Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Autobiography of a Fish

Savoring a piece of pineapple pie fresh from an Amish oven this morning I ran across this quote attributed to Carl Sandburg. " Only a fish can write the autobiography of a fish." I stop at the Amish farm to drop off a valance board that needs 1/2 inch trimmed from the right side. I ordered two pies last week. I'm out of eggs. One of the daughters asks me, "Do you like pineapple?" I respond, "I've never had a pineapple pie." Trust and past experience says the pie will be delicious. And it is...

Explaining to the cabinet maker that the valance board needs to be trimmed on the right side to keep it symmetrical, I don't notice his son standing before me holding a cup of coffee. I thank the ten year old for the coffee and take the proffered old office chair at the kitchen table. Coffee and a chair leads to a circuitous conversation.

First, I tally the cost of the pies, the three dozen eggs, two plastic five gallon buckets they picked up for me in Lacrosse and scan my memory for back debt. The total comes to $18.02. There's a standing joke about small change we owe each other originating from a miscalculation by the Amish. They offer to round off the figure, I give them a dime so that they'll owe me 2 cents. The real Amish humor behind the bantering over small change is that I owe them thousands of dollars for the cabinets, work installing the same and other details from design changes midway through the kitchen remodel. "(do) You have a final figure for me?" I ask the cabinet maker. Authentically humble, he says the cost of making partitions between the kitchen and living room is nominal since I furnished the lumber. He promises to get me a total. We joke about a rural legend that Amish intentionally add a mistake to their work. The English interpretation is: Only our Lord is perfect, therefore we make something imperfect. The patriarch says he's never heard that about his people.

The subject of writing comes up. It's triggered by questions I have about an Amish romance novel I borrowed from the library. I give it to one of the daughters to read. Amish are fashionable now and there are numerous serial books featuring a romantic version of the Amish lifestyle. Returning the book to me a week later, the patriarch says, "E-mail the author and ask her if she's ever met an Amish person."

I ask, "What does she say that tips you off she's writing fiction with no background in the subject matter?" He's non-specific. "You could write a better book, " he says. The offer to write about this Amish family is tantalizing, but I wouldn't want to jeopardize their anonymity. Too often good intentions lead to unfortunate results. Awhile ago, there was a story in the local paper about two thieves stalking Amish farms looking for money. They have a map of Amish in Wisconsin. Opportunists already took advantage of their trust in other ways I don't want to repeat here.

I continue to question about some people's lack of knowledge of the Amish lifestyle. There's a subtlety here I almost overlook while my ego is being massaged, telling me that I could write a better book. In the same book I found the fish quote, there's a saying- " If you never assume importance, you never lose it." I explain my dogged questioning with, " I've probably made a hundred gaffs you've overlooked." No response. That's good.

In the past I occasionally give them a copy of something I've written. I give a English neighbor the web address for my blog in case they have a desire to read what I've written about them. I dodge the topic explaining that I'd rather write about my experiences in the 70's living across the road from a 100 member commune in Trempeleau County. A few graphic details gets us away from the subject of the Amish. I leave with the usual feeling that I've taken up too much of their time "jawing".

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