Dan Wilson was tuning his guitar in front of a Minnesota-quiet sold-out Cedar Cultural Center last weekend, when from the darkness came the somewhat impatient voice of the Trip Shakespeare co-founder and Grammy-winning songsmith’s sister, Kit.
“Perfect,” she said, with perfect timing, and, after the crowd’s perfect laughter, the show went perfectly along in perfect tune.
Perfect, the word: That is what Kit and I are saying, and we’re not alone. Cock your ear to the zeitgeist and you’ll hear it everywhere, employed mostly by cut-to-the-chase servers, bartenders, texters, emailers, and young mothers of a certain perfect backbone like Kit who realize they’re raising their children in a perfectly imperfect world, and so they incant the word, like they’re setting a potion, and use it every chance they can.
Verily, the world may be dangerous, grisly and dark
But with one word
The world becomes so
If just for a moment
Because we say it
Because we say it is so
According to the English Club’s 5000 Most Common Words list, perfect is the 1,162nd most frequently used word in the English language (well behind the likes of shoot, television, military and media), but it says here the data needs updating. I am but one imperfect man, but I am telling you in all my days I have not heard “perfect” employed more than I have this year. I report my findings here because I heard it myriad times last week, from the mouths of friends and strangers alike, and I have come to believe it is a thing, a trend, a mantra, a perfect affirmation for these perilous times.
Or, all times. The dictionary definition of perfect is “complete” and “without flaw,” and appears in the King James Bible 123 times, including, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48). Yikes. Closer to the ground, the great Irish writer and poet Colum McCann wrote in his magnificent “Let The Great World Spin,” “People are good or half good or a quarter good, and it changes all the time — but even on the best day nobody’s perfect.”
But by slipping it into everyday conversation, maybe we get close. Listen for it and you’ll start hearing it everywhere, cutting its way through the clutter of the information age with clarity, precision, uber-optimism, and, yes, sarcasm. The weather? Perfect. The plan? Perfect. The latest war, mass killing, Joe Mauer strike out? Perfect, perfect, perfect — just like the name of songs by Fairground Attraction, Pink, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Tommy Stinson’s second post-Replacements band.
“Maybe we say it all the time because we want our kids to be perfect, and they aren’t and they never will be,” said Michelle deKam Palmieri, a mother of three and principal at Green Leaf Elementary School in Apple Valley. She made her comment to me as we were standing on the sidelines of a soccer game watching our daughters play, when on cue our goalie got torched on the way to a perfectly imperfect 4-0 loss.
Maybe so. “Adolescence is a new birth,” reminds a 1904 quotation from G. Stanley Hall at the outset of “Teenage,” an interesting if visionless documentary based on Jon Savage’s excellent book “Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture” that came and went to the Landmark Lagoon Theater last month. I live with two teenagers, and I can attest to the ongoing rebirth that happens daily. In so many ways they are starting their lives, their loves, and it is a raw and gloriously imperfect time of real-time blossoming.
The magnitude of which was on full display at Washburn High School’s effervescent spring choral concert last month. There, somewhat subversively tucked in amidst a smattering of show tunes, came a medley of teen-themed songs, including the Who’s “Baba O’Reilly,” Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” I’m a sucker for anything centered around the word teenage, so I was swept away by the real-time sound of all these young voices on the cusp of adulthood, testifying to their classmates, parents, and grandparents, and raised in joyous song (“teenage wasteland!”) to this fleeting and forever moment.
There’s only one word for that moment.
And for so many more to come.
Go ahead, say it. Out loud, even.