Rich Wilhelm

Archive for the ‘fatherhood’ Category

Oh, What a Week That Was

In family, fatherhood, high school on June 11, 2016 at 10:43 am

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Our dog Jolie woke me up about 35 minutes ago, asking in a noisy and impolite way for a walk. I threw on the nearest clothes at hand and we set out. It was not even 5:30 in the morning.

Since I was wearing yesterday’s work clothes, I felt like I was on a dogwalk of shame, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I didn’t really have to be ashamed of much. I had made it through the week that I had been contemplating for months.

Our younger son Chris was promoted from middle school to high school this week. Our older son Jimmy graduated from high school two days later.

Oh, what a week it was. And, now that it’s over, I feel like I am a just-slightly-different person from when it began.

I began this week overwhelmed with emotion, and with a very practical list of things that simply had to be done before the first notes of “Pomp and Circumstance” played. I began this week thinking about how I’d handle the tangle of widely-varied emotions I’ve been feeling for months about all of this.

In short, I began this week thinking about myself. A big mistake, since this week clearly wasn’t about me, and it’s that realization that is making me that just-slightly-different person.

As the week progressed, things fell into place as best they could. Certain tasks were completed, others weren’t. But the ceremonies — Chris’ promotion, Jimmy’s baccalaureate, followed by his graduation the next night — all proceeded beautifully. The post-event celebrations each night — dinner at Hibachi on Wednesday, a visit to Dunkin’ Donuts on Thursday and cake and ice cream at home last night — all turned out just about right. Donna’s mom has been with us all week and my mom and sister drove up three nights in a row to be with us. I thought about my dad a bit, and how much I wish he could have been here, but his spirit was here each time someone remarked how much Jimmy resembles Dad now (right down to his stoic photo op smiles). Plus, I wore one of Dad’s ties to graduation.

It wasn’t a perfect week. But it was a really, really good week. And it was all about Jimmy and Chris. And when Jimmy’s graduation ceremony finally arrived, I wasn’t bogged down with all of the emotional baggage that’s been weighing me down for months. I simply felt happy for Jim and not particularly sentimental about the fact that his life — and mine — will be changing as a result of this particular ceremony. Best to embrace the change, enjoy the moment and move forward.

But it was also a week about family. During last night’s cake and ice cream party, the power briefly went out in our house, which sent Chris (and, I’ll admit it, me) into momentary emotional tailspins. At one point in this [non] crisis, Chris wailed that it could be the “worst night ever.”

This led to a long and funny conversation about some of the previously “worst nights ever” our family has experienced, going all the way back to 1975. We laughed long and hard as each of the stories unfolded. Laughing at the long ago worst nights ever, while reveling in the current imperfect but nonetheless beautiful moment? That sounds like family to me.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Moments

In Cliff Hillis, fatherhood, Laurel Hill Cemetery, marriage, Uncategorized on May 30, 2016 at 9:45 am

My younger son Chris and I were cruising down the Schuylkill Expressway early on a recent Saturday morning, one of the only times you can legitimately use the word “cruise” when describing a trip down that legendarily congested road. As we headed east, our friend Cliff Hillis was advising us to hang on to the moment, once it begins. Not to get stuck in the moment, but to catch a glimpse of the ephemeral nature of life and to realize when you are in the process of having a moment that you’re never going to forget.

Cliff wasn’t physically with us in the car, but his Song Machine CD was. Chris is slowly embracing pop music, one song at a time, so it took some repetitions of the first few tunes on the CD before we got to “Hang On To The Moment.” Once we did though, I realized that hanging on to the moment is one of the primary items on my agenda right now.

Chris and I were headed to Laurel Hill Cemetery, making “Hang On To The Moment,” a appropriate soundtrack. Imagine the infinite amount of life moments represented in a cemetery holding more than 80,000 permanent residents!

We were on the way to witness the removal of the General Meade tree, a Norway Maple more than 160 years old. This tree had shaded the grave site of General George Gordon Meade ever since his funeral in 1872. The tree was beautiful but had reached the end of its natural life.

Think about the moments that tree silently witnessed. Of course, the Meade funeral was the most famous. Meade’s body was brought to the cemetery via the Schuylkill River and President Ulysses S. Grant delivered a eulogy. But the tree was witness to hundreds of other, smaller, funerals over the course of its lifetime as well.

Once we arrived at Laurel Hill, Chris and I observed the early stages of the tree removal and then took a walk deep into the south section of the cemetery. At one point, we were as almost as far away from Laurel Hill’s gatehouse as you can get, while still being in the cemetery.

We visited the small mausoleum of William C. Dulles, a 39-year-old lawyer who had the misfortune of boarding the Titanic in 1912. Here was a man who was forced to become suddenly and grimly aware of the limited amount of moments in one’s life. How did he react? Very little is known about Dulles, so we don’t know what those last moments of his were like. We only know what is noted, somewhat oddly, on his tomb: “Died from Titanic, April 15, 1912.”

Not far from Dulles lies Charles Vansant, the first victim of the infamous Jersey shore shark attacks of 1916. He was just 25 years old when he waded into the surf with a dog 100 years ago this July 1. Again, not much is known about Vansant these days, only that his quarter century of life moments ebbed that summer day, as he was surrounded by shocked family members and onlookers.

While in the south section, we also visited the stump of another recently removed tree. It was under this one that fictional character Rocky visited the grave site of his also-fictional wife, Adrian, and contemplated the moments they shared.

So, yes, a walk through Laurel Hill can be a reminder to hang on to the moment. But of course, you shouldn’t need a  graveyard stroll to get what Cliff is saying in his song. Each time our life changes in some way, we’re invited to hang on to the moment.

The day I met Donna.

The day Donna and I got married.

The days that our sons Jimmy and Chris were born.

The day my dad died.

These, and some more private to mention here, are the days when I was being gently told to hang on to the moment. I’ve tried to listen and do just that, but the moments get so slippery after awhile, it can be hard to hang on, especially as the mundane details of everyday life threaten to swallow up every waking moment, including those when one ought to be sleeping.

During the next two weeks, we will celebrate the end of Chris’ middle school career and Jimmy’s high school graduation. Moving on to high school and college will surely bring changes for our boys–changes that we can tell have already begun–and life will never be the same for any of us.

It is an exciting time. A sad time. A scary time. A time of change and growth and opportunity. A time during which I want to wrap my wife and our sons up in a huge hug that lasts a long time, even as Donna and I wave the boys in the direction of their futures and just tell them, “Go for it, whatever it is.”

And it’s a time to hang on to the moment.

I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink in Memory of the Great Merle Haggard

In country music, fatherhood, music, Music/Memory, Uncategorized on April 7, 2016 at 3:37 am

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It’s late on a Wednesday night, but there is just enough time for a quick shot in memory of the great Merle Haggard, who died today on his 79th birthday. Even though I need to get to bed soon, for now, I think I’ll just stay here for a few minutes and drink to Merle.

It’s not exactly a coincidence, but the song that immediately comes to mind when I think of Hag is called “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” from a 1980 album called Back to the Barrooms. Hag’s ’79 album was called 190 Proof. I sense a theme.

I love “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” because it is a quintessential country music about drinking. Merle opens with “I could be holding you tonight/I could quit doing wrong and start doing right,” but soon concludes “I think I’ll just stay here and drink.”

Classic. “Hard country” is what this type of kickass song was called in 1980 and the band behind Merle rocks it out. Total classic.

But it’s not simply that “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” is a great song, one of dozens of stone cold classics written and recorded by Merle. Hell, during his Capitol years, Merle recorded songs that are better than this.

But “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” is a Dad Song. If I were to make a list every few years of 10 songs that immediately remind me of my father, “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” would make the list every damn time. Always near the top of the list.

Dad liked Haggard, of course, but he loved “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.” I’m thinking we probably heard it often on WDSD out of Dover/Smyrna, Delaware — “50,000 WATTS OF POWER!” — but eventually Mom or I bought Dad Merle Haggard’s Greatest Hits, which covered his late ’70s/early ’80s tenure at MCA Records.

Dad’s been gone for nearly 13 years and now the Hag is gone too. But the music — and the memories of Dad loving the music — will be with me for the rest of my life. And every time I hear “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” I’ll drink a shot for Dad, and for Haggard.

Funny thing is, I don’t think I’m alone. I’ll bet a lot of folks had — or if they’re lucky, have — dads who loved/love Merle Haggard. My boys sure as hell do.

 

 

 

Too Much Thyme on My Hands

In fatherhood, journal, journal keeping, marriage, not quite Walden, Philosophy/Creativity on April 3, 2016 at 2:26 pm

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Earlier this week, Donna and I made two dinners in a row that featured fresh basil. As often happens when I’m dealing with herbs and spices, my mind drifted to an essay I wrote quite a few years ago called “Too Much Thyme on My Hands.” It was about spice racks and about having too much/not enough thyme/time on one’s hands.

Plus, it gave me permission to craft sentences that involved multi-level spice/Styx lyrics puns. Now, that’s high concept.

I had to search hard on my old blog website, but I finally found “Too Much Thyme on My Hands” back among my February 2009 entries. I am posting it below, since time and what I do — and could do — with it has been on my mind quite a bit lately.

For now, I am posting this exactly as I wrote it. “I’m just going to leave this here,” as people seem to be fond of saying on social media these days. I will note, though, that the 11-year-old and 6-year-old I mention are now 18 and 13, headed off to college and high school in the fall. That’s what time does, you know.

As for me, the fact that I originally wrote the following piece seven years ago says everything I need to know right now about the acceleration of time.

I don’t really subscribe to the whole “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” philosophy. I think it’s way too simplistic. But one thing I do know: generally speaking, men dig spice racks; women, not so much.

I vaguely remember when Donna and I got married and set up housekeeping in 1992. I mentioned the inherent coolness of having a spice rack in our kitchen. Donna was decidedly noncommittal on the issue. As it turned out, Donna thought that the idea of a specific rack for spices, to be displayed on a kitchen wall, was kind of silly.

Since that time, most men I’ve spoken to on the spice rack issue have admitted to their enjoyment of the concept, while most women have expressed opinions similar to Donna’s. There are exceptions, of course, in much the same way as there are women who actually enjoy progressive rock band Rush, despite the oft-told-tale that Rush is very strictly “a guy thing.” (In fact, it was a Rush concert review in which I first encountered the phrase “sausage party” to describe a group consisting entirely of men.)

Anyway, I bring all this up because today Donna and I cleaned out a cupboard in our kitchen. The cupboard contains a lazy susan which had gotten overrun through the years with all manner of grocery products, including quite a few little plastic jars of various spices. When we did our cleanout today, Donna and I established a few policies in order to be consistent in what got discarded and what did not. We determined that any spices that were opened but did not contain any discernible “sell by” or “use by” date would be thrown away, in order to most successfully achieve the goal of cleaning out this little corner of our kitchen as much as possible.

While doing this cleanout, we found at least three (and maybe four) opened, but undated, containers of thyme. Clearly, we had too much thyme on our hands, though it was a mystery to us how we actually accumulated all this thyme. However, adhering to our pre-established policy, which we believed to be sound, and not knowing when the next time we’d use thyme would be, we ditched all the thyme. Now, we have no thyme in our house.

When you think about it, is it any wonder we had too much thyme on our hands? I mean, when I think about my life over the last five or ten years, I think about how we’ve often gotten so caught up in getting from the beginning to the end of any particular day that it’s become easy, very easy, to lose track of both the thyme, and the time, that we really have.

The result of all this, it seems, has been this unbelievable acceleration of time, in which Donna and I have suddenly been homeowners for more than ten years, and we’ve got kids who are 11 and six years old. And, of course, we take a peek in our cupboard and discover at least three, and maybe four, separate containers of thyme.

I believe this is what noted singer/songwriter David Byrne was referring to when he wrote,”Well, how did I get here?” in the Talking Heads song, “Once In A Lifetime.” Interestingly, Byrne was much younger when he wrote that than I am now, but he was clearly onto something.

So. How to deal with the loss of all that thyme? And time? First of all, it’s a good idea to reflect on the notion that the time I’ve spent being married to Donna and raising Jimmy and Chris with her hasn’t been lost at all. It has been time very well spent. Also, I’ve realized that the time I have left from this moment (spent with the amazing music of Thomas Dolby, a glass [or two] of wine, a pen and a notebook) onward is to be savored, much like thyme, used in a particularly good recipe, is meant to be savored. Of course, we no longer have any thyme in our kitchen, but we can pick some up at the supermarket the next time we need it. That is the huge difference between thyme and time.

Kids Take You Places

In fatherhood, parenting, Uncategorized on February 28, 2016 at 1:35 pm

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Kids take you places. If you’re any kind of decent parent, you go along for the ride.

Yesterday, Chris and I visited the ruined pump house that was part of Phoenixville’s once-thriving iron industry. Left to my own devices, I might have spent those early morning hours at home, but Chris was insistent that he needed footage of this particular industrial relic for a video he planned to make that day. So we went out for a chilly walk, took each other’s pictures in the ruin, and were back home by 9:00.

I’ve been along for the ride (even though I am, of course, the driver) for many of Chris’ excursions recently. Yesterday, it was Phoenixville’s lost industrial field; last week, it was the Very Best Restaurant on Pottstown’s main drag. Chris’ quirky interest in retail spaces has led us to visit several area shopping malls. Not to shop, mind you, but to study the architecture and aesthetics of the places. Chris and I talk during these trips about why people don’t shop in enclosed malls as much as they used to, and why Radio Shack closed most of its stores, and what led to the demise of Deb Shops. These are topics I never would have thought of on my own. In his way, Chris is getting his dad to think more deeply and broadly at the same time, an impressive feat for a 13-year-old kid.

Of course, being along for these kinds of rides did not start with Chris. Chris has an older brother, Jimmy. Practically from the moment Jimmy was born–with the surgeon singing Tom Petty’s “Into the Great Wide Open” in the operating room–he’s been leading me down all kinds of paths, and I’ve been happy to be along for the ride.

Like a lot of kids, Jimmy became enamored of professional wrestling. This is something that I always managed to avoid, even during the glory days of Lou Albano and Hulk Hogan back in the 1980s. But Jimmy’s love for it was irresistible, to the point that I happily took him to a couple of the big WWE events, where I finally gave in to the sheer ridiculousness of it all for myself.

The best WWE moments that Jim and I had together though, were the trips we took to George’s Collectibles, up in Levittown, to meet pro wrestlers, including the very cool Steve Blackman. We made three such trips, building time into those Saturday mornings for me to drive the extra 30 minutes or so to Princeton, New Jersey. There, on one of those Saturdays, Jimmy and I got completely drenched with pummeling rain while running around Princeton Cemetery to catch the gravesites of Aaron Burr and Grover Cleveland. Then we headed back to George’s to meet the wrestlers. Combining my love of old cemeteries with Jimmy’s WWE  obsession was clearly one of the best father/son bonding experiences ever.

More recently, I was literally along for the ride when I taught Jimmy how to drive. Again, this led me down mental paths I’d never known, since it had never occurred to me that I had it in me to teach someone to drive, even though I’ve been driving for decades. But that’s not all. While Jimmy was driving around, I let him pick the music we’d listen to. He inevitably picked this Kanye West mix that he made for himself, but also to educate me on Kanye’s work. Hearing the man’s music has given me a wider perspective on Kanye West and, while I still think he says lots and lots of jerky things, I’m not going to fall as easily into a knee-jerk middle-aged “hey-kid-get-off-my-lawn” guy reaction to All Things Kanye as I might have if Jim had not made sure I listened to the music.

These days, Jimmy is in the second half of his senior year in high school, and he’s got his mom and me along for the ride again. This ride could very literally lead us to the very same college dormitory that I led my parents to back in the fall of 1983. As this process unfolds, what Donna and I are learning is the gradual art of letting go, as Jimmy begins to move forward with his life.

I am learning now that letting go and letting kids grow up is tough, but it is the ultimate goal of parenting. Fortunately, if you’ve done it right, your kids might just let you occasionally come along for their rides into young adulthood and beyond. As long as I’m around, I’ll continue to enjoy coming along for any rides in which Jimmy and Chris care to include me.

 

Patrick F. O'Donnell

writer, editor, general wordsmith and scribe

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