I have a theory. It begins with rock and roll and ends with personal accounting. In fact, I believe this theory has a through line that like a threaded needle sews together such things as baseball, movies, Fuji apples, paved highways and possibly modern orthodontia. All of these seemingly unrelated things are like the squares in the quilt of American life, each one an emblem of our lust for perfection that by its very pursuit drives us further from it. Stated simply the theory is this: Perfection is ruining everything.
From the ages of seven to twelve I listened to only two bands, The Beatles and Led Zeppelin. It was not until adulthood, that I realized how strange this was for a kid growing up in the wacky 80s to be fascinated by the music of his parents’ generation. The reason, I decided, was not just my predilection for interesting chord progressions and long, wavy hair, it was the nuance embedded within the songs. And by nuance, I mean mistakes.
Zeppelin and Beatles records are littered with fluctuating tempos, missed notes, squeaking and buzzing equipment and all the messy accoutrements that come with a no-can-tell-me-what-to-do-so-shove-it rock and roll record. In a much wider sense, these imperfections are the audible evidence of a real person doing a real thing in a real moment in time. As a kid, it sucked me in and made me feel I was in the studio with them making music.
In contrast, there is modern music, some of it quite good, but with all the beats placed squarely by computers and all the sharp and flat notes corrected within a quarter-cent. It’s flawless. Unfortunately, the spirit has been sucked right out.
Now, here is where the theory gains its through line and the quilt is built: Baseball has adopted instant replay along with football; the bank sends you an alert when your account gets below fifty bucks (ten in my case); potholes are filled in within the week; teeth are straightened, bleached, filed, crafted or simply replaced; films are edited down almost robotically to their most essential elements; our bodies are shaped by scientifically proven diets. You get the idea.
All of these advancements are good, great, even perfect. I don’t want to live in a world without them. Though, it seems we are beginning to believe that imperfection is synonymous with failure and failure as we all know is an unacceptable outcome.
But if we are not allowed to overdraft on our bank accounts, how do we learn the pain of having lost money to financial negligence, and how does that affect our internal mechanism for personal responsibility? If an umpire makes a bad call, where will the urgency be to get it right the next time? Actually, if umpires make mistakes, why have them at all? In short, without imperfection how will anything get better?
I wonder if through these mechanisms of perfection we might be conditioning ourselves against the possibility of failure and are therefore becoming less willing to become vehicles of failure ourselves. I wonder how terrified I’ve become of making …. a … mistake.
It would be a shame if my theory were true. Mistakes, it turns out, are the primary means of intellectual advancement. A million mistakes were made before we reaped the benefits of modern dentistry, and mistakes can be heard to this day on every Zeppelin record.
Listen, I hate potholes and crooked teeth as much as the next guy, but maybe when I’m done with this life, my quilt should be a bit tattered and frayed at the edges, evidence of mistakes made and, hopefully, of life lived.