Monday, March 11, 2013

Pardon Me, I’m Amish

It happens often.

“What’s your number?” I ask a corporate thirty-something PR chick, for whom I am producing a brochure on how corporate social responsibility will save the planet, or at least ease the consciences of some smug, carbon-footprint-producing white people in one tiny corner of it. “I’ll call you, and then we’ll have each others’ numbers.” I remove my phone and input +372.

“What’s that?” She is visibly baffled.

“That’s the country code.”

“No, your phone.”

“It’s, uh, a phone.”

“You don’t have a smart phone? Really?”

But by the third time it happened I’d learned how to avoid a long explanation: “It’s verboten. I’m Amish.”

She gives me a strange look, so I follow up. “You know, the Ordnung. Gelassenheit. Gottes wille.”

Although half of the mobile-phone-using population is still using dumbphones, disbelief is still a common occurrence when I whip out my mobile. Which explains why I know a hell of lot more about being Amish than I know about smartphones.

There are a quarter million of us scattered across the globe, most of us in North America. We speak a Swiss German dialect, though some of you gentiles insist on calling it Dutch. Our Ordnung, or rules, prescribe limitations on use of power-line electricity, automobiles, and of course, smartphones. Those who cannot conform are excommunicated, or at least shunned. Our formal education is discontinued at age 13. We value rural life, manual labor, and humility. Men wear hats when outside, black in winter, straw in summer. We wear suspenders, not belts, and all our clothing is home sewn. We grow beards but shave our upper lips, since mustaches have historically been associated with military officers. If you haven’t met an Amish person, then you’ve at least seen us in the movies.

“You mean, like, ‘Witness’?” the PR chick will gasp.

Indeed. Thanks to the 1985 Hollywood film, being Amish is cooler than ever. The film’s actors included real-life Amish sex bombs such as Viggo Mortensen and Kelly McGillis (though, admittedly, she is no longer hot, having aged about as well as a Russian peasant).

As one of the few Amish persons in the Nordic region, I am often sought out by journalists to give comment on technology and its encroachment on my people’s way of life.

How does a paper calendar work? Can one safely sharpen a pencil with a penknife? Is that a real alarm clock?! Show me your straight razor! Gentile television crews often come around to film Liina drawing water from the well by hand, or me carving a nativity set for little Robert from the tree in our yard that was struck by lightning. Often they want to see me composing columns – like this one you are reading – on a manual typewriter. And they always ask for my thoughts on the evils of the modern world.

One well-known Estonian tech guru recently posted a photograph on Facebook of an iPad advertisement in Time magazine. The back cover advertisement was a shrunken down version of the front cover, showing that the magazine is available on the iPad mini. The guru noted also that Newsweek breathed its last print words in the language of its conqueror, Twitter: #LASTPRINTISSUE.

When I, as an Amish man with a primitive mobile phone, am asked about this, I explain that despite my love for the writing of Fareed Zakaria, printed Newsweek is dead not because of the internet, but because its editorial content sucks. If Time dies, too, it will not be because print as a medium is dead (to the contrary: witness success of The Economist or the Financial Times), but because its content is boring, and its mostly second-rate writing was long ago eclipsed by more progressive, interesting publications. Newsweek was the magazine of my youth, just as the Saturday Evening Post was the magazine of my father’s. Both publications are dead and no one’s the poorer. Ironic but true, “Time” and “Newsweek,” much like “Reagan” and “Thatcher,” are names more cherished in Estonia than they are in the west. Shed a tear if you must, but to declare an entire industry dead may be premature.

I of course also remind the gentile TV people that with the advent of both radio and television, the death of print was foreseen and, like the end of the world (which was also bought into by another prominent Estonian tech guru) did not come to pass. But follow your gurus if you must.

Admittedly, we Amish are traditionalists. You will find no full-length mirrors in my home since they promote vanity and self-admiration. Liina and I wear no jewelry, not even wedding bands. What you might consider a monastic existence enables we Amish to see the world more clearly. And I have to admit it gives me a sober perspective when working for gentile clients who wish to foist their products – and their system of beliefs – on the rest of the world.

“But you have a telephone!“ a PR chick will inevitably remark. “Is that not worldly?”

We Amish do not shun all of your worldly, gentile developments. Word processors are allowed in our schools, though not in homes. Batteries are allowed. Mobile vehicles are fine, as long as they do not have rubber tires, though the Ordnung allows me to hire a taxi when traveling on business. Gasoline generators may provide energy for washing machines, water pumps, and agricultural equipment. And, yes, cellular phones and voice mail, may be used by a business to compete, though these are permitted on a case by case basis.

It may amuse you that my jacket fastens with hooks (not buttons), but our clothing is considered to be an expression of humility, simplicity, and non-conformity. Visit New York City’s Diamond District any workday morning to watch the yellow school buses disgorge workers, and you will see yet another fine example of a traditional culture operating both outside and inside of yours.

I am sure that one day I will also own a smartphone, the day when it becomes a necessary tool to exist in your world. But the rules of my people prescribe that a our telephone must be kept in a booth or an unlocked barn, and this has not yet handicapped Liina and I in a way we cannot compete in the modern world. The lack of a smartphone constantly in my pocket helps me draw the boundaries between work and home. The Ordnung keeps our social fabric intact: no laborious work is ever done on Sunday.

“There must be something you miss?” the PR chick will ultimately exclaim, perhaps expecting me to mention Dolce & Gabbana, Cheezits, or televised football.

This is the point where I explain my fascination with the hairless body of a gentile woman, the Amish male’s secret longing for a woman with shaved armpits.

Goosebumps will form visibly on her bare arm. Momentarily, she will avert her eyes. She will suffer shortness of breath, perhaps stutter. And then her smartphone will ring, saving her from an awkward moment.

Vello holds forth on other topics here.