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Perfect Enemies

August 30, 2014

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”

– Leonard Cohen, from Anthem

There’s a certain joy in attaining the perfect. Reaching the point where the results speak for themselves – nothing about the results can be disputed.

In baseball, we have the pitcher’s “perfect game.” This is when the pitcher retires twenty-seven batters in a row without any of them reaching base – no hits, no walks and no errors. Our own Madison Bumgarner went deep into the game last week with Giants fans holding out hope we’d witness a perfecto. Justin Morneau spoiled the party with a double to the right field corner in the top of the eighth inning and we all had to settle on a brilliant one-hitter. A perfect game is rare. Bumgarner’s teammates, Matt Cain and Yusmeiro Petit, know a little about it themselves. (See Ram On Orange Friday, September 6, 2013.) Bumgarner pitched beautifully. His performance was excellent, a perfect game or not. For me, watching the game on TV from the soft green chair was the perfect way to close the long weekday.

My mother tells the story of the time when I was three or four years old and had a high fever that she couldn’t bring down. She helped get me ready to head out to the doctor’s office and laid out a shirt for me that I refused to wear because a button was missing. I can relate to that little guy. I’m not constrained to fashion, but wouldn’t think of going out today with a shirt button missing.*

Life gives us plenty of chances to solve the unending dilemma.

Great is the enemy of good enough.

Good enough is the enemy of great.

Management and business trends fluctuate with the winds and skill of public relations managers. Most of the books are formulaic and written to capture the imagination with examples of companies’ quality initiatives. Make the CEOs of these example companies appealing to the reader and you just may have a winner. It doesn’t matter if these companies who were once good before they were great are now only good or worse, the companies profile executives and the management gurus made their splash and probably a few bucks to boot. We’ve all moved on to the next thing and don’t pay them any attention anymore. But the enemies remain for the next enterprising consultants.

Writers can get hung up on “good vs. great.” I don’t know how someone would write long fiction without a trusted editor. Or for that matter, short stories either. That might be even more difficult. Just how many drafts would it take to get it just exactly right? Or is that the wrong question altogether? Perhaps it is more along the lines of “how much better does it have to be?” and “have we reached the point of diminishing returns?” And does someone who enjoys writing have to always make it perfect? Here is a great anecdote from E.L Doctorow which some of you will appreciate. I did.

What I was thinking of was a note I had to write to the teacher when one of my children missed a day of school. It was my daughter, Caroline, who was then in the second or third grade. I was having my breakfast one morning when she appeared with her lunch box, her rain slicker, and everything, and she said, “I need an absence note for the teacher and the bus is coming in a few minutes.” She gave me a pad and a pencil; even as a child she was very thoughtful. So I wrote down the date and I started, Dear Mrs. So-and-so, my daughter Caroline . . . and then I thought, No, that’s not right, obviously it’s my daughter Caroline. I tore that sheet off, and started again. Yesterday, my child . . . No, that wasn’t right either. Too much like a deposition. This went on until I heard a horn blowing outside. The child was in a state of panic. There was a pile of crumpled pages on the floor, and my wife was saying, “I can’t believe this. I can’t believe this.” She took the pad and pencil and dashed something off. I had been trying to write the perfect absence note. It was a very illuminating experience. Writing is immensely difficult. The short forms especially.

as told to George Plimpton in The Paris Review


“If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.” ― Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Finding our perfect offering isn’t always easy. Maybe it’s not possible without someone else to tell us that we have found it. Then, we can see the perfect right where we want it. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Assume it’s in the kitchen
under the couch, high
in the pine tree out back,
behind the paint cans
in the garage. Don’t try
proving your love
is bigger than the Grand
Canyon, the Milky Way,
the urban sprawl of L.A.
Take it for granted. Take it
out with the garbage. Bring
it in with the takeout. Take
it for a walk with the dog.
Wake it every day, say,
“Good morning.” Then
make the coffee. Warm
the cups. Don’t expect much
of the day. Be glad when
you make it back to bed.
Be glad he threw out that
box of old hats. Be glad
she leaves her shoes
in the hall. Snow will
come. Spring will show up.
Summer will be humid.
The leaves will fall
in the fall. That’s more
than you need. We can
love anybody, even
everybody. But you
can love the silence,
sighing and saying to
yourself, “That’ s her.”
“That’s him.” Then to
each other, “I know!
Let’s go out for breakfast!”
Jack Ridl
“Take Love for Granted”


* As an aside, I first drafted this thinking that I was sick with the mumps when offered  the shirt with a missing button. But then that didn’t sound right, let alone perfect, so I cleared it up with my mother before posting. With this last reference check completed, the blog post is good enough. Time to go to press.


From → Life, Writing

  1. This is great stuff. I can only add that for me, it is the stuff of the 2nd half of life.
    Years ago, a musician friend said something that has always stayed with me. There will always be someone better than you, and always someone worse. So true and a good reminder for the perfectionist in all of us.


    • Hi Debra, agree it’s dead out of the gate if you try to compare your stuff to someone else’s. And more importantly, meaningless without question.


  2. I often remind my Yoga students … it’s not about desiring the “perfect” pose … the pose that comes is the pose that is perfect for you right now. We can tinker with our alignment, sure, but it’s a greater ability to find the perfect in what is, than in what might be.

    But, as for writing, I find that blogs are wonderful in that they allow us to fix the imperfections that we discover after we “publish.” On the other hand, with that kind of ever-perfecting freedom, I could tinker commas to death.

    And, just a quick baseball aside … I’m conflicted some by the no-hitters and perfect games. (As an Orioles fan, they’re not things that I get to think about much, anyway.) But, is a perfect game really that much more “perfect” than any other win? I’d rather have Miguel Gonzalez — our #5 guy — win Game 7 of the World Series 10-9 in October then have him throw a “perfect” game tomorrow.


  3. A professor once quoted me the following, and it’s stuck with me ever since: “Perfectionism is the enemy of done.” (derived from a Voltaire quote). For a Type-A personality like myself, it’s a good message to remind myself of from time to time. 🙂


  4. Interesting thoughts… though it seems to me that like beauty, perfection is in the eye of the beholder.


  5. And so it seems.


  6. And whose perfection is anyone working for anyway? Because there is fault to be found by someone on anything. I think you were closest to my view of pursuit of perfection with Ridl’s story and Tolstoy’s quote.


  7. You had me from the start with the Cohen quote… IS perfect!
    And the light still gets in 🙂
    Having woven the need for perfection out of my life, it seems looking back that it was put in there by my teachers and my parents, for their benefit. Perfection seems like striving to please someone else, to meet their exacting standards…..and one persons perfection will not be another’s, so it’s a struggled doomed to fail. Being the best we can is about joy and pleasure….but they don’t teach that in schools!


    • We discipline ourselves to meet perfection, calibrate back when we know it’s not necessary, and then find perfection where we need it.


  8. I really like “Take Love for Granted” and even more I like your words “Then, we can see the perfect right where we want it. It’s all a matter of perspective”.

    (We speak of perfection in my profession in this way: we know we are not perfect as health care providers, we don’t expect perfection … BUT we do!!! We do not want to make a mistake, so we should be perfect)


  9. Anna Karenina is on my reading list. My looooooooooooooong reading list. Someday, I’ll get to it. Someday.


    • Certainly not a book to pick up in between innings. In fact, possibly not even during baseball season. There’s too much distraction during that time of the year. The West Coast night games sometimes get in the way of my reading lists.


  10. This post is perfect, xo, LMA


  11. You are always so much fun Bruce. I remember running down a mountain once, leaping from rock to rock while wearing a full backpack, never hesitating, always landing just right. And I thought, this is just about as perfect as it gets. 🙂 –Curt


    • Curt – that’s a great memory for you. A perfect performance in your beloved mountains. You could have bounced across the entire range that day!


  12. Oh wow, I love this post. On one side, ‘letting the light in’ poem attests that perfection is not necessarily a perfect idea. I want that crack of light to illuminate new things. On the other hand, no matter how hard I try, I won’t get it perfect anyway, but it is SO important to try for the best. Your Doctorow anecdote is.., well, it’s perfect. And made me laugh out loud. Personally, I think this post is just perfect.


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