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Let me start off by stating that I'm not the best writer in the world. Far from it. I'm also not sure anyone really gives a crap about the life story of an amatuer photographer. But, you did click on the "Biography" link, and you're still reading this, so I'm assuming that you actually want to know more about me, or you're just incredibly bored. I'm guessing that it's a combination of the two. Let me also state that I don't have the energy to organize this in any particular way, so I am just going to write down random bits of information about my life in semi-chronological order; kind of in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. Well, here it goes...
My name is Stephen Richard Mahlstedt, and as of now, I'm 35 years old. I was born in 1972 and raised in a suburb of Albany, New York. I had a fairly typical, surburban upbringing, I suppose. I have very loving, caring parents who have always been very supportive of me and my various activities. I also have a sister that is 2 years older than me. I can usually manage to make her laugh pretty easily, although we definitely had our moments where we wanted to kill each other growing up, as most siblings do. I attended public school, and when I was younger (between the age of 10 and 13) I played baseball like most boys that age do. I was pretty good at baseball, but I didn't really like it that much. I just wasn't a fan of organized sports. I always wanted to do more exciting or more creative stuff, and doing team activities didn't seem very creative to me. I always wanted to try new stuff. I did lots of random crap when I was a kid, like fishing, messing around with archery, shooting my air rifle, riding my BMX bike, drawing, painting, setting up fish tanks...you name it...just about anything other than group activities or organized sports. I was also very good at conning my parents into buying me things to support my many interests. They didn't always realize they were being conned. I was good. The best thing I talked my parents into buying me was a Kawasaki KDX80 motocross bike when I was 11 years old. It took me almost a year of conning before they caved in. I admire the fact that they resisted for a long as they did. They really never stood a chance. I was good! ;) Anyhow, that was one of the coolest toys I have ever gotten in my life. Anytime I hear the whine of a 2-stroke motocross bike engine off in the distance, I can instantly see and smell my old bike in my head and I almost relive that moment when I kick-started it for the first time, put on blue motocross helmet, and rode off into the field behind our house. I also remember the time I landed goofy off a jump and got slammed on my balls into the ground and ended up pissing blood for 2 days. Good stuff!!!
After a couple of years of riding my dirt bike, the vacant land around my house was gradually being sold and developed, and it was harder and harder to find places to ride. Around this same time I got my first electric guitar. It was a cheap, red and white, Cort stratocaster. I don't even remember if my parents bought it new or used. I do remember that my cousin Matt gave me an MXR Phaser effects pedal, and I didn't know what the hell to do with it. My aunt and uncle had just bought me Metallica's Master of Puppets album, and it was the sickest music I had ever heard at that point in my life. I wanted to play like James and Kirk!!!! I sucked of course and I didn't know anything other than the Iron Man chord progression. Well, then I befriended this kid at school named Mark Brooks. We were probably 13 or 14 at the time, and he was already an amazing guitar player. He played so smoothly and with so much control, and he also knew a lot of theory. I started going over to his house all the time. He was actually kind of a dick, and he knew that he was great at guitar, and I remember getting on his nerves constantly trying to get him to teach me riffs and technique. He had a black, B.C. Rich NJ series with a floating bridge and a locking nut system. I thought that was the bomb. I decided that I wanted a good guitar, so I sold my beloved dirt bike and bought myself a new guitar: a black, B.C. Rich NJ series with a floating bridge and a locking nut system, to be exact. Haha! Man, did that piss Mark Brooks off. I suppose that was pretty lame of me. Oh well. I had myself a nice guitar and I start playing constantly. I wasn't that great, but I was good enough to start playing in bands.
Music was always huge for me. I loved 80s cheese metal, and then at this point in my life I was listening to heavier bands, like Metallica, Metal Church and Anthrax. I started hanging out with a guy on my baseball team (this was the last year I'd play baseball), Brian Buono. I was in 9th grade at the time and he was in 10th grade. He was a pretty cool dude. He was witty and sarcastic and was very confident, and he had a way of making me feel like I wasn't as cool as him...that was just how he was. He was always putting people down and making fun of people, but he was also fun to hang out with and we liked a lot of the same stuff, especially music and skateboarding. We were both listening to the same metal bands, and we were both just becoming interested in skateboarding. We hung out constantly. We spent more time trying to learn how to ollie than you can imagine. Well, we finally learned how to ollie and we ended up being pretty decent skaters during our teen years. We also started listening to punk music together. He probably influenced me more than anyone in this regard. He started buying all sorts of punk and hardcore albums, the most memorable of which was Minor Threat's Out of Step. We actually bought into the whole "Straight Edge" movement that Minor Threat was preaching back then, and we didn't do any drinking or drugs during high school. Man, did I miss out!!! I guess I was impressionable back then. Most kids get pressured into doing drugs. I was pressured into not doing drugs. Haha! Well, Brian started playing drums, and I was pretty good at guitar at this point, so we started our first band: Enemy of Youth. We sucked and the band went nowhere. After that he hooked up with a couple of Albany guys and started a band called Glee Club. They were really good and had a more refined sound than most of the local punk bands. They kind of had a Clash-esque thing going on. They let me join the band as a second guitar player, but my playing style was too metal and they kicked me out. It was for the best. They were much better as a 3-piece. I joined up with a good friend of mine and drummer, Bryan Maney, and we started a band called TerrorCake. We found ourselves a singer named Sarah Paul, and we eventually got ourselves a great bass player named Jason Dambrose. Bryan and Jay are still good friends of mine, but I haven't seen Bryan in ages, as he is now married with kids and lives in Cali. That band did very well. We played a lot around Albany and seemed to garber a lot of attention in the local music scene. It was awesome! Girls were all into me and I got to play cool original music at cool local clubs. I loved it. TerrorCake was together for close to 7 years before we finally broke up. Those were very cool years. It was also during this time that I started experimenting with my wardrobe and hairstyles. I first shaved my hair off, which was a little more extreme back then. I used to go to all the hardcore matinees at the VFW and see all of the skinheads dancing around. I thought the shaved head look was badass. That only lasted for a little while, and then I ended up growing my hair really long. I guess that was the bulk of my high school career: music, skateboarding and girls. The only thing missing was drinkin' and druggin'...
Off to college I went. I decided to go to SUNY Plattsburgh in upstate New York. And by "decided", I mean it was one of the only semi-decent state schools that accepted me. Ha! What an awesome time that was for me. I can still remember when my parents hugged me and said their goodbyes, leaving me sitting in my new dorm room and driving back home....3 hours away!!! Yes!!! Freedom at last. What a great feeling that is for a teenager.
For those people that knew me during college, my nickname was Gunga Ding. I think I was given this nickname within an hour of my parents leaving my dorm room on that first day. I was waiting for my roommate to arrive, and I was listening to music and dancing around my room playing a tamborine (don't ask!), when I turned around and saw this sporty lookin' dude standing in the doorway. I was embarassed, naturally, as I had just been caught dancing around with a tamborine. One of the first words out of this guy's mouth was, "You look like Gunga Ding!" I asked who Gunga Ding was and he didn't know. In hindsite I learned two things: 1) that he was referring to Gunga Din, the Indian waterboy in the Rudyard Kippling poem, and 2) that this guy's name was Rick, and he was a big, dumb oaf. Haha! Rick was on the hockey team, and he wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed. I guess he associated a tamborine and long hair with an Indian waterboy, and thus the nickname Gunga Ding was born. Rick was the first person I met at college, and being a member of the hockey team, he knew lots of people, and he introduced to me everyone as Gunga Ding. I didn't mind. I like nicknames, and I believe that if someone gives you one, and it's not hateful, that it's actually a term of endearment, to some degree. Even today, friends from college still call me Gunga. Even some of the the parents still call me Gunga. Funny!
Remember how I said I was straight-edge and didn't do any drinkin' or druggin' during high school? Well, that lasted for about 7 days once I arrived at Plattsburgh. Man, did I party during college! I made some awesome friends during those years, and I partied and partied and partied. I also met lots and lots of girls. I had pretty much given up skateboarding by now, because I sprained both of my ankles so many times and my ankles were useless for skating, and because I was really only interested in girls and partying with my friends. I was still into music a lot, but I wasn't playing my guitar much and the band became more of a chore. I used to go home on the weekends from time to time to play shows, but that took a lot of effort and got pretty old after a while. I stayed creative during school though. I took some art courses and I did a fair amount of drawing and painting during school. I also started to experiment with body piercing and I got my first 5 small tattoos during school, too. I think my parents were pretty worried during this time. I looked pretty funky, had a bunch of piercings, and I almost failed out of school. My 2nd semester freshman year I had a 0.7 GPA at midterms. Yep, you read that right... a 0.7 GPA. Haha! Well, that scared me straight and I starting attending some of my classes and studying from time to time. I actually made the Dean's list 3 semesters in a row. Not bad, huh? I still managed to party and have plenty of fun. There's not much else I can say about college. That about sums it up. It was an amazing time in my life and I have so many great memories. I even managed to get out in just under 5 years with a Bachelor's Degree in Biology. So, what did I end up doing with my life after that you ask? I became a software developer, naturally.
I returned home from college with my biology degree in hand. I had no clue what I wanted to do. When I first started school, I went in as a Computer Science major. The second course was Data Structures and Algorithms, and it made absolutely no sense at the time, so I panicked and ended up changing to a Business major. That last for about a semester, and then I finally settled into Biology. I "decided" that I wanted to become a Marine Biologist. Why not? I had some fish tanks growing up. It made perfect sense. Haha! After I graduated, I quickly realized that Marine Biology did not entail vacationing in tropical destinations and looking at pretty creatures while scuba diving. I was duped!!!! I actually landed myself a job at Albany Medical Center doing some sort of pre-natal testing or something like that. I also landed a Technical Support Representative position at a growing Internet Service Provider named PSINet. This was 1995, and the Internet was not yet available or known to the masses. I knew what the Internet was and thought this would be a great opportunity to get into the computer world. I'm not even sure how I landed the job. I completely bullshitted my way through the interview, and I didn't think they bought any of it. I guess they didn't have a lot of candidates at the time or something. Perhaps all of past parental conning experience paid off and I manage to con my interviewers. However it happened, it was all good. It didn't take me long to work my way up in the company. I started teaching myself how to write UNIX shell scripts, and the company moved me down to Harrisburg, PA and made me a "Pod Leader." I started writing more and more scripts, and eventually the head of our department agreed to ask her boyfriend, who was the director of engineering, if he would give me a job as a junior programmer. He did, and the rest is history. I've been writing software ever since. Within a year PSINet moved me down to Northern Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC. I was very excited about this move and jumped at the chance. I have lived here (aside from my brief move to Oregon - see my Oregon journal) since, and I absolutely love this area.
Within a month of moving into the area, I was lucky enough to have met some fun folks at PSINet, and we became close friends quickly. Out of that group of friends, I've always been closest with Vargish (his last name...I've never called my Virginia friends by their first names for some reason.) I think it's been about 12 years now that I've been hanging out with him. Vargish has always had lots of energy and he is very adventurous, and unlike me, he seems to to detest spending entire weekends on the couch, sipping wine and beer and watching the Discovery Channel. He can't stand being trapped indoors and does not like to repeat activities, and despite my occassional laziness and resistence, he has managed to harrass me into doing many fun things over the years, which I am very grateful for in hindsite. Together we have explored abandoned houses, organized Demonfest 2000, participated in the Santa Stumble, gone to freak shows, gone scuba diving in Mexico, convinced girls to climb backyard fences and skinny dip with us, gone hiking and whitewater rafting in Ecuador, gone Skydiving, hiked a lava tube in Mount Saint Helens, gone dune buggyin' in the sand dunes of western Oregon...you name it, and Vargish probably got me to do it. Vargish and I also started an adult humor web site along with another one of our friends (Druther) back in the day. The site is called zooass.com and is still up and running today, although I don't work on it anymore. Vargish and I still hang out regularly to this day. In fact, Cassie (my girlfriend) and I went hiking in the Shenendoah National Park this past weekend with Vargish and a couple of other friends, and he managed to step right over a sunning Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake without even knowing it. Apparently the snake tried to bite him but hit his shoe instead. When one of my friends yelled, "Snake!!", Vargish turned around and unknowingly stepped back over the snake again. Classic!!! That was a close call, indeed. Diamondbacks are extremely venomous and their bite can be fatal. See, it's always an adventure with Vargish. Haha!!
I eventually quit PSINet and started working at Network Solutions. This was the next big phase of my life. I had a small group of very close friends in the DC area, and my career was doing very well. Network Solutions was a fast growing company that had a monopoly (at the time) selling .com, .net, and .org domain names. They were making a fortune. I got in with the company when the stock was $18/share. At the peak of the tech boom, the stock made it up to $300/share and then split, and then made it back up to $300. It was crazy, and I had lots of stock options. I sold them all!!!! It was found money, and I wasn't going to wait for the stock to keep going up and up. I didn't know much about business, but I knew it was all too good to be true, and I sold each and every time my stock options vested. Within 3 years, I ended up making just over $1 million. It was awesome! In true "me" style, I bought myself lots and lots of toys. The first thing I bought when I made $20K on my first stock sale was Yamaha YZ250 motocross bike and a used GMC pickup truck to cart it around in. I didn't know anyone to ride with, and I didn't know where to ride really. On top of that I ended up wrecking pretty bad on it on my 3rd time out and that spooked me, so I eventually sold both the bike and the truck. It was an impulse buy, like most of the purchases I've made in my life. I also bought myself a sweet condo in Fairfax, VA and bought all the furniture new from Pottery Barn and Restoration hardware. Then I went on to make my biggest impulse purchase ever - I bought myself a 31-foot Sea Ray power boat. I stopped by a marina one day on my way to the movies, and that's all she wrote. My dad wouldn't talk to me for almost 2 weeks when he found out I purchased a boat on a whim, and he even called me a jackass, I believe. Haha! He eventually got over it. My parents and I are very close, but we live our lives differently, and sometimes my impulsive ways and my lifestyle makes them cringe. I tend to live my life as if today might very well be my last day on Earth. I still plan for the future and I'm responsible in most areas of my life, but I believe life is to be lived and I try to make every single day as fun as possible and surround myself with good people. Anyhow, I digress. Back to my career and my material ways. Aside from the money, things were going well for me at Network Solutions. The company was acquired by VeriSign and the whole company continued to grow. I quickly went from a junior developer to a senior developer/development manager. At one point I had 13 developers reporting directly to me, and I was enjoying the "status" associated with being in management. I tried to assimilate into that world the best I could. I even started wearing khakis and polo shirts and tried to learn golf. I was torn between two worlds. I never really changed who I was, but I was still living two different lives. The second I got out of work I wanted to escape from the world of work. I would drive around in my Infinity Q45, blaring violent metal music. I would always worry that other members of our management team would see me outside of work, because I wasn't the same guy they knew in the office and wasn't truly comfortable hanging out with them. I was also getting into photography at this point. More and more I was spending my free time by myself, hiking around in search of photography subjects. As time passed, I had less interest in the business world and driving fancy cars. I sold my boat (losing tons of money in the process). I really had barely anything to show for the $1 million I had made. I spent all the money and had nothing material to show for it. I did, however, have tons of great memories, which are worth more in the long run.
So, at this point I was still in management at Verisign, which was undergoing many organizational changes at the time. Two things were happening to me: 1) I was gradually becoming exposed to the innerworkings of management and the corporate world, and 2) I was becomming more passionate for photography and learning more about the natural world. I covered my entire office, from the floor to the ceiling, with prints of my photos. It was becoming clear to me (and some of my co-workers) that I was rapidly losing interest in my management position, and I was consumed with a desire to explore and take photos. In the fall of 2003, I spent most of my weekends alone at the Blue Heron Inn Hotel on Chincoteague Island (see my Chincoteague photos.) Chincoteague is a popular summer vacation spot, but in the fall and winter there's not much going on there, and the only people around are the locals and the duck hunters. There is a wonderful wildlife refuge on the island, and in the fall it's the perfect place to see migratory birds as they make their way down the Atlantic flyway. I really love Chincoteaugue! There's just something about it that drew me in. I think it was a combination of the blue-collar feel, the big fishing boats, and the marsh, wetland and coastal ecosystems.
I was really enjoying spending a lot of time alone, especially in nature. And after almost 7 years at Network Solutions/VeriSign, I was finally starting to burn out and lose interest in my job. There was so much crap going on within the company, and I was finally starting to see just how easy it was for employees to get backstabbed in the corporate world. I don't want to get into the gory details. The short of it is that a close friend and co-worker of mine was abruptly "laid-off", and the whole thing was just plain wrong. I didn't like being a part of the same management team that made this decision and I just didn't want to work for VeriSign any longer. It had been over 3 years since I purchased my condo, and the market had been doing very well. I realized that I could sell the condo and walk away with a sizeable amount of money, tax free. So, I decided to quit my job, sell my condo and a bunch of my belongings, pack up my Expedition, and drive across the country to Oregon, where I would live and focus on my photography for a while. That's as far as I had planned. I had enough money to live well without working for at least a year, so I figured that when I got settled in Oregon, I'd figure out the next step.
Moving to Oregon was a big deal for me. Up to that point in my life I was always worrying about money, "job security", and what my future was going to be like, as if I actually had control over any of that. So naive I was. :) I spent a lot of time worrying in general. Don't get me wrong, I was fairly adventurous in some ways, and I was very impulsive when it came to spending money, but I was also very uptight and ridid in other ways. I was a bit of a control freak, and quitting my job and moving to Oregon was the first step in learning to give up that perceived control. I had money to last me a year, so it was a small step, but it was a step nonetheless. I didn't know anyone in Oregon and I didn't even know what town I was going to live in, so I wasn't just slipping into a comfortable living situation. The best place to find out more about my whole Oregon adventure is in the small journal that I kept during that time. Since I already wrote about that time period in the journal, I won't get into too many details here. It was a great time, and I learned a lot during that trip. I was only gone for about 2 months total, so it's not like I really fully moved there. The trip out to Oregon was pretty cool. I stopped in Utah, Sequoia National Park, and San Francisco before finally heading into Oregon, and I took a bunch of photos along the way; however, now that I was starting to think about photography full-time, I was gradually starting to lose interest in it. When I first arrived in Oregon I was very excited and happy, but with the 3-hour time difference and not knowing anyone there, and it didn't take long before I felt isolated and lonely. I didn't like the house that I was living in, and I really started to miss my friends and family. Vargish was going through a divorce and he needed to get away, so he came out to visit me for about 10 days. We did lots of fun stuff while he was out there. We snowboarded on Mount Hood on the 4th of July, hiked to a bunch of waterfalls, went camping, and much more. That really made me realize how much I missed having friends to share my adventures with. Just like that, I decided to return back to Northern Virginia. It was a pain in the ass because I had already furnished the small house that I was renting, but I managed to break my lease, get rid of the furniture, pack up my truck and hit the road, all within 2 weeks of making my decision. I had completely lost interest in photography at this point and I drove 12 hours a day for almost 5 days. I just wanted to get the hell home!
Wow! It's been over a year since I last left off with my writing. It's now October, 2009, and a whole lot has changed since I first sat down to work on this bio. Well, I suppose I should just pick up where I left off. So, it's the summer of 2004 and I just drove back across the country, from Oregon to Virginia. Man, what a long-ass drive to make when you just want to get home quickly. I decided to live in Reston. I rented a brand new apartment in a mid-rise complex within the Reston Town Center. It was pretty cool living in the Town Center, and the apartment building itself was really nice, although the building was mostly empty. I guess the rental market was pretty soft at the time. I don't even know if anyone else lived on my entire floor. It felt like I was the only one in the building sometimes. I don't remember all that much about that place, except for the fact that I was on the 3rd floor and there was a cool garbage shoot outside my door. So all I had to do to take out the garbage was walk outside my door, turn left, open a little door in the wall, and drop my garbage down the shoot. It was fun dropping all sorts of crap down that shoot, especially stuff I wasn't supposed to drop down it, like an old printer that I wanted to get rid of. It was huge and just fit down the shoot. Man, when that thing hit the dumpster 3 stories below, it was loud!!! Haha! Now I'm much more environmentally conscious and I would take old electronic devices to the proper recycling place or a thrift store, but not back then. No recycling for me back then. :O Ok, so I'm not sure how much time I really want to spend talking about the rest of 2004. I'll summarize it all quickly. I decided to get back into hands on software development, so I spent a few months boning up on my skills and aquiring 4 different Sun Java certifications. I also ended up dating a girl that lived across the street from me for a few months. It was one of the most retarded relationships ever. We had absolutely nothing in common. I'm not even sure how we got together in the first place. I broke up with her 3 different times before the break-up finally took. It was a stupid relationship and was nothing but drama. Let's see, what else was happening at the time? I put my resume out there and interviewed at two different places right away: Sapient Consulting and ServerVault Corp. Sapient was really big and ServerVault was really small. I got offered positions at both companies, but I decided to take the ServerVault position. The position was a hands on, do just about everything, Senior Developer position, and since I really wanted to do more hands on coding, I picked the small company. Man, what a different culture from VeriSign!!! I'll get back to ServerVault in a bit, I'm sure. Ok, what else? Oh, after living in my sweet Reston Town Center apartment for just under a year, I find out that all of the apartments were being converted into condos, and if I wanted to stay in my little 1000-square foot unit, I'd have to buy it for $565,000. WTF? $565,000 for a 1000-square-foot condo? No way!!! If I could walk out of my bedroom right on to a beach, sure, I'd say $565/sqare foot was worth it, but not in Reston, VA. So, I found myself a real estate agent and searched for nearby condos. I ended up buying a condo about 1000 feet away from the apartment, so I was still right next to the Town Center and didn't have to move far. The condo complex was an older apartment complex that was renovated and converted from apartments into condos. My unit cost $330,000, which was still really expensive for a little condo, but housing prices were skyrocketing back then, so I figured if I didn't buy at that price then that I'd just end up spending more a few months later. Ughhh!!! Not a good decision. I still live in said condo, and it's probably only valued at $200,000 right now. That's a whole other issue that I won't dwell on at the moment.
Well, for the first few years after I joined the ServerVault team, everything seemed sort of blah. Some notable events during those years that stand out in my mind are: my trip to Ecuador with my 2 close friends, Vargish and Druther; Getting lots and lots of tattoos, much to my parent's dismay; a bunch of other stupid relationships that led nowhere, well, except to drama town; I started getting really into urban assualt and trials-style mountain biking, which was very cool. Huh? I can't really think of anything else that stands out for me during this period. Maybe it's because everything that led up to me meeting the girl of my dreams, Cassandra, pales in comparison to everything that followed since. :) So, that's it! I just summed up from late summer 2004 until late summer 2007 in just 2 short paragraphs. Now it's time to skip to August, 2007...
More coming soon...
Last Updated: 10/07/2009