Sometimes I wish I was shinier and smoother and cooler and groovier and had what they call panache. I wish I was smarter, and could hold great minds in rapt attention. Take the Academy by storm. Win all the high-end prizes. Then I find myself standing at a podium telling stories in a high school gym in the tiny northwestern Wisconsin town of Luck, and midway through the one about my neighbor Tom and his beloved wife Arlene, I am reminded for the 57th time how fortunate I am. Just before I spoke, a woman walked in and to no one in general, said, “Who’s got a Ford pickup with a mail carrier sticker on it?” and when six people uttered the same name at once, the woman said, “Well, tell’er her dome light is on.” I know better than to paint naïve caricatures of quaint small towns and bucolic rural life (that said it is simply truth that someone slipped a plastic-covered paper plate of homemade cookies into one of my book boxes.) Nor is this about “common folk” united and living in gosh-darnit harmony. It’s about being able to talk about books while wearing camouflage hunting boots because they work good on the ice.

Sometime after my trip to Luck, I spoke at a grade school in Illinois. I was met at the door by an administrator who informed me that many of the students were children of Mexican laborers and spoke English as a second language. I got to use some of my clunky Spanish, picked up from my bilingual wife and my Panamanian and Ecuadorian relatives.

When I give these talks, especially in rural areas, I try to bust up the whole “writer as precious flower” thing and instead focus on my working-class background as a kid raised on a dairy farm. During the Q&A a boy raised his hand and in far better English as a second language than my Spanish as same, said, “You told us you grew up on a dairy farm.”

“Yep,” I said all farmer-y, all working-class shitkicker.

“Did you milk your own cows?”

It took a split second for the import of his question to smack me upside the preconception. Where I come from – or when I come from – we who owned cows were the stragglers who came to the Christmas concert late and smelling funny in hand-me-downs. From his perspective, my people own the cows, but his people do the milking. “Yep,” I said. “You bet.” He smiled at me with approval. I felt my parallax shift and refreshed my resolve to pitch in with those facing forward rather than those fighting backward.

Michael Perry is a New York Times bestselling author and a performer whose many books and CDs are available at The Local Store. This excerpt is from his latest book, Montaigne in Barn Boots: An Amateur Ambles Through Philosophy, and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

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