Sunday, December 30, 2007

COLUMN: Retail Hell

I tried, people. I really did.

I gave it my best shot to NOT write another "bah humbug" column about Christmas this year. In fact, this week's column was to be my annual list of the best music of the year. That'll have to wait, because I need to document the soul-sucking Grinching I received this past week. I don't even care that, by the time you read this, Christmas will have come and gone. You'll have to indulge me, because I need a proper (albeit belated) holiday whine.

Despite what you may think, I'm not an entirely cynical human being. There's a spark in me that yearns for white Christmases, roasting chestnuts, and goodwill towards men. I'm all for the warm fuzzies that fill your heart at the holidays. This year, though, I think the warm fuzzies went on strike with the Hollywood writers.

As usual, I waited 'til the last minute to get my Christmas shopping done. First up was my dad. If you were to ever meet the man, you'd think he was the mildest, friendliest guy out there (which he is.) But the guy's got some weird hobbies. Chief among them, my dad likes cannons. I can't tell you how many childhood vacations involved stops to look at some kind of antique artillery. Dad, with a gleam in his eye, would try his best to tell me the history and importance of Civil War munitions; I would nod appropriately while wondering if the town had a record store and whether our hotel had free HBO.

Dad's new project is to build a replica Mountain Howitzer cannon from scratch. How one does this is beyond me -- just know that the next time you're planning on robbing a house, you might want to skip my folks'. When I asked my dad what he wanted for Christmas this year, he rapidly replied, "I'd love a 12 lb. shot put." I knew right away this was not a sudden interest in track and field. That's right, a 12 lb. iron shot put makes a spiffy cannonball.

So I scoured the Quad Cities in search of a shot put, and came up empty-handed. As you may have guessed, Shotputs-R-Us doesn't have a local branch, and I couldn't find a sporting goods store that stocked the things. My best hope was ordering online, where I discovered that if you have a 12 lb. ball of iron and you paint it red, you can get away with charging $130 + shipping for the thing.

I decided to cross off the shot put and go for the next item on his list -- something called an "air needle scaler." Dunno what it is, but it should come in handy the next time I need something scaled with air and needles. But Dad wanted it, and I found one easily enough. I celebrated with a post-shopping burrito at one of my favorite eateries. It was quite tasty, until I was leaving and glanced back to witness my bare-handed burrito maker in a full-on nose pick -- and not just a little innocent, my-nose-itches sort of manoever, no. This was a full-on nasal mining operation. Fa la la la la.

The next day was Mom. Not wanting to suffer alone, I invited my friend Linn along for the merriment. Chief on my mom's Christmas list was a new paring knife, and seeing as how I know cutlery almost as well as I know cannon-building, I summoned a clerk for help. Well, the front desk did, after I had to walk up twice and have one paged three times. Still, it was the holidays, so I let it slide.

Eventually a tired-looking clerk showed up and immediately went into sales mode, telling me that my mom deserved nothing but the best paring knife. The kind that are displayed behind glass in the store.

"Fancy," I said of the 3" paring knife being pitched our way. "What's this bad boy cost?"

"It's on sale," the clerk replied, "for only $74.99."

The look of open-mouthed horror on our faces said it all.

"Well," the clerk tried to explain, "this knife is made from only the finest German..."

"Finest German WHAT, for that price? BABIES?" Linn interjected incredulously. I was laughing so hard I couldn't breathe. The clerk was entirely unamused. But for 75 bucks, that knife had better prepare my meals, clean up after itself, AND read me a bedtime story. Eventually I settled on another nice knife (perhaps only made from sub-standard German babies,) and the clerk nodded and said she'd be back with the key.

TWENTY MINUTES LATER, she was. This was after having her re-paged twice and having two stockboys roaming the store looking for her. When she DID return, she acted put out and exasperated, offered no apologies, grabbed the knife, and walked it to the register with us. I now understand why they keep the sharp implements behind glass.

Look, I've worked retail before. I know the chaos that comes with the holidays. I know it can be stressful to wait on last-minute idiots like me. But even in my worst moments in retail, I knew how to be nice to people. I knew how to apologize for delays. I knew how to smile.

Despite my Christmas fantasies of fileting rude clerks with imported paring knives, I managed to complete my list with my sanity somewhat intact and my holiday spirit repairable. By the time you read this, you'll be full of Christmas leftovers, but as I write, it's still two days off. Despite what the world of retail wants to do to me, I still plan on having a fabulous holiday. I hope and entrust that your Christmas was bright and wish you all a happy new year -- even you, nose-picking burrito dude.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


Alright, I know this is going to make me sound like a hack comic, but honestly -- really, truly, seriously -- WHAT IS THE DEAL WITH THE WEATHER AROUND HERE LATELY?

I've lived in Illinois all my life, and thus am no stranger to winter weather. With relevant and profound apologies to James Taylor, I've seen snow and freezing rain. I've seen frost-bitten fingers that I thought would never mend. I've seen heating bills that I could not comprehend... but I always knew one day winter would end. This year? I have my doubts.

By calendar standards, winter is only a few days old -- and I'm already rooting for its demise. If this keeps up, I may be forced to drastically alter my views on global warming.

It started a couple weeks ago with that dandy late afternoon snowstorm. I'm all for a mild whitening of things, especially this time of year, but there's one teensy little problem. As much as I appreciate fine German engineering, my Beetle is NOT known for its arctic off-roading capabilities. Add that to my apartment sitting atop a steep driveway atop the Rock Island hill, and those two inches of snow meant that I couldn't get home from work that night for several hours until the plows had done their job.

We'd barely gotten back on track from that snowfall when forecasters sounded the panic alarm once again. I usually react to these warnings with a resounding "hmpf." Like I said, I'm no wuss about winter weather. I was only seven years old in 1978, but I still remember having to tunnel our way out of the house after the record-setting blizzard of that winter. I grew up in the country, and with a dad who would have taken me to school on dogsled rather than willingly submit to a snow day. No measly frozen water is going to impact MY day.

Yet in all the bad weather I can recall over the years, the one thing that doesn't ring a bell is the phrase "crippling ice storm." But thanks to our icy surprise last February, it's at the tip of every local meterologist's tongue now. There's no two ways around it: that storm last year sucked. I was trapped without power for the better part of a day, and I was one of the lucky ones. So when word came last week that another menacing ice storm was a-comin', the Quad Cities united together for the one thing we're well-trained and talented at: PANIC.

The news was already telling us to stay home at all costs. Schools had already been cancelled. The National Weather Service was telling people to prepare their "winter survival kits." What, exactly, should a winter survival kit consist of in this modern age? A pointy stick with which to kill passing polar bears? Instruction manuals for "Extreme Makeover: Igloo Edition"? The rules and regulations of professional curling? I was dubious, but perhaps I DID need to stock up on some supplies.

I headed to the grocery store, a fine notion were it not for the other 98.53% of the Quad Cities who had the same idea. Shelves were emptying. A woman walked by carrying what appeared to be a cubic ton of toilet paper to the register. I even saw a beleagured manager attempting to explain to a customer that sidewalks would not benefit from the sprinkling of water softener salts. Based on the checkout line length alone, you would have thought Neil Kastor had called for an 80% chance of the Apocalyse.

And there I was, stuck in the middle of it all. But hey, if enough ice DID manage to plop down and cause a problem, I wanted something slightly more filling than the three packets of taco sauce and one can of tomato paste that comprised my entire inventory of provisions.

I got home and downloaded the first season of "How I Met Your Mother" onto my iPod -- if the power did go out, I still wanted entertainment options. Satisfied with my prep work, I went to bed and had nightmares of opening my window to scenes of pure winter carnage.

Hours later I awoke, took a gulp, and opened my window to scenes of... rain. Not freezing rain. Not evil rain. Not witness-the-wrath-of-Nature rain. Just rain. I drove problem-free to work and spent the rest of the day in disbelief that half of my co-workers had pulled no-shows due to the weather. Due to the rain.

And yes, before you yell, I know it was a bad storm. People died in other states, and that's awful. Even some of the QC metro area lost power. But in Rock Island, it was just some crummy rain. I didn't get to call in to work, I didn't get to see any gnarly wrecks. It was the most underwhelming "crippling ice storm" ever. I hate storms, but if it's gonna happen, it might as well shut the city down for a day or two or it's just no fun.

But now, especially after the dumping of snow we got last weekend, I'm ready for it to end. Granted, a friend of mine just got back from a trip to the Caribbean with photos of holiday palm trees and surfing Santas, and that just seems horribly wrong. Christmas should be white, chilly, and wonderful -- but on Dec. 26th? Let it thaw, let it thaw, let it thaw.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

COLUMN: Kyrgyzstan Claus

I stink at math.

It's one of my dark, shameful secrets. There's just something about numbers that makes my brain switch off. I am, for lack of a better word, mathtarded. And it's not for lack of trying, either.

I'm not saying I was the world's best student or anything, but still, I gave math my best shot. I had to -- my father was a former physics major who designed and built the house I grew up in from scratch. I'm still convinced to this day that my dad lost most of his hair not due to genetics, but due to my Algebra II homework (a class I passed by the skin of my teeth and thanks only to cram sessions with an overly patient parent and a programmable calculator that learned the formulas a lot faster than me.)

High schoolers are famous for saying stupid stuff, and one of those cringe-worthy phrases often uttered by my younger self? "I will NEVER need to know this to get by in life." Well, I'm here to tell you that, for once, High School Shane was right. I have made it almost 37 years now, and can safely tell you all that I've yet to find myself in a perilous situation where I need to measure an isosceles triangle in order to survive. In fact, I had to go to Wikipedia just now to spell "isosceles." I have yet to encounter any task preceded by the adjective "Pythagorean." The cosine button on my calculator has NEVER been pressed.

I'm sure there are career paths out there that utilize math on a minute-by-minute basis. Newspaper Columnist isn't one of 'em. I suppose it would be nice to balance a checkbook or complete a tax form without the sensation that my brain is about to leak out of my eye sockets, but hey -- if you can't do those simple tasks, there's certainly a computer program and/or paid professional willing to take it on for you. It's good to know that there are competent mathematicians and engineers out there to make life easier and run the world for we mathematically challenged types.

Take the fine Nordic engineering consultants of the Sweco Group. According to their website, Sweco provides consulting services in engineering, environmental technology, and architecture. However, as a public service to one and all, they recently applied their genius minds to a phenomenon not easily grasped by we math underlings -- Santa Claus. For generations, we've been puzzled how one jolly old man and his eight freaky deer could possibly deliver toys to ALL the girls and boys. In a press release that I swear I'm not making up, Sweco has the answers.

Taking into account factors like geographic density and the fewest detours, and working with the estimation that there are 120 persons per square mile and an average of 66 feet between homes on Earth -- and assuming that Santa travels against the Earth's rotation thus giving him an optimizing 48 hours in which to deliver gifts -- Sweco has proven that Santa has exactly 34 microseconds at each stop to shimmy down the chimney, plop down the gifts, down some cookies and milk, and be on his merry way.

In order to pull this off, Dasher and Prancer and Comet and Dunder and the gang need to travel at 12,974,400 miles an hour to get the job done. And that officially puts the kibash on the North Pole. Assuming that Santa begins and ends his annual trek from the most logistically optimal position on Earth based on population density and distance, there's only one place where Santa's Workshop can really exist: Kyrgyzstan.

That's right, Santa Claus is a Kyrgyzstani. Until now, Kyrgyzstan was best known for its woolen exports, the komuz (a fretless 3-stringed lute), a rousing 22nd place finish in the men's pentathlon at the 2004 Summer Olympiad, and being the only country whose name sounds like the noise I make when I sneeze. But now, thanks to the wonders of modern mathematics, it's home to Santa and the elves.

And the Kyrgyzstani government couldn't be happier. After word reached them of the Swedish engineering discovery, the Kyrgyz tourism board launched a contest to track down the Bearded One and his jellybelly. Given Kyrgyzstan's abundant and treacherous mountains, this might take some time.

"The state tourism agency always knew that Father Christmas lived here," said Kyrgyz tourism official Akbar Dzhigitov this week to reporters, "and finally Swedish scientists have proved it." The contest runs until December 20 and the winner will receive an award, so you've still got time to catch that flight (Air Kyrgyz?) and get a-huntin'.

Of course, another report on the internet claims to debunk the Swedish engineer's claim. It says that -- if the Sweco findings are accurate and Santa's jetting around at 12,974,400 mph -- a sleigh weighed down with presents would encounter such massive air resistance that the whole ensemble would burst into flames and be vaporized with 4.26 thousandths of a second.

Thus proving, once and for all, the truth we dare not speak: mathematicians are even MORE bored than I ever thought possible. And also proving that the greatest physicist & mathematician of all time must be Santa Claus himself, as even given these odds, he somehow manages his job. After all, the presents under the tree are irrefutable proof. My guess is it must involve a rip in the space-time continuum... or perhaps a genetic Santa cloning lab... or perhaps subterranean tunnels allowing Santa to fly THROUGH the Earth as opposed to around it...

Then again, what do I know? I stink at math.


Well, this weekend washed away yet ANOTHER one of my fantasies.

For a long portion of my life, I was a Shane o' Optimism. The kind of guy that lived in a world of chirping birds, rising suns, and the genuine belief that humanity, for the most part, ain't so bad. The Shane o' Optimism fancied himself one day living in a perfect little home (assuming, of course, that Shane o' Optimism had a limitless budget with which to hire perfect little caretakers for his perfect little home -- even an optimistic Shane isn't prepped to mow the yard himself.)

And this life would naturally come complete with a white picket fence, a charming wife, some loving children, and even maybe a little yip dog named Skipper or some such. Therein lies the problem. No white picket fences surround my crummy apartment. My dance card is woefully lacking in elegible bachelorettes. The only children in my life are the neighbor kids who try nightly to barricade my hallway unless we tenants pay something called a "Door Tax." And instead of yippy Skipper, I have neurotic sister kitties who are systematically destroying any possessions that I may otherwise choose to care about.

But this, friends, is no big deal. I was born an only child. I know how to cope. That's why I replaced my optimistic dream with one that's a little more grounded but hopefully just as fun:

If I don't get the house and the wife and kids and the dog, then at the very least I should get to enjoy life as a cantankerous hermitic shut-in whose life's ambition is to scare the neighbor kids. "DOOR TAX?!?!" I can hear myself yelling at them as I shake my cane menacingly, "I'LL SHOW YOU A DOOR TAX!" And I've already got 2 cats; that means I'm only 58 more away from the appropriate level of crazy to ensure that folks walk a wide swath around Creepy Old Man Brown's door.

And my first grand test of the hermitic, isolationist, slightly off-my-rocker lifestyle? This past weekend.

Normally, I spend my Saturdays shopping, eating out, and DJ'ing to a packed dance club until the not-so-wee hours of Sunday. This past weekend, though, Jack Frost had other plans. I'm not afraid of a little ice. But I AM afraid of pratfalling onto my fanny, and those two things tend to happen simultaneously.

Happily, for once I'd paid attention to the weather reports ahead of time. Knowing that an ice storm was hours away, I went out on Friday and picked up some essentials (2 frozen dinners, 1 bag Chips Ahoy, 4 magazines, and a metric ton of Coke Classic.) By the time I woke up on Saturday, the world was already glazed over, cars were sliding down my street, and best of all, my DJ gig was cancelled.

I had the weekend free. I could do anything I wanted... anything but leave my apartment. I was thrilled. It was heaven. How many days I had spent at work daydreaming of an afternoon of sitting around and doing whatever I felt like! Here it was. I was free. I was independent. I was... really, really, really bored.

I turned on the TV. 138 channels at my disposal. Fascinating programming options from around the world. Or so I'm told. I, meanwhile, chose to watch 8 reruns of "Frasier" in a row.

There were projects to sink my teeth into. The cupboards in the kitchen needed a good cleaning. A pile of records begged for alphabetization. And who wouldn't want to get an early start on their taxes?

Me, apparantly, as I wasted the day playing pretend Rock Band on my X-Box. The newly released rival to the Guitar Hero video game features not only plastic guitars, but plastic drums and a plastic microphone to boot. Of course, I can't actually sing a note in pitch to save my life -- unless, that is, I attempt it in the world's weeniest falsetto. You know, the kind of voice you don't pull out in front of friends. Yet I screeched until hoarse, and as of press time, am now the 106th greatest vocalist in the cyberworld. And judging by the thinness of my walls, perhaps I DID satisfy my goal of scaring the neighbor children, albeit in the entirely wrong way.

I thought I'd like being a hermit for a weekend, but I ended up with nightmarish cabin fever. Were it not for my friend Chris braving the ice to come over with a bucket of chicken and a second X-Box controller, I might have lost it entirely. Curse you, reverse psychology -- as soon the ice made it impossible to leave the apartment, leaving was the only thing I wanted to do. So I'm not giving up my flirtation with the shut-in lifestyle quite yet... but let's just say I still steal a glance or two at any white picket fence that comes my way.

Now then, I'm off to leave my hermitic lifestyle for a taco run. Anybody got a buck I can borrow? I don't know if I've got enough to cover the door tax tonight...

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

COLUMN: Noodles

I know how much my editors love it when I do this, but this week's column is partially little more than an unsolicited endorsement. I usually try to stay away from outright promoting a business, but this time, I don't care. My story has a point, though, so bear with.

It all started several years ago when I found myself in Boulder, Colorado for a week-long training seminar. The newspaper sent me out there by myself, and it was one of the most liberating times of my life. Finally, I felt like the Mature Responsible Adult Working Dude. You know, staying in hotels, renting a car, making appointments, finding out I was there during the Colorado state-wide breakdancing finals (yesssss!), taking awkward photos in front of the "Mork & Mindy" house -- you know, mature people stuff. Well, at least as mature as I ever get.

Anyways, one of the integral aspects of being a Mature Responsible Dude is the act of procuring food for oneself. In Rock Island, this is easy -- there are brightly lit places called "Taco Bell" and "Wendy's" that dispense food to those in need. In Boulder, it's a little more challenging.

Because of the crazy scenery out that way, Boulder city regulations prohibit big gaudy neon signs. Handy when you want to take in the mountain views, NOT handy when you're looking for the golden arches of Big Mac goodness. On top of things, everyone in Boulder is skinny, attractive, and physically fit -- I'll never forget driving to the Rocky Mountain National Park in my rental car, trying to precariously balance an order of french fries on my lap, while dudes in mountain bikes are whizzing past me doing 40 mph up a sheer vertical incline.

The point is, greasy fast food options -- the staple of my diet -- are few and far between in health-conscious Colorado. Instead, there are tofu emporiums and oxygen bars and weird ethnic cuisine featuring massive amounts of curry and pepper presumably to mask the taste of pure, unadulterated Evil. I had a really difficult time finding food to match my palate.

Until I discovered one of my favorite restaurants ever. And I ended up eating there for nearly every meal that week. And I came back and wouldn't shut up about the place to friends and family. Heck, I even wrote their corporate offices once to suggest building a Quad City franchise. A decade later, I still get warm fuzzies thinking about that place.

That place was Noodles & Company, and this week, they just opened their first Quad City location. In fact, I'm writing this column on their opening day. It turns out that I must not have been the only one excited about the place, as it's now become one of the fastest-growing restaurant chains in America. Even cooler is the fact that the corporate owners of Noodles & Company met right here in Rock Island when they both attended Augustana College.

Now, I'm not going to turn this whole column into a free ad for the place, I swear. Suffice to say, if you're the kind of person who gets excited by noodles, it's worth a stop. Honestly, I'm kind of scared to go there now -- after a decade-old fuzzy happy memory, the reality might not be as perfect as my brain recalls it to be, but that's a risk I'm going to take. I'm going to go check out the Davenport location as soon as I finish this column. But it's not really the food that scares me the most -- it's all you other Quad Citizens.

What is it about this area that compels every man, woman, and child to rush out and try every new restaurant that comes along? The opening of a new restaurant in the Quad Cities is so often treated with the hype and crowd rush of a Hollywood premiere, and I just don't get why it's always an Officially Big Deal.

Case in point, we recently got our first couple of Sonics in town. When I heard on the news that they were opening, I thought, "Hey, a burger sounds alright tonight. I think I'll swing by there." So I drove all the way out to northwest Davenport to claim my burger... only to find a line of cars SIXTY-TWO DEEP in the drive-thru (yes, I counted.) Come on, people. I'll be the first person to tell you that Sonic cooks up a mean burger and some tots, but is ANY eatery worth that kind of a wait?

Who knows, maybe it was 62 other people who also thought, "Hey, a burger sounds alright tonight." But I have a sneaking suspicion that for some of those people, it was an Event. People who had been sitting at home, ticking off dates on a calendar and getting REALLY excited at the prospect of stuffing their faces somewhere new and different.

Maybe it's a Midwest thing; my hometown of Galesburg was even worse. There's a reason why many chain restaurants use Galesburg as a testing site for new products. We're willing, chubby guinea pigs for it. "Grab the kids, honey! You won't believe it, but McRIBS ARE BACK!" If our entertainment options are such that the opening of a new fast-food joint requires police presence to monitor traffic flow, perhaps we should sit back and take stock of our lives.

Of course, every time I sit back, all I can think about is a bowl full of noodles. So I bid you all adieu and bid myself bon appetit, and I cross my fingers that less than 62 of you have the same idea.


This one's gonna be tough to write. Maybe the toughest one ever.

See, it's normally my job to find life's little inanities -- you know, the unavoidable crummy bits to the daily grind that get under our skin -- and skewer them. I like to poke fun at myself and my problems, and maybe even you and your problems.
But what happens when something comes along that you CAN'T poke fun at? What happens when life throws such a curveball that you can't make it all better in the confines of a newspaper page? It's where my skills as a writer stop, and it's where I find myself this week.

This week, we unexpectedly lost one of our own -- Marla Angelo, one of our classified telesales reps here at the paper, passed away at the criminally young age of 54. And there's nothing I can do or write to make it cheery or distract me from reality. There's no right thing to say. It just hurts. It's unfair, and it sucks.

I've read so many eulogies in our papers over the years that you'd think I could just blurp out the appropriate sappy prose. But what happens when you simply want to pay tribute to someone who lived their life on the quiet side -- never hurting a fly, never standing out in a crowd, but always there for you no matter what?

For 26 years, Marla worked here at the paper, and I've had the pleasure of sitting beside her for the last 12. If you've ever held a garage sale or sold your car through the classifieds, there's a good chance you've talked to her. She's been a rock to our advertising department, and the fact that her corner desk now sits empty makes me numb.

It's no wonder that the photo used in her obituary was taken right here with her trusty telephone headset in place. The woman had a work ethic that I had never been exposed to, nor will I likely see again. She came in every morning and buried herself in her job, coming up for air only for lunch and quitting time -- and many a night, it would take the exasperated prodding of a manager to get her to put work down and go home.

Frankly, her devotion to her job drove some of us batty on a regular basis. Even the most basic of tasks would take Marla forever to get done. But it wasn't an issue of poor time management; it was her constant and unwavering drive for perfection. If you were a client of Marla's, you could expect a barrage of questions, faxes, and phone calls until your ad was absolutely perfect. And when her devoted clients would call in while she was out of the office, the usual response was "let me have her voicemail." They didn't want OUR help; nothing but the original would suffice.

The only time Marla would ever get distracted at work was if one of us had a problem -- in which case she'd tell us about an even greater problem she once faced. If you had a headache, she'd tell you about her near-stroke. If the roads were bad coming in to work, they were nearly impassible in her native East Moline. Sometimes her one-upsmanship would leave you bristled, but for Marla, it was more innocent commiseration. It was her way of saying, "Don't worry, I've been down that road, too. I know how you feel." And if something were truly wrong, you could set your watch by her phone call to your house that night to check up on you.

More than anything, the woman never uttered a bad word about anyone as long as I knew her. Right after I started at the paper, the brakes on my car went out. After catching me complaining about the ungodly price estimate I'd been given, Marla insisted that I bring the car by her house for her team of mechanics (her husband and sons) to look at. I'll never forget walking into her living room and seeing her tiny frame there, glasses on, surrounded by a pile of work she'd brought home from the office. Other than this weekly column, I've never taken a lick of work home in 12 years. Not only did her family fix my brakes, she insisted on feeding me home-cooked meals each time I was over.

Recently on a golf outing, a co-worker returned to the parking lot to find a flat tire. Not only did Marla wait with her for the tow truck, she followed her for miles to an out-of-the-way garage and kept her company until the tire was fixed. She probably never thought twice about it. She was always there for us.

And at her visitation, we got to see photos of a different Marla -- rock climbing, inner tubing, sled racing. It was good to be reminded of her full life outside of work, and her loving kids and grandkids are testament enough to that.

As we try to make sense of it all, I've been talking to so many co-workers this week. And they ALL say the same thing: She was SUCH a nice lady. And when you stop to think about it, could there possibly be any better legacy than that? She was a nice lady, a colleague, and my friend -- and I'm going to miss her like crazy. Rest in peace, Marla.