Autumn Grass

Autumn Grass

This weekend I wandered around the area near Traverse City, Michigan to explore the various colors autumn had to offer. From the Sleeping Bear Dunes on the shores of Lake Michigan to the vineyards high atop bluffs, it was all quite beautiful.

In a year where I feel I didn’t get out to shoot pictures much, it’s nice to devote an entire weekend to exploring all of the colors Mother Nature has to offer.

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Namibia and its Sand Dunes

Namibia and its Sand Dunes

My wife and I went to Namibia in August of 2011 as part of our honeymoon. While taking a break from the planning of our wedding, I was reading a magazine that had images of crazy-high sand dunes on the cover. My wife and I literally said “Let’s go there!”

So we did.

We booked the trip entirely on our own, so we didn’t go through any tours or travel companies.

After landing in Windhoek, Namibia‘s tiny little airport, it wasn’t difficult to find the rental car counter. After checking in for our reservation my wife and I were taken outside and given a COMPLETE tour of the vehicle. We requested a 4×4 through a few different companies, but no one had any. We had to settle for a standard truck and just hope for the best. The rental agent went over every tiny detail about our truck like a father was letting his sixteen year-old kid take the car for the first time. I would later understand the rental agent’s thoroughness.

About 70% of the roads in Namibia are unpaved, and that 30% paved is pretty much downtown Windhoek. Namibia one of the least densely populated countries on earth, so there really isn’t any money or need for the government to get paving.

On our travels from Windhoek to the village of Sossusvlei in Namib Naukluft Park it would be about a five hour drive, four of which were on rough gravel roads. At times, my wife and I would drive for what seemed like an hour before we passed another vehicle going the opposite direction. The solitude was comical as it was terrifying. After 45-minutes or so my wife and I would start laughing about how ridiculous the road conditions were, then a few minutes later get back into our “okay, done with this” attitude. The fun went away for good when we cut a tire and had to pull over on the side of the road to change it. We were just beyond halfway in our journey, and although we had a full-sized spare, it was our only spare. Any trouble beyond that would mean we’re up Shit Creek without paddles. Our rental agency had an emergency phone number, but not surprisingly neither of our phones worked in the remote desert that is nearly all of Namibia. Furthermore, in the period of time leading up to our flat, it had probably been close to an hour since we saw our last vehicle, and it would be another 45 minutes to an hour of driving before we would see another one. Add in twenty minutes to change a tire and you have the idea of the remote and scariness of it all.

After finally reaching our destination, the Namib Naukluft Park, we gladly ditched our car and went straight for the bar. We stayed inside the park gates at the Sossus Dune Lodge which is an all-inclusive resort, and that was good because that last thing my wife and I needed to do was go out and look for a dinner option at this point. Additionally, we were staying inside the park’s gates, which close at sunset. Obviously we couldn’t go far if we couldn’t get out or, once out, back inside.

Staying inside the park was a wonderful advantage and I highly recommend it. At Dune 45, one of the park’s more famous places, tourists were sitting along the peak of the 500-foot tall sand dune watching the sun set. As it dipped low in the sky, each one packed up their belongings and made their way to the cars. As the sun slipped behind the miles and miles of sand dunes along the horizon, my wife and I were the only ones at the park since everyone else had to be out before sunset, lest they be locked inside. That is one huge advantage of staying within the park, the other is the sunrise side of things. We booked a tour (through our lodge) to head to the Big Mama and Big Daddy Sand Dunes for sunrise. The sand-blasting wind was something I’ll never forget (nor be able to accurately describe), but then again neither is sitting atop a MASSIVE sand dune watching the sun slowly peak up over the horizon. By the time the sun was high in the sky, a few other tour companies had arrived, but we were so far ahead of them it was fantastic.

Speaking of fantastic: The stars. Never in my life have I seen so many stars. July is winter in Namibia, so the air lacks humidity. Additionally, being so far removed from any civilization gave us zero light pollution. At night, we’d sit for hours and watch countless shooting stars streak across the sky.

There isn’t much to do in this area of Namibia so I’d only recommend two or three nights. Take the sunrise tour of Big Daddy Sand Dune, stay up and watch the stars, and enjoy hiking around the rest of area during the day time. We did venture into town briefly (to get our tire fixed) and there wasn’t much beyond a couple of gas stations with oversized convenience stores attached.

On our journey back to Windhoek, we decided to take the longer route because it had more traffic. We would sometimes go twenty or thirty minutes between passing cars, which was far better than the “shorter” route we took to Sossusvlei. Before we left the resort, the girl checking us out recommended we stop in Solitaire for some apple pie. I can certainly vouch for the apple pie, but more so it was a nice break a few hours into the journey (we would have stopped anyway, just for the stretch, but the pie was certainly a nice touch). Additionally, there are a couple of signs along the way marking the Tropic of Capricorn which is a fun place to stop and take pictures.

The road back to Windhoek twists and turns quite a bit. At times, the ledge is a straight drop down the side and guardrails are nowhere to be found. Other times you’ll splash through a river running through the roadway. If this is your first or second trip out of the country I’d suggest going to some other country first. If you’ve been to a couple dozen countries you’ll be just fine.

Both roads to and from Sossusvlei take the traveler miles and miles through private game reserves. Its fun to see ostriches, springbok, monkeys, warthogs and zebras all watch the passing cars. Be prepared to stop. One of the highlights from our trip back to Windhoek was a group of six zebras curious of our car. My wife and I stopped to stare at them, as they were staring at us. When we decided it was time to head out, the zebras galloped alongside our car for nearly a mile.

We spent our final night in Windhoek at Roof of Africa, and one of the perks was gated, secured parking area. Not that crime is rampet in Windhoek (like, say, Johannesburg, SA), but things still happen. This hotel is also walking distance to Joe’s Beer House, which is famous for the different types of game one can try. It’s a HUGE restaurant that has a fire pit in the middle, long picnic table style of seating and plenty of cold beer. Even though it’s winter, beer still tastes damn good after a long journey.

On our final day, while traveling to the airport we ditched our rental truck at the drop-off site. The guy who painstakingly went over our car before we rented it out was back to do the same before receiving. The purchased insurance didn’t cover the frame, the windshield or the tires; three things we thought odd as we left, three things we completely understand upon arrival. The man seemed almost heartbroken when he discovered our patched tire. We tried to explain our displeasure in calling their help line and not getting any help (from the Sossus Dune Lodge), but he’s the car mechanic and not customer service, so he didn’t really care. As he walked us to the rental car counter to tell them about our damaged tire, he casually made a passing comment of “you know, we can solve this ourselves before we get to the counter.” I caught it; my wife didn’t. As we get to the counter, our car was perfectly fine and there are no issues or damage to report. My wife, who knows the tire had a hole and still isn’t pleased with no one helping us via the “help line” started to speak up but was quickly “shhhh-ed” and pulled away by me, while the mechanic-guy says she was mistaken. It’s only then my wife realized a deal had been made and I paid the mechanic to take care of it, instead of going though all of the paperwork and making an official report. As annoyed my wife was about not being informed of our deal, she completely understood that I can’t just turn to her and yell out “Hey honey, I just bought off the mechanic!”

As odd as the airport and rental car return may have been, it was a seemingly fitting send-off to our time in Namibia. I can’t recommend going enough, and my wife and I truly enjoyed ourselves there. It would have been nice to make it to the Skeleton Ghost Park to see some of the wrecked ships laying scattered off of the coast, but time was a factor for us. Then again, time is a HUGE factor in Namibia, where things are so spread apart and the gravel road to get from one place to another is in pretty rough shape. Maybe that’s why I loved our time in Namibia so much. It’s very much “off the beaten path,” but that path may not be so beaten, after all. From the tiny international airport to the never-ending sand dunes, Namibia was quite the adventure. I could have done without the flat tire, but in the end, it really became the cherry on top what was a great adventure trip.

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Colorful Tree

Colorful Tree

This has been an extremely strange autumn. In years past, the colors of the leaves seemed to peak around the first weekend of October, but we’re fast approaching week three and those colorful leaves still seems a few days away.

Last week I drove up in to almost Northern Wisconsin from Chicago and it was beautiful to watch the trees go from green, to a little colorful, to extremely colorful during the course of the five-hour drive. However, this weekend I visited my parents in rural Wisconsin and the trees there went from green leaves to leaf-less almost overnight. The southwest corner of Wisconsin struggled through a hearty drought, while the midwest portion of the state got steady rain throughout summer. The result was some places have colorful trees this fall, while other regions fall into the “not so much” category.

To gauge colors, I’ve been using The Weather Channel’s “Fall Foliage Map” for the last few years. The website seems to be only updated weekly, but it still gives a good idea of when to expect the trees to present their best colors.

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Angkor Wat Sunrise

Angkor Wat Sunrise

It was well before sunrise when our driver picked my wife and me up at our hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Our plan was to watch the sun rise behind the temple of Angkor Wat.

As we made our way towards the temple in the comfort of our small van, I was amazed at the different modes of transportation used by everyone to reach the same destination. It was like a ridiculous version “Cannonball Run.”

On the road in the dark where horse-drawn buggies, bicycles, tuk tuks, mopeds, people walking and plenty of cars. (There may have been a couple of donkeys in the mix as well.) When we pulled up in the lot across from Angkor Wat, it occurred to us that we had no idea where we were going. It was pitch black at the ancient temple and the best we had going for us was to follow the crowd. That’s not really what anyone wants to say on their vacation.

Slowly the light from the sun started to make its way above the horizon, which helped us tremendously see where we were going. As my wife and I got closer to the temple, various people were lined along the reflecting pools (one pond was on the left of the walkway, another was on the right) and we assumed a position near the left pool.

As the sun got closer to the horizon, the crowd started to fill in. I was glad we arrived when we did because there were a few people lined up behind us snapping photos as my wife and I stood enjoying the beauty of the sunrise at mystical Angkor Wat.

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Lakeshore Drive and Chicago Skyline

Lakeshore Drive and Chicago Skyline

Last week I went out late in the day to shoot some images of Chicago‘s skyline at “blue hour”. Blue hour is the period of time after the sun sets but before the sky goes black. It is usually a window of less than an hour after sunset, when the sky turns a wonderful dark blue. (The same effect happens in the morning shortly before sunrise.)

For awhile I had wanted to seek out a location for trying to show some “motion blur,” in this case cars driving by on Lakeshore Drive. Several years back I took pictures from this same location during the Chicago Half Marathon, and thought it would be good this time around.

Turns out, it was. The pedestrian bridge at 35th street is just the right height and not encased in chain-linked fencing. I had a platform that covered eight lanes of traffic and five or six lanes of railroad tracks, both offering unique looks at Chicago‘s skyline.

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Willis Tower at Sunset

Willis Tower at Sunset

Chicago, Illinois has one of the best skylines in the world. Part of why it’s so good, is the Planetarium provides a fantastic viewpoint that every TV show, news crew, tourist bus and photographer stop by on occasion. You could sit there every day for a week and see seven amazingly different sunsets, and people of all walks of life.

Part of the fun while hanging out there is watching everyone bustling around you while you sit. For this image, there were segway tours, photographers, lovers, walkers and the kids all running around watching the sun set (well, the kids were playing tag, but everyone else was watching the sun set).

Chicago is a beautiful city, and opportunities like this really enhance the experience.

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Autumn at Anna Ruby Falls

Autumn at Anna Ruby Falls

Hello Autumn. Nice to see you again.

Asking a photographer if they enjoy autumn is like asking a small child if they want another piece of chocolate cake.

“Yes.”

Since adopting a dog from a rescue shelter, I’ve learned a lot about the local forest preserves around my house. A few years back I would have planned some massive (and money-consuming) road trip to some remote location to shoot colorful trees of fall, but my puppy has taught me a lot about what is local.

Once a week my wife or I take her to woods near our house. We go on a three mile trail along a river and passing under a railroad tracks. The last couple of trips I’ve brought my camera, which has made it as fun for me as it is for puppy. Those same forest preserves are exploding with color. As a bonus, since they’re located in a heavily populated area, the deer are docile and I’m able to get within twenty feet of them. Growing up in Wisconsin that’s almost unheard of.

So while looking for a picture for today, I stumbled upon this image from Georgia of Anna Ruby Falls. Several years back my wife and I attended a friend’s wedding and went down a couple days early to explore the region. We rented a cabin and I, of course, brought my camera. We missed the autumn colors by a couple of days, but it was more fun to get out and go for a couple of hikes than anything else.

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Sewing Red Chilis

Sewing Red Chilis

I had to scan through previous posts from India to make sure I hadn’t written about “Hack and Wheeze Lane” earlier.

After a couple of days in Delhi, India, my wife and I made an effort to REALLY get off of the beaten path. We ended up stumbling upon a busy district with lots of bulk items being carried away for sale at smaller shops. As we walked we came upon a number of men carrying large, brown sacks on their head and/or shoulders. Curious of their origins, my wife and I turned down a narrow alleyway between shops and wandered upstream (if you will) to see where the large sacks were coming from.

Turns out, about one hundred yards through the narrow passageway was a plethora of dried chili peppers being bought and sold. Men were buying pounds and pounds of  bulk chili peppers to sell at their smaller market stalls. The sacks were filled and weighed on a scale, then sewn shut. The buyer would heave the sack on his shoulder and away he’d go. The most interesting part of this process was nothing my wife nor I could have expected.

Because of the hot spices being moved around, the air was full of a thick odor of chili peppers. I have never, and I am not exaggerating, heard that many people randomly coughing and sneezing. It sounded like something out of a zombie movie’s hospital ward scene, but no, this was real life. Everyone, including my wife and myself, couldn’t stop sneezing or coughing. We took a handful of pictures and then made a scramble to fresh air.

Well, as “fresh air” as Delhi, India can provide.

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Evening El Train

Evening El Train

Last week I went out and shot some images of Chicago with photographer Chris Smith from Out of Chicago. He introduced me to a fantastic vantage point on the top-level of a downtown parking garage. Right as the sun dripped below the horizon and the sky turned blue, many of the buildings’ lights came on. Throw in a passing CTA train and the picture just sort of composed itself.

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Rockin’ Rodrigo

Rockin' Rodrigo

A few years back I shot a boatload of concerts. From Dashboard Confessional at Madison Square Garden to Dave Matthews Band at Red Rocks, I criss-crossed the country shooting concerts to cover my rent. It was certainly a fun couple of years. When I think back, I can’t help but think about how much time is taken up preparing for concerts on the actual day of.

In everything else I do, there is a certain amount of down time. It isn’t anything “set aside,” but it just happens. In a baseball game, there is standing around as we wait for the game to start. In auto racing, there is always time between the cars coming and going from one’s side of the race track. Later this week I’ll be at the Red Bull Flug Tag here in Chicago, and that event SCREAMS downtime. However, in concerts, there seems to be a constant drum of effort. (No pun intended.)

From setting up cameras, to sound checks, to lighting checks to souvenir stands popping up, there is always activity. I don’t think I worked a single concert where we sat around playing cards or swapping stories from the road. Even when it was a four-day concert, the following day was spent going over the previous night’s show working on what we could do different. I’m not saying its good or bad, I just think its interesting.

So last year when I shot Rodrigo y Gabriella in Chicago, it was interesting to shoot a show for no other reason than myself. I showed up to took some pictures, then enjoyed the show. The deal I had with their management company (as all concert photographers this particular night had) was we could shoot the first three songs and then we were escorted out. I had tickets to the show anyway, so I joined my wife in our seats and rock and rolled to some of the best guitar playing I’ve ever seen.

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Skyline of Chicago

Skyline of Chicago

I’ve been getting ready to go back up in the air to shoot aerials from Chicago. It’s one of my favorite views of the city.

The other night I was going through images from my last airborne adventure seeing what I liked and what I didn’t like. I learned I need to shoot more close-ups. I know that sounds weird, but I think half of all good photography is showing people things they don’t normally see.

We all know what the John Hancock Center looks like. Seeing it from above is one thing, but seeing it close-up from above is another. One of my favorite pictures of the Willis Tower is a close-up of the skydeck and all the people looking out (see it here).

So that’s on my list in the next month or so. We’ll see how everything turns out, because Mother Nature has a big say in whether aerial photography happens and how it turns out.

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Cold Fun on a Hot Summer Day

Cold Fun on a Hot Summer Day

This week we flirted with 100 degrees. Even though autumn is around the corner, summer made sure to give a hearty reminder it is still here. We also regularly get a nice warm spell around mid-October, but this week was scorching hot. And, as if record-setting 95 degree temperatures weren’t enough, tomorrow we’re supposed to only get up to 65 degrees. That’s a 30 degree temperature swing in three days. Yikes!

This week’s furnace-like temperatures reminded me of last year’s late-June heat when we did hit 100+ degrees. In parts of Chicago, even though civilians opening hydrants is illegal, kids found creative ways to stay cool.

Of course: If its fun its against the law.

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Chicago Skyline From The South

Chicago Skyline From The South

Earlier in the summer my wife and I rescued a puppy from a shelter. Said puppy has really been dominating our time this summer, but she’s adorable and worth it. As house-training and things with the dog have settled down, my wife and I have began to get back into our routines.

It had been quite some time since I had gone out in search of pictures, but finally made it out a few times in the last week. I forgot just how nice it was to get out and shoot some pictures. I love watching Chicago in motion; whether it is a softball game in the park right next to were I stand, or the boats coming and going along the Chicago River. Whatever it was, it damn nice to be out taking pictures again.

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Towers and Antennas

Towers and Antennas

A couple of summers ago I played kickball in a Chicago city park. I really enjoyed playing the game, but even more so, I really enjoyed the view from the baseball fields.

I had been meaning to make it back to the park with my camera for some shots of the skyline in the early evening, but never got it to work out. In an attempt earlier this year, as I waited for the sun to dip below the horizon, the clouds rolled in and opened up. I didn’t mind the clouds rolling in, but the pouring rain was something I wasn’t a fan of.

Tonight, however, things worked out. As the sun dipped low on the horizon, the lights in the various buildings began to light up.

It may have taken two summers, but I do like how the picture turned out.

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Xi’an Street at Night

Xi'an Street at Night

Late one evening, while my wife and I were exploring Xi’an, China, we wandered up to the enormous wall surrounding (and at one time protecting) the city. (Now the city of Xi’an dwarfs the wall.)

The wall stood several stories tall and, for a small fee, anyone can climb the wall and make their way along the top. My wife and I had a good time just strolling along and enjoying the quiet serenity of the wall, but also noticed the city wildly buzzing with life below us.

Our hotel room had a good view, but this wall was open-aired and a lot of fun to explore. For my wife and me, it was fantastic. We poked our heads through openings taking pictures of each other with the colored lights on the wall, and stood watching the world blur by below us.

For the life of me, I can’t remember how much it cost to climb the wall, but I know it wasn’t a whole lot. Either way, it was well worth the money.

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Resting Sea Lions

Resting Sea Lions

While in the Galapagos Islands, our catamaran was anchored just off shore from this beach. While we went kayaking and swam around, we noticed how many rocks were on the nearby shore.

After lunch, we jumped in the small raft and headed to shore. As we approached the sandy, boulder-filled beach, we realized the shore was full of sun bathing sea lions, not boulders.

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Aiport Taxis

Airport Taxis

One of my most-favorite and (at the same time) least-favorite parts of travel is jumping into a taxi cab at the destination airport.

It’s a favorite because everything I have been doing to get to my final destination is almost at completed. That last little leg, many times with the radio blasting local music (which is nice for a variety of reasons), is a fantastic and quick tour around my new temporary home.

It’s my least-favorite because nothing screams tourist like walking out of the airport with a giant sack on one’s shoulder asking to go to a hotel.

In Vietnam, for example, the taxi drivers all stood up with excitement at the two Americans walking toward them. The guidebook said it should be a $6US cab ride to our hotel, but our driver told us a number that translated to $10US. Plus, at the end, he charged us a toll of $3 or $4 dollars that he refused to pay on his own (the cab driver taking us to the Vietnam airport at the end of our stay did not charge us for that same toll, I might add). In the end, it really didn’t do anything to inconvenience us. Aside from being dishonest and annoying, it’s hard to get upset at a $5 bump in price when we just spent close to $1,000 on airfare.

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Riding to Victory

Riding to Victory

Last weekend my wife and I went to the Wild West Days in Viroqua, Wisconsin. It’s a fun throwback festival to the days of saloons, straight-razor shaves, and good ol’ fashioned bull riding.

For me, one of the highlights of the evening was the local cowboy, Levi Miller, riding his bull in the “Hell On Hooves Ranch Rodeo.” Before his eight second ride began, I was able to get right alongside the chute as Levi was tying himself in. The tension was incredible. Within seconds his body would be going from sitting near-motionless on the back of a bull to getting tossed around like a rag doll. When he was ready to go, the door blasted open and he and the bull went tearing into the rodeo ring to the roar of the crowd.

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Millennium Monument

Millennium Park Peristyle

Recently I was going through a photography magazine and read a sentence that caught my eye: “If your community still has a local camera store, it’s probably much more than just a retail shop.” The paragraph goes on to discuss how the neighborhood camera shop is probably the local hub of goings-on in the local photography community, and check in with them to see what you participate in. Makes sense.

The part which baffled me, however, was the first part of the sentence “If your community still has a local camera store…”.

“If…”

I realize I live in Chicago and we have a few camera stores here. (Actually, we just lost Helix so we have one less.) But even as the greater Chicagoland area flirts with ten million residents, we only have three camera stores. The town in which my brother lives has exactly zero, so he has to drive an hour to find filters or ask questions. It’s unfortunate camera shops are slowly dying away.

A few years back, when I was looking at buying a new tripod, it was nice to be able to walk into a store and play around with the two-dozen or so options. Some features I liked and some I didn’t. I narrowed my choice down and made my purchase. It was truly enjoyable to spend the time tinkering and playing, instead of slowly trolling through Amazon reviews to see how things rate with other photographers, who may or may not shoot in my style.

We’re fortunate to have a couple of quality photography stores in Chicago, and they don’t just cater to the old women who come in to develop their 35mm disposable point-and-shoot film of a grand-daughter’s birthday party. So, I guess, if you’re going to have a local camera shop in your community, at least let it be a good one.

By the way, the monument above, known simply as The Peristyle, honors the founders of Chicago, Illinois’ Millennium Park.

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Water Droplets and Spider Webs

Water Droplets and Spider Webs

While taking the dog for a walk one morning last week, I realized there was a lot of dew on the ground. Since the puppy didn’t want to go back in the house, I decided to come outside and let her roam around in the yard while I took some shots with my camera.

Originally I started shooting the one or two water droplets on a blade of grass. Eventually, puppy was curious what I was doing at there went my photography subjects. After getting up from laying in the of the wet grass, I began slowly wandering around the yard, looking for anything else that may catch my eye.

In our strawberry planter was a small spiderweb criss-crossing the top portion of the now dormant plants. I was fascinated by all of the droplets caught in the web and happy to have my camera in my hand. I spent about a half-an-hour in the yard shooting things here and there.

Considering I probably wouldn’t have noticed the dew had the dog not been taken for a walk, and also considering that I don’t normally look in the top of the strawberry planter for spiderwebs, I was pleased with how everything unfolded, and how one event led to another.

It’s nice when it works out like that.

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