Imperfections Of Scoff-flaw Perfectionists


February 16, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

There are women in the world whose stockings never run. Whose lipstick never smudges. Whose flawless outfits always look as though they'd been put together by Armani or Chanel.

Diane Sawyer, for instance, is one such woman.

And there are men in the world whose shirts are always crisp. Whose skin is always tan. Whose fingernails are always buffed to a shine.

Cary Grant was one of those men.

And, yes, there is the occasional child whose shoelaces are always tied. Whose sweater is always buttoned correctly. Whose room is always neat.

Margaret Thatcher, I am told, was such a child.

I am speaking here of the people we call "perfectionists." Those people who, for reasons usually known only to their parents and their psychotherapists, believe that the pursuit of flawless excellence -- in all things -- is life's highest calling.

I, on the other hand, believe that perfectionists exist among us as a reminder that a good thing can indeed be carried too far.

Case in point: I have a cousin -- a notorious perfectionist -- who is known to choose pets on the basis of whether their size and color clash with her home's decor. The dogs in her household have ranged from sleek greyhounds, during her high-tech, Le Corbusier period, to spotted Dalmatians, during her many-patterned English country period.

Fortunately, for those wishing to avoid perfectionists, it is fairly easy to spot them. Often they are attracted to such fields as orthopedic surgery, experimental physics, accounting, baseball and show business.

On the other hand, you seldom find them in football, automotive engineering or politics -- unless you count dictators as politicians.

Actually, if there were such a thing as a perfectionist's resume, it would read something like this:

* Dropped out of finger-painting class in nursery school to take up basic calligraphy.

* By age 6 had mastered sophisticated combinations of color coordination -- including the always tricky navy-blue-with-green pairing.

* At age 8 reorganized every bookshelf in house into alphabetized subject-matter categories.

* Was voted "Most Polite Student and Best Dresser" three years in a row between sixth and ninth grades.

But even without seeing a resume, many perfectionists are easy to spot. Two possible tip-offs, I have found, to the perfectionist woman are: Straight, blunt-cut hair and well-manicured fingernails.

Perfectionist men often favor ties knotted in the Windsor style and tattersall vests.

And it goes without saying that a perfectionist of either gender would never wear broken eyeglasses held together at the sides with tape.

A word of caution, however: Although I admit it is paradoxical, people who cover their sofas with clear plastic are not -- repeat, not -- perfectionists.

Personality-wise, I have found perfectionists to be impatient people. Since they know the right way to do everything, it annoys them to see it done the wrong way -- which is to say, any way other than theirs.

And perfectionists, as a rule, have no empathy. They are unable to put themselves in someone else's shoes unless those shoes are perfectly polished and classically timeless in design.

Humor, also, is in short supply in perfectionist people. When, for instance, was the last time you saw Nancy Reagan doubled-up from laughing?

Which brings us to Famous Perfectionists. Here is a list of some people I suspect -- but can't prove -- are perfectionists:

Marilyn Quayle. George F. Will. Elizabeth Drew. Ted Koppel. Jackie Onassis. Jim Palmer. Morris the Cat.

In my lifetime I have lived with perfectionists and witnessed first-hand the addictive nature of such a pursuit. To the perfectionist, the more perfect you become, the more perfection you need to stay on an even keel. I once observed, for instance, how the dusting of a bathroom shelf by a perfectionist friend led to washing the wall behind it, which led to repapering the bathroom, which led to putting down a new floor.

Once, a long time ago, while trimming a hedge, I experienced the urge to perfection. After five straight hours of clipping, the hedge was perfectly groomed, each leaf folded elegantly into its rounded shape. It also had shrunk from a 4-foot hedge to one that was about 14 inches high.

Since then I take a nap whenever I sense I have entered the danger zone of perfection. The feeling is always gone when I wake up.

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