Birthdays and Life

My baby picture. Circa, December 1957.

Today is my birthday. Another year older and closer to death.

Death is a common theme the older I get. But that’s life for all of us.

I was born on Sunday, 62 years ago. My mother said she went into labor while laughing at Jerry Lewis. She and my father were watching Hollywood or Bust at the movie theater. She loved watching Jerry Lewis movies. My dad didn’t like Jerry’s style of humor, but he enjoyed Dean Martin’s singing. It was Dean and Jerry’s last movie together.

So I came into this world around 11:30pm that Sunday, during a typical February snowstorm in northwestern Pennsylvania. I was Mom’s second child and the first to survive childbirth.

In 1957, Dwight Eisenhower was the US president and a postage stamp Cost 3 Cents. Some of the news during the year told us…

  • Congress approved the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction to protect blacks’ voting rights,
  • Hurricane “Audrey” destroyed Cameron, Louisiana killing 390 people,
  • National Guardsmen barred nine black students from entering previously all white Central High School in Little Rock,
  • The Russians launched Sputnik I, the first earth orbiting satellite,
  • The FBI arrested Jimmy Hoffa and charged him with bribery,
  • The Milwaukee Brewers Braves won the World Series,
  • The Detroit Lions won the NFL championship,
  • The Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup,
  • Jack Kerouac published On the Road,
  • Dr. Seuss published The Cat in the Hat,
  • And Laura Ingalls died in Mansfield, Missouri.

I became an avid reader by the age of 5 and wrote my own stories. My schoolteachers encouraged me to write. Comments in report cards and letters to my parents said

  • Steve loves to daydream;
  • He has an amazing mind;
  • His writing is extremely original.

But I wanted to be an artist more than a writer. I drew every day. Even later in life, I knew I wanted to be an artist. Aptitude tests for the Navy and college said I was creative and artistic. And the Navy said I would make a good leader. I think my Myers-Brigg personality type indicator listed me as an ISTJ. Strengths for an ISTJ are responsible, reliable, and hardworking. ISTJs get the job done. They make great business executives, accountants, and lawyers.

But I wanted to be an artist.

I have always had a very active imagination. I live in a bit of a dream world when I can. I’m a visual person and I appreciate beauty and design. And most of all, I feel extremely anxious in the wrong surroundings. Working a job that shut me in an office would have likely driven me insane.

So, I headed to the outdoors and became a wildlife artist. I didn’t become rich or famous, but I did well enough doing what made me happy. Later in life, around 45, I began writing again. I had too many stories in my head, many leftover from my high school days, that I needed to let out. A writing quiz for authors suggested that I write Young Adult stories. It summarized me as someone who “loves to write about years gone by” and is “flexible enough to write like a teenager, with the wisdom and perspective of an adult.” So I did.

Since then, I don’t write or make art as often as I did. Now, I read and think a lot. It’s only natural. I’m in the Thinking and Judgement part of my ISTJ personality, doing some soul searching. I have always been philosophical and contemplative to seek an understanding of the deeper reasons for life. Now, more than ever, I’m intrigued by the unexplained, the mysteries of life, and the phenomena of nature. My kinship and love for the outdoors sparks a deep appreciation for the wonderment and beauty of nature. When I’m outdoors in nature, I feel fully alive.

It’s that feeling that has me looking forward to full retirement from the 9-to-5 working life that I do to pay the bills. 4-and-a-half more years to go.

Quiet and serious, you are well prepared for whatever life hands you.
—An ISTJ personality strength

Poet [poetry]

The boy who lost his mother gnarled like a bear—
tough bear he.

But away from the bestial,
he had softness in his eyes—
they laughed even when he and his words were sharp
and sometimes ambiguous.

He showed the plumpness of his belly to his closest friends
and grunted like a pig and poet,
laughing behind his scars
with eagerness to taste color from afar.

He took from the sunglow like an artist hunched at his easel
and painted everyone—
even the ones who had no power to imagine.

He painted deaf-mutes with love that ran down his breast,
ripping chords from the constellations
and opening creation’s ingenious blindness
to music that volleyed beyond his art that transcended ages
and volleys still
in us all.

Hypnagogia [painting]

I awoke today with an intention to write something profound. Then I got out of bed.

There are moments between sleep and consciousness when our minds are busy creating. For me, whether when I’m falling asleep or awakening, that’s when stories play out and I see artwork happen in my mind. Psychologists call this stage “hypnagogia,” a borderland between sleep and wakefulness characterized by surreal visions and strange sensory occurrences.

I learned to use hypnagogia to my advantage when I was a teenager, which sometimes resulted in “trippy” art while I was in high school. I also used it to form story ideas. The best times to do this were those waking moments, which left imprints in my mind that I recorded as best as I could into drawing pads and notebooks I kept by my bed.

Cloud Ruler
Cloud Ruler, Acrylic Painting

A routine sleep schedule helped me to have hypnagogia occurrences during the same time every morning. I was most creative with my art and writing during my school years and later when I worked a routine 9-to-5 day job. But when my sleep schedule was everything but routine, my creativity was at its lowest. This occurred when I worked as a steward, baker, cook, mess hall manager, truck driver, bartender, and housing manager in the Navy, and again when I became employed in retail.

My current retail employer insists but doesn’t demand that I make myself available to work at any time and day … except Christmas (subject to change, I’m sure, by a growing mental illness among CEOs called Wealth Accumulation Disorder). Luckily, my department is a “day department,” so I have been able to stay away from what the company used to call third shift. I’m a “day person,” which means I don’t have to work past midnight, but I should be available to begin working at 6am. Luckily (and I’ll take all the luck I can get), my department doesn’t open until 9am, which means my days begin at eight thirty. Quitting time is 10pm, so each day is fractured into two shifts: 8:30am–5:30pm, and 5:30pm–10pm.

Hypnagogia rarely occurs when I’m scheduled a 5:30pm–10pm shift followed by an 8:30am–5:30pm shift. I’m certain the lack of hypnagogia happens because I’m used to going to bed at 10pm and waking at 6am. When I go to bed later than 10pm, I struggle to fall asleep and end up reading until midnight or later. My mind is blank at 6am on these nights, and so I spend the hour reserved for recording ideas hitting the snooze button before I have to take my morning dose of Synthroid before I can eat a proper breakfast.

Without hypnagogia occurrences, especially right before I awake, I find myself less alert on the job as well. Perhaps it’s because experiencing hypnagogia is a condition I’ve grown accustomed to. When I miss out, I’m like a junkie without his fix. I need my moment to be creative. And when I’m feeling creative, I do more than make art or write stories, I function better at socializing. My brain’s gears are working best and in full throttle. I’m that smiling guy who greets you with a friendly hello because I got a night of good sleep bookended with hypnagogia.

Maybe someday big pharma will sell it over the counter. For now, I’ll take it when I can get it, and call myself lucky on the days—I mean nights—it happens.