charming stage presence that kept the audience laughing and entertained for nearly 100 minutes.

A hearty two thumbs up from me, and a promise that I’d go see him anytime he makes it this way.

The day the music died

December 16, 2011 – It was four years ago today, on a cold Sunday morning in Maine, that one of my favorite singer/songwriters passed away.

I wasn’t born yet that original “day the music died” in February 1959 when Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper perished in the plane crash. For me those sad American Pie moments came when John Lennon and George Harrison passed, and most recently on December 16, 1997, when Dan Fogelberg left us.

And yes, all of those moments made me shiver. (How ironic that today is also the 40th anniversary of the single “American Pie”. Don McLean released the song on December 16, 1971.)

Fogelberg hit the music scene in Nashville in 1972 with the classic album “Home Free.” He went on to record 22 albums in all, and reached the Top 10 Billboard Charts with hits like “Longer”, “Leader of the Band”, “Hard to Say”, “Run for the Roses”, and “”Same Old Lang Syne”. While these are great songs, many of his best and my personal favorites were the deeper cuts on his albums.

His fans keep his legacy alive by listening to his wonderful music, and the Fogelberg Foundation of Peoria, the city in Illinois where he was born, also honors the memory of their native son with this tribute.

There are many of us “Fogelheads” who miss you, Dan, and we’re glad your music lives on. It’s hard to select a favorite from your vast collection, but this is one of them.

Christmas karma

December 15, 2011 – Do you believe in Christmas magic? The kind of sappy, miracle-inducing stuff they show over and over again in those made for TV Christmas movies?

I’ll admit to watching my fair share no matter how corny they are, and according to Nielson ratings, I’m not alone. They’re quite popular with viewers across the country, and because they are so popular, channels like Hallmark, ABC Family and Lifetime order more and more new holiday movies to be made each year.

What do you think that says about human nature? Does that mean we’re optimists hoping for something magical in our own lives, or is it simply an easy way to pass a couple of hours on a Wednesday night? One thing is for sure – good always wins over bad in those movies. Unfortunately that doesn’t always happen in real life, but watching makes me feel hopeful.

I don’t mean to appear maudlin or anything. Most of us have hectic, less than perfect lives and could use a little magic. I can honestly say I don’t know anyone who’s been visited on Christmas Eve by three ghosts in hopes of teaching him or her a lesson to enjoy life a little more – although I do know a few who could benefit.

Which brings me to my point – do you think having a Merry Christmas is all about attitude? Is it a state of mind we can control? Sure, it’s much easier to have a Merry Christmas if all is right in your world, but I know people who have major problems and always seem grounded and happy. They have the right attitude. I also know others who appear to have everything, yet they are never happy.

I’m generally a pretty optimistic person, but I have my moments where negativity consumes me, and that’s happened to me more this year than ever before. Granted this year has been tougher than most, but I know I’m also very fortunate. I want to learn to remember that without having to be reminded by someone else’s misfortune. Therefore, I plan to make the best of this Christmas and try not to get caught up in all of the stress and drama. I haven’t even started shopping, yet I’m determined to feel that Christmas magic in its truest form.

Last week, I posted my favorite non-traditional Christmas songs. One of them was I Believe in Father Christmas by Emerson Lake and Palmer. Musically there isn’t a lovelier tune out there. But if you listen to the words, they reflect in a far more artistic way exactly what I’m trying to say here. My heart actually breaks when Greg Lake sings “they promised snow at Christmas, but it instead it just kept on raining.” Those are powerful words.

I believe the song is trying to signify how Christmas has lost its true meaning along the way. Which is why the last line of the song is the most powerful of all: “Hallelujah noel be it heaven or hell, the Christmas you get you deserve.”

Ouch! As my father might put it, “That is what you call your Christmas karma.”

Here’s to wishing we experience all the joy, peace and magic the Christmas season has to offer.

Re-reading is fundamental too

December 14, 2011 – Looking for a good book to curl up with on a cold winter night? Perhaps there’s one closer than you think – right on your bookshelf.

For some people re-reading their favorite books is a pleasure, but it never appealed to me. It’s one thing to watch a movie again and again, or even one of your favorite TV shows now that DVDs and DVRs make it so convenient. But I could never grasp the desire to re-read something I’ve already finished, mainly because it’s too much work.

What makes people re-read books I always wondered? Could it be the quality of the writing? The memories the story evokes? Or just the pure love of reading? I never understood it until I decided to re-read an old novel by Helen Van Slyke recently and after loving every minute of it, my new rule is I can re-read books if I can’t remember them.

I first read Van Slyke’s “No Love Lost” in the late 70s. After discovering it stacked away on a bookshelf, and with nothing else available, I picked it up with a smile on my face. I remember loving the book, but I had no recollection of what it was about, even after reading the little teaser inside. So I headed off to bed and discovered a brand new story awaiting me, one that didn’t have me running out to the bookstore in the cold to buy.

After finishing it, I ran back to that same shelf and dusted off a few more books from that era. I kept them, I suppose because they were hard covers, back from the day when I used to belong to several book of the month clubs. Not only was the reader in me wildly entertained over the next several weeks because of the seemingly new stories awaiting me every night, but also I re-discovered that books written during the 70s and 80s were filled with intrigue, and I loved them.

It was the era of the family saga, and authors who wrote those engrossing tales included Belva Plain, Barbara Taylor Bradford, Shirley Conran, and Judith Krantz to name a few, and perhaps the master of them all, Sidney Sheldon. They created stories with richly woven characters that you loved or hated, and although quite soapy at times, each chapter ended with a cliffhanger that kept you glued from the beginning to the end. Those stories were also reminiscent of what we watched on television back then when we followed the family sagas on Dynasty, Dallas and Knots Landing.

Sure, I love many books written by today’s authors; they’re usually modern and funny – think Bridget Jones’ Diary or any novel by Jennifer Weiner, but right now they seem to pale in comparison of the sentimental family sagas that spanned the generations back in the day.

Presently, I’m re-reading Sidney Sheldon’s “Bloodline” and I couldn’t be happier.

Thank heavens for my short memory. It’s saving me a bundle.

Having trouble making mortgage payments? You may be able to avoid foreclosure if you act appropriately.

December 13, 2011 — Foreclosure has always been a dirty word, but with the recent financial crisis the word quickly became a part of everyone’s vocabulary. Practically everyone knows of someone, whether it’s a friend, family member or neighbor, who has had to deal with the possibility or reality of foreclosure.

However, occasionally homeowners may face events beyond their control that can make it difficult to maintain mortgage payments, even in the best economies. This can be a stressful experience and most mortgage companies are willing to help homeowners save their home.

Listed below are a few of the alternatives that may be able to help you avoid foreclosure. Your mortgage representative will advise you the options are available to you and help you concentrate on those. Please note, however, that the default process usually continues until one of these alternatives is approved, and may continue until the foreclosure sale.

Forbearance/Repayment Plan
A forbearance plan allows you to make regular full payments plus a portion of the delinquency each month over a period of time. To qualify, you typically must furnish financial information indicating that you are able to support the new repayment amount.

Modification
This option is used when you have experienced a permanent reduction in income or an increase in expenses which was beyond your control. It should be emphasized this is done only in hardship situations and is not available as an alternative to standard refinancing. In some circumstances, it may be possible to capitalize (add into the unpaid principal balance) some or all the past due payments and/or extend the original maturity date.

Partial Claim (for FHA loans only)
If you have a FHA loan, you may qualify for a partial claim, which is a workout program where HUD loans your mortgage lender funds to bring the mortgage current. The customer must execute a promissory note and a lien will be placed on their property until the promissory note is paid in full. The promissory note will be due if the property is sold or the mortgage matures.

Pre-foreclosure Sale (also called a presale or short sale)
Selling your home is one solution when you are having long-term difficulty making your payments. Unfortunately, property values can decline causing you to pay the difference between the proceeds and what is owed on the loan. However, the investor and insurer may accept less than the total amount owed rather than completing a foreclosure.

Deed in Lieu of Foreclosure (DIL)
If all available options have failed, a DIL is the final alternative. Although you transfer the title of your home to the investor, there are advantages over foreclosure. First, the investor and insurer waive any right to a deficiency judgement against you if they suffer a loss reselling the property. Second, you won’t have a completed foreclosure on your record, increasing your opportunity to purchase a home in the future. Generally the investor and insurer will consider a DIL if the default was beyond your control and you have been cooperative in seeking alternatives. You must first have tried to sell the property for 90 days at fair market value.

The last step
Foreclosure is the last step your mortgage company wants for your home, and they will most likely do everything possible to avoid it. If you are experiencing difficulty making your mortgage payments, the best step you can make is to call your mortgage representative now.

The power of being linked in

December 12, 2011 – You’ve probably heard of linkedin.com, the social networking site that keeps you connected to business colleagues, friends and co-workers. The concept is that by associating with friends or colleagues (known as inking in), you are also associating with their friends and colleagues, widening your net for possible job opportunities.

If you’re interested in working for a particular company, for example, all you need to do is search that company and see if you have any connections. If you don’t have first connections, which are those you know directly, it’s more than likely that you have a second or third connection to that company, meaning you know someone who is linked to a person who works there, which gives you the inside track or at least a starting point.

What you may not know, however, is that even if you’re not looking for work, linkedin.com comes in handy with your current position. By joining various groups associated with your position, you can keep up-to-date with what’s going on in that particular position or industry, and gain helpful tips on projects or tasks you need to accomplish.

I belong to several communications groups, such as the International Association of Business Communicators, and various freelance writing groups and internal communications groups because we have similar interests and work in similar career paths.

When I started my new job in October, I was put in charge of the company’s intranet site, which I had managed in previous positions. But this time it was built with SharePoint, which is new to me. I logged on to linkedin.com and looked for SharePoint support groups, found one that dealt with using SharePoint as an intranet platform and joined. Not only did I find useful information about building intranet sites through the group’s discussions, but I also found where to go for free online training and help with questions I might have if I run into a stumbling block.

These groups are perfect sounding boards for any project you may be working on, and the comments and responses are usually filled with helpful commentary and ideas to help you move it along. It’s great to get feedback and look for how others have solved problems you may be experiencing now.

As you can see, linkedin.com is a great networking tool all the way around.