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    Taking Track Inventory

    2012 - 07.28

    Out of the many boxes filled with parts to unpack for my new model railroad, the one labeled “switches and track” was of particular importance. After unwrapping the goods from their protective newspaper bundling, I laid them all out on the fresh plywood where staging tracks are soon to be. It’s sort of strange to see my last layout condensed down into purely the specialized sections of track.

    Taking an inventory of what’s here (in descending order of exotic-ness)
    -one three-way turnout
    -one #6 curved left hand turnout
    -one #4 wye
    -one short section of custom bridge track
    -one #5 right hand turnout (peco)
    -two #5 left hand turnouts (peco)
    -three #6 left hand turnouts
    -nine #6 right hand turnouts
    -two rerailers (both in use)

    Time to figure out how to put it all to use! :D

    Three’s Company: Neighbors on the MILW West Coast Extension

    2012 - 07.25

    (Pt.3 on my model train odyssey. Click here for Pt.1 and Pt.2)

    I started researching what other railroads ran through the same territory as the Milwaukee. The candidates for intermingling would be the Union Pacific (“UP”), the Great Northern (“GN”), and the Northern Pacific (“NP”). I’d like to have a second road around for the sake of operational complexity and visual variety. More colors are good. The UP would introduce yellow, GN would introduce more orange and dark green, NP would give any number of shades of green.

    Despite the fact that the UP would make the most logical companion to my MILW (they shared depots), I really just … don’t like the UP! This is owing to the fact that a passenger-sharing agreement with the UP drove the Milwakee to repaint their orange and maroon livery into the standard UP yellow scheme, thusly ending my favorite schemes. To me, the UP Yellow is like a boring beige. It’s the Toyota Camry of railroad paint schemes: sensible and cheap. But overpoweringly bland. Uninspiring. Ubiquitious to the point of forgettable. I’m looking for something more unique than UP. That leaves me with the GN and the NP. Fortunately, there are some interesting possibilities for modeling these lines…

    The GN and the NP both had flagship passenger trains that were pretty neat; The Empire Builder & The North Coast Limited, respectively. Since the Empire Builder is mostly orange, for the sake of variety I’m more interested in the North Coast Limited. Depending on the year I want to call it, there are TWO distinct and arresting paint schemes for the NCL: 1. the so-called “Pine Tree” scheme, which is a two-tone dark green with a thin yellow stripe for ‘pop’ and 2. the “Raymond Loewy” scheme, created by the same famous industrial designer who drafted the design for the MILW Erie-built diesels as noted in the last post. The Loewy scheme, pictured above, uses a thin white stripe separating a sea-foam green from a forest green. Both of these are attractive possibilities, along with the option of using either streamlined or heavyweight coaches for the Pine Tree scheme, again depending on the year. No matter what way you slice it, that North Coast Limited is a neat passenger train. And I like the name.

    Sealing the deal, the NP and the MILW had a good amount of trackage that ran parallel to one another through Washington State, and also in Montana. So it would be realistic to have those main lines running together, or even on opposite sides of a stream, which could make some neat scenery. The North Coast Limited also traveled those tracks, so I could model ‘meets’ (aka two trains passing one another) between the North Coast Limited and my Milwaukee Olympian Hiawatha. SOLD!

    The only downside to this arrangement is that the NP and the MILW never shared depots.

    Thusly my trackage will be occupied by NP and MILW, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t squeeze in some Great Northern too. They had a short-length commuter train called the Cascadian, which would be simple/cheap to model and provide some further variety. It would not be terribly unrealistic to model the Cascadian taking the occasional detour over the NP mainline, a practice that would happen in real life as the result of track washouts or wrecks.

    I think that wraps up my passenger operations–heaps of MILW, a healthy sprinkling of NP, and just a tiny pinch of GN.

    I have a Model Railroad! And have been reminded: This is a PROCESS.

    2012 - 06.24

    Okay, so ultra-huge “The Moment of Genesis” tag here: model railroad construction has begun! Last week I started building benchwork, and this last weekend I went out and got plywood, cut it up, put it together, and just last night, finished a bare-bones loop. That one sentence right there is a TON of work. Although it’s not much to brag about at this point, have a look at the progress thus far:

    For benchwork, I used plain old pine 2x4s and bought a gigantic box of 3″ tan-colored screws that will blend in with the wood. Seems like it worked out great so far. With the track plan I have in mind, the layer that’s been put down right now will eventually be almost entirely unseen, serving as a reversing loop on one end and hidden staging yards on the other. I established the height of the layout based upon where I visually estimated the height of the next layer to be. My thinking was to make the 2nd level (which is the visible level where all the action will happen) eye level when sitting in a chair. Already I’m wondering if I didn’t set the first level too low. It’s 30″ above the floor, which is exactly eye level if you’re sitting (straight-upright) on the floor. Raising the height of the whole layout might happen in the future, however I need to build the second layer before I’ll know if that’s a good idea or not. To be continued, many months from now…

    For my main construction material, I decided to use plywood instead of MDF (medium density fiberboard). MDF doesn’t warp, is quite sturdy, and absorbs sound better; however it’s also heavy… and when you cut MDF it generates a literal cloud of superfine sawdust. Sawdust that contains formaldahyde, a carcinogen, which will settle everywhere, over everything. I know this because I made the mistake of cutting MDF indoors when I was in high school, and afterwards I was finding dust from it for years. MDF definitely has major advantage in terms of planarity and acoustics, but I knew that I would need to make many cuts to the railroad boards in situ, and that superfine sawdust was a major no-no for a room that can’t be sealed off from the rest of the house. That, and MDF will totally eat sawblades like candy, and I plan to use my jigsaw to cut curves and special shapes. Plywood, despite the downside of warpage, will have to work. At least at $16 per 4’x8′ sheet, plywood is also cheap!

    I’ve been asking myself the question, “how am I going to build this layout so that it can disassemble in the future?” The solution I came up with was to use plywood sheets as a base that will attach to the benchwork. Any risers, subroadbed, and extra layers above will attach to the plywood sheets, rather than attaching directly to the benchwork. Any screws which attach the benchwork to the plywood base will come in through the bottom, so that by unscrewing those, I can lift off the layout in sections for removal. I won’t learn if this was a smart idea or not until I start building extra layers. Hopefully the answer will be yes. I suppose that all hinges on how securely I attach everything to the plywood base.

    On Saturday I pushed hard for most of the day and completed essentially all of the round one woodworking. I was really hoping to throw on some track and get a train running before bedtime, but then I went to search for my track spikes and they were… absolutely nowhere to be found. I tore open every box and looked twice. Nothing! No spikes, only exasperation! So Sunday I visited a local hobby shop and picked up what I needed. When we got home and I started working on the track I was reminded of a few rules of model railroad construction that I had completely forgotten about:

    1. for every track spike that goes in nice and easy, there are 5 that instantly get bent up in 7 directions and are totally useless. Somehow you delude yourself into thinking “hey, I can still save this, I can make it work!”
    2. old flex track loves to destroy itself if you try to force it into a curve while partially nailed down or constrained; the plastic ties snap off and you’re left with a broken section that has to be cut away
    3. anytime you cut a piece of rail, it will fly across the entire house, ricocheting off every wall and landing who knows where
    4. soldering a stretch of flex track together while straight, and then attempting to bend it into a curve later is a bad idea (see #2)
    5. brand new rail joiners are, like, impossible to get on. Anticipate raw thumbs.

    Alright, so now that I’ve remembered those rules, maybe life will be easier going forward. I got my loop built and broke out my awesome new MTH Bipolars for a victory lap! It was at this point that, as the title of the post says, it occured to me that there is no single moment of triumph, because a well-running railroad doesn’t just magically happen. It’s a process to get there. I could get the Bipolar to run around a couple times without derailing, but the trackwork, even with its very wide curves, had minor imperfections–and minor imperfections in 1:57 scale are actually not just minor imperfections. Track is FUSSY. For Serious.

    I got out the Hiawatha and attempted to run that, and got another rude awakening: A single bipolar can pull only about 7-8 cars around a 24″ radius curve. And this is on level ground, nevermind all the hills I’m about to introduce. Super Dome derailments started happening where nothing else came off. Okay, time to add a rerailer–I don’t know how I thought I could get away without one of those in the first place! Fixed the one problem spot… found a new problem spot. Then I started getting uncouplings due to track passing over two adjoining sections of plywood which weren’t exactly matched in height. Ahhhh, it’s all coming back to me now, the trials and tribulations of fine-tuning and troubleshooting the tracks!

    The track problems are not such a big deal. Every layout will need to overcome those. And of major responsibilty for this is the fact that I was rushing to get it built, rather than taking my time and being mindful to create smooth, perfect joinings between sections. I should know better than that. So those problems can all be replaced, reworked, and overcome. But I’m a bit more concerned about the Bipolar’s inability to pull much on level track. If I double-head them, that’ll increase the power but I’m not sure by how much. There are a few other options such as adding lead weights to increase locomotive traction, and a product called Bullfrog Snot (seriously), which adds grip to the wheels. But if it turns out that even two Bipolars can’t haul a 9-10 car train up the grades & curves I’m planning, well, that’s a real bummer. Time will tell.

    Also somewhat of another setback, the E1 with the cool paint scheme seems to have some kind of issue. It runs sort of jerky. Going to have to look into that. I’m sure it can be fixed, but just another thing to take care of before I can relax and enjoy the empire as I have dreamed it… Well, this is step #0001 I suppose. There’s a whole lot more to do!!

    “Now THAT’S Railroading!”

    2012 - 06.12

    (Pt.2 on my model train odyssey, which begun here)

    If I had to choose a favorite train engine, it’d be the Milwakee’s electric “Bipolar” locomotives, so-named due to the type of motors they employed. Designated class EP-2, only 5 examples were ever built, made in 1919 and operating until ’61. They ran in Washington State until 57 when they were transferred to the Rocky Mountain Division–but really their glory period was before a botched rebuild-job in ’53 which made their appearance more ‘bubbly’ and their operation unreliable. Personally I prefer the old look with all the exposed piping, more similar to a steam engine in appearance. These engines never ran on any other railroad besides the Milwaukee Road and wore a variety of colorful paint schemes during their lifetime.

    As posted previously, I do plan on recreating the Cascade Mountain division on the Milwaukee Road, where the Bipolars ran. Since I’m going to do a good deal of work building catenary (that’s the hip’n’with-it word for overhead electrical wires) I want to max out any/all operations that might have occurred under Milwaukee wires…

    Which leads me to another type of distinctive electric engine on the Milwaukee nicknamed the “Little Joe”. Although in my book the Joes aren’t quite as cool as the Bipolars, they are still way up there on the scale of rad-lookin railroading. These fellas were designated class EP-4 (2 units) and EF-4 (10 units), depending on whether they pulled freight or passenger service. The MILW ran them on the Rocky Mountain Division from 1950 all the way until the dismantling of the electric wires in June of ’74. Unfortunately for my historical accuracy, the Joes never once ran on the Coast division: ONE, there was an un-electrified gap separating the Rocky Mountain Division and the Coast Division, and TWO, the substations which powered the railroad had to be ‘modded’ from 3kV up to 3.3kV to max out Joestyle performance. I highlight these engines in particular since they are readily availble in inexpensive plastic, as opposed to haughtily-expensive hand-built brass. So I could definitely obtain these.

    In doing research for my forthcoming model railroad, I basically just did some google image searches for Milwaukee Road and tried to find anything that I felt looked awesome. The Joes definitely qualify. And the scenery on the Rocky Mountain Division is more or less interchangable with that of the Cascade Mountains in Washington where the Bipolars ran. I think I am going to make the IME (“it’s my empire”) decision to call my mountains either the Rockies or the Cascades, depending on who’s traversing them. That’ just more fun.

    Further motivation to make such a compromise is the fact that the Joes actually ran some very interesting freight service, the form of Train #261 westbound and Train #262 eastbound, both of which were “hotshot” freights or extra fast freight trains in other words. In 1962, these two trains were named the “XL Special” and the “Thunderhawk”, respectively–both of which are ultra badass names! Their claim to fame was speed. They covered 2200 miles in 55 hours. By contrast, their fastest competition did it in 94 hours. And only the Milwaukee had tall enough tunnels to run tri-level auto racks, hauling imported cars from Seattle to Chicago. Check out this photo of the Thunderhawk in action:

    Running those trains sounds like a lot of fun to me: they’ve got badass names, they’re really fast, their motive power is a distinctive mix of electric and diesel, and they’ll fit with the terrain I’ll be building. Only issue is the time period. If I set the railroad in early ’53 I can have both Bipolars and Joes, although I shouldn’t mix them for regional accuracy. But my favorite Bipolar paint scheme was painted over in 1948. And the Super Domes didn’t exist until late ’52. I suppose if I really wanted to be a stick in the mud, I could just hide the offending mismatches in staging but realistically, when no one else is around to be appalled at my hideous choices in modeler’s license, I just see myself running the trains I like and calling it close enough.

    Another candidate for my modeling is the Olympian Hiawatha as pulled by the “Erie-built” diesels, as pictured below. These babies had a flashy chrome nose and a mean-looking evil-eyebrow thing going on with the cabin windows, thanks to famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy. Put those suckers down as my vote for all-time favorite diesel. Only problem: they don’t exist in plastic… yet. Ball’s in your court, maufacturers. I’ll be waiting for these……


    *** pedantic technicality: Erie-builts DO exist in plastic, but only in a Life-Life Proto 1000 rendering of the engines which didn’t have the chrome nose or the flat windows. In other words, it’s a ‘so-so quality’ model lacking the two most distinguishing features of the version I like.

    The Pacific Coast Extension. Stage ONE: Dream It.

    2012 - 05.15

    “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you’re doing it wrong. It’s YOUR empire. Build it the way YOU want.”

    That’s sage advice… about the hobby of model railroading, given to me by a good friend who also runs trains. Soon there’s going to be a brand new model railroad in my life. It’ll be my second serious attempt–Version 2.0–and I’m ultra-excited about this fact. This is the first in what is sure to be a long, ongoing series of posts, describing the joys and tribulations of this new railway. We’re going to delve deeply into the minutia of the microcosm known as Model Railroading.

    Oh heeeeeeells yeah. Put on your engineer’s hat and blow the whistle because here we go, people!:

    Model Railroader magazine has a series of DVDs about the hobby entitled “Dream it. Plan it. Build it.” I’d go one further to say there’s a 4th stage, being “Run it.” But right now we’re definitely in the “dream it” stage. All those other stages are still just a distant airhorn, far off on the horizon.

    A little historical background: my great, great grandfather was a conductor, and my great grandfather was an engineer, both working for the (now long-gone) Milwaukee Road, or the Milwaukee, St. Paul, & Pacific as it would have been known. Both of them worked on the Milwaukee’s pacific coast extension, which connected Chicago to Seattle. I intend to model the western-most end of that trackage. Number one because of the family history aspect, but also equally because the trains that ran over it were super cool looking, and third: the terrain itself is mountainous with lots of bridges and pine trees–picturesque! It’s got all the ingredients.

    I learned a lot from my previous model railroad, and I definitely want to apply those lessons:
    1. Have a loop. (aka continuous running) Some people hate it, others love it. I’m in the latter camp, and love being able to just chill out and watch the trains roll by.
    2. Have a computer there. Or in other words, have some other reason to spend time hanging out in this room. You’ll be there more often, you’ll look at the railroad, and be reminded of what you want to do on it next. Having other reasons to hang out near your railroad forces you into working on it more.
    3. Use wide curves. My last RR had a harrowingly-tight 14 inch radius. That was the single worst aspect of the pike. Originally I had intended to run only steam-powered lumber trains. Then Walthers came out with the Hiawatha passenger cars and suddenly I had the chance to run my favorite trains. Prior to that, they had only existed in brass ($$$$)–which pretty much meant to me that they didn’t exist. Goes to show how new products can change what your operating interests are. Wide curves will support all matter of engines and rolling stock.
    4. Build it out of wood. Some people will laugh at this, but my last layout was made chiefly of styrofoam insulation and foamcore board. Those are great materials for mocking things up, which was the idea… then I got lazy and just never upgraded to wood. Probably because my radius was so tight that I had to have the track in just the perfect placement to stop derailments from happening, therefore I was leery of ripping up something that was just barely working. Even when you glue it and support it well with shims and filler material, foamcore is inherently unstable, and the tracks never quite stay in one place. Never again, foamcore, never again. All track, I don’t care how inconvenient, will have wood under it this time. Lesson learned!
    5. Don’t just loop: Get wireless DCC. I never did on my last layout. It was small, sure. But I think not having it made me spend less time doing realistic train operating–assembling trains and moving them from A to B–as opposed to just looping all night. Having a wired DC throttle means you’re stuck in one place, physically, AND you can only run one train at a time. With a wireless DCC throttle, you can have multiple trains doing different things, and you can walk around to monitor tricky maneuvers up close.

    Okay, so those five lessons right there, those are great guidelines! And we still have RULE #1: “It’s YOUR empire. Build it the way YOU want.”

    The first question I asked myself about this new railroad is, “what year should it be set in?” I started doing a lot of research and I reluctantly came to the conclusion that I don’t think militant (or even rigid) historical accurancy is for me–at least not in the aspect of “set in the year____”

    New goal: Be historically accurate to the point where things look like thed did in the photos. But don’t be so historically accurate that you can’t run the trains you want to run, or have fun.

    What do I mean by that?? Tune in Next Time to find out! This is JB, signing out on the Model Railroading tag for now…

    The Viaduct at Mine Creek – Chapter One

    2011 - 10.26

    I love it when I can make a post using the “Moment of Genesis” tag. That in itself is a tiny triumph. I think this one qualifies:

    In the mail a couple weeks ago I recieved all the little bits of plastic I’ll need to construct an HO-scale replica of the steel viaduct at Mine Creek. This is a giant trestle along the Milwaukee Road mainline in the Snoqualmie Valley of Washington state, and indeed my replica will be GIANT as well.  Check out the whole setup below, with the locos and some inspiring artwork seen in the background:

    Someday I dream of being ‘that-guy’ with the huge attic empire of a sprawling model railroad. To help that dream come true, I plan on building smaller dioramas or set-pieces which will someday become the focal points of a large sized train layout. This huge bridge will most definitely be one of these!

    I will probably still need to pick up a few more minor pieces to model the top deck, the railing, and the catenary posts (those parts that hold up the overhead wire), but the major pieces are all here now, which is very exciting. Micro Engineering, the company who manufacturers these bridge kits, is one of the best companies out there. When this bridge is done, it will be spectacular indeed! Also, it will probably be a very non-trivial endeavor to build it! These are advanced-level kits, not intended for the faint-of-heart. Oh boy.

    Anyway, it will probably be a while before I actually break all this open, airbrush it, cut it from the sprues and then build it. There’s a house move in the near future and all this stuff is a can of worms to be respected. But still, it’s here, and I see the potential in it. This thing is gonna be AWESOME.

    To be continued…………..

    Primo Vino Art: Snoqualmie. aka ‘combine all the things!’

    2011 - 07.18

    As I mentioned in the last one of these posts, I’m way behind on posting the artwork for cool bottles of wine.  So much so that I’ve got three bottles here that I’ve picked up over the course of the last couple months all from the same vintner, waiting to be drank.  Let’s knock them all out at once, shall we?  The following picture is going to demand a lot of explanation:

    So there’s the three bottles of wine, with some train-themed artwork.  Some background: Snoqualmie pass is a passage through the Cascade Mountains in the the state of Washington, which the Milwaukee Road (my favorite railroad) had an electrified line running through, here pictured in the 1950s.  The large image in the background is a lithograph print of a painting called “Bipolars Over Snoqualmie” by Larry Fisher.  This is also my first attempt at making mattes to frame a print!  I think it turned out pretty solid.  If you view it up close, there are a few imperfections, but seen from afar, I think my work is just a reasonable facimile of the work done at the ultra-overpriced frame-makers.

    Speaking of viewing up close, this photo is included at 100% original size, unlike most others on here.  You may want to use CTRL and + or – to zoom the web-browser in and out to make it easier to view.

    In setting up the shot, I tossed in an assortment of stuff I like: my trumpet, a couple old rolls of film, a spare loudspeaker that I’ve got lying around, a book about stars that I found while rummaging through the closet today, the number Pi, and my piano along the bottom!  There’s a balsa wood trestle I scratchbuilt in the background holding models of the same two train locomotives as in the painting.  A goal of mine is to eventually recreate the scene shown in the painting as part of an HO scale model railroad.  That’s gonna take years.

    There’s also a big white arcs in the glass which are present because I “light painted” a 5 second exposure (f/8 @ ISo100 on the Canon 50mm).  The path I traced with a small desk lamp is also visible in the tops of the wine bottles themselves, along with the dark outline of where the photographer stood, just to the left of the arcs.

    The last thing of interest besides the wine is the Tamron lens, a new acquisition for me, which I’m super friggin stoked about!  It’s a 10-24mm, which translates to 16mm-38mm in traditional 35mm (film) parlance.  SUPERwide!  It’s going to be way cool to have access to those mega-wide angle shots now, oh yeah!  I remember many-a-situation in which I wished I could back up more, but just couldn’t.  This lens will be incredible for landscapes, indoors, and close-quarters shots.

    Ok, but back to the wine!  I believe it is actually made in the Snoqualmie region of Washington state.  Tonight I opened up the Cabernet and I’m pleased to report that it’s actually quite good!  Nothing to totally freak out over, but a very solid cabernet.  Hmmm.  If that Whistle Stop Red is decent, I could see myself drinking a lot of it.  I wholly approve of the label. Lastly, there’s three close shots of the wine labels for those who might read the vino posts as a series.  Here they are:

    Joy in Rediscovery, Part One.

    2011 - 03.31

    aka Finding  the Meaning Model Railroad Edition?

    So my model train locomotives that I’ve been waiting around a half a year for arrived in the mail last week. So. Exciting. Few people will understand why, but it is. I subscribe to the Milwaukee Road Modelers Yahoo usergroup, which is an incredible resource and a fascinating discussion forum that I’d recommend to anyone interested in such affairs. On the group, one member Eric, who is like mister milwaukee electric, chimed in that he had gotten two of them, and one couldn’t pull much weight. Naturally I had to test mine, but my train layout was packed up in boxes. What to do…?

    First, I went digging for spare track. There was an old fluorescent light cardboard box stuffed full of it out in the garage. This I had wisely purchased off eBay a long time ago, and it had formed the backbone of my old layout in Chicago. Second, a trip to the local hobby shop for some rail joiners. I know I have a ton of them somewhere, but a daunting stack of sealed boxes packed tight with many small objects stood between them and myself. Armed with these, and a power transformer which had been easy to locate among the moving boxes, I set up a long, straight test track to find out how many cars my new engines could pull.

    Somewhere along the line of setting this up, I had the thought, wow, I wonder how long it’s been since I’ve actually set up a train track on the floor? Probably not since I was a kid. For that matter that last time I ran a model train was the beginning of last June. Ten months ago.

    With the train on the track, I turned up the juice. It was the same transformer I had as a kid, the same knurled handle applying those volts to make a miniature fantasy-land come alive. A familiar old feeling I hadn’t felt in some time came rushing back; the excitement of a tiny network of gears and axles churning under my command. There is some child-like wonder inherent in the animation of these bits of plastic that takes me back to someplace hard to reach, someplace hidden. Late that night, I myself was transported; backward through time, lying on the carpet, watching the long stretch of passenger cars move back and forth.

    A friend of mine once said, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you what you should or shouldn’t do on your railroad–it’s YOUR empire.” Indeed. And while my empire resides primarily inside of boxes at this point, I have no doubt that these two will be big stars when it makes a triumphant return.

    Radio Silence

    2011 - 03.28

    The transmission around here went dark for a while. I tend to do that after I write something I really like. As if the next thing has to somehow equal or better it, and the pressure is too much. Well, this post is plainly not going to be as cool as the previous one, so let’s just set the bar nice’n’low.

    However this doesn’t mean that nothing awesome has happened over the last week; the speakers are assembled and I’ve been adding/subtracting foam to try to find the optimal amount of stuffing. More detailed impressions to come…

    Also, something arrived in the mail last week which I’ve been waiting for since last October; two Milwaukee Road model train locomotives. Another first breaching of what will no doubt become a massive topic on the site–model railroading! I had a (semi?)glorious train layout while I lived in Chicago, but unfortunately it has resided inside many boxes since the move to Texas. As I get motivated to bring more pieces of it out and eventually start construction on Layout 2.0, expect to hear more about model trains in this space.


    Yardwork happened too. Much needed yardwork. And the accompanying post-yardwork hot tub dip. That part was good.

    And lastly, car repairs! YUCK. I think tonight will be a ‘drowning my sorrows in fine pizza and delicious wine’ night. Ugh. Mondays.