Mike Perry | Fall Creek, WI
“When I say spare, part of that has to do with the religion I was raised in. You were not supposed to have flashy things, and women dressed modestly, men the same. There was no TV, no dancing in our house. Not even any radio.
When I say blissful, it’s because I was raised in love and kindness. We had a house full of books, and my mom saw that I loved books at an early age and taught me to read. In a big family, I enjoyed solitude with my books.
I have two brothers who I share genetics with, three adopted sisters, and then a legion of foster siblings, some of whom stayed for 10 years and some of whom stayed for the weekend. There would always be six to nine kids in our house on a given day, and sometimes you’d show up at the supper table and not know everybody there.
Fostering ran in the family. By the time my grandmother died, she had fostered somewhere around 70 children over the years. My dad wanted a big family, and as part of their mission to help people, they also wanted to foster children.
Both of my parents were from Eau Claire. My mom had always said, from the time she was tiny until she was an adult, ‘I don’t care who I marry; I just don’t want to marry a farmer.’ So she married my dad, a college-educated city kid, who was a chemical engineer at a paper mill while she was a nurse. But, a couple of years into the marriage, dad decided he wanted to be a farmer. He slowly eased into it, starting with a few sheep. So despite her plans, she’s been on a farm ever since, and actually she’s really found her center there. Now it’s hard to get her to leave.
I was born in Wisconsin Rapids, but when I was two we moved to a farm in New Auburn. My siblings and I all worked hard, and helped with milking, logging, and firewood gathering. We bought our first cow from a neighbor. To get the cow over to our property, we tied the halter to the bumper of a Ford Falcon station wagon and led it back at a speed of three miles per hour. Took us forever. Then dad built his herd up and, when I was still quite young, left his job at the paper mill to milk cows and raise sheep and then in the winter, we logged.
As life has gone on, I’ve learned more about privilege. We were poor, but both of my parents had college degrees and had made a conscious decision to go into the country and live a certain way.
I often talk about my blue-collar roots, but I’ve tempered that over the years, having learned that for me, there is a privilege in choosing to live that way.
My parents are faithful, humble people. My father would come up every night to read to us from the Bible, and then he would sing a hymn on the way down the stairs. Forty years later, I still treasure the memory of that final note. He would go downstairs, and I’d drift off listening to my parents talk to one another. That is one of my most centering, important memories: hearing my parents’ voices downstairs. There was something in that that told me, ‘You’re okay, everything’s safe. We don’t have much, but Mom and Dad are talking to each other.’”
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“My family did a lot of fostering over the years, and because of her skill set as a nurse, my mom became the person who took in kids who had serious or terminal medical problems. From the time we could rustle the equipment around, all of us kids knew how to change oxygen bottles and that kind of stuff. I remember doing tube feedings at the supper table. Participating in the care of my significantly ailing foster siblings gave me a realistic picture of what I was getting myself into taking up nursing. I felt it would be a solid career that I’d be good at, so I worked my way through nursing school at UW-Eau Claire.
In my senior year of finishing up my degree I pretty quickly learned that when people find out that you’re in nursing school or you have a license, someone will get hurt and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, well, you’re a nurse!’ You learn to dread that phrase.
What they don’t understand is that the general training is not emergency-focused. That’s later, when you become an ER nurse, or a flight nurse. And so I realized, ‘Well, I’m gonna get asked this all the time; I guess I should know what to do if someone’s having a heart attack or if somebody just cut their arm off.’ And so I thought, ‘I’m just gonna take an EMT course so I know what to do and then that’s it.’
My brother heard about what I was doing and he got interested. So my brother and I signed up together, and then my mom heard about that and she said, ‘Oh, I’ve always wanted to do something with my boys.’ And so she signed up for it too. So the three of us took our EMT course together. We finished it and I thought, ‘Okay, I guess, cool, now I kind of at least know what to do.’ I was living in Eau Claire at that point and I just kinda left it at that.
But in the meantime, my brother and my mom actually started running with the volunteer crew up in Chetek. One night I was up there and my brother said, ‘Would you want to come out on a call if we get any?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ I hung out at the ambulance garage and when they got a call we turned the lights on and went whistling out there and we did our thing and when I got back to the garage, I thought, ‘Oh, yeah…I think I want to do some of this.’
I ended up getting hired on to a private EMT service in Eau Claire, just to work weekends. But it was 48-hour shifts, so you got a ton of calls. And we did all the interstates; you had a lot of medical, but you also had a lot of trauma. A high call volume in a short period of time. So I’d work during the week as an RN at the hospital and then I was a single guy, nothing happening, so all weekend I would just live at the ambulance garage.
Later on, when I moved to New Auburn, I joined the volunteer service in Chetek. I’d always been pretty much a loner, despite my public life. I don’t drink, I don’t go to the bars, I don’t belong to any local churches. The joke I always make is, ‘I don’t play softball, I don’t bowl, I can’t polka.’ So I had free time. New Auburn had a fire department that was just starting a rescue program, and so I went and got my firefighter training. Firefighter I, Firefighter II. For 12 years, I did both fire and rescue.
I’ve always found it a way to keep in touch with people outside my regular circles, which I think is really important. And then it just gives you this constant sense of mortality. I’m going to a training tonight and it’s for my First Responder re-certification. We’ll spend four hours talking about all the ways you can die. I just don’t find that unnerving at all. I’ve just seen people die thousands of different ways, in all circumstances. Even now when I’m down to just handful of calls per year—very, very minimal—I’m still always reminded of how fragile everything is, and that makes me pay attention to what I do have.
One night I’ll never forget, we went to a residential area out in the country that is filled with trailer houses. It was bitterly cold and windy, and we had two calls in a row—two people from completely different racial backgrounds, two people from completely different circumstances, both in a very vulnerable, precarious state, both economically and health-wise.
Afterward, when I stepped back into my warm van, after carrying a patient through the bitter cold with the wind slicing through her blanket, I thought, ‘Man, I’ve got everything I need.’ Thinking about the struggles of those two people stuck with me.
I’ve been on more exciting calls. I’ve been inside burning buildings, I’ve been to horrible wrecks, seen absolute carnage, and pulled pieces of femur out of doors. But that call sticks with me because it reminded me that there’s a thread holding me from being that person. Some people got the boot straps to pull themselves up, some people got the boot heel.”
“My mom did something for me when I was young that was so meaningful I sometimes have trouble even telling it. And she didn’t do it overtly, and it took me 30 years to realize what she’d done.
I so loved books when I was a kid that I was always pestering Mom to read them to me. And Mom was a voracious reader; she read all the time. I was bugging her so much that she made this deal with me: she would read me a chapter of ‘Winnie the Pooh’—and this was the text-heavy version, not the cartoon version—and then she would hand me the book and I would have to sit there quietly while she read a chapter of her grownup book to herself. This was before I could read.
Partly because we didn’t have radio or television, my family often sat around and told stories, which I think played a big role in me ending up writing memoirs for a living. Also, my mom was a nurse and used to volunteer to do blood pressure checks for, I think in those days they called them, the ‘Golden Agers.’ She’d go to the Legion Hall and she’d have to drag us along. So I remember just sitting around, listening to old people telling stories. They would never claim to be able to structure a story, but they were genius at it. There was always this unfolding and introduction to the situation and the framing, and then the payoff—there’s always some goofball payoff.
So I was just surrounded by stories and books my entire life. I came to love language and the rhythm of it and the taste of it and the feel of it. But I was clear out of college, and working as a nurse, before it ever occurred to me to be a writer.
I was working at Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire, in a neuro-rehab unit working with people that had traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, strokes and amputations. And I really enjoyed it. But in the meantime, I had had a friend sell a piece about canoeing to some magazine, and she got paid $75. That’s literally the first time I went, ‘Wait, you can get paid for writing?’ I’d taken writing classes before, in high school and college and I loved them, but I’d take them and go, ‘Okay, that was fun,’ and then I’d just leave it. Because—people don’t believe this—but it never occurred to me that you could be a writer if you came from where I came from.
But then I have the friend who sells an article and I thought, ‘Oh!’, so I went to the library and checked out a book on how to be a writer. It sounds so dumb, but that’s really how it started. I learned about pitching and submission guidelines, and I just started writing things in my off-times and sending them out.
In early 1989 I had been writing, working as a nurse and EMT, and decided to take a short break. I had made decent money that year, so as a young, single guy, I backpacked all over Europe. I wound up in England for a month or so and lived in a tiny little house in a tiny little town. I had a chair next to a coal grate, and I had a typewriter. I would drink English tea—without the milk and sugar—and write, every single day. I didn’t really know why. I wrote about anything. I remember writing fiction, and then stories about the summer I spent working on a ranch in Wyoming, or even my memories from Rice Lake.
When I got back to Wisconsin, I decided I was going to try to be a writer full-time. When the money ran out, I would just go get a job as a nurse again. And now, 11 books and countless articles later, that is still the plan.
I still remember the first piece I sold. It was a piece about dating in the country for ‘Wisconsin West Magazine,’ called ‘Courtin’ Country Style.’ It was all very G-rated and sweet, just about what to do when there’s no movie theater and you can’t go to town. I wrote about walking at night under the moon and going for hay rides, without a sense of irony.
I had so many questions. ‘Where do you send writing? How do you get paid?’ I just immersed myself as I worked through it all. I started going to poetry readings, open mics, hanging out at a bar in Eau Claire, even though I didn’t drink, where all the English professors went and all the wannabe poets, and they took me under their wing and I started to read.
I just got hooked on it. I moved back to New Auburn, with a house payment of $125 a month, and my overhead was nothing. It was 1995, I remember getting my first email account and I had a buddy next door, he was a tech guy before there were tech guys. I took a magazine over to him with a website advertisement. I said, ‘What’s this www?’ And he said, ‘Oh, that’s the web…you should have a website.’ And I said, ‘What’s a website?’ And he said, ‘I’ll make you one.’ It was just the right timing. I was able to start having success that wouldn’t have been possible before. Even without an agent, I started writing for the ‘New York Times Magazine’ and ‘GQ’ and ‘Esquire.’ I thought, ‘Okay, maybe I can make this work.”
“I’d been a bachelor for 39 years. I was not a swinging bachelor, but I was a content bachelor. I had just finished ‘Population: 485,’ in which I’d written about being a single writer.
I used to get a lot of…communication signaling availability. Many of them would say, they’ve read my books and they can ‘just tell’ from the way I write that we’d be perfect together. It was always a red flag for me because, even though I write from the heart, they’re reading the results of 13 revisions.
After one reading I did at a library, I got an email from a woman that said, ‘I was at your reading. I enjoyed it, but I don’t know if you’re really anything like the guy I saw onstage…’ and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s smart.’ Like me, she had traveled a lot and wound up in a life that she didn’t expect, back in the rural Midwest. She had also spent a large part of her childhood on a farm under some pretty tough circumstances.
We met, liked each other, and just started talking about what we wanted. To this day, she still hasn’t read half of what I’ve written, and I’m into that. She deals with me every day, and it’s not easy. I’m very self-absorbed and I’m grumpy and on the road a lot, not taking care of myself.
When I met my wife, she already had one daughter. I call her my given daughter, and she’s just been a blessing. Soon, we decided to have one more child together.
We had just moved into an old, slant-ways farmhouse at the end of a dead-end road, at the end of a just as long dead-end driveway. In the dead of winter, with a blizzard outside—the snow is stacking up, the wind is whipping through the back forty—my very pregnant wife says to me, ‘I want to have this baby in this house.’ I made a surprised sound, and then I realized she was serious.
I had tallied up all the people who were going to be there, and found it was eight-to-one, girls against boys. That’s when I said, ‘I want my own doula.’ And my wife said, ‘Okay, fine, who do you have in mind?’ I said, ‘My buddy, Mills.’ And she said, ‘That’s fine, he can come. But he has to stay in the garage. He can’t come in the room unless we need him.’ So my roughneck buddy, the one I had been making fire calls with and shooting carp with bows and arrows with for years, he came to be here during the birth. And he actually has experience—he’s delivered six babies in the field under adverse conditions. He showed up that day with his Big Gulp mug, in his camo pants and orange Crocs. I set him up down in the garage, reading newspapers.
Meanwhile, I had gotten really into keeping the temperature of the water for the birthing tub just right. Apparently I needed a task, and I got deeply focused on it. In fact, I was down getting my fifth pail of water or something when the midwife’s assistant came downstairs and said, ‘Hey, you really need to be up there.’ I had to snap out of my EMT mode.
When it was time for our second daughter to arrive, one thing I will never forget is the power in my wife’s eyes. She locked eyes with me right at the moment of delivery, and I understood to the depths of my soul what she was experiencing. My wife is not a dramatic person, and it was just a flash of absolute animal intensity. Thinking about it moves me to this day.
After our daughter was born I went down to the garage to check in with my buddy, Mills. I said, ‘Hey man, it happened, everything’s good. Baby’s here.’ And he said, ‘Is it all right if I come in and just say hello?’ So he comes up and pokes his head in the room, and after he just closes the door and stops at the top of the stairs.
My wife and I had just had one of the most momentous moments of our life and he says, quite simply, ‘Well, you need anything?’ And I said, ‘No man, we’re good.’ And he said, ‘All right, I’ll see you later.’ No hugging, just that simpleness. I thought, wow. You live your whole life for a friendship that can be expressed in less than ten words. Where you just go, ‘No, I’m good.’ ‘All right.’ That’s beautiful to me.”
But when it’s 3:00 am and I have a piece due, and if I don’t turn a piece in I don’t get paid, and in the house there are three beating hearts relying on me to make a living…you tend to write where the story is.
What I always have to keep in mind is that my family didn’t ask for any of this. My brothers and parents are painfully private people, and I just accidentally stumbled into this thing and I need to be respectful of them.
My parents also take the idea of humility very seriously, which is part of why my writing is so self-deprecating. I am always working on my humility, because we’re all destined to fall, and I would like to fall from a small height, not a great height.
I’m not in a position to take anything, least of all, ‘my audience’ for granted. In the last year or two, I’ve started to move in some directions that I’m not entirely certain that my audience, or all of them, will follow me. That makes me nervous.
But at 52 years old, I need to try new things. I’ve watched so many dear, older friends in life hit this stage where they do one of two things: They become inflexible, bitter, and fearful, and try to fight every change that comes down the pike, or they become open to new possibilities and new ideas. I’m excited about the opportunity for the latter.
In the past four, five years I’ve started to collaborate with musicians more and more. I’ve collaborated with Justin Vernon on writing liner notes for a John Prine tribute album, and then I wrote the liner notes for the Blind Boys of Alabama album that was recorded by him. Now, we have this Eaux Claires music festival, which is evolving on its own…I’m not even sure how to describe it, because it’s more than a music festival at this point. For that I’ve been collaborating with visual artists, musicians, sound people. I’m creating a few small pieces, but I’m also bringing in writers and trying to get the writers to work with musicians. Last night I just performed this weird, dark, 25-minute poem that my friend Sean Carey helped me put to music with his buddy Ben Lester.
I still love doing one-man humor shows and talking about what it’s like to plow a dang driveway in December—that’s real, that’s part of my life. But so is this weird, funky art life that I stumbled into.
Becoming a parent has also changed my writing. I mean obviously getting married and having children opened up this whole huge trough of material…but truly, I have perspectives now that I never would have had if I hadn’t been a parent. I am careful not to oversell that, because I think it’s fine to not have kids, but as a writer, they have certainly forced me to consider the state of the world. When I was a single guy, you have the luxury of just going, ‘As long as I’m okay, whatever, I can deal.’ Now I go, ‘Jeez, this stuff is gonna affect my children—how do I prepare them for what’s being done?’ And that quite naturally starts to affect your writing.
Everything I’m doing, whether it’s writing or living or whatever, is to try to find a way to honor the people that have supported me to this point, and to acknowledge my Wisconsin heritage. I think it’s really natural to feel within you the heritage that you were raised with, which is to me, it really is Friday night fish fries and red barns and black and white cows and cheese. Because we literally milked cows, and that milk was sold and turned into cheese, so to me that part is absolutely part of my Wisconsin heritage.
I have this very core, solid Wisconsin way where I’ll use ‘by gosh’, ‘yah, dere’, ‘hey der’…and that’s legit for me. But at the same time, my understanding of what it is to have a Wisconsin heritage has evolved. The Wisconsin experience is so much more than what it has been just for me. Growing up in a rough part of Milwaukee is every bit the Wisconsin experience as growing up with a red barn in Chippewa county. But that fact is far too often overlooked. We need to come to understand other people’s Wisconsin heritage.
So I’m at this point in my life now where I’m still excited to get up and write every morning—that really is the truest thing—and I’m also looking forward to what’s next. I want to live and write and create in a way that honors where I’m from, but is also unafraid of looking outward and maybe even turning off the well-worn path.”
-Mike Perry | Fall Creek, WI