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June 5, 2009
I just need a job, the woman said earnestly. She said it in English, unlike most of the people here who tell me that. She is an American, one whose business plan for coming to Italy seems to have been missing a feasibility component: she would find artists who would hire themselves out to pick grapes come September, and the money they earned would be pooled to fund an artist's colony all winter. But the farmer to which she was pitching this idea seemed not to grasp her plan after all, and presented her with a bill for her two week stay, which she had considered the beginning of a business partnership and he had considered agritourism.
Ah, me.

It is not easy to find work here. Florence is among the most expensive cities in Italy, and no American is on a good economic footing anywhere in the country: the dollar is still weak as a kitten against the Euro. Perhaps it would have been well to pick up a little Italian -- there is a large pool of Italian-speakers here from which a prospective employer might choose, so he needn't hire an American who can't understand his instructions. Oy.

It can be difficult for Americans to understand that we are the immigrants here. Life in Italy is Italian, and one waits in vain for it to become something else. It doesn't really matter here that the complex eternity of even the simplest transaction drives you mad. Your madness is your own, to deal with as seems best to you. You either have to get over it or go home.

And yet, look at what this rather small country has achieved. This rather small city of Florence for that matter: per square meter, no other city on earth presents such a concentration of artistic genius. Just walk out any door and there it is. It would be tempting to say that Italy got all of its productivity out of its system in the Renaissance, and has coasted since then. I say that myself, when I'm frustrated at some ridiculous delay. But it is not so. There has been plenty of modern Italian genius. Enrico Fermi was Italian. So were Marconi and Rossini and Verdi and Pucci and Modigliani and Fellini and a bunch of other people. And my hat is off to all of them. Achievement here is uphill work.

Once in a while, I come across a voice from a generation newer than my own that I find especially arresting. Matthew Moretz is one, and you can see his award-winning YouTube videos on the Farm, (click on Fr. Matthew Presents). Chad Walker is another, and you can read his curious satiric blend at Here is an example. For some reason, it reminded me of Italy:

Answering Quickly and With Authority Rather Than Factually

You may notice, as you make your way through your day, that you’re approached from time to time with questions that you sort of know the answer to, but not really. And this can be troubling. You want to help the asker – they sought you out, after all – and you want to look like you know what you’re talking about. But often you’re caught up a bit short on the ol’ book learning.

Well, we at Starshemp are familiar with this problem, and we think we can help you out.

See, the truth is, knowing all the answers would take a tremendous amount of work. And if there’s anything we at Starshemp want to help you avoid, it’s tremendous amounts of work. There are much MUCH better ways to spend your time than working. Work should be way down on your list after things like snoozing, lunching, break-taking, strolling, love-making, hooky-playing, tickling, skinny-dipping (skinny anything, really) leaving the office early, coming into the office late, sitting in the sun…you get the picture.

Anyway, here’s the Starshemp approach to take when presented with a question you sort of know the answer to, but not really; Answer quickly and with authority. Now, both elements are key. Answering quickly but sheepishly doesn’t work at all. And answering with authority after a long, seemingly endless and terribly uncomfortable pause is only useful if you want everyone to hate you a lot.

So make it quick and authoritative. Don’t worry if your information is 100 percent correct. Unless someone is asking a question like “Does this wound look infected to you?” or “Is it safe to serve chicken medium rare?” or “Do you think this is a load-bearing wall?” the veracity of the answer itself is probably not all that important. It’s the actual providing of it that matters. And answering quickly and with authority allows you to provide, whether you actually know what you’re talking about or not.

Some examples follow:
Q: How do breath mints work?
A: They flush the bad stuff out of your saliva and replace it with freshness.
Q: Why are low-profile tires better?
A: They provide less rolling-resistance and therefore better gas mileage.
Q: Why do some parents give all their kids names that start with the same letter?
A: Because they see their children as interchangeable rather than individual.
Q: Why do you think short-shorts are back in style for women?
A: Because Santa Claus got my letter.

See? It’s easy, folks. We really have no idea if those answers are right or not, and that’s not the point. Answer quickly and with authority, and you’ll be thought of as a useful resource without having to do a lot of work. And really, searching around for the exact right answer when all people really want is acknowledgment of their question is a huge waste of your time and energy. Instead, put that time and energy into something useful like figuring out how to take a nap at the office or sneaking out early to play with your kids. You’ll be glad you did.
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