Rich Wilhelm

Archive for March, 2016|Monthly archive page

Not Exactly an Easter Message, Though I Wish You a Happy Easter

In journal, journal keeping, Philosophy/Creativity, Writing on March 27, 2016 at 8:18 am


This is not exactly an Easter message, though I am writing it very early on Easter morning, while listening to what has got to be one of the greatest collections of classic country music ever assembled, released at a time when the songs were still new.

I’m no preacher, so it’s not for me to say what Easter means to anybody. I can’t even claim to be “spiritual but not religious” at this point. I am just a guy who is, to paraphrase my grandmother, “middle-aged and dumb and tryin’ to get along.” In her phraseology, it was “young and dumb and tryin’ to get along,” but the tufts of gray hair I leave behind after every visit to Hair Cuttery have thoroughly convinced me of my middle age. And I’m actually cool with that.

This is, however, sort of a follow-up report on my Lenten season.

Back when I was a Catholic grade school kid, a huge component of Lent was “giving something up.” There were reasons for this giving up of course, though I honestly don’t remember the degree to which I understood these reasons. All I knew is that no matter what I tried to give up, my Lenten resolutions were doomed to fail, sometimes even before the ash on my forehead had completely disappeared.

My giving-things-up-for-Lent track record is abysmal. At least until this year.

I did not exactly attempt to give something up over the past 40 days. However, it was around the beginning of the holy season that I made a decision to ease up on dread and fear. And anger. And despair. And panic. And deep existential angst. Etc.

I didn’t do this for Jesus. I did it to preserve my sanity. That sounds a tad overdramatic and it probably is, but there is truth to it.

I can’t candy coat it, so I’ll just say it, in the same way I said it several blog entries ago: my life has been challenging in recent years, for many reasons. This is no way makes me unique. My response to the challenges — fear, anger, dread, panic, a gradual withering of my sense of humor — hasn’t exactly been unique either. This is all part of the human condition and I am about as human as possible.

Not unlike Taylor Swift, I’m not convinced that I’m out of the woods yet. In fact, I know I’m not. The challenges remain and they’re still big and scary. But earlier in the year, I did make the decision to at least try to combat the despair, anger, dread, panic, etc. The only weapon I could muster for this task was to take a lighter approach to it all. I was going to stop worrying about not being the Very Best and instead begin to work positively toward the Somewhat Better.

Not coincidentally, this change in approach coincided with the revival of this blog. I’ve posted here at least once a week since I decided to break out of the loop in which I’d been stuck. I’ve always known that writing — whether I’m writing about these issues or about some interesting person now buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery or about my own nerdish tendencies — has been a touchstone of my mental health. When I’m writing regularly, I’m happier and better able to deal with life. This is simply how I’m wired.

The turning point was find the time, amidst the dread and the panic, to write. To actually do the thing — or, at least one of the primary things — that keeps me sane.

I am grateful to have this outlet. And, if you’ve been following this blog in recent weeks, or just stumbling on the occasional entry, I am grateful to you as well! Your time is your most precious commodity and I truly appreciate the time you spend with the words I bang out here.






Row. And. Stop.

In 1979, high school, memoir, school, Writing on March 25, 2016 at 9:33 am


Ninth grade was one of my weirder years. But isn’t ninth grade one of everybody’s weirder years?

For me, the weirdness was enhanced by the sense of dislocation I was feeling the day I started ninth grade. Just a few months earlier, I graduated St. Joseph School, after eight years of Catholic education. Within weeks of this auspicious event, my family left the house in which I had grown up. My parents had bought a new house in the next town over but, seeing as it wasn’t quite built yet, we moved in with, first, my grandmother, then my aunt and uncle. This is where we were living when I started ninth grade at a public junior high school, at which I knew nobody.

I can still detect the ever-so-slight remnant of the knot I felt in the pit of my stomach the morning I walked into Chichester Junior High on the opening day of school. It hurts, a tiny bit, even now.

Also, did I mention that it was 1979? Therefore, this is me in Grade 9:


Life for me as a ninth grader was rough at first. As you can imagine from the photo, it wasn’t long before the class bullies introduced themselves in no uncertain terms. I was fortunate that these introductions never became physical, but it was still disconcerting to be told that my face was soon to be broken.

Gradually, I found myself. My family moved into our new house. I made some friends, who were just as weird as I was. I confused some of the kids in my art class by bringing in records by Chuck Mangione (“where’s the singing?”) and Flying Lizards (“what the fuck is this?”). I joined the school musical, Cheaper by the Musical, in which I: a) played a football player; b) sang; and c) danced. I did not do any of those three things well, but I had fun.

Amid all the craziness of my ninth grade year, I remember one island of total zen calm and stability, though I’m not sure I saw it that way at the time.

Typing class.

fff ddd sss aaa jjj kkk lll ;;; fff ddd sss aaa jjj kkk lll ;;;

“Row. And. Stop.”

Those words were intoned by our typing teacher, Mrs. Peters. I do not remember Mrs. Peters’ first name. I am not entirely certain I knew Mrs. Peters’ first name as I sat banging away at manual typewriter keys in her classroom. But Mrs. Peters was there to do a job — teaching a motley crew of ninth graders to type. She did it well, calmly instructing us to “row. and. stop.” after each line we typed.

Mrs. Peters’ voice and the clacking of keys were the only sounds ever heard in typing class. No Flying Lizards allowed.

Mrs. Peters was unflappable, so much so that I remember being somewhat startled when she enthusiastically engaged in an animated conversation about golf with one of my classmates. It just seemed so out-of-left-field that Mrs. Peters should be thinking about anything other than rowing. and. stopping. This, of course, had way more to do with my somewhat limited view of the world at that time than it did with Mrs. Peters’ interests outside the typing classroom.

And a note about that classroom: it was on the other side of the rather large school from my core classes. This was probably intimidating to me at first, but that’s another reason why I remember typing class as being an oasis of sorts. It was simply so far away from everything else.

I think I spent the entire year with Mrs. Peters and her typing class, but I might be wrong. It may have just seemed like the entire year. I’m not sure what my typing grades were, but I’m thinking they were just average. In either case I know this: once I stepped out of typing class for the last time, I never saw Mrs. Peters again.

I have typed nearly every day  of my life since the last time I saw Mrs. Peters. Both my typing speed and accuracy are top-notch, though even today, if I start thinking about how fast I’m typing, I immediately start making misteakss. Mistakes, that is.

So much of my life’s work, both as a professional writer/editor and as someone who frequently writes personal work as an avocation, is about my hands translating via a keyboard what is going through my brain at that moment. It is true that I’ve always kept a handwritten journal, and have even successfully revived that practice this year. However, much of what I write these days, including this essay, moves straight from brain to keyboard. Through my hands, without the intervention of a pen or paper. Using the techniques Mrs. Peters taught me 37 years ago in the faraway deserted island typing classroom filled with big old manual typewriters at Chichester Junior High School.

When I think back on all the stuff I learned in high school, it’s a wonder to think that ninth grade typing class may have been my most important takeaway of all. But, with all due respect to the many great teachers I had, typing class clearly had the most profoundly practical effect on my life from 1979 straight on up to this morning.

I have the mysterious, golf-loving Mrs. Peters to thank for that.

Row. And. Stop.







Laurel Hill Tales #002: A.G. Heaton

In American history, cemeteries, history, Laurel Hill Cemetery, poem on March 20, 2016 at 8:36 am

I attended an excellent event at Laurel Hill Cemetery this weekend. My friend Pattye, assisted by my friend/Pattye’s husband Tom, led an entertaining and very informative tour focusing on editors, publishers and writers who are buried at Laurel Hill. Walking the grounds and hearing some stories that were new to me — no matter how often you visit Laurel Hill, you will learn something new every time — inspired me for the tour I’m giving at LHC this Friday, March 25, from 10 a.m.-noon (hint-hint). It also put me in the mood to tell another Laurel Hill Tale. This time around: Augustus Goodyear Heaton, shown above along with several photos of his intriguing gravesite.

I had never heard of A.G. Heaton when I first stumbled on his gravesite last September. Up until that day, I had passed the site in my wanderings many times, but one afternoon I was drawn to its patio-like shape, with a monument to Heaton’s parents in the center. Reading his epitaph piqued my interest and I immediately hit Google to learn more.

Before I tell Heaton’s tale, I’d just like to note that I think his gravesite is among the most photogenic sites in Laurel Hill. It invites you to view it and photograph it from a distance, placing it among other stones; but then it draws you in so that you want to study it further. When you do, you’re rewarded with a variety of micro-views on which to focus your camera. The photos included here are just a few that I’ve taken at Heaton’s site. I’ll surely be taking more.

As for Heaton: he was a polymath. He was an artist, although some of his major paintings appear to have gone missing. However, the painting in which Heaton took the most pride, The Recall of Columbus, is in the art collection of the United States Capitol.

When he wasn’t painting, Heaton was often writing. Among Heaton’s works is a book called The Heart of David, the Psalmist. Though I have yet to read it, The Heart of David, the Psalmist is a classic epic. How do I know this? Because Heaton’s epitaph credits him as the book’s author and parenthetically notes “(classic epic).” I’ll take the stone’s word for it, at least for now.

While his painting and writing surely kept A.G. Heaton busy, his most lasting contribution is probably that of a numismatist. That is, a coin collector. In fact, Heaton may the most influential coin collector ever, thanks to an 1893 book called A Treatise on Coinage of the United States Branch Mints.

I love a good treatise. Don’t you?

In his treatise, Heaton suggested in a series of metaphorical bullet points that coin collectors ought to collect coins based on the mint marks that indicate the location where each coin was made. He proposed that the mint mark was the most telling indicator of a coin’s value.

Collect coins based on their mint marks? This was a game changer. No one had ever suggested this before. But any serious, or even casual coin collector, will tell you that mint marks are one of the foundations of collecting U.S. coins.

I intend on blowing the minds of numismatists visiting Laurel Hill for years to come at A.G. Heaton’s gravesite.

Heaton wrote classic epics and influential treatises, but he was not above a little light verse now and then. It should come as no surprise that coin collecting was often the subject of his frothy poetic efforts. One such poem, “The Amorous Numismatist,” is about the arduous efforts of the titular numismatist to capture the love of a beautiful woman by impressing her with his coin collection. It was published as an amusing diversion in one of the leading numismatic journals of the day.

Approximately 80 years later, 14-year-old me, with no knowledge of A.G. Heaton or his work, wrote a poem called “Philatelic Love: Baby I’m Hinged on You.” That’s right. I wrote a poem about a philatelist — that is, a stamp collector — who is trying to capture the love of a beautiful woman by impressing her with his stamp collection. Back in 1979, I shopped “Philatelic Love” around to various stamp collecting journals, in the hopes that it would provide an amusing diversion. I received some bemused rejection letters, I can assure you.

A.G. Heaton and are not necessarily soulmates, but I think our poems make us soulgeeks.

At the risk of embarrassing both A.G. Heaton and myself, I’ll close this entry with “The Amorous Numismatist” and “Philatelic Love: Baby I’m Hinged on You” for your seriously niche-centric light reading pleasure.


The Amorous Numismatist

By A.G. Heaton

An amorous numismatist

Met a fair damsel in a grove

And when he saw he sighed and wist

To have the maid return his love

Said he, “A precious ‘99

Light olive cent I have in store

I treasure much but for thee pine

And feel I love thee almost more”

Said she, *T now am quite content,

My heart and hope are in-no-cent.”

The amorous numismatist

He wept that she could thus repel.

“There is no coin upon my list

That I could love, I think, so well.

I have a charming 1804

And both together I would give,

I’m nearly sure, to thee adore,

Accepted, and with thee to live.”

Said she, “You dwell upon the cent

But not upon the cent-I-meant.”

“If,” said the sad numismatist,

“My cents were bored and linked with wire,

To form a bracelet for thy wrist

And prove the worth of my desire,

If all the rarest of my gold

Were strung, thy tresses to bedeck,

My silver pieces most extolled

Were hung about thy snowy neck?”

“Ah,” laughed the maiden, “Tell me when

I’ll be an acquies-cent then.”

Philatelic Love: Baby, I’m Hinged On You

By Rich Wilhelm                                                                                                            

You’re my special delivery, baby.
I’m really hinged on you.
Your body is in mint condition
and I’m stuck on you like glue.

You’re a ’74 mint set.
To me, you’re worth thousands in love.
To me, you’re a rare inverted error.
You’re my airmail sweetheart, dropped from above.

I’ll postmark you with kisses.
I’ll trade my stamps for you.
Comply with all my wishes
or else I’ll be so blue.

This love can never be cancelled.
I’ll love you day and night.
You’re pretty as a commemorative
and I’m sure this love is right.

I love you dear, of that I’m sure.
I learned your zip code really fast.
I enjoy playing post office so much with you.
I hope this love will last and last.



Shiny Happy People, Revisited

In love, marriage, R.E.M., Uncategorized on March 12, 2016 at 4:02 pm

IMG_1027It was 25 years ago — March 12, 1991 — that R.E.M. released Out of Time, their seventh full-length studio album. It proved to be a career-changing release for the band. Not only that, Out of Time became the soundtrack to a pivotal time in my own life. This was true of R.E.M. albums before and after Out of Time but probably never more so than it was with Out of Time.

I don’t always remember where or when I bought some of the albums that have grown to be my favorites, but I remember very well the late afternoon — or maybe it was lunchtime? — that I acquired Out of Time.

No, it was definitely late afternoon. In any event, I know exactly who I was with when I bought Out of Time. I was with my girlfriend, Donna.

This was new to me. The whole girlfriend concept, that is; I had bought R.E.M. albums before. Donna and I had been on our first date just a few weeks earlier and everything was new to us when we walked into Sounds of Market that afternoon. New, but already promising.

We walked deep into Sounds of Market, a Philadelphia institution kitty-corner from the monolithic John Wanamaker building, and quickly found Out of Time, which was the object of our quest. The album was available on both CD and vinyl and I pondered which format in which to buy it. I briefly considered buying one of each, but oh, how indulgent and ridiculous that seemed! I opted for the CD, which was, after all, the audio wave of the future.

Regrets, I’ve had about three dozen. Not buying Out of Time on vinyl that day is one of the minor regrets worth mentioning.

Early reviews indicated the Out of Time was R.E.M.’s “love” album, and in their 25th anniversary retrospectives, musical pundits are still calling Out of Time R.E.M’s love album. But, in typical R.E.M. fashion, Out of Time presents few straightforward looks at the subject matter du jour. You’ve got your obsessive love (the massive hit, “Losing My Religion”), your dark love (“Low” and maybe “Country Feedback”), your uncertain love (“Me In Honey”). Out of Time is a gentle album, a retreat from the rockier tracks on their previous album, Green, but it’s not necessarily an easy album. Love is, after all, awesome but complex.

Out of Time is deceptively complex.

One song does seem to be fairly on-the-nose when it comes to expressing the basic concept that love can bring happiness. That song is called “Shiny Happy People.”

Many serious R.E.M. fans loathe “Shiny Happy People.”

I do not hate “Shiny Happy People,” but consider the context. It was purely coincidental but, the more I was listening to Out of Time as 1991 progressed, the deeper Donna and I were falling in love. As far as I was concerned, Donna and I were the shiny happy people Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and special guest Kate Pierson were chirping about. And I was totally OK with that.

I’ve often pondered the hatred that people have toward “Shiny Happy People.” I think some fans just dislike because it is quite atypical of the R.E.M. sound that they grew to love as 1980s college kids. This simply wasn’t what R.E.M. was supposed to sound like. I believe that even today, there are fans of R.E.M.’s ’80s work who have never recovered from the betrayal of “Shiny Happy People.”

Of course, there are people who might not have cared as much about  R.E.M. as serious fans, but still hated “Shiny Happy People.” I think, for those people, it wasn’t the “happy” that annoyed them so much as it was the “shiny.” Most people are generally in favor of the happiness of others, but nobody really enjoys watching other people flaunt their happiness. You know, being all shiny about being happy.

But that’s what we are at the beginning of a good relationship, don’t you think? Shiny and happy. We want other people to know that we’ve found love, and occasionally, most of us can be kind of obnoxious about it.

Donna and I are still together, 25 years to the day that we entered Sounds of Market for me to buy Out of Time. To be honest, the “shiny” that we were feeling that year has faded a bit. A quarter-century of life and love and all that entails will do that to two people. We’re slightly tarnished but we can still see and feel the happiness.

“Slightly Tarnished Happy People” never would have been the hit that “Shiny Happy People” was. But it demonstrates nicely the complexity of love hinted at by Out of Time.








Laurel Hill Tales #001: William Duane

In American history, cemeteries, Laurel Hill Cemetery, politics, presidential elections, Uncategorized on March 6, 2016 at 4:33 am

Over the course of the last month, I have gotten into a comfortable habit of having my dog wake me up way too early on Sunday morning, walking her, then returning home to drink a cup of coffee and type some words into this blog. It’s now Saturday night and Jolie will still wake me up way early tomorrow morning, but I’ll be headed to Laurel Hill Cemetery to help out with a new tour guide presentation, so I will post tonight instead. As soon as I take Jolie out for her “Jolie After Dark” moment. Stay tuned.

Two minutes later…

OK. So, Jolie has had her moment, I have brewed a cupajoe, I’m listening to side three of the Thank God It’s Friday soundtrack and I’m ready to tell the story of William Duane, a permanent resident at Laurel Hill Cemetery. Tonight, I’m apparently all about cultish disco film soundtracks and rabble-rousing anti-federalist journalists. Huzzah!

As last Thursday’s G.O.P. debate aptly demonstrated, we are living through a period of serious political ugliness. No stone is being left unturned, no bit of a certain candidate’s anatomy is being left unmeasured.

In light of this electoral chaos, some concerned citizens have called for a return to decorum in national discourse. There are those who fear that the coarse behavior we’ve recently seen on the campaign trail and on debate stages is beneath us as a country and I certainly can’t say I disagree. And, of course, many people feel strongly that sex, politics and religion remain the three topics that shouldn’t be discussed around the dinner table. Or on Facebook.

However, the truth is we can’t return to something that never really existed. The political process in the United States has always been noisy and raucous.  The people, the politicians and the press have all done their part throughout this country’s history to add to the obnoxiousness.

Need an example? Let’s go way back to William Duane. Born in upstate New York in 1760, as a young man Duane journeyed to Ireland to learn how to become a printer. From there, Duane headed off to Calcutta, India and became a newspaper editor.

Duane’s stint in India ended in deportation, after the local government took issue with some of his criticism. Duane wound up in Philadelphia, editing a newspaper called the Aurora with Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of Philadelphia’s most famous citizen. Duane took over the Aurora following Bache’s early demise (and married Bache’s widow) and continued Bache’s legacy with a newspaper that railed against the Federalist administrations of George Washington and John Adams.

That’s right. William Duane didn’t care for the Father of Our Country or his successor and was happy to let readers of the Aurora know this at every opportunity.

The Aurora‘s tirades continued into the Adams administration, so much so that Duane was arrested twice for violating Adams’ infamous Alien and Sedition Acts.  Undeterred, Duane promptly turned his newspaper’s attention to the defeat of John Adams to his vice president, Thomas Jefferson, in the very nasty presidential election of 1800. Charges against Duane were dismissed after Jefferson took office.

And so it goes. The business of electing a president in these United States has always been at least just-slightly-crazy. And sometimes crazier, as Decision 2016 is demonstrating. And, while I have no idea what words William Duane, now resting peacefully at Laurel Hill, would have for Donald Trump, I think Duane would vote down on decorum and up for noise.

Two final notes on William Duane. First, after retiring from the Aurora in 1822, Duane traveled extensively in South America, eventually writing a book about his adventures. Finally, he had a son, William J. Duane–also buried at Laurel Hill–who had the temerity to tangle with President Andrew Jackson on banking issues. But that is a tale for another time.







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