Wednesday, March 02, 2005

On Being Perfect

Remember that fear always lurks behind perfectionism. Confronting your fears and allowing yourself the right to be human can, paradoxically, make you a far happier and more productive person. (Dr. David M. Burns)

There are a lot of things no one tells you about parenthood until it’s Too Late.

1. They don’t tell you that some toddlers (mine included) have the curiosity of raccoons and less judgment.

2. They don’t tell you that the Terrible Twos can start early – say, around 17-18 months.

3. They don’t tell you that even after you put tubes in a child’s ear, she may not listen, simply because she doesn’t #$*&ing feel like it.

4. They don’t tell you that your child may, with very little warning, morph into a screaming, thrashing miniature demon from hell if she doesn’t get her own way.

5. They don’t tell you that your beautiful little baby may someday enjoy the irritation she causes you when she hurls a full cup of yogurt onto the floor you stayed up 'til eleven to mop last night.

6. They don’t tell you that you might give birth to a throwback – a strange mixture of human child and monkey, whose greatest joy comes from jumping off tables onto the ground head-first, whether or not there’s a jungle vine handy.

7. They don’t tell you that kids aren’t hardwired to know certain things about the world. What seems obvious to us (you have to open the drawer up a little wider to get that fascinating melon-baller out; or it’s not a good idea to close said drawer without first fully extracting your fingers) aren’t so obvious to children. Or raccoons.

My daughter and I are alike in many ways. She was most certainly gifted (or cursed) with my temper (see #4 above). Once we pass a certain critical level of frustration, the ability to articulate or communicate escapes us entirely. (She, of course, has an excuse for this – she’s a toddler. Unfortunately, I don’t. It ought to make for some interesting - if nonsensical - arguments later in life.)

And neither of us have any patience for things we can’t get right the first time.

I am dealing with a lot of this at work right now. I am writing a database where the rules of the operation keep changing, when some things (like server speeds, application applications, test requirements, etc.) are simply out of my control. I have to guess at the code behind the database functions, and needless to say, I don’t always guess right the first time. The last few months have been incredibly frustrating, and it doesn’t promise to get any better.

This lack of patience has also affected my music. I find myself irritated with the ladies when they can’t understand what’s in my head, irritated at myself when I can’t get it out on paper fast enough, irritated at everything when the music doesn’t sound right even when it looks good on paper.

The flipside to this perfectionism is that I am absolutely terrified of improvising anything in front of anyone else – except maybe my daughter. I don’t even like to “jam” in the shower – I am too afraid of sounding stupid, getting off key (which happens anyway whether I know it or not, let’s be real), and God forbid someone should hear me trying to kick it like Alicia Keys or Sweet Honey. (Yeah, I know, they’re black and I’m white but doncha go tellin’ ME I ain’t got soul.)

What’s really sad is that if I don’t get over this, I won’t ever be able to let go musically. I won’t ever be able to walk into a room full of musicians and feel like I’m one of them. My fear of failure will prevent me from even trying to succeed.

Wouldn't that just SUCK?

I’ve been of two minds about this… er, hm, quality, I suppose you could call it. Sometimes I feel like everyone else (myself other self included) just needs to catch up and stop making excuses already. Several months ago when we were discussing the recording process, I was talking about how hard, how utterly exhausting it was to get it perfect. Buffy said, in that sometimes frighteningly earnest voice she has, “Andi, you need to let go of that right now. It’s never going to be perfect.” So I did. I let go of my need to make the Whiskey Sisters perfect. And in the process, I let go of the need for TWS to be really, really good.

Don’t get me wrong – I think we’re pretty good now. But I miss wanting exceptional. I miss shooting for perfection, even though as humans, we’ll probably never get there. Sometimes we do make it – usually in the ephemeris of performance, when the only thing left after the last chord is the memory of a voice in the audience’s ear and the emotional memories they take home from the show.

I think – no, I know – that my idea of mediocrity is different from most folks’. I think that most of the things I do are mediocre – and honestly, I’m ok with that for the most part. Mediocrity, for me, is about not trying for your personal best. It’s about laziness. It’s about not hitting the note dead-on because you know that it’s just a rehearsal. It’s about going off key because you’re not stopping and restarting in the right key. It’s about making the same mistakes over and over because it’s just too damn hard to fix them. It’s about not listening, or listening poorly.

I’ve been guilty of all of those things recently.

A couple of days ago I was watching the commentary to The Return of the King (the extended version). I had chosen the director and writers’ commentary instead of the actors' – because I had heard the actors talking so much about “Pete” this and “Fran” that. I got curious to hear what these folks had to say for themselves.

My God. I thought I was a perfectionist. I ain’t got nuttin on these guys. These people were re-shooting entire scenes in pickups years after the original filming. They flew actors back across the big water at enormous expense, right up to the last few months of editing before the picture was due to be delivered to theaters. They were fixing things like Aragorn’s beard in the coronation scene, which didn’t look real enough. Arwen’s hairstyle was too weird, so they simplified it. There wasn’t a good kiss, which the audience needed to see after all the long months of separation the lovers had endured.

They were rewriting whole sequences, using existing footage in fantastic, imaginative ways, reworking edits, reshooting, dubbing, and then doing it all over again – to make the LOTR movies perfect – or at least, as perfect as they could get it.

There’s another movie out that deals with this concept onscreen – it’s called Friday Night Lights. If you like football even the slightest little bit (and probably if you don’t), it’s worth seeing. Billy Bob Thornton plays the coach with a beautifully understated strength of character. In his last sermon with the team (and I can’t call it a pep talk without doing a disservice to the scene and the monologue), he talks about how to be perfect. He says that it’s about walking out of the stadium and being able to look your teammates and your town in the eye, knowing that there was not one more thing you could have done during that game to make it better.

I don’t think perfection is possible unless you’re God. Or unless you have a lot of expensive sound equipment – which we don’t. But the demo we made a couple of weeks ago taught me two things – first, that at some point I had stopped reaching for perfection. And second, that even if we can’t be perfect, we can still shoot for exceptional.

Husband and I were talking through the demo last night. It’s tricky, because on the one hand, I really do value his opinion, and on the other hand, he’s a lot harsher than I think I could ever be in terms of criticism. I said, “I don’t think we’ll ever be good enough for you.”

But that’s not critical. What’s critical is whether we can be good enough for me. And “good enough” just doesn’t cut it.

We have a performance tomorrow night at a conference that Elizabeth booked for us – happily, it will pay for the room during our beach retreat. I’m worried about my own performance more than anything – this cold still hangs on a bit, and while I can certainly function fine at work, I don’t know how well I’ll be able to sing. I know that adrenaline will probably help out at the last moment (geez Louise, my palms are tingling already with pre-performance jitters), and I can drink a bunch of tea and suck on some cough drops. (Mulled wine may be in order; not sure yet.)

I hope I can someday (sooner than later) figure out how to balance this need for perfection with the reality of performance and working with other people. Because you know, some things you just can’t control. And if I do figure it out, I promise to pass it along to my daughter. I have a feeling she might need it. (Whether she'll listen or not remains to be seen.)


Kiki said...

lovely post, andrea; your prose is really beautiful. you're also very hard on yourself -- but you make a good point about the flip side of that, laziness, from which i myself suffer. but at least we do try, sometimes anyway, and that's got to count as much as the achievement, whether perfect or not.

i hope your daughter is doing well post-surgery. my best to both of you.

EB said...

As for perfection, I have no pithy commentary. I agree with Kelly about your prose; it is an inspiration to read.

I would like to comment on observation number 7, however- the one about things that SHOULD be obvious. A cautionary tale:

Friends of ours with whom you are acquainted (Kelly too), who stood with us at our wedding, have an 11-year-old daughter (a very intelligent one, let me add).

Last year, Daughter, who was 10 at the time (and surely old enough for this to have been obvious), had taken on the rather ugly habit of lying.

Upon a visit to said friends, we found out that Daughter was grounded for a recent incident of lying. Parents then told us a story of the Turd That Would Not Flush.

Daughter, apparently discovering for the first time that sometimes they just refuse to flush, for some inexplicable reason REMOVED the turd from the toilet and wrapped it in toilet paper and put it in the bathroom garbage.

A couple of days later, Parents attempted to locate the source of the Stink. Once located, Parents then approached Daughter, who then disavowed any knowledge of how the turd arrived in the bathroom garbage. Having only a one-year old little brother, the list of suspects beside Daughter was short.

Upon further cross-examination, Daughter finally broke down (in tears, unfortunately) and confessed to turd removal and deposit into garbage.

Parents, horrified, bemused and repellently amused, grounded Daughter for lying. According to male Parent while shaking his head: "The things you never think you're going to have to say to your child. Drugs? Sex? Sure. But turds out of the toilet? No. That's just wrong." Female Parent just shook her head and lit another cigarette.

Good luck, dear sister and friend. Know that we are here for you. May you never have to have that conversation with Duckie.

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