I am sitting upstairs in Café Verlet, a fancy salon de thé about a block from the Louvre. Outside, snow trickles onto hats and umbrellas, but inside the heat is cranked way up. As my waitress brings me my cat-poop coffee, she checks to make sure I am not too hot. “No, no,” I say, “I have the heat to my left and the window to my right. It’s perfect.”
Across the Seine, my wife and child are exploring the Musée D’Orsay, giving me a few hours’ grace to meditate on the idea of “perfect.” I have noticed that the word gets tossed off more easily in English than in French. The French prefer more casual adjectives like genial or formidable to express a positive view. When I say, “Merci, ç’est parfait,” they tend to cock an eyebrow. It’s not because they think I’m ordering a cold dessert; it’s because “perfect,” like “pregnant,” isn’t a concept to take in half-measures.
As I stir raw sugar into my cat-poop coffee, I distinguish mentally between “perfection” and “privilege.” When you’re born into the latter, does the former become more attainable, or less? This daytrip to Paris is my fourth or fifth since coming to France—I’ve lost track. For some people, getting to Paris even once in a lifetime is impossible. I’ve been here enough to see the city’s imperfections; should I have quit when I was ahead?
Or maybe perfect is as perfect does. Long ago, I hatched the dream of writing a novel in France. Now that dream lies dormant, and perhaps that wrinkle has cut off the circulation of “perfect” while I’m here. Except the novel hasn’t moved out of reach, exactly; I’ve stepped away from it. I could stop writing this sentence and start writing Chapter Eight. Would that make the afternoon perfect? Perhaps; or perhaps it would have the opposite effect, turning my luxury time into work.
I’ve often said that I feel “most like myself” when I’m writing, and that’s intended to be a version of perfect, albeit a very self-centred one. Yet when I try to recall moments in my life that qualify as perfect, they don’t involve writing. The act is more like a reflex, a response to an external, perfect catalyst—the same way that a “perfect storm” refers to the conditions that combine to stir up the tempest. The storm itself is not necessarily perfect. My writing sure as hell isn’t.
Don’t worry; I’m not too hard on myself, and I know that I’m not because I’m married to someone who is. Perfectionism is an albatross that has hung around S’s neck at least since grad school. In fact, if she’d written that analogy, you can bet she would have felt compelled to include citation and documentation referring the reader to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, along with an endnote differentiating between the biographical albatross around his neck (i.e. the sublimated guilt surrounding the death of his father) and the monkey on his back (i.e. opium). Personally, I can’t be bothered to cite, or even to spell-check most days. It’s the reason S’s name has more letters after it, and also the reason her medical history features more breakdowns and panic attacks.
S and I both came to France with personal and professional goals in mind, and it weighs much heavier upon her than me to admit that we will probably fall short. But I refuse to accept that this makes our sabbatical a failure. It is the perfectionist’s self-delusional sleight of hand that turns “flawed” into “failed.” None the less, it would be gratifying to be able to look back on some part of this trip with no motes in our memories. If you can’t have a single perfect day in France, then is a perfect day even possible?
My cat-poop coffee is finally cool enough to sip. Kopi Luwak is one of the rarest, most expensive coffees in the world because it’s harvested from the feces of the Indonesian palm civet, a cat-like creature who snacks on coffee berries but cannot digest the beans. Something in the civet’s gut affects the beans uniquely, making them less bitter than any other coffee—or so the literature claims. I am paying less for today’s cup of Kopi Luwak than I once did for a cup of Jamaican Blue Mountain in Toronto. That coffee was merely excellent; I’m hoping that, with Kopi Luwak’s combination of rarity, affordability, and extreme anecdotability (would you even still be reading this post if I hadn’t dangled the carrot of cat-poop coffee?), it will transcend excellence and reach perfection.
It’s too sweet. I check the internet. Turns out I wasn’t supposed to add sugar. If black beans are good enough for the palm civet, they should be good enough for me. And so my perfect coffee experience falls short—but maybe the metaphor can still be salvaged. It would have been too pat for me to conclude that “perfect” can only be found by rooting through the proverbial shit. Maybe the lesson, instead, is that I’m too privileged to taste perfection, because when perfection is handed to me, I also get handed a sugar packet, or a beer, or a joint, or a notebook and pen—some kind of value-added experience that actually, ironically, distracts and dilutes the real deal.
And maybe that’s all right, if I can keep it in perspective. The greatest danger of perfect is that, once you’ve been there, you never want to leave. Conservatism, regression, fear of change—all the retrograde energies within and without us—they stem from the conviction that paradise is in the past, and only by moving backwards can it ever be regained. I love Paris, and every time I visit, I hope it’s not the last time. But if this time were perfect—if the cat-poop coffee hadn’t been too sweet—the next time would inevitably fall short.
If I can stop hunting for perfect, will it blindside me instead? I resolve to return to Café Verlet, but not to try Kopi Luwak again. Next time, I’ll order something at random, with no prior research into what organism its beans have traveled through. Ignorance is not bliss, but neither is a PhD. Perfect is knowing when to stop searching, and sip.