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The first time the wrens shacked up outside my office window, the deal fell through. The male chittered, burbled, and coaxed, and eventually the female stuffed the miniature house with sticks, but then both birds quite literally flew the coop. Things were quiet for a few weeks. I suspect they raised a brood elsewhere. Then they (or wrens who looked very like them) returned. The male ran through his repertoire, the female delivered a few more sticks, and then over the course of the past three weeks they’ve been steadily present.

Meanwhile the world has festered along. I recently asked a question in public, question being, “How loud you gotta pray to drown out all the contradictions?” I wasn’t really taking a poll, but folks certainly responded. “Not sure, but unceasingly,” was my favorite reply.

These days asking questions in public is like pulling the toilet handle while standing in the bowl. You long for discourse of the sort extolled by the currently dead French philosopher Montaigne, who wrote, “Harmony is a wholly tedious quality in conversation,” which at first sounds exactly like what we’ve got, until you consider he didn’t stick the word conversation in there by accident. He predicated that line on the idea that even in disagreement we’d actually talk to each other, not over or through each other, not via the digital shroud of an avatar, and he certainly didn’t expect that we’d settle for pelting our next-door neighbors with secondhand epithets spewed from a rich distance by folks the Irish poet Seamus Heaney once perfectly classified as “mouth athletes.”

But here we are. And, of course, Montaigne knew the world wasn’t wired for compatibility, writing as he was during a time when his neighbors were killing and torturing each other by the thousands over religion and royalty and a mish-mash of both.

He knew his largest responsibility was to maintain his own character. I try to remember that daily, and fail just as often. When it comes to choosing sides, my previously declared criteria remain: How you treating my family? How you treating my neighbors? Everything else is just hatchets and meringue.

But what am I saying here that’s original, or doesn’t make me sound like a whiny old man? Or worse, a whiny, preachy old man. My chief daily task presents itself in my bathroom mirror every day at dawn. This morning I didn’t linger. Did the chicken chores, and headed to work. The path to my office passes beneath the chokecherry tree where the wren house is hung. The hole the birds pass through is at ear level, and for the first time, I heard teensy cheeping within. An hour later I looked out the window just in time to see one of the adults enter with an inchworm in its beak. The wrens are doing their work, I must do mine.

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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