Jeff Vrabel: A perfectly good strategy for dealing with perfectionism

Jeff Vrabel

There's good news this week from our friends at the New York Times, and no, I'm not talking about the thing where it turns out Iran didn't really have the nucular weapons after all (with the exception of that and Iraq's vaporous WMDs, the intelligence community's really been on a hot streak lately; somebody start handing out some Christmas bonuses. Also, yes, I know nucular's not really spelled that way. I'm making fun of the president.)

Rather, I'm talking about a story involving perfectionism, the idea -- and, apparently, psychological shortcoming -- that translates into people not being able to relax, rest or take in a good solid night of "Grey's Anatomy" unless everything is in a state of absolute, Zen-like alignment: the cupboard organized either by size of container or logo font, the throw pillows stacked neatly on the loveseat, the CD collection lovingly displayed in glorious alphabetical order, a virtual Taj Mahal of magnificent, pleasing perfection, each jewel box lined up lovingly with the next, without a single break in the scheme for a box set, CD-R or, it goes without saying, mislabeled disc. I mean, sweet raisin danish, think about that for a minute.

If that last example seemed a little overly descriptive to you, you have discovered one of my many, many dark and personal secrets, though, thankfully, not the one about why I can never again join the Natalie Portman fan club, nor the reason I can never again set foot in a Denny's (THEY know why), nor, needless to say, what the voices in my head keep telling me to do. No, it's that I am indeed something of a perfectionist, although in my defense, it's only some of the time. It's not, for instance, a problem when I'm teaching my son math and state capitals (hence his unfortunate understanding that the capital of Montana is "Montanatastic") or, say, fact-checking a column (which reminds me, I apologize again for that piece in which I said the Wendy's Baconator was a food group). But yeah, if there's something out of whack on the ol' CD pile, or the iTunes has a mislabeled album lurking in there like a thorn in my virtual foot, I tend to get a little itchy, and by "itchy" I mean "paralyzed by a gripping fear that unless I fix the problem immediately, my spleen might burst into flame in a lively display that will involve lasers and a small band playing the '1812 Overture.' "

It turns out, according to The Newspaper, that such perfectionism may be the indicator of deeper-seated psychological issues, which is no surprise -- being unable to finish a grouper sandwich unless the crossword puzzle is completed to shiny perfection is not a problem that befalls someone with a steady grasp on everyday existence. It's also an indicator of a potential obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is also no surprise, particularly to someone who finds it nearly impossible to focus on finishing a column when there's a small list of menial jobs to complete on his desk ("No, really, I'll get to it as soon as I finish vertically restacking the Christmas cards. Someone bring me my protractor!")

The solution, in the instances there is one, seems to be simple: about a bathtub and a half filled with rum, every day. Actually, it seems to be more like this: Relax. Take a break. Leave a few things messy. Realize that the leaving of a task or three for the next day will very likely not result in a spontaneous wormhole developing over your bed and, say, spot-vacuuming you into some weird alternate galaxy, one where "nucular" maybe is a real word and everyone lives in Montanatastic.

Luckily, in my case anyway, the perfectionism runs smack into a second driving force: extreme, aggressive laziness. So I figure the two things balance each other out in a way that's, well, let's just go with perfect.

Jeff Vrabel is a freelance writer who doesn't see what the big deal is about sending 500 teddy bears to an actress you like, and why the state courts have to get all involved. He can be reached at www.jeffvrabel.com.