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Michael Perry: Soundtrack for growing up

Michael Perry: Soundtrack for growing up


The three fledgling wrens outside my window found their wings and fluttered into the future last week. After a few days of empty-nest silence, the male is now back to singing all day long and hosting showings for prospective partners. Yesterday, after coaxing an interested party in for a look, he dropped to an eave of the birdhouse and pointed toward the entry with his beak while cupping and drumming his wings as if to usher his visitor forward. She went as far as poking her head through the opening a time or two, but departed without entering. As of this morning he’s still out there warbling, the sonic equivalent of a sign-spinner perched outside a new development doing his best to divert commuters to peek at a spec home.

Meanwhile, last week’s weather reminded my wife and me of our formative years spent stacking hay bales no matter how hot and humid it was and how we accomplished this — brace yourselves — despite the utter nonexistence of smartphones or Bluetooth earbuds.

As with many parents of our age and background, we are young enough to be hooked on all the same digital doo-dads our kids are and yet old enough to remember life without them. It’s an interesting spot to catch yourself in, having to pause your podcast or drag your eyes off of Twitter long enough to lecture Tomorrow’s Hope on the importance of meatspace chores and boredom in the development of character and a well-rounded mind.

One also faces the futility of constantly comparing and contrasting our own past with our children’s present. Even as I launch into a By God disquisition on why it is we must learn to stack wood without a K-pop soundtrack, I am echoing (if not word-for-word, then harrumph-by-harrumph) my own father’s inveighing against my not picking up my pitchfork until I found a place to prop my pre-boom box cassette player (with the red “record” button) beside the heifer pens so that I might toil to the tune of one of two albums approved by my younger brother: “The Sensational Charley Pride” or a collection of country covers by Terry Bradshaw. My brother was a bit of a straight-shooter and thus vetoed Queen’s “A Night at the Opera.” For the record, we enjoyed that Terry Bradshaw album, although one might question whether we’d have noticed should the tape have gone garbled.

The thing is, with those

cassettes, you pushed play and that was it for 20 minutes or more. You could get some manure moved. Whereas based on my field observations, what really slows the workflow with digital music is the nonstop curating. So much tappety-swipe. Then again, I derail my own train of thought to observe that “nonstop curating” is the perfect description of parenting. So often it feels that child-rearing is accomplished in 30-second increments of “what now?!”

You preach a little, you adjudicate as best you can, you love a lot, you smile and listen to the music that moves them whether you’re feeling it or not, you make them listen to a little of yours now and then, and after it all they tip from the nest and flutter away. By the time they skyline the horizon, you’re praying they’ll survive to migrate back now and again. You need to fill the silence without evocation so you cue up some bland anodyne on the order of a “Peaceful Piano” playlist. Soon enough, you shut that down and so you might simply listen to the wren sing.

An original “Roughneck Grace” column exclusive to the Wisconsin State Journal. Audio versions may air on “Tent Show Radio” ( Read more from Michael Perry at

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