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Michael Perry: The good ol' days aren't what they used to be

Michael Perry: The good ol' days aren't what they used to be


The road to aging gracefully is filled with potholes, and many of those are filled with nostalgia.

For instance, this morning after chicken chores, as I leaned into the teeth of a deep-freeze breeze and my fingers went numb in the time it took to walk from the coop to the porch, I beheld a warm vision of Jerry Coubal spinning the cap off an insulated water jug.

I also had a vision of my mother, asking why I wasn’t wearing my mittens.

Jerry was the farmer down the road, and the water jug traveled in the twine box of his John Deere hay baler, behind which I spent many summer afternoons stacking. In that moment after pulling the pin on the loaded wagon and hitching up the empty, we’d gather up and drink.

I wrote about it once: “We’d set the cooler on the edge of the empty wagon, unspin the plastic top and turn it over to catch the water from the miniature spigot, then pass it around. I remember raising the water to my lips and seeing bits of chaff skating the surface tension of the water. Our neighbor Jerry would always swirl water in the cap after the last drink, then sling the water to the ground before screwing the cap back on. A little ceremony before we went back to work.”

In this morning’s moment of freezing fingers, the visual memory of Jerry spinning the cap was accompanied by the sense memory of the sun, the sweat, the alfalfa leaves stuck to my forearms, and even the stillness of the shadowed stubble when the shuttle runner was late with the empty wagon and we lay beneath the shade of the full one, awaiting the sound of the approaching Johnny-Popper.

Thank goodness for these memories. They are mine as long as I can hold them, no matter what happens. They keep me grounded, they sustain my gratitude for the good life I was given. It is tempting to soak in them all day long as a means of easing the creaking bones of present realities. And the muscles I made at that work are still mine.

And there’s where I tap the brakes.

Yesterday someone multi-forwarded an email that was essentially a “kids these days” rant. It was mildly heartwarming until it veered off into under-examined, self-satisfied hoo-hah regarding the state of things now as opposed to them good ol’ days when stoic souls ruled with firm and judicious hand (but maybe don’t check the closet or under the carpet). “Today’s kids are selfish and spoiled,” the email read, as if today’s adults were not widely in evidence.

The thing is, there was much to be longed for in that email. The value of honest work and delayed gratification, the best simplicities of times past. I nodded my head more than once and have delivered similar sermons at my own dinner table.

How I cherished the presence of seasoned elders like Jerry in my life. But the deeper I read into that email, the less I nodded. “Today’s kids rush to the store, buying everything they can ... no concern for anyone but themselves,” is a snappy line unless you’ve actually spent 10 minutes among the multitudes of young people who are studying, striving, volunteering and living brightly. Never mind those who have nothing to spend at the store.

I am far too wishy-washy to make a good preacher. I am convulsive in my caveats. I often retreat to the comforts of soft memory in the hard present. It is not mine to give lessons but it is certainly mine to take them, even those drawn from the young, as they observe their elders and form memories of their own.

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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