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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 17, 2006; 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.

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Guiltsville, USA: My boyfriend is going abroad for a week-long work conference. I'm secretly thrilled to have the chance to be completely independent all week long, without another person to consult about my plans, whereabouts, how my day went, my dinner preferences, who's turn it is to empty the dishwasher, etc.

We have a great relationship, are the best of friends, allow each other enough space when it's needed, have our own groups of friends (and mutual ones, too), and 99 percent of the time, I am extremely happy.

So why am I looking forward to his absence so much?

Carolyn Hax: Because you're normal. Just because you're happy with him around doesn't mean there's nothing good about not having him around. It's come up countless times in this space that being single and being coupled both have advantages the other can't offer. What you're about to get are some of the advantages of being single without interruption to most of the coupled advantages--definitely worth celebrating with a chicken dance around the living room and an ice cream dinner.

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Boston, Mass.: Carolyn,

I just got a new job. My dream job. I love the work, the industry, the people, the pay... I love pretty much everything, including the fact that it's such a huge, prestigious firm. But I hate that I LOVE that I now work for a big name company.

I've always been one of those mediocre people in life, always pretty average at everything I've done. Nothing spectacular has ever really stood out about me, and now that it does, I want to shout it from the rooftops! And the thing is, it's NOT just because I can finally name drop. It's also because I truly am proud of myself for going for this job and getting it, and now that I'm here, truly loving and excelling at it.

Is it really so bad to be proud when I tell people where I work? (It's always promted, I don't brag.) I feel like if I were a man, it would be totally acceptable to gloat and swagger and break out cigars... but as a woman, I've been conditioned to think that modesty is always the best way to go. And also, part of me thinks it's shallow to take such pleasure from a superficial attribute that really, has nothing to do with me as a person. Help!

Carolyn Hax: Someone else in need of a living-room chicken dance and a pint of vanilla Swiss almond. It's OKAY. If you recognize when you're being shallow, you're not being shallow. At least not irredeemably so. Enjoy. And, congratulations.

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Somewhere, USA: Hi Carolyn,

I'd like your opinion. Do you think that it is wise for me to buy a home with my boyfriend if we have talked about getting married in the future but are not yet engaged? Should I wait until he proposes?

Thanks for your advice.

Carolyn Hax: Why are you waiting for him to propose?

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Question about chat: Online only... Hi, I was reading the chat from two weeks ago about contact from exes. I've been having the same problem, only the contact has really crossed the "just friends" line, which is how it started. First it was flirting then naked pics. He initiated all of it. Honestly I enjoy it. But I'm afraid we're enjoying the flirtation for different reasons. I'm still in love with him... he broke my heart and I never stopped loving him. I want to rekindle our relationship, but how do I know that is what he wants? I'm afraid things will progress to actual physical contact and that I will get hurt again. But i don't want to scare him away by even mentioning us getting back together. I think it will be more likely to happen if it just sort of progresses that way. When we broke up, he said he didn't want to be in a relationship/wasn't ready to love anyone. Then he got involved with someone else. I can't imagine he would be so selfish as to just be using me. But I'm starting to think it's a possibility. What do you think I should do?

Carolyn Hax: "Do you mean this, or is this just flirting? Because my feelings haven't changed and this can't go on much longer without my getting my hopes up." You have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, and nothing to fear except rejection--which, if it's coming, is going to come no matter what you do. That's why you don't have to worry about scaring him off; if you do, you'll have done yourself an enormous favor by doing it now.

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Washington, D.C.: How's your bracket looking?

Carolyn Hax: Like I'm trying to shoot the moon.

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Carolyn Hax: I had Xavier and I was SO CLOSE.

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Cubeville: Happy St. Patrick's Day!

I have meeting in 30 minutes I should be prepping for, but I'm visiting your chat instead. Am I displaying a healthy work/life balance, or a bad case of the Friday funks?

Carolyn Hax: If you can't be prepared, the next best thing is to be loose.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Carolyn,

I'm getting ready to give birth to our first baby with in two weeks and I'm worried that my mother-in-law is going to want to be in the delivery room. Shouldn't this be something my husband talks to her about. He does understand that's it's my personal decision but he thinks I should tell her. Ya, I'm the type that hates confrontations...

Ready to pop in VA

Carolyn Hax: You don't need the stress right now. Tell him you're the one who has to go into labor, and the least he can do is shoulder this particular pain on your behalf. That's one approach.

The other is to make it clear to your caregivers--obstetrician, nurse midwife, obstetric nurses, whoever's gathering information on your birth plans--that X and Y are welcome in the delivery room but no one else is. Let them act as bouncers.

That's an easier approach, but you and your husband are going to have to work out such divisions of labor (ar ar) eventually, in-law and otherwise, and the longer you wait the uglier it will get. "I'd like you to do this essentially minor thing, because for me it would be major," followed by, "No can do," is not an exchange you want to be having right before you walk into the baby maelstrom. Sort this out.

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Oxford, Miss.: A techincal question: Why do people say "online only" sometimes? Do you really take questions from chats and answer them in the print version?

Carolyn Hax: Yes.

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Weddingland: Last weekend I went to my very first wedding, and I was shocked to see that the man who caught the garter put it on the leg of the woman who caught the bouquet. I was informed that this was a common tradition. If I had known, I never would have attempted to catch the bouquet! I guess most people find it acceptable since it's apparently a common tradition, but I simply would not be comfortable having some strange man put a garter on my leg in front of a bunch of people.

So suppose next time I'm at a wedding, despite my best attempts to avoid it, the bouquet lands in my arms. How could I gracefully get out of doing the garter thing?

Carolyn Hax: 1. I've found it's impossible to catch a bouquet with a drink in each hand.

2. "Most" people may find it acceptable, but the rest of us have dropped this "tradition" from the program. I haven't seen it in at least a decade, and that's not just because I'm getting old and don't go to as many weddings as I used to.

3. You have far more control of your destiny than you believe, particularly in the presence of airborne floral arrangements. This is a worry you can safely cross off your list.

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Re:Boston: Since when has bragging been a positive attribute in a man? Taking pride in your accomplishments and sharing your excitement about them is pretty standard stuff for anyone. Gender shmender.

Carolyn Hax: When it's called bragging, it's not a positive attribute, but when it's called knowing your worth in the marketplace, it can be a plus, particularly at salary negotiation time, and it's an area in which standard female socialization can work against women. A lot of them don't feel comfortable saying, "I'm good, and you need me, which means you need to pay me."

Of course it can backfire for both sexes, when Management or Womanagement says, "Actually, we don't need you that badly," and you get to eat your bravado. (Makes a decent sandwich.)

But that doesn't change the point that gender-schmender, fond as I am of it, doesn't necessarily apply here.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Hi Carolyn,

My boyfriend is finally getting some much needed therapy. He found out after a couple of sessions that his insurance would not cover the treatment. His therapist decided to continue to help him and hope that he could return the favor to somebody in the future. Great, right?

The problem now is that he feels obligated/guilty about it and tells the therapist that it is helping more than it really is. I understand his wanting her to feel good about helping him, but I also think he should be honest with the therapist if anyone.

You always seem to have a good outlook on therapy and good advice regarding it. Any advice on how he/we could handle this?

Carolyn Hax: If he fakes it, he's wasting her time. That's not a very good thank-you to someone who's being generous with her time.

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Re: bouquet: A decade? I've been to a lot of weddings in this decade and it still goes on... Maybe it's a New York thing, or Long Island (they're crazy with the weddings there).

Carolyn Hax: Maybe I blocked a couple out--remind me to send a thank-you note to my endorphins--but I haven't seen even a garter toss in a while, much less the skeevy garter-on-putting routine.

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MIL in delivery room: So don't call her until after the baby's born.

Carolyn Hax: That works, but could put her nose out of joint if she has expectations. Of course, if she never says what her expectations are, then you cant' know what they are, and you're home free. And if she does say that she expects to be called X so she can Y, that's mom- or dad-to-be's opportunity to say, "We'll be happy to call you when we know what's going on, but it'll just be us in the delivery room."

One more thing I didn't get into but could affect the outcome: It's not like labor is a predictable thing. You can go to the hospital and get sent home again; you can go in and have a baby in two hours; you can go in and have a baby in two days. You don't -want- family to be there pacing around. So, tell them you'll do your best to call when you know something, and let events decide what that means.

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Manassas, Va.: Hi Carolyn! My mother is throwing a surprise party for my 20-year-old sister before she joins the Navy. My fiance and I are living with my family for a few months while we look for a house. My sister doesn't like my fiance very much, and my mom told me she would rather not invite him because of that (my mom does like him, though). The thing is, he already helped me buy a pretty expensive birthday present for her, so I feel bad telling him he's not invited. How should I handle this?

Carolyn Hax: "Mom, I appreciate what you're trying to do, but he's my fiance now, and he can't be arbitrarily included and excluded in family things just to appease people's feelings."

Come on, Ma.

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Alexandria, Va.: Re: Buying home with the boyfriend... What are you suggesting by asking, "Why are you waiting for him to propose?" She should go ahead and buy a house with him before they are engaged/married, or should propose herself?

Carolyn Hax: She should propose herself. Or, she should know why she's waiting for him to propose--and that includes both why he hasn't done it yet, and why the need for him to be in that role. All of these are questions people shouldn't just answer with hopes, not when you're signing papers and packing boxes and talking marriage. Know who you are, know the other person as well as you can, and know what you both expect from the deal. It's not a perfect system for preventing disaster, but -not- knowing is a pretty good system for creating disaster, so you need some alternative.

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Labor room: I am not pregnant now, but may become pregnant in the next year or so (we're planning for next year.)

I have no idea how I'll feel, so I've thought about telling my mom she can come into the labor/delivery room but has to leave, no questions asked, if I say so. Is this a crazy strategy?

Carolyn Hax: Depends on your mom. Some moms would be great about that, some would make you pay, and pay, and pay. Though anyone who goes anywhere near a delivery room should know that mom's word goes, and it might not be a pretty word.

Maybe it would be better if you said you'll see when you get there, and send someone to fetch her if there's a good time for that.

Maybe you should wait till you're about 20 weeks before you say any of this out loud.

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To Manassas: I can't believe you would even consider telling him he's not invited. You should also take this up with your sister. He will be included in everything you are from here on out or else you won't attend. He comes first now. Geez. People.

Carolyn Hax: Remember, the sister didn't ask this; it's a surprise. It's the mom who needs the include-him-or-exclude-me primer.

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Propos, AL: Oh please. I am a mostly-modern man, but I think that your advice is bad. I will do the proposing, thank-you-very much, with plenty of forethought. Some guys may appreciate it, some would not. Know your boyfriend well enough to know whether this would be appreciated.

Carolyn Hax: Your reading of my advice is bad. I made it an either-or, in case they want to do it the old-fashioned way.

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Empty Pockets: Carolyn:

I have an embarrassing problem. I am a grown woman, happily married, but I have trouble managing money. Somehow, in the course of our relationship, I became the money manager. My husband doesn't want to know about the day-to-day details. He makes a good salary and I work part-time. Nevertheless, we carry around a considerable amount of debt. It's gotten to the point where I'm truly concerned. If I ever tell him not to make a big purchase, he gets upset and asks where all the money has gone. I'm not the kind of person who shops a lot, but between credit card bills, school loan payments, mortgages, child care, etc., we aren't exactly swimming in extra cash. I tell him this every time he gets upset, and then he tells me to go to work full-time. I've been avoiding doing that because our daughter is still pretty young. Am I being unreasonable? I'm pretty stressed out about our debt and feel like I'm shouldering the worry on my own because he doesn't want to hear about it. What can I do?

Carolyn Hax: Bulletin to anyone on the other side of this situation: When you refuse to help with the work, you have no expletiving right to complain about the result.

Sometime when he's not already upset, tell him you need him to be part of the money management process, beginning with a two-step process: meeting with a financial adviser to help create a long-term plan for your debt and savings, and creating a budget that you can then use for the day-to-day details. These are not "day-to-day details" themselves, so he has no more grounds to complain, not that he really had them to begin with.

As for choosing a planner, that's not my bailiwick, but I do know there are accrediting organizations you can check, and that people without a product to sell won't have a conflict of interest in their advice.

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Finding the Right Words: Several of your answers today essentially amount to giving people words to say in a difficult situation. Not surprising, of course, that people seek that kind of help or that, as a writer, you would be able to provide it. Still, I think that, if people said to themselves, "What do I really want to say here?", they would think of the right words. Or, at least, having gotten this pointer from you, they might ask themselves that question when they are trying to figure out what to do about a problem in the future.

Carolyn Hax: I hope so. I don't provide words with the expectation that people will actually use them, in part because someone else's words, even a writer's, are never as good as one's own. The reason I do it is to make the point that these things really can be said. You can take the desire you just expressed to me, and move some words around and actually say it out loud.

I also do it as a shortcut. Instead of writing, "Your mother has no right to exclude someone who is now, whether she likes it or not, part of your family, and you need to tell her this"--or writing "What do you really want to say here?" any more times than I already do--I just talk directly to the mom.

Thanks for the opportunity to explain the method.

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Rockville, Md.: I don't know Carolyn... I think there's something to be said for tradition.

I asked my husband to marry me 14 years ago, and he still jokes that I stole his thunder. He's not really joking though; he wanted his down on one knee moment and didn't get it.

Carolyn Hax: I think there's something to be said for knowing the guy and what he might prefer. I know some other proposed-to husbands who love that it happened that way. You really need to have your fingers on each others' pulses, which is about as good a precursor to marriage as you can get anyway.

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For Empty Pockets: Use Quicken or some other software to track expenses religiously for a few months. Once you have a few months in the system, print out a monthly report for your husband. Post it on the refrig if you need to.

Being proactive about this should help head off the ticked-offedness of your husband.

(I doubt he'd do it, but I know I'd be tempted to tell him to handle everything for a couple of months -- when one isn't doing the grocery shopping or paying the bills, one often forgets how much stuff costs.)

Carolyn Hax: Good thought, thanks.

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Money Manager: I work and my husband manages the money. In the beginning, I was like the husband, who thought that a good salary should just stretch and cover all the bills and everything else. My husband created a spreadsheet showing all our expenses and how the money was spent and saved. He makes me look at it every month. This makes me very aware of what I spend, and I am truly grateful to him for taking on this task, which is a huge contribution to the family. Your husband needs to know what is going on. When he asks you where the money went, you need to show him like my husband showed me.

Carolyn Hax: Again, thanks.

And whoever looks at the spreadsheet needs to thank the spreadsheet creator profusely. It is no small commitment to get all the numbers in there.

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Rockville, Md.: Carolyn,

I recently found out I have a condition which may make it difficult for me to get pregnant. I'm being treated with medication but success rates are variable, and it could take me longer to become pregnant than most.

Family and friends have begun to ask about kids but very few know about my diagnosis. How to answer?

Thanks!

Carolyn Hax: Tell the ones you want to tell about your diagnosis, and to the ones you don't, say as much as you want to say about how that's the question everyone who's coupled and childless quickly learns to dread. The mild version is something along the lines of, "When there's something to know, people will know," which has the benefit of getting more powerful the more times you repeat it. Verbatim. Good luck.

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Denver, Colo.: I have a close friend of the opposite gender. She's been one of my closest friends for years. Problem is, I've long had feelings for her romantically. For almost as long as I've known her, she's always been seeing someone else, so I've felt it improper to let her know how I feel. Now's she's single, and I'm torn. I wonder if I have a window of opportunity her to communicate my feelings, but at the same time I fear damaging our friendship. What should I do?

Carolyn Hax: You can come share my favorite head-banging wall.

Which would you prefer, possibility of losing her, or certainty of never having her?

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Thoughts about today's column...: Today's column just got me wondering about that fine line between warning a friend about a really bad relationship, and just plain butting into the situation. I have never given a friend my opinion on a boyfriend/girlfriend, so I wonder if I'm not being the "good friend." (Thankfully no friends have been in abusive relationships... I think that is on a level all its own.) Even if I think a boyfriend/girlfriend is shady, I keep my trap shut. I usually think that I will be met with a defensive glare, or I will be dead wrong because how can I possibly know what goes on between two people. And, I think that someone recognizing their own mistakes/patterns is waaay more effective than an outsider pointing them out. I was just wondering where you and everyone else sees that line.

Carolyn Hax: Those are going to be about as many different places as there are people responding to this. Where I see the line is the effect on the person I care about (assuming this is someone close to me, of course). If s/he is noticeably less happy with the person than without, then I'll say something--but even then, I try to keep it only to when that person opens the door, and only about the perceived unhappiness and not about how the mate is a complete idiot.

I have also made an exception to this, and spoken up when the person seemed happy and left no opening to speak up. That was when the mate told a story of such offensiveness and my horror just flopped out all over the place. And completely failed to change the persons's mind, fwiw.

So, all that said, it sounds like your line is in a really sane place and you probably are a good friend. You care and you're putting thought into your decision. Yay.

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Anonymous: But if you tell her, you better be prepared for the fact that you are nothing more than a friend to her and that you might muck up or at least make uncomfortable what is a really good situation. Once told, it's rough for the other person to ALWAYS have to worry whether they are leading on the in-love friend. Plus, wouldn't you feel it by now if she felt the same way? Speaking from much experience...

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. One more coming:

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To Denver: Please don't tell her. If you've had feelings for her this long, chances are she already knows this. If she knows and hasn't acted on it, she probably does not share the feeling. Don't ruin a good friendship. This has happened to me over and over again. Great friend, then he gets all mushy and can't bring himself to remain my friend. It sucks.

Carolyn Hax: I see your points (both of you) but I still think he needs to say something so he doesn't torture himself for never having tried. You say she "probably" doesn't share the feeling. Probably + doing nothing + 15 years = hell. If he braces for the worst, he can hear the worst and work to settle back into the friendship--and by that I mean NOT getting mushy "over and over again," which is what I see as the mistake in the latter situation, not the fact that he spoke up once.

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More Money: I think on thing everyone is missing is the part where the husband said "Go work full-time then."

One way to get around that argument is to show him how much child care costs. Say you make another $X a week by switching to full-time. Child care costs will now be $Y. Show him that effectively you will be making $X-$Y. And then decide (purely from the money side) if that is really worth it. Of course when you factor in being with your child I think you will have a pretty strong argument.

Good Luck

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. You're right, of course, but it grates that being home more with a young child has to be backed by a money argument to be a legitimate decision. Good for the kid vs. good for big discretionary expenditures shouldn't even be a debate.

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Money Management Again: Reading the question made me wonder if both parties might be in denial about their spending. It seems to me that the key to successful money management is communication and being in touch with reality. Both parties need to know exactly how much it takes to support their lifestyle, and if they don't make enough, they need to make some choices. That could be a second income, or downsizing a bit, whether that means cutting back on vacations, expensive hobbies, or even getting a smaller house. And they have to realize that there are pros and cons to all these alternatives. A working mother may not have the time and flexibility to pick up the kids after school and care for them on snow days. A stay at home mom may not be able to have her nails and hair done once a week. A dad with a working wife may have to pitch in more around the house and be willing to trade off with his wife on sick days. In any case, they need to evaluate all of this together, and get real about their situation and alternatives. It can be scary to do this (I know, I've been there), but ultimately, it is the only feasible choice.

Carolyn Hax: Yay. Thanks.

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Telling a friend: How can telling a dear friend you are in love with her cause you to lose her forever?

Sure, it may be awkward for a while if they do not reciprocate, but in time it will settle down.

Carolyn Hax: If she goes AAAAAGH! like she just saw a mouse and then moves overseas.

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Wedding Stressville: My fiancee wants a big wedding with all his family there -- I want something small and intimate. We've tried comprimising on something in between, but it is neither big enough for him nor small enough for me. What should I do? I feel like the problem is compounded because I'm the bride, so everyone keeps wanting to talk about what I want. But I don't even like weddings. Should I just tell him to plan it all and I'll show up or what?

Carolyn Hax: That sounds like a keeper. Anyone who wants something badly enough to impose it on someone else who doesn't want it has to be willing to assume all burdens involved. Otherwise, it's compromise time.

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Washington, D.C.: Regarding the girl who was unsure of "following" her boyfriend in your column on Sunday. You said she might be idealizing him and if that was the case, she'd still be unhappy if she went. My question is how do you know if you're idealizing someone or not? I'm about to move in with my long-time boyfriend and honestly, he's a great guy. He's got the perfect job, family and general outlook on life. He has never done anything to warrant my unhappiness, but lately I feel like I can't get anything right. I find myself mad/jealous at nothing, and craving attention. It's wearing on us both.

Carolyn Hax: Whatever the problem is, it sounds like you shouldn't move in with him, not till you figure out what's gnawing at you.

The idealizing I referred to is something people do when the other person is absent--when someone isn't around day to day, it's easy for your imagination to create a day-to-day image that reflects what you want, and not what really would happen.

What you're talking about sounds more like you already know what's bugging you but you can't or don't want to admit it. Possible?

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Washington, D.C.: How do you balance caring for a sick parent with some semblance of a normal life? I go out for the evening, and I feel guilty. I visit my mom, and I hate it -- sitting there while she babbles incoherently is awful. Does she even know or care that I am there? She could get better in a couple months, or it could be years. Or she could die. And I know that since I'm the only one no longer living at home, I can just not visit and leave it to my dad and my siblings, but then everyone gets even more (justifiably) cranky. And what if I go out with some friends some evening and she dies? I know I'm not dealing well with this, but I don't know what to do. (Online only please).

Carolyn Hax: Dealing well with a situation like this is not something people just, snap, get right on the first (or second or third) try. It's hell. It's hell even when you deal with it well. Let yourself admit that it's awful without feeling guilty that seeing your mother is awful.

Then lay out a plan that you think is right for your mom, fair to your family, and reasonable to expect of yourself--both if she gets better in a couple of months or dies in a couple of years. Assuming she's local, can you visit ... three times a week? Twice? Can you mark down a fixed day or days that you can visit every week, and/or fixed responsibilities for her care that you assume? Having a structure you can live with will help your family get a break, and also help free you to enjoy yourself when you're "off."

Which, by the way, makes you a -better- caregiver, not worse; more rest while you're away means you can devote yourself more while you're there. Get that rest without guilt. And if she goes when you're not around, it won't be because you were dodging your responsibility, but because it wasn't your night to be there.

I'm sorry for all this. Hang in there.

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Washington, D.C.: Carolyn,

As I get into my 30s, I'm coming to the increasingly uncomfortable realization that it is really, really hard to meet hot, unattached women my age. The 20-year-olds always look good. This I understand. I've been there, done that, and have the hand marks on my forehead to prove it. But what is with every attractive woman over the age of 30 being married?

Was there a land-rush notice that I somehow missed out on? Do I need to find myself a sweet young thing to keep up with me in my dotage? Surrender to the aging process? I know it sounds silly, but this is a real issue!

Carolyn Hax: No, the real issue is that you're into your 30s and still looking for someone "hot." Emotional and physical attraction are so much more complicated and enduring than that, but you have to let them be, which is about the fisherman, not the pond.

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Bodice-ripper on Friday?: Hi Carolyn, Giggle, re your advice to Denver about his friend...."never HAVING her"?

Okay, I know what you meant, but still....

Carolyn Hax: 5 p.m. is really close. You're almost there.

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Carolyn Hax: That would be all. Thanks everybody, have a great weekend and type to you next Friday. Also, remember, Politics and Prose, Sunday, March 26, 5 p.m. Leslie Morgan Steiner, Lonnae O'Neal Parker, Catherine Clifford, Page Evans and I will talk about "Mommy Wars."

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