The hidden cost of perfectionism

23.September 2021

Paolo is very protective of his house, recently renovated with the cheapest Ikea products. He is hysterical about the capacity for dirt and even dust caught on cloths to scratch the plastic-wood floors and white plastic kitchen counters. He shows me a tiny stain on the cheap stainless stove and laments the person who scratched the stainless trying to clean the stain.

He doesn't understand that this quality will look bad in 10 years even if he succeeds in protecting it from signs of life.

He forbids shoes and microfiber, but forgets to tell me about the dishwasher and oven. He shakes a grubby plate in my face: "You can't put this in there!" I retort "well my dishwasher must be more expensive than yours. Mine washes dirty dishes!" He also forgets to tell me that the oven should show no signs of use. He caresses the tray I used to roast eggplant. "You think this is clean?" "Clean enough to use again." For him clean means no trace of use. I wonder why. I ask the internet how much replacement trays cost. €16. New countertops cost about €100. Why suffer and harass guests over something easily replaced?

He squanders his talent on such hysteria; vigilance as an escape from the risk of self-expression. Talent is easily diluted by clutter, arbitrariness, or bargains. There are so many ways of not seeing and honoring yourself; of misrecognizing your most valuable possession.

Martin invested a couple of rungs higher at Ikea but still guards surfaces as ancient sacred texts that must be kept dry. "No liquids in the bedroom." But also no water on the granite kitchen counter or the wooden floors. I find Paolo and Martin's houses hostile to life. And I expect the kitchen to be more or less wet and guests are urged to cut directly on the wooden counters. Wood turns out to be one of the most forgiving materials. which can always be sanded and restored, even when burned or stained. And Italy teaches us that stone only gets more beautiful over time.

Unwelcome on surfaces, I duck under them, peering into cupboards and drawers. Trying not to leave any marks, I skirt the walls to take respite in the closets. The baseboards are dusty. Uninhabited spiderwebs clump in the corners and under the furniture. All the hiding places are jumbled and full. The regime has run out of power.

No one has time to be perfect everywhere, so the other side of perfectionism is an unmanaged periphery.

And the system is locked. Since the excesses of the center are non-negotiable, it's never possible to reallocate time and energy to the hidden places. They are official state secrets, inviolable, and shameful.