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Tell Me About It

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With Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2003; 12:00 PM

Carolyn takes your questions and comments about her current advice column and any other questions you might have about the strange train we call life. Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column.

Appearing every Wednesday and Friday in The Washington Post Style section and in Sunday Source, Tell Me About It ? offers readers advice based on the experiences of someone who's been there -- really recently. Carolyn Hax is a 30-something repatriated New Englander with a liberal arts degree and a lot of opinions and that's about it, really, when you get right down to it. Oh, and the shoes. A lot of shoes.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Texas: A few months ago I was raped by someone I know. I'm taking care of it -- reported it to police, my health is secure, I was in therapy already for chronic depression.

I just started dating a guy a few weeks ago who I've known for years. I dig him a lot. We've already been, er, "intimate," which was wonderful because it was the first time I've felt any sexual stirrings since the incident. But he's not my boyfriend. We're just dating.

Does he need to know now? I hate burdening people with it when the knowledge isn't necessary.

Carolyn Hax: He doesn't "need" to know now, but if he cares about you he'll want to know eventually. You call it burdening someone with information, I call it trusting them to know you completely. If/When this dating graduates to more, I think you'll want to tell him, and it'll be right to. There's no true intimacy if you're withholding something like that.

I'm sorry; I'm sure it feels like just one more thing you have to get through. Sounds like you're handling it impressively, though. Beyond.

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Silver Spring, Md.: You often give advice to those who have been dumped after 1, 2, 3 year relationships (the dumpee), what I need is some advice as the dumper for how to deal with the guilt of staying with someone one year longer than I should have? I kept hoping for some Eureka moment or something to change, but it never did so I had to end it but I feel awful. Its like I can finally breathe again without all that weight on me, but now I can barely take one step forward because of the guilt of not having made that hard decision one year ago.

Carolyn Hax: "Should have," such an ugly phrase. For whatever reason, you needed a year to figure out what you had to do. So you took your year, and you did it. What was wrong, after all, with seeing if things might change? Had you broken up a year ago, you might be beating yourself up now for not giving the dumpee a chance to fix the problems. Unless you've done something selfish or mean-spirited, I don't think it's delusional or self-indulgent to tell yourself we all have our cosmic reasons for doing things the way we do them, even when we're not always sure what they are.

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Boston, Mass.: I think you were a little too nice to J. in your Wednesday column. It sounds like her boyfriend is just a relatively shy guy who has to deal with his girlfriend's overly critical, and dare I say, mean friends. I be willing to bet that if he were shown some kindness rather than thinly veiled hatred that he might be more comfortable and nicer in return. To J. -- you have no idea how people act behind closed doors, he is not abusive, so it is none of your business.

Carolyn Hax: Actually, I could have made the argument that he was abusive; putting her down in public and isolating her from her friends are two classic tipoffs. As it happens, I didn't, because that alarm bell ultimately didn't go off for me in this case--mostly because they apparently hang with his friends, which made the isolation sound more to me like social cowardice and/or hatred of her friends than a controlling nature. But, one more balance-tipping tipoff and I would have been off to the races. (If you want to know what the signs are, www.peaceathome.org has a great list in its Domestic Violence Handbook.)

Anyway. Maybe the friends were overcritical and mean. And, maybe this guy was a bona fide jerk. It's not like friends don't make a habit of bringing home doozies every once in a while, since my inbox is busting with I-can't-believe-the-jerk-s/he's-with tales. So, I tried to stay in the middle with a slight lean in favor of the numbers: one boyfriend, many incredulous friends.

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Miami, Fla.: I actually just told my boyfriend of almost five years about the fact that I was raped many years ago. He's not so good with words, and didn't say much. Just asked me if I was okay now, where did it happen, those type of questions. That night though he was very affectionate and cuddly with me. Neither of us has talked again about any of it. Should I just leave it as is? As in -- not bring up the subject again? I figured if he had anything to add to that conversation -- he will bring it up. Or should I? Your thoughts?

Carolyn Hax: If you're feeling strange that nothing else has been said, then bring it up. If you can genuinely accept his response as his way of showing love and concern, then leave it. The only reason I'm not urging the latter is that it's a huge deal for you, rightly, and if you have anything nagging at you, suppressing it'll hurt your relationship more than airing it.

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Falls Church, Va.: You know how every class has one kid who gets picked on more than everyone else? Well, one day, as a joke, a friend used my e-mail and, pretending to be me, she e-mailed that kid to ask for a date. When he e-mailed back to arrange the details, she told me what she did. I can stand being the butt of the joke, but I think this kid has suffered enough. Can you think of the most gracious way for me to respond to his e-mail without him ever having to know that this was yet another way someone was trying to pick on him?

Carolyn Hax: Can you dump this "friend"? Now? Please? I don't know about you, but it'll make every single person online today feel a whole lot better about what we've just read. And, she is gutter quality. This wasn't a joke on you, it was wanton cruelty to an innocent; it'll just be a matter of time before she turns this charm of hers on you. (I can just read the letter now: "I just found out my so-called best friend since grade school propositioned my fiance ...")

What to do? How about this. You respond by saying you actually didn't send the original e-mail, someone else was using your computer--but you'd still like to go ahead with the date if he's interested. I'd like to hear what others think about this, but to me it seems like the decent thing to do. IF you can make a genuine overture of friendship to this person and not treat him as a pity case. Otherwise, you just say you're sorry and that you didn't send the e-mail. As you said, the kid has suffered enough.

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For Miami, Fla.: Carolyn, I've done some counseling for boyfriends/husbands of rape victims. The fact that her boyfriend was MORE affectionate after finding out is a HUGELY positive sign. Sometimes, men find it difficult to be affectionate with their signifant others when they find out she's been raped. She may still want to talk to him about things, but she should at least know how positive his reaction was. And from what she said, he's a guy who speaks more through actions than words.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. Another one like this:

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For Miami, Fla.: What would you have him say?

He asked a few questions, showed his concern, and was extra cuddly that night.

Sounds like a keeper to me. Most men don't feel a need talk about things when everything has already been said.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks.

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Been like in Texas: I was raped over 10 years ago and never confided in any guy that I dated. About a year ago, I was surprised to find myself trusting the story with a male friend of mine. The trust that I had in him and his reaction was part of the reason that we started dating. (We're now engaged.)

Tell when you feel comfortable. If you never do then the relationship isn't solid.

Carolyn Hax: Another good one, thank you.

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Overwhelmed!!: Hi Carolyn... any advice on how to chill the crap out from work stress? It's Friday, I'm swamped with responsibility and feel my insides caving in with anxiety. I've written my list and working down it, but my anxiety has me scared to answer a phone call I might receive. Too much responsibility to make others in high positions understand... I guess I just feel the pressure to do well and maintain my credibility, but I'm only four years out of college. HELP. How do people deal with this part of growing up? My anxiety needs to know!

Overwhelmed and hope I win the lotto...

Carolyn Hax: You've got the right idea with the list--think small. Really small. If you've already got the list prioritized as well as possible, then all you can do is work your way through it. Also, don't be afraid to take breaks. You'll get more done in a rested 45 min than you will in a full freaked out hour. The other stuff--how impressively you do it all, how credible it makes you look, who says what when the phone rings--is all beside the point.

Besides, even your worst-case consequences won't mean a patootie a few years from now, and maybe even next week. That's the unique gift of anxiety; it blows up trivial things until they obscure what really matters. Keep that fact in mind, and you can keep trivia from getting too big.

Oh, and since you probably can't get anything done from under your desk, don't forget to breathe. From your diaphragm. Deep breath in, deep breath out. Everybody for whom it's also Friday could probably use this advice, yours truly includy.

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Arlington, Va.: My parents are very Catholic and don't like the idea of living with someone before marriage. I am living with someone and am not married. My boyfriend is somewhat irritated that we have to go through a big charade of living separately, and sometimes I can see why it would be annoying (not able to answer long-distance calls, etc.). I'm in my late 20s. Am I being silly for still caring what my parents think?

Carolyn Hax: I don't know, are you? Why do you care what I think?

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Asked out for a joke: I WAS that kid, asked out as a joke when I was in high school. Along with a million other petty jokes at my expense. Carolyn, you had exactly the right response. Most of the bad pranks melt into the background, but the kindnesses shown by real people along the way never have.

And dump the friend. Even if she's friendly to you now, she'll turn on you too eventually. She's low on morals if she thinks this is a "joke."

Carolyn Hax: I'm kinda choked up here. And I'm not sure why--angry at the people who suck, or touched by the ones who don't. Either way, thank you.


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Carolyn Hax: Two more thoguhts on this:

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E-mail Hoax: I dunno Carolyn. I mean, it's a nice thought to say you'd want to go through with the date anyways, but I can guarantee he'll see it for what it is -- a pity date -- and just be that much more pained by it. By all means, dump that horrible friend who did the joke, and even consider reaching out to the picked on kid in other ways, but I don't think going on the faux date is the best way of making him feel better.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks for weighing in. One more:

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Alexandria, Va.: I've been that picked-on kid. Don't let your friend get away with this. She is mean spirited and cruel. That wasn't a joke! That kid will remember this long after the incident passes. Do what you can to smooth it over -- even going out for an afternoon as friends. I think that you'll feel better for it. But be honest with the kid.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. If anything else comes in from another angle, I'll post that too.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn -- My husband's brother is kind of a high strung free spirit (I know, who would have ever guessed there WAS such a thing?). In any case, he works all hours of the day and night on things that interest him but that don't pay him anything -- and only takes paying work that won't interfere with those other interests. This means that he's always in a financial mess -- and his parents (in their late 70s and retired) are always bailing him out. While we've also given him money on occasion, we've also offered to pay for college (or trade school) tuition and/or counselling. He's not interested in either -- but we've made it clear its a standing offer.

His parents recently asked us to promise them that, when they're gone, we'll continue to "take care of" my brother-in-law. That got me to wondering whether our current approach isn't just sancimoneous. I mean, if we're willing to pay for college, why not just give him cash? So I guess my real question is whether its reasonable to offer help to someone you care about with strings attached.

Carolyn Hax: I think so. When you're the one offering the help, you get at least some input on what definition of "help" you'll be using. For example, you don't "help" a bottomed-out alcoholic by giving him beer money. You say the money is there to pay for rehab, or to help him get reestablished as soon as he gets himself clean.

However, people who attach power strings--say, parents who pay for college if Junior is a premed but not if s/he's an art major--deserve to be slapped.

When it's the choice to be a free-spirit, it's not quite so simple. I can see the argument for helping without strings; he is who he is and he's (arguably) not hurting anyone, and so if you love him--and love for him to be able to remain an irresponsible free spirit, or believe in his "interests" and want to support them, or otherwise wouldn't resent the money--then bail away.

But if you find yourself mildly to strongly cheesed that you're living something short of your perfect life, grinding away at a responsible paying job that isn't exactly what you'd call an "interest," just so he can live HIS perfect life, then attach all the strings you want. Or, don't promise to help. It's your money, your choice.

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Re: Overwhelmed: Carolyn, maybe this overworked person should also ask his superiors if it HAS to get done today. I'm always suprised when I ask, especially presenting the fact that there are more pressing tasks, how supervisors can be flexible too. Putting the ball back in their court helps dampen the "get it done" Friday COB mentality.

Carolyn Hax: Worth a try, thanks.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Re: Arlington, VA

She DOESN'T care what her parents think -- she just doesn't want to deal with whatever s--t they will be handing out when they find out the truth.

Been there, done that. Admit that much first, and then figure out what you want to do.

Carolyn Hax: True true.

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P.S. To the girl with the cruel "friend": Don't give people your passwords or allow them access to your e-mail, even "friends." Now you know why.

Carolyn Hax: ... or walk away from the terminal while you're still signed on.

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College Park, Md.: You know I am Catholic and I don't know what "Very Catholic" means, even though I read it here all the time. But that doesn't matter.

People like this drive me crazy. Have some balls, live your life! And respect your parents enough to be honest with them. They might be disappointed, but if they love you and if you really believe what you are doing is right, they should respect your decision. If I was your boyfriend I'd dump you for your lack of a spine!

Carolyn Hax: Yeah! And, if they don't respect your decision and they shun you, at least it's an honest transaction. If their approval is really that all-fired important, don't shack up.


My read on V.C. is that they follow the lifestyle edicts to the letter, whereas many Catholics (and Mostly Catholics, and Somewhat Catholics, and Occasionally Catholics but Oftentimes Heathens) don't.

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Frederick, Md.: Do you know... do you know what "the family" means when they insinuate that my 14-year-old daughter's morality will be destroyed if I let the father of my one-year-old daughter move in? They act like it's a crime to consider it, but I can't get any specifics on what the problem is. We've never had a father figure in the house and I think it would be good for both kids.

Carolyn Hax: They want you to marry him?

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Long but important question: Hi Carolyn,

What are the best things I can do to help a friend want to follow through on getting help she knows she needs (and has often said she wants)?

She's my best friend, actually, and has been for years. She's been caught in a downward spiral for a long time now. She dropped out of a great university a year ago; she's so bright, but very depressed and unmotivated. She now goes to a local community college, which of course is better than nothing, but she rarely goes to class and certainly doesn't take it seriously. What she does is sleep all day and then stay up all night drinking, smoking pot, and doing coke. She has a boyfriend, and I'm hesistant to judge her relationship because he treats her very well, but he lives the same lifestyle and is therefore, frankly, not helping at all.

When she's drunk, she'll talk about wanting help (and that's the only time she'll ever, ever open up), but she never follows through. She lives with her parents, who are complete doormats, and they've tried to get her to go to counseling but have accepted that they can't "make" her. Personally, I've admonished to her that therapy has been the best thing that ever happened to me, as I have had problems of my own, but that's not enough for her either.

She's one of those people who always tries to have a front up, never acts like anything affects her emotionally, and doesn't care about the way she treats herself physically and emotionally. She's drunkenly admitted to starving herself regularly and recently had a bout with mono which didn't stop her from continuing living the way she does.

I know that, ultimately, it needs to be her who puts her foot down and says enough is enough, but as you can imagine it is very painful for those of us who care about her to know that deep down she is hurting from something and doesn't consider it important enough to change NOW. I don't want her to waste away to nothing. I want her to live the life she is capable of living and to feel truly happy and safe. Is there anything more I can do, other than beg and beg she get help? Thank you.

Carolyn Hax: Not really, unless you can rally her parents and the boyfriend to stop giving her tacit permission to kill herself. Even then, whether to get help or not'll still be her decision, but it'll be harder for her not to make it if her favorite sources of coke, support and comfort are no longer available to her.

Even if you get nowhere, the fact that you're consistently giving her the I CARE I CARE message is going to count for something. If you could attach a phone number for a therapist to that message, maybe it'll improve the chances that she'll actually reach for it someday.


"I'm Not a Doctor But ..." footnote: Any chance of an undiagnosed mental illness here? She's the right age for one to have recently emerged, and raging self-medication is often part of that, and maybe you'll have better luck getting her to a "doctor" for her "health" than a shrink for her screwups.

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Washington, D.C.: Yesterday I found my 17-year-old son's weblog. It was under an alias, but I know his screen name. I was shocked to see explicit sexual language. I was also shocked to find out he is gay. Of course I can't talk to him about what I found, but I can't look at him the same way any more. (yesterday he asked me why I was looking at him that way) The language means he's not my innocent boy any more. And I'm mad that he didn't tell me, but seems to be out to all his friends. What next?

Carolyn Hax: This is going to sound insensitive because it's typed instead of spoken, but if you were really expecting an innocent boy, 17 is a little old. Regardless of what he's actually done, the language has been around for years. I know, he's your kid, hard to think of him that way, but mommy-curdling words have likely been flying around since he was 12, 13, 14. Maybe before that, even.

That warm reassurance aside (ahem), what matters here is that you now know he is gay. What next is: Love. Love him just as he is. Love him, love him. And, look at him. He's still your son, and still everything else you've always known, always felt and always thought about him.

He doesn't have to know you know (though if his blog is public, I can't see why your finding it has to stay secret). What he does need is a mother who accepts him fully as-is. Instead of being mad, just make sure you're the mom he can trust enough to tell. If you are, he will.

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El Segundo, Calif.: "...maybe you'll have better luck getting her to a "doctor" for her "health" than a shrink for her screwups."

Ugh. Carolyn, this kind of off-the-cuff comment perpetuates the stigma of seeking treatment for mental illness with a psychiatrist.

A psychiatrist is a MEDICAL DOCTOR trained in the treatment of afflictions of the brain, which is an organ like any other. If you went to see a cardiologist for treatment of a heart ailment, would that indicate that you were "screwing up" or failing in some way? Would seeing a nephrologist (kidney specialist) signify something bad? How 'bout an endocrinologist?

There should be no more stigma or shame about seeing a psychologist than seeing any other medical specialist. And you, as a first-line-of-help provider, could help enormously by enlightening people in this regard.

Carolyn Hax: I know, I know--SHE'S the one who's resisting the therapy for appearance reasons. Granted, I put the quotation marks in the wrong place, but aren't I consistent enough with your exact message to have earned a pass?

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Arlington, Va.: Dear Carolyn, want to go on a date with me?

Carolyn Hax: You know, I was asked out as a joke once too. 8th grade. A real banner moment of my youth.

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e-mail fiasco: Go out with the kid. Give dorks a chance!; I'm one, and my beautiful wife (a popular kid in high school) loved me enough to tie the knot. She loves that I'm sensitive, a side effect of those harrassers in my youth.

Carolyn Hax: And while you're at it, give sporks a chance, too. Go -orks!

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Seattle: Why do folks here never try to empathize with parents like the VC's?

To whit: Basically, when you do something like move in with your SO before marriage, you're saying that you have rejected the values that your parents spent a lot of time, emotion and money over the previous 20 years to instill in you. And guess what -- most of the time, they don't try to instill those values because they want you oppressed; rather it's because their own life experiences have shown them that those values have helped them lead happier lives than the alternative.

That said, if I were them, I'd be more disappointed by learning my kid lied to me than about them choosing their own way.

Respect them enough to be honest with them; but don't resent them for not loving your decision.

Carolyn Hax: Ehhhh ... close, but not quite. No, you don't resent them for not loving your decision, and the fact that they see these things they taught you as important shouldn't be greeted as a surprise. But you can resent them for wanting to continue enforcing their values after you've grown old enough to choose for yourself and assert your own. And you can resent the fact that they're judging your worth based on what you believe are logistics insetad of whether you're a good, hardworking, taxpaying, honest, compassionate human being in a loving relationship with another good human being.

I'm all for the respect, but it's got to go both ways. Even if it's just to respect each other's right to make these choices without guilt, outside interference, theatrical sighing or eye-rolling.

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Why not come out to mom?: To the mom who found out her kid is gay and is mad that he hasn't told her yet even though he's out to all his friends, she should rest assured that the parents are usually the last to know. My parents certainly were, because I was afraid they were going to freak out. Which they did. So if this mom approaches her son in a loving, accepting way, I think his fears will be allayed and that they will have a better relationship.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks, well said.

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Hoax Dates: from all of the posts here I'm beginning to suspect that being asked out on a fake date is entirely more common than most think. I now feel slightly better about my junior high years

Carolyn Hax: Yeah, when they're safely 400 years in the past. (Speaking for myself of course.)

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Go-orks: A fine sentiment unless you're a hobbit. har har.

washingtonpost.com: Well, but those would be "orcs" -- a very fine distinction.

Carolyn Hax: Glad somebody reads books around here. (Not speaking for myself of course.)

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Give him a chance!;: I would!; I don't care if it's generalizing, but the jocks/meatheads are terrible in bed. ALWAYS.

Carolyn Hax: I can't believe I'm posting this.

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Old Town: I was one of the most pouplar guys in my high school and I dated the hottest chick. She actually left me for a nerd. Funny, now (13 years later) we are each married to other people.

Carolyn Hax: So did you marry a nerd? We have to know. And if you're about to say "no" by reflex, ask her if she ever got asked out as a joke.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Dear Carolyn,

What do you do when your boyfriend of three years still doesn't want to introduce you to his parents? He blames cultural differences. (He's Asian, apparently in his culture they don't do the meet and greet until there's an engagement.) But I feel like I can't make a true assessment on our long-term potential -- i.e. marriage -- until I know his family. There's a whole undiscovered side to him.

And yeah, he's known my family from the beginning.

Carolyn Hax: Actually, you know quite a bit about his family. Very strict other-culture adherents. Are you up for that? Maybe they'll be open to accepting you, maybe they won't, and that'll make a huge difference (ask him what his hunch on that one is--after three! years!, he big-time owes you an answer).

It'll also make a difference how your BF feels about your getting accepted or not. Is he going to support you, shield you when and if necessary, stand behind his own decision to mate outside the culture? That's another answer he owes you. You also deserve to know whether he has any intention--hypothetically of course--of marrying outside his culture. Maybe your relationship will get to that point, maybe it won't, and assure him the question doesn't constitute pressure to get hitched. It's simply an issue of fact--how does he feel about the subject? This "undiscovered" side is sitting right there in front of you, unexplored (or unfaced) by you both.

And even if you've had all these conversations and meeting the potential in-laws is merely the last bit of info you need, you still have quite a bit to work with. You're still talking about a lifetime of making an effort to understand, respect, adapt. Especially if you have kids.

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Chicago, Ill.: Uh, I hate to be a dork, but what's a spork? I see constant reference to it... Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: A spoon with notches at the tip. It's a spoon, it's a fork!

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Maryland Nerd Spouse: I married a nerd. But, now he works amongst other nerds. He is well-respected, well paid, and the best dressed nerd there.

Does that mean I'm married to King of the Nerds? Or maybe just a Duke.

Carolyn Hax: I believe the King of the Nerds runs a certain well-known software company. But be grateful yours dresses well.

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But I've lived my whole life this way!;: If I was never asked out as a joke, does this mean I'm not the nerd I thought I was?!;?!;

Carolyn Hax: Sorry. But I'm sure your grades were excellent.

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Re: gay son: When I was in high school my mother told me (after reading an article about homosexual suicide rates) "If you are gay, I'll love you just the same." I am and was, but didn't feel like I was ready to tell her. It made me feel very secure that when I did open up to her... it'd be OK.

Just think if you keep yourself vocal as not judging gay people, and that you're open to a dialogue... (assuming that hopefully it is your opinion)

Oh, and yeah, parents are always the last to know. Mainly because you're the ones they worry the most about.

Carolyn Hax: If I were that mom, I'd be reassured. Thanks.

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Downward spiraling friend: Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous would be a start. Offer to go to a meeting with her. We are blessed in the Metro area to have meetings going on all the time... literally. Some are at midnight, even.

Carolyn Hax: Appropriate timing, sounds like. Thanks for the post.

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Washington, D.C.: Carolyn --

Maybe it's just been too damn long since I've been in the dating scene, but here's my concern...

I'm getting to know a guy with whom I share some specific interests. He seems only able to talk about these shared interests or about things directly related to himself. In other words, he doesn't seem especially interested in learning about different sides of me. (Of which there are many, I like to think.)

I know this phrasing will make you squeamish, but is this typical of guys getting to know someone new? Or a sign to run? I find the more he talks about himself, the less attractive I find him, but I worry I'm not giving him enough of a chance.

We're in our 30s, BTW, if that makes any difference...

Carolyn Hax: The -only- excuse I can make for someone's not showing an interest in you is that some shy people/introverts can get so caught up in presenting themselves properly (true introvert, it's a real effort) that they can forget something as basic as asking a question. But if this is the case, it should lessen as the fears and defenses drop. If it persists beyond a couple of dates, find him as unnattractive as you'd like and bail.

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To the "Popular" Dumpee: Maybe the reason why the popular jock got dumped by his girlfriend in high school is illustrated by the fact that he is still referring to her as a "hot chick" 13 years later.

Carolyn Hax: Or he's lousy in bed.

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Carolyn Hax: Can't linger today--nap time sounds like it's getting hairy. Thanks everybody, happy weekend, and type to you next Fri.

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