The Magazine

Small Perfections

Joseph Bottum, impatient perfectionist

Sep 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 01 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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Way down in what passes for my soul, I’ve always felt an impatience—a kind of ungenerous demand for efficiency, immediacy, and speed. Add to that the small tremor I’ve always had in my hands, and I may be the worst painter in the world today. 

Photo of a freshly painted wall

Weekly Standard Illustration; Bucket, bigstockphoto

Room and house painter, that is. My lack of talent at more artistic painting leaps beyond the petty confines of individual ability to reach historic levels: I’m cosmically bad at putting paint on canvas. Unless, that is, you care for portraits of blobs and messes. Imagine a Jackson Pollock drip composition, except that the colors have all merged to form a monochrome brown tinged with sick green—by an artist who was trying to paint a realistic landscape.

At the more mundane kinds of painting, however, I’m merely bad. When I try to paint a room, there are dribbles on the floor. Corners skipped. Bald patches. Goopy, overpainted sections. Wavy lines. A sloppy performance that doesn’t even fulfill my hunger for quick completion, since the whole thing has to be done over again. By someone else.

I’m just as bad at sanding. And machining. Model-airplane assembly. Reinserting those tiny screws in the earpieces of eyeglasses. Arranging lead soldiers in accurate representation of the Battle of Gettysburg. Brain surgery, too, I assume, although I’ve not yet had occasion to try it. 

Basically, I’m rotten at anything that requires precision, care, and patience. Anything fiddly. 

Fiddly. It’s such a perfect word. A perfect word, that is, for all I cannot do—cleaning, building, repairing, constructing the small perfections of the world. And perfections, they are, in a minor mode. To be alive—at least past the age of 20—is to know that, outside of Heaven, there are no grand fulfillments, total answers, or finished histories. Everything human comes up a little short. But there do sometimes exist focused, discrete actions that approximate the ideal—the acts that create precise objects, nearly perfect of their kind. A well-painted wall, for instance. A correctly tuned carburetor. An exactly aligned shelf. A smooth, finely sanded curve of wood. 

William Butler Yeats once suggested—while speaking of the rare satisfactions of writing poetry—that a poem should arrive at its conclusion like a well-made box clicking shut. You know what he means: the snick, the decisive closing sound, that makes a thing a joy to hold in the hand. That’s hard to achieve in long poems; Yeats was probably speaking only of epigrams. But he was referring to an experience we’ve all had: In precision, a kind of patient carefulness for small things, we come closest to knowing perfection.

In the town where I live, one of the men who runs a car-repair shop has that Yeatsian sense of things. He does less business than other repairmen manage, but he always seems to get it right. A carpenter I know has the careful sense, as well: this need to see the construction square and the corners painted well. As it happens, he wants to be a general contractor, one of those big-picture builders who gets the contract and hires others to do the work, but his perfectionism makes him lousy at all that. People driven by carefulness in the little things are not usually good at delegating tasks.

Interestingly, the local potter whose bowls my wife likes lacks the impulse. He’s got good ideas, but too often they’re gestured at rather than fulfilled. It isn’t craft that he’s missing, exactly. It’s more like precision: the need to see the edges clean and the balance right. 

I sometimes wonder—actually, I often wonder—whether my own lack of patience is what keeps away the kind of calm happiness I wish I had. You know the sort of thing I mean, yes? That abiding contentment that seems so enviable on the rare occasions when we spot it in other people. It comes, I think, most of all from patience and care, but it flowers in the execution of tasks that, in turn, seem to feed the contentment. The fiddly chores done correctly. The precise works finally completed. The small things done well.

Perfection, in other words. Or as close to it as we can find. A foretaste, perhaps, of a different world, a different life.

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