In the course of my day-job duties I was introduced to two amazing people from Chicago, Mark Wollemann and his wife Melody Gilbert. These two were a treat to speak with and an inspiration to anyone wanting to chase their dreams.
Mark is a 55 years old and riding across country on a bike. Melody, his wife, is a documentary film maker and is capturing the journey, the scenery and the people along the way from Oregon to Delaware.
I was able to spend about an hour talking to these two over dinner as they passed through Glenrock and Douglas this week.
On Wednesday, after riding more than 50 miles across Natrona and Converse counties, Mark and Melody sat down with me at the Depot in Douglas and had a beer.
Just sitting down with Mark, 15 years my senior, and who just days before had peddled over Teton Pass, was enough to make me reevaluate my horrible physical state. This meeting was timely too, as I am staring down the barrel of my 40th birthday in a couple weeks, and not liking how sedentary my life has become.
But watching him eat a well deserved carb packed meal, which would have probably been my first choice any other day, I figured the healthy chicken wrap was all I had earned, and I couldn't even finish my sweet potato fries.
I know I am not enormous, but sitting next to someone as driven as Mark was motivating. I felt like Jabba the hut having dinner with Obi Wan.
Most of us just exist, but Mark has lived. He was a sports journalist for several large newspapers over his career and then he and Melody spent some time teaching in Bulgaria, which I would have loved to hear more about, but we were pressed for time as he was due for an internet radio show before we could crack that nut.
But sitting down to dinner as a reporter with a much more experienced journalist and a documentary filmmaker made for a very interesting interview. It was impossible to tell who was actually interviewing whom. However, Mark and Melody's personalities quickly allowed for a profoundly enlightening conversation where I felt comfortable answering and asking the deeper and more personal questions.
So the next day I was asked to be interviewed for their documentary. I am still not super clear on why she chose me over all the interesting characters in our neck of the woods. But what I thought was going to just be a quick shot and a sound bite for the segment about "What makes you feel alive," quickly became an hour of bearing my soul and expressing thoughts and feelings that are all-to-often simply ignored in the routine of being a parent, photographer and reporter.
I quickly realized while on the other side of the camera that I spend so much time prying other peoples thoughts and emotions out of them, that I had really overlooked some of my own.
Melody cracked my shell and I began to introspect on some past experiences that had shaped who I am today.
I worked at the Wyoming State Penitentiary for several years as a corrections officer and was specially trained in two seemingly diametrically opposed parts of that career. I was a special operations team member, trained to handle the most violent offenders, but I was also given the opportunity to be trained for the mental health block. In a nutshell I could kick ass, and then help you work through you issues afterward.
I developed two personality traits during my time in this role, and one is that I am not afraid of humans in any situation, one-on-one. But in helping inmates deal with their past baggage I learned a lot of amazing techniques that have helped me with my own past.
The ironic part of this interview with Melody was that it showed me some of my past experiences that I need to address were the same ones that taught me how to address them.
I was fundamentally changed as an officer. The same way that we grow and change to meet any challenges or career path. But I was changed to fit the mold of a corrections officer with mindsets that don't mesh with world outside very much.
One thing being an officer did do was help me see emotion in my photography. I am not sure if this was because of all the darkness I saw in the prisoners that I now search for the light in others, photographically. Or if It's just my internal-self trying to counterbalance all the negative emotions I absorbed as an officer. Maybe a bit of both.
Either way, our experiences define us and the ability to analyze and introspect on those experiences allow us to change for the better.
I want to thank Melody for poking those old memories and asking the right questions. I hope this moment makes it into their movie, but if not, I am better for it.