Good, Better, Best: Redefining Perfection

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So here’s a word I hear a lot these days: perfect. Hand the checkout clerk exact change? Perfect. Return library books on time? Perfect. Snag the last parking space? You’re not just lucky. You’re perfect.

The concept of perfection seems to have undergone an extreme makeover. This should be good news for me, a driven perfectionist of the old school. The bar is lower now, apparently. Ordinary, everyday acts earn the accolade once reserved for straight A’s and Michelangelo’s statue of David and martinis made with precisely the right amount of vermouth.

I’ve noticed that it’s mostly twentysomethings who are throwing the p-word around. The geezer in me suggests that they don’t really know what perfect looks like, raised as they were on beeping, flashing electronics and reality TV. They never heard Pavarotti sing “Nessun dorma” in Thompson-Boling Arena. They never saw Baryshnikov defy gravity on the stage of the Civic Coliseum.

Perfection and I go way back. At my convent boarding school, medals were awarded each week to those who maintained spotless rooms and never talked in study hall and observed to the letter the intricate code of courtesy and decorum. Half measures won no prizes. It was all or nothing.

There is an image from that era that stays with me: a handwoven wreath of roses and ivy resting on a silver tray. The flowers had been picked that morning and still glistened with dew. The wreath was destined for some arcane ceremony later that day. Caught in a shaft of morning sunlight, it was as perfect a thing as I had ever seen. I seldom won the weekly medals for order and courtesy, but I coveted that wreath and all that went into its creation: the deft hand, the patient, quiet work, the reverence for detail. The flowers would fade by evening. For that moment, they summed up the wholeness that I sought.

It’s a sight I have rarely witnessed in the years since then. I saw it in my children’s faces when they were first born, that flash of recognition when the world creaked to a halt and every scattered piece slipped into place. I have glimpsed it in nature: a tree cloaked in early pink blossom on the Green Bay Trail, radiant proof that spring had again returned from the underworld of a Chicago winter. I saw it once in the South Bronx, stopped at a traffic light. A little girl was sweeping broken glass from the steps of a graffiti-covered building. The set of her shoulders, the sure motion of the broom seemed in that split second to tell the story I needed most to hear.

I used to have a Post-it note on my computer that read “Perfect is the enemy of good.” It was a piece of wisdom I struggled to embrace, along with frequent admonitions to lighten up, chill out, and let go. But good sounded like faint praise, perilously close to good enough. Chilling out and letting go sounded borderline sloppy. When the Post-it note dropped off one day, I didn’t replace it.

Now I ponder the notion that perfection is all around us, as the twentysomethings would have me believe. I dig for the pennies in my purse to deliver the neat, round sum. I slide my books across the counter and greet my favorite librarian, the one whose smile takes me back to the library of my childhood, safe and silent and full of riches.

I wheel into the last parking space in the lot closest to my office. It’s Monday again, and it’s raining, but I have an umbrella the size of a pup tent. It’s new and sturdy and for this morning, it’s just about perfect.

Stephanie Piper

Stephanie Piper's At This Point examines the mystery, absurdity, and persistent beauty of daily life. She has been a newspaper reporter, editor, and award-winning columnist for more than 30 years. Her Midpoint column appeared monthly in Metro Pulse from 1997 until 2014.

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