Life at Work Live

Amy Joyce
Washington Post columnist
Tuesday, May 1, 2007; 11:00 AM

Washington Post columnist Amy Joyce writes Life at Work on Sundays in the Business section and appears online every Tuesday. In her weekly chat she gives advice on how to handle social and professional situations.

An archive of Amy's Life at Work columns is available online.

Find more career-related news and advice in our Jobs section.

The transcript follows below.


Amy Joyce: Good morning, all. It's Tuesday, which means it's time to talk about your life at work. As always, join in with your own stories and advice to share.

Sunday's column was about a new pay gap study, and the question of whether women need to negotiate more. I expect some comments from you all because that good 'ol pay gap often stirs up some controversy.

Okay, let's get going...

_______________________ Her Pay Gap Begins Right After Graduation, (Post, April 29)

Amy Joyce: Here 'tis.


Urgent job advice needed: Please help -- I submitted to Mary Ellen yesterday to no avail and it's urgent. The short story is that I applied for a new job and was offered the position. They want me to start at the beginning of June. I was also just offered a promotion of sorts at my current company, one that I don't want for many, many reasons. My current company wants an answer regarding my acceptance of the promotion asap, and I think that when I decline, its an ideal time to tell them about the other job offer that I am going to accept. My issues are 1. Beginning of June is five weeks away. Is it too early to resign? 2. Boss is on leave until June 5 so I'm not sure how to go about the resignation process. Is it appropriate to e-mail a resignation letter? We have spoken via e-mail many times since she went on leave, but one the phone just once, when she offered the promotion. Should I just say I don't want the promotion and then in a week or two resign with the more typical two to three weeks notice? We have a good relationship so I think they would want me to stick around until my notice was up. Oh I'm so confused...

Amy Joyce: Okay. Fact: You don't want to stay at your current company.

Fact: You want this new position. (Right?)

Thing to consider: Can you ask the new company if you could start earlier?

If you're going to resign from your company, do so as soon as you're sure you're taking this other position since they obviously need an answer out of you now.

Sure, your boss is on leave, but you must be answering to someone right now. Go to that person. Tell them you can't accept the promotion because another opportunity has arisen that you want to consider, but say that you don't want to leave right away if possible.

Don't e-mail your boss a resignation letter. Talk to the person you're working with now, and then call your boss and tell her via phone.

It sounds like they will want you to stick around. Do it and then give them your official date you want to leave once you know for sure.


Washington, D.C.: Amy: Your Sunday column was so right on! I am a 38-year-old government employee, female, and I can't negotiate anything, because I have no self-confidence. I routinely watch people who better advocate for themselves move ahead while not doing anything to better my skills. Your column may have given me the impetus to finally do something about this!

Like a lot of women, I chose a government career because, at least in theory, women have a better shot than in the private sector. I make good money and have terrific benefits, including health and retirement benefits, and over seven weeks off per year (vacation time and paid holidays). Plus I am off every other Friday because I work a so-called compressed schedule. How can I possibly afford to give this up? But I have almost no work, what I do have is boring, and surfing the net takes you only so far. I feel guilty for ripping off taxpayers, but I'm among the more productive members of my office, And all that time off.

Anyway, you have now started me thinking. I'll let you know how it goes!

Amy Joyce: Please do let us know how it goes ... I'm sure all the taxpaying readers would love to hear!

The thing is, you have a good situation going. However, if you're not happy doing it, what good does that do you? You only have one life. Figure out what you want to do and find a way to do it. Oh, and negotiate when you get that offer.

Good luck.


Arlington, Va.: Hi, Amy. I work for a large nonprofit that is not metro accessible, does not provide recycling bins for bottles and cans, etc.I'm concerned about the environment and I want my company to do better, so I wrote the CEO a professional e-mail telling him my concerns and offering to organize car pools, to investigate the feasibility of the company providing a shuttle service to and from the metro, and to help facitilate bottle recycling. It's been two weeks and I haven't heard back from him. He walks by my desk several times a day, and though he knows who I am, has never acknowledged me (before or after the e-mail). I'm getting sort of mad. Even if he was too busy to address my concerns, he could have at least just shot me back a quick message telling me who to talk to; and anyway, I still really want to help my company become greener, but now I don't know where to turn!

Amy Joyce: You're right. He could have shot you back a thanks, at least. Are you sure he got the e-mail?

Either way, time for a plan B. Work around the CEO. He doesn't need to be involved anyway. Talk to your supervisor or co-workers and just get going on it. No need to bury your good efforts in self-imposed red tape. Do you have an intranet at work? Post ideas for car-sharing there. Get out of your cubicle and talk to your coworkers about commuting together. Post a flier on your company bulletin board. Is there a maintenance manager or office manager you could speak with about recycling? I'd guess it's relatively easy to set up, if the Arlington trash folks can also pick up recycling. Call the jurisdiction where your office is to find out how to get started.

I'm not sure why you'd need CEO approval for this. Just do it.


Sterling, Va.: I think I am hitting either a late quarterlife or an early mid-life crisis, but either way I really feel like I need to change careers. Some of my current dissatisfaction is because of my current employer, but I do not think that same field different job will be the answer.

I have a few ideas of what I might like to do, but I am afraid that I might end up in another version of my current life: Doing something just because I am good at it, not because I enjoy it. Are there any adult versions of that "what to do when you are grown" test that I think everyone had to take in high school? Or any other suggestions to make sure that I do not jump out of the frying pan and into the fire?

Amy Joyce: Educate yourself, Sterling. Go network with groups in the fields you are considering. Talk to your friends/family former colleagues or any contacts you can. Call your alumni center and see if there are folks in those fields you are considering. The more you know about it, the easier it will be to make the change.

I wouldn't call this a mid or quarterlife crisis, I'd call it life. We often find we need to do new things for various reasons. Not the least of which is simply not being happy with what we're doing.


Future librarian: Hi, Amy. A few years ago I wrote in that I was close to finishing my undergrad degree and thinking of going for my MLS. Well, a few years have passed, I got my bachelor's degree at the age of 39 and now I'm in an MLIS program. I'm doing it slowly, one class per semester (plus one in the summer) because I'm working full-time. It's going to be a few years before I'm done, but I'm wondering if you and the other posters know how the librarian job market looks, especially for us 40+ year old librarians-to-be. I live in New England. Anyway, I remember and appreciate the encouragement you gave me a few years ago to go for my MLS. Thanks.

Amy Joyce: Any librarians out there want to chime in?

You should talk to your professors and any graduate career counselors you can get your hands on. Educate yourself about the market as much as possible, and that will help you move forward, I'm sure.


Tenafly, N.J.: I think your columns and these discussions are really wonderful, and I've been following them for some time. I hope you can help me with my personal issue. What would you tell me if I were to say that I have been at a job for about 10 months now and I am only staying here because I want a recommendation for law school from someone I work with here. I do not enjoy working here and the firm and the industry are of no interest to me. However, I am currently completely focused on taking the LSAT and subsequently applying to law school, for which, a few recommendations are required. Hence the reason I am staying here. Please tell me what you would do, or what you think I should do. Thank you!

Amy Joyce: You can get recommendations from people you don't work with, you know. That's no reason to stay in a job you hate.


Washington, D.C.: I am a female with an unusual first name and a last name that is also a common male first name -- something like Ari Frank. When I get e-mail responses from people in the company who don't know me personally, they're often addressed to "Frank."

Definitely not a big deal, but a recurring annoyance, and one that I never really encountered before joining the corporate world. Any advice, besides signing e-mails to people I don't know well as "Ms. Ari Frank." (Oh, and trying not to be bothered by it.)

Amy Joyce: Does it really matter? If you think it does, then why?

Best thing to do in these instances is respond and sign with your real name. (People call me Joyce all the time. Sure, it's a woman's name, but same idea.)


Friendship Heights, D.C.: Hi, Amy. I just wanted to post this as a reminder to grads about to enter the workplace or an office environment. My cousin supervises a young woman at a very conservative office. The young woman has gotten on the bad side of the big boss (also a woman, for what it's worth) by not dressing appropriately at the office and outside work events, for drinking alcohol at work functions at which she is working and generally not behaving professionally. My cousin has tried to advise her employee to hang back, observe and what's appropriate attire, but the young woman must not care. Since the big boss is not happy, my cousin thinks that the employee will end up being let go, even though the quality of her work is OK. Just a word of warning to the new grads.

Amy Joyce: Good advice, however, your cousin needs to be direct. If she knows this person should not have a drink, tell her. If she knows this person should not wear certain clothing, tell her. This is likely this young person's first job. She sounds a little dense, but how will she figure it out if no one tells her?


D.C.: Thanks for the column on the pay gap. I am glad to hear there may actually be a solution that I can use (negotiation) rather than to get angry/bitter about discrimination.

My question -- I'm soon to start a federal job but haven't yet had the salary discussion with HR. I know I'll be starting at a GS-9, but I've gathered there is some flexibility what step. Is there any difference between how I should negotiate for a gov't salary (versus the private sector)? Any fed-specific negotiation advice?

Thank you!

Amy Joyce: I'll throw this one out to others who probably have experience with it. Anyone?

I feel like since you know there is some flexibility, you deal with it the same way you deal with negotiating any salary when you first start. ("I appreciate the offer. But considering my experience and X, I think a salary of X is more along the lines of my skill level." Or somesuch...)


East Brunswick, N.J.: Oh how I'd love Washington, D.C.'s situation with seven weeks of vacation, great health and retirement benefits, a compressed schedule, all those (as she correctly said, taxpayer-paid) goodies. How does one get such a job? And if one is in such a job, changing jobs for fulfillment isnt necessary: with all her free time and untaxed brain power, she could devote herself to outside interests or causes. Work itself does not have to make you giddy with joy, life holds so much more than just that 9-to-5 (or 9-to-4) routine.

Amy Joyce: You *could* be right. But have you ever been in a job that feels like you're wasting your brain, day and other people's money? Can't feel good after a while, NJ. Talk about soul deadening...


Fairfax, Va.: RE: Bored government worker ... Ahh my tax dollars hard at work, haha! Seriously, if you have the experience and the company wants you bad enough, if you apply for a new job negotiate better vacation time. It's done all the time at my company for those who have the experience and ask for it. And guess who typically gets extra vacation time? MEN!!! So if you want to leave but vacation time is holding you back just ask for extra time. The worst they can do is say no right? Good luck!

Amy Joyce: You have a point: Negotiating isn't always just about money. You can negotiate for pay, vacation time, benefits, flex time. Think about what you want before you go in and ask for it.


Bethesda, Md.: Is there any way to make job postings more attractive to potential candidates? I have been posting this one particular sales position on several job sites for over a month now and have only gotten four resumes, none of them very good. It really is a great position, and I'm confused as to why there hasn't been a better response. I can't imagine there is a real lack of candidates in the D.C. area. Can any HR readers recommend any job board sites they've had good luck with besides Craigslist? I'm just baffled at why I'm having so much difficulty finding a good candidate for this job.

Amy Joyce: If you're only posting on CraigsList, that might be your problem. CL is great for certain things, but lots of folks might not take the postings there too seriously. Consider posting elsewhere. Yes, it may cost a little money, but that might be part of the reason that part of the population doesn't look to CL for a great career. Why trust a company that won't even pay to post a job? (And no, this isn't just a shameless plug for you to post with this newspaper/Web site.)

Anyway, it's just a theory. Anyone else?


For the future librarian: My mother has always been interested in becoming a librarian, and she finally started researching this two years ago (she's 50+, my sister and I are both out of the house, my brother is in his final year of high school). We're also from New England (Boston). What she found is similar, I think, to what anyone else searching for a job finds. You must network, network, network. My mom was offered, finally, a paid position with a local library. Start talking to anyone and everyone you might know; my mother ended up landing the position through one of my sister's friend's parents. She didn't have a degree, either, so you're at least one leg up on her. Good luck!

Amy Joyce: Thanks...


Washington, D.C.: I am returning to work after 15 years of raising kids and medical disability. My resume looks great (professional positions, good pay) before I took off, but that was 15+ years ago. Now I have but a few volunteer experiences and a couple of years of substitute teaching. I am taking computer courses because when I was working, our secretaries did everything and we didn't have to learn it. So my computer skills are not very strong.

I am happy to take an entry level job as I don't need to earn more than that. But do employers even consider 50-year-olds for those positions?

Don't suggest that I ask my friends for help. I have few friends as I haven't been here long, and the ones I have I've swamped.

Some other general questions for your audience:

1. When a job ad asks for the salary you want, how should you respond? I always thought that you should wait for the employer to bring it up, then you're in a better bargaining position. I have been leaving out that info when responding to job ads but wonder if that knocks me out of the running.

2. For people like me returning to work after many years, it seems that we have to put in that very old work experience, although I've read that anything over 10 years is ancient and should be left out. Your thoughts?

Amy Joyce: Do NOT downplay those volunteer experiences or sub teaching, and definitely point out what skills you are learning in your computer courses. These are great things and show that you've been doing a lot of work during that 15 years "off"...

1. As for salary requirements: HR folks? Can you chime in? I've heard that it's best to leave it blank, or say that you'd love to talk about the job first, salary later, because the job interests you just that much.

2. Include the pertinent work you did, no matter how long ago. It's important, it's part of your history, and it shows you know how things are done.

Anyone else have some advice?


Small Town USA: Help! I love my job, but my hours and salary have been cut over the last year. Love the boss, love the co-workers, love the environment. However, another position in the same industry and competitors have offered me my full time hours and salary. It means jumping ship in my small town and everyone will know. I have loyalty but when does loyalty take advantage of employees good nature? Am I correct in leaving and what do I say to my current employer? Please help!

Amy Joyce: You have to survive, right? Don't worry about what people will think. In fact, your own boss will likely understand. If you decide to leave, just explain it to your boss like you did here. "This is very difficult for me because I love it here, really like working with you and the others, but I just can't do it on partial pay and hours anymore." Then explain that you've been offered this better position, and go from there.

Good luck, and congrats.


RE: Urgent job advice again: I was the one who negotiated the June start date because the new position is part-time (so I can concentrate more fully on school) and I want to keep my health benefits through June. Also, the person I'm currently reporting to while my boss is on leave is her secreraty. This is also the job they want to promote me into as boss's secretary will be moving into a new job tomorrow. I e-mailed them both this morning to thank them for the offer of the promotion but I would be concentrating more on my grad work this year and didn't think it was the right fit at this time. I asked to schedule a time to talk, either on the phone or face to face so I guess we'll see.

Amy Joyce: Well then. Sounds like you've got it covered.


Washington, D.C.: When I went in for an interview a few months ago I decided that I wasn't sure if I wanted the job ( I liked my current job) so I decided to be bold and ask for more than I thought I was worth. I asked for about a 26 percent raise. The recruiter tried to intimidate me into saying people with my experience did not get paid that much but I didn't back down. In the end, they offered me 21 percent more than I was making. Compared to a previous job change where I timidly asked for five percent above what I was making, I think I definitely learned something about negotiation.

This may not work in all situations but it worked out for me. I like to think I closed my gender wage gap.

Amy Joyce: Congrats. Glad to hear it worked out. Most women I know who are unhappy about their pay regret not negotiating for their original salary. It's very hard to catch back up.


Newbies: Interns should be given enough rope to hang themselves, then learn from the experience. There was an intern in my office who was here for all of six hours before being fired. He sat back, put his feet up on someone else's desk, referred to everyone by their last name (not cool around here, or most places really), and ordered someone he thought to be a secretary to get him some coffee that he was "on the fast track straight to the top." I even spoke with him about it during lunch and he ignored it completely. After lunch, he was brought in and fired. I ran into this same intern a couple weeks back and he seems to have learned his lesson. He's working with a friend and I check up on him on occasion. Apparently, we were the first but not the last to set him straight, but he seems to have turned things around. Those of you who hire interns, make it clear from the start what is expected of them and have someone shadow them to make sure they're not doing anything wrong. If they are, put them in their place. College teaches kids that they can do anything, sending them to the workplace making them think they know everything and when they arrive, they know nothing.

Amy Joyce: Is this for real? I would hope (and do expect) that most interns are no where near this clueless. But you make some good points. If you're hiring interns, don't just throw them in there and stare at their bad work habits. Because guess what? They aren't habits yet. These folks are brand new and just trying to figure it out.


Washington, D.C.: Hi, Ms. Joyce. I'm almost a year out of college and fairly unhappy at my job. I have been applying and applying since March, and have had only two interviews. One person hasn't even called or e-mailed me back re the status of my application after my interview. What is the best way to find a new job? I have been networking, following-up, writing thank-yous, researching online, talking to alumni of my school, and applying to every single job I have found interesting, to no avail. Am I doing something wrong? Also, is it true that it doesn't matter where you went to school or how you did there? I graduated at the top of my class from a top-tier University, and yet have found it highly disappointing to find out it's not what you know, but WHO you know.

I'm sorry for sounding so disgruntled; this has been a tough couple of months. Thanks!

Amy Joyce: Two interviews since March? Sorry to tell you this, D.C., but that sounds like a pretty good batting average to me.

It sounds to me like you're doing what you should do. There is no rule out there that it matters where you went to school. Some places or people care, others don't. Keep at it, get out and network, go to your alumni events in the area, think about where you want to work and see if you can find someone there who will hand your resume directly to the HR folks. It takes time and patience. This is way too early for you to feel too disgruntled, I'm afraid. Don't let it get you down yet.


Alexandria, Va.: My colleagues and I, professors at a local university had a serious regression analysis of the pay gap between men and women run by at top statistician, head of an ivy league stats department.

We considered the variables constant for tenure, time, education, area, discipline, etc. and found a discrepancy of roughly .65 to the dollar between men and women. Moreover, the university seriously penalizes women who raise these concerns. I lost my dept. chair position two weeks following filing with the EEOC and the university receiving this notice, despite a recent strong performance review.

The challenge is the ongoing retaliation (pay reduction, change in assignments, women being fired, bullied). We are told it is hard to sue universities in Virginia, and our attorney is tres expensive, but your story on Sunday reminds us we owe it to those behind us to carry on.

Any advice?

Amy Joyce: Well, I'm no lawyer, so any labor lawyers out there, please pipe up.

But it sounds to me like you have all the workings of a case, including retaliation for filing with the EEOC, which, as you point out, is illegal. These cases often take a LONG time to wrap up, so it's really up to you how much you want to continue to pursue it.


RE: Bored govt. worker: I am in a similar situation. I'm an executive assistant for a quasi-governmental office. I have incredible benefits, a great salary, a non-stressful job and I make close to $20,000 extra income in overtime every year. However, I'm not unhappy! There are times when I'm bored or annoyed with co-workers, but then I think of how lucky I am and I find some work to do. I just turned down a promotion to another dept (it would not be an admin position) because I don't want to lose my overtime. My friends think I'm crazy to turn down a manager position to stay as an admin, but I couldn't be happier.

Amy Joyce: Everyone has their own reasons for doing what they do.

And I'd venture to say most jobs have moments of boredom, but it sounds like you handle that well, by finding new work to take up that downtime.


D.C.: I have a question regarding gaps in work on resumes. I am considering leaving my job to try to write a book, a goal I have always had. However, I find it difficult to sit at a computer all day and then try to sit at a computer at night trying to write. I am unhappy at my current job anyway and my husband is willing to support me while I try this venture. I was thinking I would give myself six months. However, I am concerned that a six month gap in my resume would be a red flag. Should I include the endeavor on my resume? I wonder if potential employers might respect an attempt at fulfilling a dream, even if it doesn't necessarily work out. Is this a smaller issue than I am making it out to be and what would be the best way to approach it on my resume? Thanks!

Amy Joyce: Good for you. I'd put it on the resume. It's a new experience, and it shows you weren't just sitting on the beach (not that there's anything wrong with with that!) for six months.


Washington, D.C.: I've been back for about six months after living in France for almost two years, where I taught English. Now, back and after applying for approx. 200 jobs, all I've had is temp work and some on/off tutoring. I'm always either under or over-qualified. Everyone seems really impressed by the France experience, but no offers. My pre-France background included marketing/graphic design and admin filler. I can't even seem to land a simple secretarial position. I'm now putting in applications at retail establishments. What am I doing wrong? Could France have been the biggest career mistake I ever made?

Amy Joyce: No. But not knowing what you want to do is probably holding you back. 200 jobs is a lot. Are you just blanketing the area with your resume? Hone it down. Figure out what you want to do (or at least get an idea of what you want to do), why, and how your skills apply to this ONE particular job. Apply for it. Do the same for others. Be selective. Companies will know if you're not, and they will be less apt to pay serious attention to you.


For librarian: I'm a librarian, and everything I read says the future job outlook is quite good for those who have a master's degree. A large part of the librarian work force is reaching retirement age, which will leave a lot of openings.

One bit of advice. If you haven't already done so, think carefully about what type of library you want to work in and what type of work you want to do. I started out as a law librarian and got really specialized in legal research/reference. I was never interested in law and that has not changed. I just started there because the pay was higher. I figured I could change later. But making a switch is difficult once you've gotten lots of specialized experience. I'm trying to make that switch gradually by moving to a non-research position in a law firm, to gain some experience that will translate to a non-legal environment. I should have listened to my heart from the beginning!

Amy Joyce: Great advice. Thank you!


Annapolis, Md.: I had the something like the same experience as "newbies," but it was a newly graduated employee that thought that admin work was beneath them and refused to do some filing that was requested because they were not hired to do that. I explained to him that even the big bosses sometimes had to assist with mudane tasks because the company was small and everyone pitched in. He did not believe me and went to the boss that hired him and he was gone by the end of the day. I do not know if he quit or was let go but I assume it was a mutual decision.

Amy Joyce: Yep. Lots of newbies don't realize that, depsite a college education, they will be spending a lot of time filing, faxing, mailing. It's part of that first job out of college, and there is a method to the madness. My guess is the new employees haven't seen Karate Kid and the whole waxon/wax off scenario. Thing is, grunt work can build a good base for the next job up. Do well with that, and people will notice. They will then consider this person for a job because this person put in an effort even when the task was seemingly small. (Which it never is.)


RE: Looking since March: Just a suggestion, if you're applying to every job in sight, still make sure to tailor your resume and cover letter to that position. It takes a lot of time and work, but I find that sometimes people blanket the city with the same cover letter and resume, and it's pretty obvious that it's generic. We pass up those resumes, no matter how good they are.

Also make sure you're not being even the slightest bit snotty about that 'top school' that you went to -- many very high level people in this town did not go to 'top schools' and are irritated by young people who act like they're better than everyone else because they did. Sorry, but you're really not. You don't know more just because you went to some very expensive school -- you're just more in debt.

Amy Joyce: For our March job searcher... hope this helps.


Laurel, Md.: Amy, why do you so uncritically accept every word from the mouth of the AAUW? They are an advocacy organization with an agenda whose continued relevance depends on convincing people there's a big problem out there.

Remeber in the early-90s they put out a study "How schools shortchange girls" even though female graduation rates had already surpassed males? That study was refuted by one by the Education Department the following year.

I'm sure if you looked, you could find other studies showing that the truly gender-based (i.e., not caused by legitimate factors) part of the 23 percent was a lot less than 12. Did you try? Do you care?

Amy Joyce: This was an important study in that it was the first of its kind--it looked at what women one year after graduation made vs. men at the same level, same time, same field. There are a ton of pay gap studies out there, many of which I read, study and consider. This one piqued my interest for the above reason. And if you'll read the column, you'll see that it was about more than just this study, Laurel. There's little argument that in general, men make more than women. So what might be causing that? I took the idea of negotiation and wrote my column around that, with this interesting study as the peg.

When I write about the gap, I always wonder why this one issue causes as much heat as it does. It doesn't matter who does the study (even if it's the Census Bureau). It ignites lots of passion. Any ideas why?


Downtown D.C.: I don't think work has to be fulfilling. That's what friends and family are for. So I'm with the person who stayed in the admin job, rather than becoming a manager.

I've done the high-powered career thing. I'm now an office admin, and I don't really mind making sure people get paid and the lights stay on. It's funny, because D.C. is so career-obsessed that I occasionally get chided for my lack of ambition. At the same time, I'm the happiest person I know. So, really, who cares?

Amy Joyce: I think life should be fulfilling. And spending the majority of your week at a place that kills your spirit (truly) can't be good. Of *course* friends and family fulfill our lives. But if we are in a job we hate, isn't that just a sad, sad waste?

I'd argue that you actually are in a job that is fulfilling to you now. You don't have to be in a high powered career to find happiness. You have to find a job that fits, one that you don't mind waking up and going to every day, one that allows you to have a life you want.


Amy Joyce: On that note, folks, let's call it a day. Get back to work, will ya?

You can read Life at Work, the column, in the Sunday Business section. I'll be back here next week, same time, same place.

Thanks, as always, for the interesting discussion. Have a great week.


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