Things I’ve Learned from Anal People


I describe myself as a recovering perfectionist. I used to think being a perfectionist was a good thing. After all, this trait has come in handy as an editor. But alas, I have learned that as long as there are human beings involved in a process, there will be mistakes.

Once, when I was working with a really picky acquisitions editor at Thomas Nelson, I found a mistake on the first page of  a book I’d edited. The author had been difficult to work with, the book was running behind schedule, and endorsements came in at the last minute. I hurriedly proofread the endorsements and sent them on to the graphic designer. I did not discover the mistake (a misspelled word) until the book was printed and I got my copy.

My stomach flipped when I saw the error. I wondered how my editor would react, and then I decided that I might as well ‘fess up. I called her and apologized profusely. She surprised me by giving me grace. “Anne,” she said, “that just proves you’re human. We’ll correct it at reprint stage.” Whew. Survived that one.

An only child, I had a great desire to please my parents, and I often got blamed for whatever went wrong around the house. Thus I developed the traits of sensitivity and an unhealthy sense of responsibility when things go wrong. It has taken me most of my adult life to recover from this.

I didn’t really think about what it was like to live with a perfectionist until I read a book on relationships in my late 20s. “Perfectionists are miserable people,” the book said. “They have unrealistically high expectations of themselves, and they are hard to live with, because they often cannot accept imperfections in others.” Ouch!

That book started me thinking about how I tended to focus on the negatives in regard to my husband. In the early years of our marriage, it drove me crazy when he left his socks and underwear on the floor or hung clothes on the quilt rack or any handy corner. I spent a lot of energy fuming about that habit. I talked to him about it (quite nicely, I thought) and told him that it bothered me when he left his clothes everywhere. You see, I was raised to pick up after myself (to the point of obsession), make my bed every morning, and keep my room neat. I was a neat freak.

Then I married this lovable guy who grew up in a home with less demanding standards for neatness. After I called attention to his habit of leaving clothes everywhere, he tried…he really did…for a while to at least put dirty clothes in the hamper. But soon he was off doing something creative…and the clothes on the floor multiplied. Finally, after a week of seeing whether he would pick up after himself if I left the piles on the floor, I gave up and just started picking up the piles. There! I felt much better. (Update: The longer we’ve been married, the neater my husband has become, and the messier I’ve become. We’ve met somewhere in the middle.)

So what have I learned from anal people?

From my stepmother: I discovered how to cook green beans in a healthier way than the way I cooked them: use 1 beef bouillon cube instead of fatback or bacon. (Although I must say I prefer green beans cooked with a little bacon.) She also got me in the habit of rolling up the tub mat and standing it on end so it could drain and not get so much mildew. And I learned how to match all 4 corners on the towels when I hung them in the bathroom, as well as wipe up every drop of water spilled on the sink. Once, when I took the initiative to make my own coffee and didn’t quite get the lid screwed on the carafe, I witnessed a real hissy fit about my being a slovenly guest. I had tried to clean up after myself and thought I got the mess sopped up, but she found coffee grounds in the circles around the top of the carafe. Out came a Q-tip to clean up these misbehaving stray grounds. Meanwhile, I watched agape, wondering what difference this would make in 5 years. (I never again made coffee in her kitchen when she was home.)

From an anal boss: I learned to try my best and accept if I didn’t quite please him or her, because I never was very good at playing Battleship (the game where you can’t see your opponent’s gameboard and you try to guess where the other player’s ships are hidden). I also learned not to take the exercise of writing performance standards too seriously. The years I’ve obsessed over every word and set really high standards for myself haven’t seemed to produce much better results than other years when I wrote them in a rush.

Probably the best lesson I learned from an anal boss was to look for another job … because I was going to get fired if I didn’t. Turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. I did not, as the associate department director said someone else had done, come back to thank him for firing me. I still think he’s a jerk. My direct supervisor, not so much. But it took years for me to forgive her and get over the blow to my ego. I questioned my editing ability. One time I ran into her at an event, and she casually told me that another department at LifeWay was looking for a good editor. I just looked at her, thinking, “What? If I wasn’t good enough for you, why would you wish me on someone else?” Maybe it made her feel better to tell me that. I don’t know.

From my mom: I learned that dirty dishes will wait til the next day. She did not teach me this; if she’d had her way, I would stay up late doing the dishes. I learned from my mother’s example that I did not want to be a teacher because that would mean sacrificing time with my family to grade papers at night. My mother was a workaholic. Most of my fun times were spent with my dad. So she taught me not to let my career consume me. (Or so I thought, until my son, Daniel, told me, in the heat of an argument, “You and your precious work!”)

From my dad: I picked up the habit of critiquing lots of meals I cook. Daddy used to taste something he’d cooked and make this little smacking noise as he analyzed it. He’d immediately point out some ingredient he could have used less or more of.  When I do the same, John says, “Okay, Walter,” sending me the message that I’m being just like my dad.

From an aunt and my mom, to whom I’m very thankful, I learned to speak and write grammatically correct sentences, because they pounced on every mistake I made. (My aunt was a principal with a master’s degree in reading; my mother was a 6th-grade schoolteacher. I also had an aunt who taught high school English. My love for literature is in my genes.)

I guess that’s enough for today. I have some funny tales about anal people in the recesses of my mind, but all I can think right now is that I’m grateful for some of the people who have been the biggest pains to deal with. They have made me stronger, prodded me to be creative and a little wily, and they have made me laugh (more than they know).

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