It is rare for me to track down an author to his home, but that happened 14 years ago, to interview a guy in New Auburn about his first book with a major publishing house.
Although dozens of unsolicited books made their way to my newsroom desk in Madison, this one seemed extraordinary because of the way it explored rural life. Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time was author Michael Perry’s observations about human nature, told through his work as a volunteer firefighter, nurse and farmer.
“This is a guy who reads ‘An Essay on Man’ from the 1700s while deer hunting,” I later wrote. “He is at home at both a Legion Hall smelt feed and a poetry reading. He sees beauty in modern dance and the birth of a calf. He is a registered nurse who used to be a cowboy in Wyoming.”
Now Mike is a New York Times bestselling author, and Population 485 recently was adapted into a play. He hosts the nationally syndicated “Tent Show Radio” at Big Top Chautauqua, Bayfield, and his newest book, Roughneck Grace: Farmer Yoga, Creeping Codgerism, Apple Golf and Other Brief Essays from On and Off the Back Forty, was just published by Wisconsin Historical Society Press.
Here is “Up in the Air,” an excerpt from that book, which is a collection of bite-sized essays from the author’s Sunday State Journal column, “Roughneck Grace.” His new book is available in print and as an e-book.
By MICHAEL PERRY
Up here the sun has already dropped below the distant edge of a horizon formed by a broad plain of furrowed clouds. The western sky is anemic pink and draining to pale blue. After a series of flight cancellations and delays that nowadays seem so commonplace it would be easier on everyone involved if boarding passes were printed in erasable ink, we — a scatter of unacquainted passengers on a half-filled cigar tube of a jet — have departed the Dane County airport and are airborne for the quick hop to Chicago.
Just prior to boarding, I spoke with my daughters by phone. It was good to hear their voices. I am in the middle of a month-long book tour, and have seen them only once — and then for only a matter of hours — since the tour commenced. I am thus predisposed to feeling maudlin, and now, looking out into the darkening sky with no earth in sight, I imagine them hundreds of miles away and tens of thousands of feet below at the kitchen table in our old farmhouse with warm yellow light spilling from the windows into the darkness all around. In mentally triangulating from that image to my current position in seat 12A, I render myself melancholy. To counter this self-centered slide, I summon the image of friends and family who work in the trucking industry or serve in the military; comparatively speaking my journey is but a merry side trip, and I try never to forget it.
At O’Hare, I am hoping for a connecting flight to Columbus, Ohio, where I am taking one day away from the book tour in order to speak with a group of hospice volunteers. I use the word “hoping” in light of the day’s accumulated airline hiccups, which began when my original flight was canceled 16 hours before it was due to take off. And indeed, when we land in Chicago, I am greeted by a text message alerting me to a gate change. Before I make it up the jetway, the phone pings again: a second gate change. Then, a third text message: the flight has been delayed.
Half an hour later, the flight is delayed again.
Then comes another gate change.
By now those of us on the delayed flight are beginning to recognize each other as we migrate from gate to gate. No one seems especially cranky; rather, we troop along with an air of resigned camaraderie. It is getting late now. An hour previous the gate lounges were filled to overflowing; now there are empty seats all around. The concourse is as hushed as a funeral parlor, the occasional noise deadened by the carpet.
Again, the phone pings. Another delay.
The Starbucks barista kills the lights and draws a curtain around the coffee kiosk—now we are truly alone.
Another ping. At this point, no one is even reacting. We are all reading or texting or staring at screens. An alarm sounds and blares for five minutes. Everybody looks, nobody moves. Including me. When it finally goes silent, I think: We are sitting ducks.
At midnight, we are still waiting. A departing gate agent has left a microphone keyed open. It issues a steady rustle of static through the speakers. At first it is irritating. Fifteen minutes later, it sounds like soft rain falling on a tin roof.
Finally we are in the air. The flight is rough. On the descent to Columbus raindrops flash like bullets in the strobes. The plane is dropping and bucking and kicking sideways. We land with a bounce and a lurch. In a few hours I will be gathering with a roomful of people who make it their duty to ease the living gently into dying. Everything need not be a parable, Spanky, I think to myself as I wait for sleep. Sometimes it is enough to simply ride out the delays, and be happy where you are.
Michael Perry’s upcoming book events include:
Capital Newspapers, 1901 Fish Hatchery Rd., Madison, 4-5:30 p.m. Oct. 11, Wisconsin Book Festival, book talk around 5 p.m., wisconsinbookfestival.org
Tribeca Gallery Café and Books, 401 E Main St., Watertown, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 11, tribecagallerycafe.com, 920-206-2885
Books and Company, Oconomowoc, noon Oct. 12, booksco.com, 262-567-0106
Colby Public Library, Colby, 7 p.m. Oct. 15, $12 general admission, colbypubliclibrary.org, 715-223-2000
The Park Center, 15791 U.S. 63, Hayward, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 4, with music by Michael Perry and the Long Beds, ticket price to be determined, parktheaterproject.com, 715-934-2780
Stoughton Opera House, 381 E. Main St., Stoughton, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 10, “Have I Said This Before?” monologue, stoughtonoperahouse.com, 608-877-4400
Racine Public Library, 75 Seventh St., Racine, 9 a.m. Nov. 12, annual Breakfast with the Authors, $18, rplfriends.org
Brown County Public Library, 515 Pine St., Green Bay, 6 p.m. Nov. 12, keynote speaker for Reader and Author Fair. browncountylibrary.org, 920-448-4400
Stay tuned to sneezingcow.com for event additions and updates.