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Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer and guest
Monday, December 3, 2007; 2:00 PM

The Washington area is a magnet for smart and ambitious workers. Post columnist Mary Ellen Slayter writes a regular column for these professionals who are either establishing their careers or are looking to advance. She also offers advice online.

Mary Ellen Slayter is author of Career Track, a biweekly column in The Washington Post's Jobs section. She focuses her chat on issues affecting working professionals.

Read Mary Ellen's latest Career Track column.

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

The transcript follows below.

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Mary Ellen Slayter: Welcome! My guest today is Alex Frankel, author of "Punching In." I reviewed the book in my column this weekend. Click on the link above to learn more about it.

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Tampa, Fla.: I am a young professional, working in my first "office" job in a nonprofit organization. I have been working with this company for nearly a year.

I love the company, but not my boss. My boss and my co-worker are best friends and my boss treats her as such, permitting her to miss meetings, come in late, take time off, etc. when I am not permitted to do so.

I work really hard, and receive very high marks on all performance-related reviews and enjoy working with all of my co-workers and the other departments at my company.

Within my own department, however, I am finding it hard to navigate office politics/relationships. The last straw is that my boss was laughing at how much of a pushover I am, telling other co-workers that she likes to take advantage of my work ethic because she knows that I will do any project she gives me. She was also making fun of the clothing I wear.

I know that there are some things in the office world that are a given, but I find this to be extremely unprofessional, and hurtful to boot.

What can I do to improve this situation? Oh -- my boss and our HR person are also friends, so I don't feel that is a viable option.

Mary Ellen Slayter: The stuff with favoring her friend I would let go. Not much you can do about it.

I would also let the comment about taking advantage of your work ethic slide. That's not really an insult.

But making fun of your clothes? Yikes. If they are clean and professional, she's out of line. What exactly is it about your clothes that she finds objectionable?

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Washington, D.C.: My question is regarding learning a second language. Whenever I go to interviews, employers ask if I speak a second language. It's a bit frustrating (I'm in my early-20's) because I just got my master's, and already employers at interviews aren't impressed and I feel like learning another language is yet another hurdle to jump through to get a good job.

But instead of just complaining, I would like to pursue learning to speak and read a language, probably Spanish. Are there any good learning centers in D.C. that would be good? A friend told me about the International Language Institute, have you heard of that? Thanks.

Alex Frankel: I am not familiar with specific learning centers, but if the issue of a second language comes up a lot in interviews it would certainly be great asset for you to learn a second language. you should decide whether you do best in a class with many students or one on one. often you can find a great tutor for conversation; it might be someone hoping to learn English. Also, there are a lot of audio learning techniques that you can listen to on the go to get a head's start.

Mary Ellen Slayter: The USDA also offers convenient, relatively inexpensive classes.

Did you study *any* other languages while you were zooming through high school, college and grad school? That could give you a head start.

Don't think of it as just as another hoop, though. Learning another language has benefits that go far beyond an impressive line on the resume.

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Laurel, Md.: How do you answer the question: "Have you ever been terminated or asked to resign from a job?" Especially if it had nothing to do with your attendance, job performance, knowledge, or a bad attitude? Do you have to answer the question at all even though you need to post the job on your resume to add to your experiences?

Mary Ellen Slayter: You answer it diplomatically, but truthfully. Work on crafting a response that shows you learned from the experience.

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Mary Ellen Slayter: Alex, tell us a bit about what inspired you to write the book.

Alex Frankel: I had worked for a long time as a journalist covering many subjects, including business, branding, and advertising. One thing I grew increasingly interested in was the subject of how a company could instill loyalty and build great employees out of the new hires who walked in the door. I decided to target some of the largest front-line workplaces (places like UPS and Starbucks) to see if I could get hired, work the jobs, and find out what it would be like to join a corporate culture.

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Pevely, Mo.: Why are the 100K+ paying jobs controlled by the so called resume writing gate keepers?

Every 100+ headhunter/job search company is asking $250-700 just to write a resume over, then they attach other charges on top of that... NUTS.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I don't understand your outrage. No one *needs* to hire a headhunter or a resume writer to get a job, even a high-paying one. If you have the qualifying skills and a great resume that showcases them, you shouldn't have any trouble getting interviews.

In my five-plus years of writing this column and after looking at probably thousands of resumes at this point, I think for many professionals, the fee of a resume writer would be money well spent.

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Re: Tampa: A boss making fun of the way you dress is totally out of line and hurtful. However, do you think there's something to what she's saying? I know when I was first starting out I was a horrible dresser -- cheap clothes that didn't fit. Boy, did they look it but I was clueless. There is a way to get decent clothes an on entry-level salary. If you hit the main department stores and explain your situation there will be someone to help you.

I wish someone had enlightened me. I'm a much better dresser now. Just remember: You dress for the job you want, not the job you have. It's true.

Mary Ellen Slayter: This is true, of course. This manager just sounds a touch clueless, and she might be delivering helpful information in a very clumsy way.

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New York, N.Y.: What are your thoughts on joint degrees (e.g. JD/MBA)? They seem to be a new craze, but do they lead employers to think the candidate is confused as opposed to qualified?

Mary Ellen Slayter: My advice about joint degrees is the same as my advice about pursuing professional degrees individually: Make sure you actually *need* the degree to do what you want to do for a living. In this case, make sure you actually need both of them.

How many jobs out there actually require *both* an MBA and a JD to perform them?

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Mary Ellen Slayter: What surprised you most about the various companies you worked for?

Alex Frankel: Before I started to work for the companies (Starbucks, Gap, The Apple Store, etc.) I had this vague sense that all of the jobs where I would work would draw the people they hired from the same talent pool. Because the jobs paid about the same (around $10/hour) I had thought that the applicants would be quite similar. But I was quite wrong. A place like UPS targets a very different group of applicants than a company like Starbucks. And someone who would be a great match at Starbucks might really not fit in at UPS. This level of variation surprised me.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I share some responsibilities with a woman who works from home part-time. I have to spend a fair amount of my time correcting this woman's work -- not merely to our company style, but fixing actual, flat-out mistakes. I've brought this up carefully in passing with our boss, who usually tells me either to fix things myself or to tell the woman so she can fix them. I am not this woman's supervisor. I notice these mistakes because they're incredibly obvious to anyone looking at the work, they appear in work that I need to know for when it's my turn, and they reflect poorly on our department, our company, and me (since not everyone - including our boss - keeps track of when it's work I've done and when it's work she's done). In the past, if I've noticed the mistakes and said nothing my boss has sent me messages explaining why some correction needs to be made - if I simply acknowledge her message she thinks I made the mistakes, but if I say that I'm not sure why she's bringing it up with me because I wasn't doing the work that day in question she doesn't carry through to correcting the other woman, she just has me fix whatever's wrong. Most of the time I enjoy what I do, and the majority of my work I do not share with the woman who works part-time, but what she does/does not do cuts into my productivity and slows me down (which is the greatest sin in our office...) at times. Would it make sense to ask to sit down with my boss and discuss this? Part of my problem is that I'm on pretty good terms with my boss's boss (and her boss), and some days when they ask me how things are going it's difficult not to blurt it all out, including my boss's apparent lack of concern. Any suggestions how to deal with this? Thanks. (And sorry about any unclear pronoun identifications.)

Mary Ellen Slayter: Follow your boss's instructions and tell this woman what she's doing wrong. The fact that she isn't working in the office with you doesn't let you off the hook for communicating directly with her.

If she stops making the mistakes, there you go. Problem solved. If not, you have grounds for another conversation with your boss.

It sounds like you are wasting way too much energy stewing about this in lieu of just doing something. What's the real issue? Are you put off by the fact that she works from home?

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Oxon Hill, Md.: Hello, I am having a hard time keeping jobs. It seems like every thing starts out well the first week and then the infamous "you're not a fit for us" comes along. What can I do?

Alex Frankel: If this is indeed a pattern for you I would certainly ask the managers who you work for for an explanation. Hopefully they can articulate what it is that they don't see as a fit. You may be able to see that you are not a fit for that job and also you may be able to take their feedback and use that to find a place where you would be a better match.

Mary Ellen Slayter: That fact that it's multiple jobs concerns me. How many times has this happened?

Would you consider a couple of visits with a career coach?

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Georgia: Mary Ellen -- I just had the most awkward situation ever at work. In the editing process, I caught one of our "consultants" blatantly plagiarizing from Google and told the person overseeing her project. This consultant was a personal friend of my bosses, but I really don't think my boss knew this about her character. She was getting paid $15,000 to do this crappy work, so I said something. This is a Fortune 500 company, by the way, with goo-gobs of money, so $15,000 is just a drop in the bucket ... but still. I thought they deserved to know about her work ethic.

I told the story to my dad, and he said "Fish in the corporate world all swim the same way, don't be the one fish swimming the other way." He also said this is "good old boys" at work. I am also new and young (24). Do you think I should have kept my mouth shut? Is there anything to watch out for now at work?

Any insight or advice you can give me is appreciated. I don't want to alienate everyone, but I want to do what's right also.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I think you absolutely did the right thing. At its extreme, your dad's line of thinking destroys innocent people's life savings and leads to federal indictments.

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Arlington, Va.: What suggestions do you have for someone looking for a job long distance? I am hoping to relocate to another state sometime in the next three months and have been sending out resumes for jobs I am absolutely qualified for with no response. I don't have a big "network" of people, but those I do have know I'm looking and, other than that, I've been using various online sources. What else should I be doing? Thank you for your response.

Alex Frankel: I would make it very clear to the employers you are contacting that you intend to move to their city; if there is any confusion about where you live they may pause before contacting you. Also, it's certainly worth making an advance trip to the place you are going to move. you can use such a trip as a way to make contact with the employers. You can say something like "I will be in town the week of XX and would very much like to meet a representative of the company if that will be possible."

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Alexandria, Va.: My wife and I just had our first child. She has three months of maternity leave and plans on returning to work. We have been discussing my stepping down from my current job to care for our child and go to graduate school. I enjoy the field I work in (mid-level higher education administration) and plan on returning to the same line of work in two or so years. Will being out of the workforce for over two years have a negative impact on my future job search? I believe returning to my field with a masters degree will give me more career options and make me more valuable. My wife is concerned employers will not understand a male leaving the workforce to care for a child and look askance at the hole in my resume. Any thoughts?

Mary Ellen Slayter: I think society is much more open-minded about fathers doing this than they may have been even just a few years ago.

Given that you will be in school during this time, you should be just fine.

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Reston, Va.: How does a middle-aged woman who has been a stay-at-home executive's wife and mom for the past 25 years find a place in today's job market? Office skills are minimal, but organizational, motivational, and instructional skills are a premium. I have done everything from run my own retail business, develop and market my own product, teach and coach sports, and organize international get-togethers, yet I can find no job, as I am not qualified because I have no consistent employment record with a single employer. Your assistance and direction will be greatly appreciated.

Mary Ellen Slayter: It's all going to hinge on how you package yourself.

Are you familiar with the Women's Center? I would strongly urge you to contact them and either take one of their classes or set up an appointment with a career counselor.

www.thewomenscenter.org

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McLean, Va.: Alex, your book sounds fascinating. For an employer that does not give personality tests to applicants, how would I assess the culture during the application and interview process?

Alex Frankel: It depends a lot on what type of workplace you are applying to work in. Let's assume you are applying at a white collar workplace that has no outward signs of its corporate culture. In such a case it is really up to you to try to find out about a specific corporate culture during your interviews. Ask questions that allow you to take stock of the tenor and spirit of the organization. You might ask about things like dress codes, what people do in their free time and whether the company or firm sponsors many extracurricular events for the employees. The answers you get to these questions should be instructive to you.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi, Mary Ellen and Alex. I found a great fellowship program in my field (it's about six months long) -- but I'd have to take a leave of absence from my job, which I've only been at for a little more than a year. By the time I leave for the program, I will have been here for about two years (this is IF I get in), but I'd love any advice on how to ask for a leave of absence. Also, I'd be willing to promise them I wouldn't quit for a year after I returned from the absence -- good idea?

Alex Frankel: I think this largely depends on what type of workplace you have. If your employer will feel that you will get a lot out of the fellowship and even gain a lot that can make you a better contributor when you return to your workplace a year later, than I think your employer may get behind your bid for the fellowship. If you will have worked there for two years at the start of the fellowship, than presumably you will be a fairly vital part of the current team. If you leave and return enriched, I can't see why your employer would want to try to replace you.

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Alexandria, Va.: I have an opportunity to go full-time as a shift supervisor at my current part-time job. It would require taking a pay cut of about $5-8/hour from my current full-time job but my commute would be much shorter (saving about 45 minutes each way) and I generally like my part-time job duties better. Should I take it and try to get by with less money or should I respectfully decline?

Mary Ellen Slayter: So they want to pay you less to do more work? What's their justification for that?

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Washington, D.C.: I've been at the same job for 18 years and every time I think, I can't stay here, something happens and it's OK, but I've always had other opportunities. How do you know when another opportunity is better?

Alex Frankel: Eighteen years is a long time to stay with one employer so my guess is that a lot about your job is OK, even satisfying about your current workplace. To have a good yardstick with which to measure other opportunities that may arise you might want to make a list of all the pros and cons of your current job. Such an exercise might make it clear that either you are in a good place or that there is a specific deficiency that you want to address in another job.

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Takoma Park, Md.: Hi Mary Ellen and Alex. Thanks for taking my question. I am a recent MA graduate, and both prior to and during my degree I had several one-year jobs. The short tenures were due to different reasons in each case: moving across the country, starting school (the job was technically 40 hours a week but really more like 50 and I couldn't balance it with school), or my having been on a one-year contract to begin with, after which they decided they wanted to do something different with the job. I have had my current position for about six months; it started off as a part-time job during school and became full-time after graduation simply because I could not afford to not work full-time while holding out for my dream job. Well, as you probably are suspecting by now, this is FAR from what I want to be doing (not in my field and definitely not a good fit culturally) and I continuing to look for something else. But I'm wondering, at what point do you have to stick around someplace for several years just to prove you can? Have I passed the point of no return, or is that point rapidly approaching? I'm 30 and still have had only one job that lasted more than one year.

Mary Ellen Slayter: A year is a respectable time to stay at a job. Your work history sounds very normal to me, actually. Keep looking for something you love. When it feels right, you'll settle in naturally.

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Baltimore, Md.: I have a two-part question. First, I recently had my background checked and displayed at my place of employment by a non-management employee at a computer located at my job. The employee then told everyone at my job discouraging remarks about me. I am in management and have terminated several employees for misuse of the computers. The information that was told has created a hostile environment. Can I sue this company?

Mary Ellen Slayter: What do you mean by "background check"?

"Hostile work environment" doesn't just mean that it's unpleasant for you to go to work. Are you being harassed or illegally discriminated against for something that was discovered in this check?

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Mary Ellen Slayter: I thought your description of the group interview at the Container Store was fascinating. Do you know how common such interviews are? Why do you think they do it that way?

Alex Frankel: After I applied at The Container Store I was invited in for an interview. The interview was interesting on three levels. It was a group interview, which meant that about ten of us were brought in to interview together. That is fairly common in workplaces that need to hire many workers quickly. I thought it would be highly charged and competitive, but it was not. The interview was also held right in the middle of the store, which was a great way for the applicants to feel a part of the store's culture immediately. The key exercise during the interview was one in which all of us were asked to choose a product from the store and share it with the group. In that exercise you immediately saw those who were most articulate and passionate about the store's products. I think every company should try to build their own creative exercises like that one so as to allow their applicants to test out the job. It was a great way to audition applicants and completely original.

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RE: Alexandria, Va.: Mary Ellen, I think the poster meant that s/he has two jobs: a part-time job (job A) and a full-time job (job B). The part-time job (job A) offered to turn into a full-time job, but for $5-8/hr less than she's being paid at her current full-time job (job B). If I were in that position, I would counter-offer for a raise of at LEAST the same amount of money the poster is currently earning from both jobs so that s/he is not sacrificing anything.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, you are right. And in that case, asking for a salary match is exactly the thing to do.

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Washington, D.C.: Alex, what kind of professional development did you encounter in the "front lines"? Were some companies better than others?

Alex Frankel: Yes, the range of training in front line jobs is wide. Some companies where I worked aim to train you to reach a certain level of competence, but others really allow a limitless ability to move upward. At a place like The Apple Store where I worked there were training modules you could work on on a computer during downtime. Some colleagues really got into this (and accrued points for doing so) while others did not. It was largely up to the employee. At Starbucks you could become a "Coffee Master" by studying coffee making techniques and information about coffee growing and bean origin. After a day-long test you would be rewarded with a special black apron.

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Upper Marlboro, Md.: I'm a little over two years out of college and into a job and career that is simply not for me. I am feeling stuck because I can't figure out how I figure out what I want to do. I've taken career assessments but none of the careers they suggest seem interesting. How can I figure out my passion? I'm guessing it would be wrong to jump around from job to job to figure it out?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Nope, not wrong at all. For most of us, finding the right career really is a trial-and-error process. If something interests you, pursue it. Even if it doesn't work out, use what you learn about yourself to refine your next choice.

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Fairfax, Va.: Hi, Ms. Slater. I've been with my current company for over a year. I have roughly three years of experience. My department is hiring another person who will be my equal here. I have the feeling this person will be making more than I am. I'm pretty outraged since I'll be training this person and have been here longer. I work hard and am dependable. What recourse do I have to get the money I should be earning? Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: You don't need "recourse." You just need to make the case to your boss for a raise. Point to tangible benefits you bring to the company. Show them what you are worth to the bottom line.

What your new co-worker makes isn't really relevant, except as part of the aggregate data that drives average salaries for your job.

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McLean, Va.: May I offer some thoughts to the person, early in the chat, who has the rude, clueless boss? I've been working for 25 years and I can tell you, there is no perfect workplace. You are correctly navigating the politics by being hard-working and agreeable. Don't ever, ever, say one negative thing about your boss to anyone. She is actually helping you by giving you all the assignments. Put all the skills on your resume. Pray that she will find her dream job and move on. You will be the most qualified person to be promoted because you are the most knowledgeable, hard-working, and easiest to get along with. If nothing else, other people in the company will give you great references.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I agree. What a great perspective you have on this.

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Mary Ellen Slayter: Did the experience change the way you now look at front-line employees as a customer?

Alex Frankel: Absolutely. A lot of customer service can be frustrating to customers largely because they have no idea what is going on in the background. By knowing that someone at a given car rental checkout counter or someone working at a Starbucks is most likely doing their best to try to help you can go a long way. Also, if you aim to work with them, not against them, people in customer service jobs will more often than not try to help you. By working behind a counter I had a great view of the many confrontations that arise with customers, but also a lot of experiences seeing customers smartly traverse precarious situations and get results by doing so.

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Washington, D.C.: What are your thoughts on a functional resume? I am currently in my second year working for a nonprofit and had two internships after I graduated college. I'm looking to switch gears, staying in the nonprofit sector, but working for an organization more in line with my volunteer activities. Yet I have been in a hiring position here at my job and I have yet to come across a functional resume. Are they on the outs?

Mary Ellen Slayter: I think they tend to look like the worker is hiding something, which of course, they are. Stick with the traditional format and use your cover letter to explain why you want to make a change. It doesn't sound like you're trying to make a wild leap, anyway.

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Hagerstown, Md.: Hello. I have been with the same employer for 11 years. I have seen many friends come and go due to the layoff roller coaster. I am tired of wondering who is next and just plain tired of doing the same job for so long. I am taken courses online (midway to my bachelor's) however, I want more now. Where do I start? I currently work in the credit card industry but want something more fulfilling.

Mary Ellen Slayter: How about going to a bricks-and-mortar college? Online classes have made great strides, but they don't fully replicate the college experience. You might be surprised at how fulfilling college itself is; higher education isn't just about getting the credential.

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Anonymous Can you describe the different corporate cultures you found, and why someone might not fit in at Starbucks but fit in at UPS?

Alex Frankel: Each workplace has different goals and different needs for their employees. Starbucks corporate mission has a lot to do with providing a place for customers to feel welcome so the employees ("partners" in Starbucks' terminology) need to want to be a part of this welcoming atmosphere. If someone who works at Starbucks chafes in this type of work environment, then they would best be somewhere else. If you work as a UPS driver, say, a big part of your job revolves around offering great customer service too, but you also need to be energetic and active because you are in the field delivering all day. Someone's character traits may make him or her a better fit at UPS than at Starbucks largely based on the job's central mission.

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Anonymous What is your opinion of the pay for these frontline workers? They are the first face of the company but they are paid the absolute least. Did this have an impact on productivity? Did people feel it was a fair wage? I remember working those sorts of jobs in college, and it was hard for me because I was in such a demanding environment, making so little money.

Alex Frankel: Indeed, this part of the front-line equation is hard to figure out. Those on the bottom rung at a place like Starbucks or Gap do indeed represent the face of the company. In an ideal world, people who work those front line jobs would be paid a lot higher. But the tricky thing is that because they are often such hard, demanding jobs may people don't want to work on the retail front lines. People often self-select for these jobs and go in aware that they may not be well paid but that they may have opportunities to grow with the company and get paid more as they gain more responsibilities.

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Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks for all your comments and questions! And thanks to Alex for joining us!

Alex Frankel: Mary Ellen, thanks for having me join in this discussion. For anyone interested in learning more about my book "Punching In" and the experiences I had working on the front lines, please check out my Web site at http://www.alexfrankel.com.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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