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A Perfect “9”

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My youngest son is an artist. Our refrigerator is covered in his notebook paper masterpieces, most of them portraying scenes from Star Wars. Obi-Wan Kenobi, attired in flowing Jedi robe (with light sabre, of course) fighting Boba Fett, with his villainous helmet weaponry. Or maybe a duel between the little green Yoda and Count Dooku, each with light saber brandished (of course). He also loves to draw super heroes fighting crime.

I say that he is an “artist,” not just because he draws these pictures, but because I can tell what they are. At four years old, his people already have puffy arms and legs and pleasing smiley face. If his super hero is running, he draws his super hero with sideways body and running legs, or if his super hero is throwing a rocket, he draws the arm cocked and ready to hurl. He’s really good.

A little while ago, we went out to dinner with friends. While all of us were gobbling chips and salsa, my son was busy coloring hero scenes on the back of the children’s menu place mat. When my friend commented on his artistic ability, I said, “Hey buddy, why don’t you draw her a picture of Captain America?” (His Captain America pictures are the bomb.) Without a word, he grabbed a fresh place mat and commenced to draw Captain America’s circle head. But the circle head ended up slightly misshapen: sort of bean-shaped. Devastated, my son dropped the crayon on the table and buried his head on his folded arms. I said something like, “It’s OK, Bud, it’s OK. Just cover up that side with his helmet; it’s alright!” When he picked up his head I knew that the picture was probably not going to get finished: his faced was pained with near-tears frustration. Now that his perfect picture was spoiled, why go on?

Boy, can I relate.

I don’t even want to think about how many of my projects went unfinished after I decided that they were past all hope. When I was little, imperfect pictures were crumpled or torn and thrown in anger. Now the effects of my perfectionism are a little more subtle. Knitting projects that “just aren’t doing it for me” or unfinished needlepoint cushions that “just don’t look right.” And there they’ll sit. There is a frustrating disconnect between the ideal piece in my head and the flawed piece that I’ve made. I can’t conciliate my perfect idea with my imperfect abilities, so I just give up.

I realize how silly my perfectionism can be. I mean, what kind of pride do I have that prevents me from putting “pretty good” or “good enough” out there? That’s kind of obnoxious. So I’ve been trying to eliminate such restrictive perfectionism.

Easier said than done.

So now as one of my projects veers into imperfection territory, I go through a list of Self Talky exhortations. “You’ll improve your skills by completing this baby.” “It’s not so bad.” “No one will even be able to see what you’re stressing about!” “Flaws add character.” “‘Perfect’ is for the mall, ‘charm’ is for handmades.” “Don’t waste all that time and good work you’ve invested.” And if all those fail, “Oh, just finish something! You’re bugging even me now!”

I’m including pictures of a few projects that almost didn’t make it: two signs that I painted for my house. Of all the media that I dabble in, painting has the highest Incomplete Projects Due to Perfectionism rating. Painting just isn’t my forte and I’ll never have that steady, confident painter’s hand that commands even, graceful strokes. But this shouldn’t hold me back from making a project that I want to make. So I finished these, and though they’re not perfect, I’m glad I did.

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The first project is a little sign that bears our wedding date: “Est. 1995.” I found the rusted metal plaque years ago in a junk shop. (I try not to think about that junk shop. I stumbled upon it when I didn’t have the vision to tap its potential for my world. Now long gone, I try not to think about its boxes of dusty doorknobs and rusty keyplates – retched pieces that would be so wonderful in my home today. Sigh. But at least I bought this one rusted little plaque.) After debating forever how best to use this little plaque, I finally settled on a date plaque to mark our family’s inception. Aww.

For most hand-painted writing, I use a trusted formula: 1. download a cool free font from fontriver or fontspace. 2. Configure and print words using basic Windows software (Tip: use “outline” setting for your font to give just the traceable outline of your text). 3. Tape text to surface. 4. Use dressmaker’s carbon and ballpoint pen to transfer text onto surface. (Tip: look for dressmaker’s carbon at garage sales. The old stuff is way better than the new packages you can buy at the fabric store. Don’t know why.) 5. Paint.

Steps 1-4 usually work perfectly. It’s at Step 5 that I have to come to peace with perfectly charming. The font I love for antiquey pieces like this is Old Style Small Caps or Oldstyle1. (On a side note, I have no idea why they named the font “Old Style,” because it seemingly has nothing in common with that Cubbie swill they serve at Wrigley. But whatever.) The font is a little imperfect to start, so any imperfections I add make it even better.

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The second project the “Welcome” that I painted years ago by our back, and most-used, door. There is a little panel next to the door that just looked neck-id to me. I thought it would look charming on my sweet farmhouse and, oh yeah, welcoming to guests. When I was painting this sign, I was so frustrated with each imperfection. Painting at an awkward angle (in November’s gusty cold, if I remember right) was a pain and made my imperfect painting job even worse. Each letter was wonky in some way and it drove me nuts.

But I finished it. And now, years later, I love that Welcome sign and I never notice any of the flaws.

Lesson learned? Yes. Some day.