Facebook Has Jumped the Shark (and how they might save themselves)

JumpingSharkAre you on Facebook? In recent years I grew to enjoy daily check-ins, following links, debating politics with acquaintances and strangers alike, sharing recipes and design ideas – I’ve even developed friendships with people I have never physically met. Then after a publicly disappointing IPO, Facebook plunged deep into a new advertising platform and the magic faded. It has jumped the shark.

If you don’t use Facebook you’re probably no longer reading, but if you do, you noticed ads suddenly popping into your news-feed, friends disappearing in the clutter, how strange company ads are “suggested” to you, while pages you previously “liked” are harder to find under a parade of newbies seeking endorsement. Perhaps you withdrew into smaller circles of “interest” groups. More likely you just spend less time on the site. My circle of friends complain how Facebook is less appealing; many simply don’t post or visit much anymore.

I don’t expect a service like Facebook to be free. I can’t even imagine the costs of operation for such a massive site. But what I didn’t expect was for it all to turn cumbersome and stupid, like TV: the path they are taking will lead them, like broadcast TV, right off the cliff. I suspect the ad format is not working and they might be getting nervous because I was just invited to participate in an extended user survey with open-ended questions, soliciting not merely scaled statistical values but what the respondent thinks in their own words. This level of market research is expensive to tabulate, signaling serious intentions.

Facebook can survive and grow profits if they evolve. They could become a subscription service, a members-only site where one drops in, rather like visiting a favorite coffee bar, to continue the beloved open sharing established before their PnL statements took precedence. I expect to pay for my coffee and wouldn’t mind paying an equivalent fee for access to last year’s Facebook format. However to grow beyond a SimCity or other community-style user base, Facebook could re-think their entire customer interface proposition.

Digital advertising generates opposing concerns, with business chasing keywords and user preferences to target  interested buyers, while those very users are growing more paranoid about “Big Brother” (Big Google?) firms, such as Alexa, amassing reams of their personal data. The truth of it is the current system doesn’t work very well. For example, my online identity seems based on generalizations like my age and sex, and often shows me ads for pages I hit once for research or landed on in error. (Of course I ignore these, like everyone does anymore, which is why click-through rates of 0.02% are considered acceptable.)

But what if we had a site where we could lodge our shopping lists, share what we are specifically looking for along with our personal data, and let them find for us the merchant with the exact product that fills the bill? The missing link? Trust.

I’m looking for an online personal shopper, a matchmaker … a Concierge. You know, that amazing person in a luxury hotel who will graciously – almost effortlessly – find you a taxi, a physician at 4 a.m., a babysitter, a dinner reservation, have your suit cleaned, arrange transportation or a last-minute gift or an outing the next day, even contact your embassy should you need it.  The concierge is resourceful yet discreet, anxious to serve yet will always uphold the reputation of the hotel. I’ve been hoping some web provider would glom onto this idea, and Facebook is ideally suited because we already have a relationship, albeit their side is faceless (cordial and helpful, but faceless – I mean, try and find their phone number, just try.)

What if I could confide my buying inclinations and preferences to Facebook, trusting that they would seek to serve me rather than hawk my information to any and all? Let’s say that I am in the market for a living room couch, which Facebook and a dozen others might know by tracking the sites I land on, BUT I also related my color scheme, room size, budget range, location, and purchasing timeframe? I might give all this this if I was secure in the knowledge that my information would NOT be sold and if my concierge would filter furniture advertisers to match my narrow interests – again, never revealing who I am – and present only what might interest me, while charging the advertiser appropriately for the opportunity. It’s an “everybody wins” scenario: (1) I get to see ads for what I actually want; (2) the concierge site can charge for delivering a live prospect not just the possibility of one, (3) the merchant nets a genuine opportunity to close a sale, and (4) the internet is not cluttered up showing everybody ads to net the two or three who might deign to take a look. Currently, no sites have enough data to show me a mid-range, 3-piece sectional in neutral microfiber that’s currently on sale in my town, they merely offer links to Art Van and other furniture store websites and I’m on my own.

How many times have you visited a website only to suddenly see one of their ads pop up on Facebook or one of a dozen other sites? It’s getting tougher for advertisers to catch your attention in the clutter, to discover keywords that match desires, to secure click-throughs when their hit optimizes farther down the results page. Amazon comes close, but even they have no clue what I would actually fork over money for: Their version of “choice” means to show “everything”.

The element missing in my vision is the trust that results from a relationship. I imagine Skyped customer service with real people responding, just like I stopped by the concierge desk in the lobby: there is a smile, a promise, and the likelihood of trust. This is our buying future. We’ve had similar relationships in the brick-n-mortar world with agents or reps for the silos that are autos, real estate, electronics, health care, insurance, professional services … but what if you could have one for everything you spend money on? What if they got to know you, your tastes, your interests, what you bought a while ago and didn’t like, the bad experiences you had as well as the good, and then they saw this THING that you would absolutely love and watch for it to go on sale for you …

The internet seemed like the ultimate world market just five years ago but has become a sometimes impenetrable bazaar where buyers and sellers can easily miss each other. The next generation in online mercantile will be the personal shopper, our representative in a vast world of things to buy, and for the advertiser, a gateway to our purchasing power. A successful concierge would have a human face, be knowledgeable and fun, and have the tools to screen a range of advertisers, gleaning offers for me to review, and most of all, prove trustworthy of my data.  Angie’s List is developing toward this concept, and they just might get there first, but Facebook has the user base, the skill with algorithms, and the advertiser relationships to establish this new standard. They already know about my family, work and political bent – if only they would overcome their peculiar notion that I am a commodity instead of the client I want to be.

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Today’s Kitchen Witch Tip – The Sop ‘n’ Drop Method

Kitchen WitchBacon, sausage, hamburger – they smell great while browning, but the tricky part is draining off all that grease. The recipe instructs “drain the fat” and moves on, but how? I’ve tried pouring it off, and that’s nearly impossible, balancing and tilting the pan while holding back the food with a spatula/spoon/lid, and I always spill. It takes more patience than I have to spoon it out. I’ve attempted to suck it out with a turkey baster only to have it drip all over the stove.

Then I hit upon the easy “Sop & Drop Method”.

  • Assemble a pair of tongs and some paper towels, and have a waste receptacle handy (use a plate or the pan lid to transfer if you like).
  • Remove the pan from the heat.
  • With a spatula, move the browned item(s) to one side of the pan, then tilt the pan slightly so the grease can puddle on the other side.
  • Scrunch up the paper towels and drop them one at a time in the grease, move them about with the tongs.  Use as many or few to sop up as much fat as you want to remove (smooshing them around helps).
  • When they are soaked, shake off any attached food, remove the soggy towel with the tongs, and drop it into the garbage.
  • Ta-da!  You’re done. Resume cooking.

(Note: I buy only white paper towels to avoid any possible interaction of hot grease with the dyes used in printed ones.)

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Cat Thoughts On A Quiet Night

Of all animals, he alone attains the Contemplative Life. He regards the wheel of existence from without, like the Buddha. There is no pretense of sympathy about the cat. He lives alone, aloft, sublime, in a wise passiveness.
-Andrew Lang

Cats are dangerous companions for writers because cat watching is a near-perfect method of writing avoidance.
-Dan Greenburg

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The little furry buggers are just deep, deep wells you throw all your emotions into.
-Bruce Schimmel

A black cat dropped soundlessly from a high wall, like a spoonful of dark treacle, and melted under a gate.
-Elizabeth LeMarchand

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AT&T: Too Big To Succeed?

You’ve heard of  “too big to fail”. But has the American corporate ideal become too big to succeed?

Last year, a supremely obnoxious telemarketing scam “Account Services” glommed onto my land-line. Despite the “Do Not Call” list and repeated requests to stop, their calls continued, sometimes three per day, every day, for weeks. It reached the point where the land-line existed solely for the purpose of them annoying me, so I decided to cancel, and my adventure with AT&T began.

AT&T is the 17th largest company in the world by market value, number 12 on the Fortune 500 list, with 2011 revenues of around $126B, and operating in 225 countries around the world. Their corporate values state they will –
“Understand what our customers want and deliver it” and
“Ensure we are as valuable to our customers as they are to us” and
“Enable employees to make good decisions for their customers” and
(the big one)
“Solve problems and make things easy”.

Admirable concepts, and yet it took four separate phone calls to cancel my land-line while maintaining broadband service, and months later five separate calls to get a service failure resolved, leaving me without internet access for nearly a week. Each call involved traversing a computerized redirect system where the automated voice often “didn’t quite make out” what I said (especially if I had lost patience). It was tough to figure out from limited choices how to transfer to a live body (saying “help” and “representative” and finally cursing seemed to work). That brought me to a call center representative straight out of Bollywood central casting, who parroted catchphrases like “How can I make sure you are having a great day?”

When after just five months, service crashed, I spent nearly a week calling for help: I called to alert tech support to the failure; I called to find out what they had resolved the problem was; I called to ask why the overnight shipment I had been promised yesterday had not arrived (“it will ship tomorrow”); and, when my replacement modem finally arrived, I called to ask why the paperwork stated that service would not be established until two days later. Since I had online banking to accomplish and was going through Facebook withdrawal, I demanded to speak to a supervisor. Part of the agony is having to repeat your story to each and every contact. Steve, the supervisor, said “Yes, yes, so sorry, I will have that taken care of so your service is restored this evening”. Then the evening deadline passed and I realized he had no authority whatsoever; his job was to get grumpy customers off the line, even if that involves lying.

Well, I thought, perhaps the shipment paperwork would be correct since it was officially in their system, so on the sixth day without service I rebooted everything but to no avail. So I called yet again, furious, and something astonishing happened: AT&T’s system noted that my account had pinged them five times and ESCALATED me.

I was automatically routed to lovely Angela at the Escalation Center in Milwaukee, who immediately noted the service interruption on her network map and bumped me into next afternoon’s schedule for an actual visit from an actual technician. Sure enough, calm and courteous Brian arrived at the appointed time, plugged in and performed his tests, determined that original and replacement modems were bad, and installed a nifty new model (802.11n !!) from his truck. Before he left, he had replaced the wall jack because it was “marginal” and given me his personal e-mail address and direct phone number. I was near faint from relief.

Still, I can’t figure out with AT&T’s published corporate values, why did it take six days and five tedious phone calls to engage Angela and Brian? Why did I have to struggle through repeated calls to Maria, Hermione, Sandip (“call me Sandy”), Jacinia, Mango (I swear she said Mango) and Steve before I was escalated to Angela and received the service I should have gotten initially?

There is an AT&T store one block from my home. Just think of it, an in-person smiling customer service experience within walking distance, the potential to have my problem resolved same day. I learned I could have contracted my U-Verse account there, but had I gone for service as an existing customer, I would have been charged. Or as Brian mentioned, they would be happy to sell me a smart phone contract, but he worked out of a different group.

In marketing, each contact is a “touch point”, an opportunity to influence. Every piece of mail, every billboard, TV ad, or social media message, is carefully coordinated to lure you to spend your dollars with the advertiser. (AT&T is a master marketer, they must send a dozen direct mail pieces every month suggesting I bundle services with them.) However when actual personal contact with the company frustrates, the branding gloss is revealed as a sham. With every retread and every failure, irritation grows exponentially.

What is even more revealing is there is nothing special about me, I’m just an average customer, signaling that odds are my experience is not unusual. Now you’d think that a company as big as AT&T would have customer service nailed. But my experience epitomizes everything that is wrong with American corporations. Their bottom line is quarterly profits, about cutting the fat and goosing productivity. Outsourced customer service frankly doesn’t have the presence or commitment, much less the authority to resolve anything but the simplest problems, but it’s cheaper. Product lines often operate in the silos of separate divisions, which means the physical presence of an existing local store was not available to me, already a customer. Did anyone there think to ask why?

AT&T had me as a customer — all the time and marketing efforts to land me, and they had me, monthly payments and a contract and everything. Then they lost me, pushed me away really. Why would a company do that, unless they were just too big to care.

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Hi again

If you’re lucky, someone shows up in your life and reminds you that you don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to set the world on fire, you just have to be there. Do what you love and don’t care what anyone else thinks. After all, nobody is reading your damn blog anyway, so write away!  (you are the best BJJ)

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A 7-Minute Opera

I’ve always worked on the principle that if it interests me enough to write about it, then it must interest a lot of other people.
Morris West, 1916 – 1999

Charlotte & Jonathan (L-Jonathan Antoine and R-Charlotte Jaconelli)I’ve been caught up in the drama of Charlotte and Jonathan, two teenagers who took the world by storm with their audition on Britain’s Got Talent in late March.  The ITV editors of the clip on  YouTube.com admirably captured the audition’s mythic qualities.  If you have not seen it yet, you simply must.  Though only 17, Jonathan Antoine has one of the great voices of the ages.  This is your chance to have the same experience some lucky person before you had when they watched a youthful Michelangelo carving or saw the Beatles play the Cavern Club or were in the gym when Michael Jordan was trying out for his first team.

The audition story is a concise, seven-minute opera.  Two awkward teens enter stage left into brilliant light before an audience that towers several balconies above.  The camera catches lead judge Simon Cowell sharing a put-down, later superimposed so the viewer will be sure to recognize him for the villain.  The boy is morbidly obese, dressed in teenaged slop suited for lounging around the house.  The girl is curvy and pretty but dressed to try too hard.  They are a most unlikely combination, Charlotte and Jonathan.  Simon targets Jonathan about being shy.

The editors cut to B-roll of the pre-show interview where Jonathan reveals his pain at lifelong teasing for his weight and Charlotte stoutly defends him, establishing their sympathetic back-story.  When the action cuts back to the live audition, Simon dryly inquires, “And you think this could work?”  People in the audience sneer and snicker and gape in preparation for a laugh.  Simon dismissively starts the audition.

Jonathan, on edge with nerves, looks at Charlotte for inspiration.  He fluffs his queue, jumping in too early, but a shared glance with Charlotte sets him right.  Then they open their mouths and heaven pours out.  Jonathan has a pure and masculine tenor that seems to surprise even him with its power.  Charlotte’s sweet soprano is crystalline.

The faces of audience and judges register astonishment, then delight.  The musical selection “The Prayer”, was made famous by Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion, and is an inspired choice of operatic pop duet with a poignant lyric in Italian and English.  Applause ascends in a roar that nearly overwhelms the singers, and they rise to it with a tremulous greatness.  The soundman must have really scrambled to balance their mics.  Ant and Dec, comic relief and Greek chorus in the wings, voice amazement.

Simon gives an abashed grin, while pound note signs dance in his head.  His fellow judge, the classy Alecia Dixon is visibly touched.  Intercut shots reveal audience members moved to tears.  The song ends with a roof-shaking crescendo, and the audience rises almost as one, roaring with approval in a standing ovation.

Then the final act ensues.  Jonathan is giddy with pleasure.  Winsome Charlotte is stalwart as Simon damns her with faint praise to gush on about Jonathan’s gift, but her pretty cleft chin trembles just a bit when Simon suggests that she may hold him back.  The video editor pauses action to build the tension.  Will the duo be broken? Jonathan scowls and affirms they are ever a duo, proving himself the true friend.  Charlotte beams and dimples.  The audience weeps and cheers.  By the judges’ unanimous vote of approval, the duo are voted to the next level, the drama concludes, and the two teens head offstage to float on a pink cloud of adrenaline.  “Do you think it could be life-changing?” Charlotte asks Jonathan outside.  “Well, yeah” he gasps, still taking it all in.  ‘I think, for you,” she echoes wistfully.

The seven-minute clip is great theater, which is why I have not tired of it.  That and the truly remarkable voice.  Jonathan Antoine’s amazing natural tenor has benefitted from some years of classical training as you can discover if you search out the smattering of posted amateur videos from school and church recitals where the nascent power of his voice shines through dodgy recordings, and the fact that he hasn’t a clue what to do with his hands or how to stand is endearing.  Charlotte Antonelli likes musical theatre, and had she gone to my high school she would have easily won the lead in the big spring musical, but her voice will never match his in size or quality.

Yet these kids are a great iconic couple.  He is the fat man with the tortured soul who admires her, she the pretty girl who sees the good in him.  Like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers before them (she gave him sex appeal, he gave her class), this team has potential for success (she gives him vivacity, he gives her artistic stature).  If they can be guided to the right material, they might just take off due to their fresh musicality that far surpasses the current stale, Auto-Tuned pop scene.

Is the duo of Charlotte & Jonathan is primed to win the BGT for 2012?  If only I could receive ITV-1 from Britain.  I’ll be on tenterhooks until the finals!

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Today’s Lists

Yes
-popcorn
-cats and dogs
-candlelight
-historical fiction
-velvet on skin
-paleoanthropology
-watching the sun set
-chocolate
-lilacs to look at, freesia to smell
-white wine

No
-dirty dishwater
-price tags
-turn signals blinking endlessly
-algebra II
-spiders in the house
-religious proselytizers at the door
-sore back, sore knees, sore feet
-virtually all YouTube comments (How do you turn down the stupid?)
-knots and tangles to undo

No, No, 1000 Times No
-Account Services or Card Services (or whatever those scammers are calling themselves this week) claiming they can lower my credit card interest rates.
-Ted Nugent.

Why?
-Why can one glass or dish from a set resist breaking for ages? I have a couple of orphan super-glasses that have survived easily 30 years of use beyond their long-broken set-mates.
-When your power goes out, why does the electric company ask you to go online to report it? Don’t they realize there are a few of us dinosaurs out here still plugged into a power strip?
-Why does tipping still exist? Just pay those people a decent wage and charge me what it costs to do business with you, like everybody else.
-Why don’t they fix the bridges in the road at the same time they fix the road?
-Why doesn’t the spell-checker here recognize “paleoanthropology”?
-Seriously, why the enormous tires on trucks?
-If I’m so smart, why ain’t I rich?

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The Seed Moon

The full moon before Easter is known as the Seed Moon, in celebration of the turning of the Wheel Of the Year to Spring.  That is what Easter is about, you know, although to read all the postings of my Christian friends, you would have thought they’d invented it.  And the Christian Easter … no offense but what a drag — political hassles, betrayal, torture, pain, death, and big lies.  It’s just like watching the news in this election season.

Thanks, I’ll settle for my Wiccan pagan version which is about warm spring days, seedlings sprouting, and renewal.  Yes, dear readers, I am a witch, and if you’re still with me, the only reason I’m posting this is because I’m nearly out of my broom closet and you were going to find it out about me anyway.

Usually I think religious postings are a bit embarrassing.  My value system is that beliefs are deeply personal and it’s bad form to go on about them.  When I go to church, I quietly stand there during the Nicene Creed, I just can’t say what I can’t believe.  Sometimes acquaintances email me chain letters about praying for things and what their God will do for me if only I will forward, and I quietly delete them.  I promise not to go crazy here, but since it is Easter weekend and also the start of Passover, I feel like writing a bit about Wicca.  Please consider yourself forewarned so if you aren’t interested or need to go and pray for my wretched soul or something, I understand completely, and we’ll pick up another time.

There are two small rituals that I try to keep each spring in memory of Persephone’s return.  One is to collect the spare hair from combs and hairbrushes, bits of cotton and lint, plus the small collection of sewing thread ends that I pop into a jar as I work, and when the tree leaves burst open, I snag the little mops in the branches where they might be found by nesting birds seeking something soft (and maybe a little eclectic) for lining material.  The other ritual is I start collecting the shells from eggs used for cooking and continue through the Summer Solstice.  Crushed, these shells will provide calcium for the avian females who have been busy laying.

The process is easy.  Rinse and store the shells, and when you have a goodly amount, spread them on a baking sheet and toast in a 250ºF oven for 20-25 minutes to sterilize them.  The shells will dry and have a lightly browned edge.  Remove them to a large baggie and crush until you have tiny pieces, about the size of a match head.  As the spring turns to summer, I spread handfuls of pieces at my backyard bird feeder and cast them wherever birds might feed as I walk the woods and byways.  By Midsummer’s Day, nesting is complete and I stop, with new shells consigned once more to the compost heap.

Whatever is not eaten goes back into the ground.  What has gone returns, nothing ever ends, nothing is wasted as life cycles on.  To me, that is the essence of Eostre.  The sun and warmth come back to nourish us with joy.  We made it through another winter alive.

On this clear night, the Seed Moon is high and bright overhead.  Witches celebrate the moon as a reminder of the constant cycling of time and our lives.  The wish I made on the New Moon may well be coming true.  The seeds I planted then are beginning to sprout.  And so dear reader, blessed be.

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A Delightful Word Stumbled Across Today

Sprezzatura

From the Italian, this word describes the nonchalance that stems from discipline and rigorous practice, expressed as a seemingly effortless result.

Michael Jordan’s basketballs find the rim.  Gene Kelly in love in Singin’ In The Rain (1952).  Oksana Baiul floats over the ice as she captures gold in Lillehammer 1994.  Michaelangelo’s statue of David entrances from any angle.  San Francisco’s Voices of Music play Johann Pachebel’s Canon in D major with original-era instruments using authentic technique, transporting you to the 17th century.  More examples abound.

I hear the word with a lilt traversing the four syllables, kissing the “tz” of the first – spretz-a-TOOR-a.  Now when I experience that moment of sweetness, I will think – sprezzatura!  (Thank you Adam Nicholson, from Quarrel With the King [Harper Collins: NY, NY 2008].)

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Branding: Not Just For Cattle Anymore

Wandering around the web, burning my retinas, I keep stumbling across the necessity of branding yourself.  It seems every LinkedIn user profile has a pithy self-description, designed to sell.  The 140 character messaging service Twitter allows a whole 160 characters to capsulize yourself and win followers.  The new “branding” is the equivalent of standing up in a crowded room and announcing whatever you perceive your distinction to be.  (I am reminded of ancient times with a chamberlain announcing the arrival of guests at the ball: “Lord and Lady Fenestrator … The Grand High Duchess of Camembert” …)  The chamberlain is now the internet, and what you are and do, your brand, has become the equivalent of the landed title.

And so I ponder what exactly is my “brand”?  Is it the degree I earned years ago?  Is it the name of one of many occupations over the years, and if so, which one?  Is it one of my hobbies?  An attitude?  A political inclination?

Dan Schawbel, who started as a soi-disant “leading personal branding expert for Gen Y” in 2009 gave me a free download of his personal branding guide and in it warned that –

Taking ownership of your personal brand is extremely important because otherwise, people will categorize you based on a first impression.  That first impression might not align to your branding strategy and the brand attributes that you selected might not be displaying.  People can freely communicate about you behind your back and if that word-of-mouth isn’t accurately portraying you, then it will be much harder to reposition your brand in their minds.”

Oh dear, Mr. Schawbel.  People do indeed categorize you based on a first impression regardless, and they can and will communicate about you behind your back no matter what you decide to call yourself.  A branding claim of “SEO Genius” or “Million-Selling Sales Rep”, might prompt a reader to think one arrogant, even possibly a liar.  I know my initial reaction to that sort of unqualified personal brand is – says who?  I mean, being a Nobel prize winner is one thing, but deciding to call yourself a “Branding Expert” kind of primes the ego for puncture.  However, it appears a brand can become a lodestar, a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Several years later, I note that Mr. Schwabel is recognized as a “personal branding guru” by the New York Times.  Bravo, sir.

It seems branding shorthand is essential for the internet attention span (equal to one New York Minute).  The elevator message rules.  But still I’m equivocating.  What if more than one brand applies?  I could brand myself “Marketing Consultant” or “Chef Extraordinaire” or “Promotes Prosody Through The Harvard Comma” and be right on every count.  And admit it, jumbling them all together looks ridiculous.

And what if I change my mind, and give up writing and take up auto mechanics, am I stuck with my first brand, like today’s body art aficionados will one day notice that the tattoos of youth have sagged and faded like old balloons.  If things change, do you get to re-brand?  Do all brands grow blurry over time?

Perhaps branding comes easily to the young who have little patience to sort things out and even less history to hide, but I just haven’t figured out yet what I want to be when I grow up.  I still hope there is a little mystery to each of us, a few layers of complexity that defy easy categorization.  You can’t imagine how much trouble it was to write the “about me” section.  I’ve changed it a dozen times in a week.  I fear I am hopeless.  I could no more settle on one brand than I would settle for just one perfume.

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