Friday, April 06, 2007

seemingly precarious states of balance

Once upon a time, during an earlier period of apparent "purposelessness," my sister's first husband, who'd known me since I was 9 or so years old, helped me get some work.

Though he was a mechanical engineer by trade, he moonlighted as a house painter / jack-of-all-trades, and he was handing off to me a customer that he just didn't have time for anymore. Tom Newell needed help painting his house.

It was in Wayland, which is a nice, old, Boston suburb. I liked Wayland, I liked the people I'd met there, I nearly grew up there, what with spending so much time on my father's jobs. I felt natural showing up at Mr. Newell's house one cold late fall morning.

He was a musician - a French Horn player for the Boston Pops. His wife played strings for the Boston Symphony, if memory serves. They were in their '60's at the time, and that big, old Colonial needed a coat of paint before the weather got too bad. They were a dysfunctional couple, and my memory of Tom suggests a broken heart, though I couldn't have identified it at the time.

Money must have been tight, because Tom insisted on working with me to save some of it. I think he paid me $8 an hour. Naturally, we talked as we painted, and a few things stuck with me.

Tom taught me how develop my ear for pitch. "Think of a song," he'd ordered. So I thought of one of my favorites at the time. He said, "Sing it!" I self consciously did. To this day I can tune my guitar by thinking of the intro to Steely Dan's "Ricky Don't Lose That Number" (E E, B B, E E, B B...).

Tom was a creative supernova. Not only was he out painting with me in the cold, he also kept a mini lathe in his basement, upon which he turned his own mouthpieces for his horn (sadly, Tom had developed lip cancer, which is about as bad luck as a horn player can have. He was suing his doctor for not catching it earlier). He painted pictures. And made mobiles, like Alexander Calder. That's what I fell in love with.

They were all over his house, these little mobiles. And some "stabiles," which were like mobiles, only they sprung from a base, as opposed to hanging from the ceiling. Fine wire and sheet metal contraptions that, no matter how asymetrical they looked, were perfectly balanced. They captivated me, and I started making my own.

I only spent a couple of weeks with Tom, and over twenty years later I realize how much that man inspired me. I just figured out in the process of writing this post what a great metaphor mobiles can be and the sorts of visceral moods their mysterious, precarious states of balance can evoke. They speak of order in the midst of apparent chaos, which evokes a suprise sense of hope...perhaps I'll develop the logic more later.

Hmm. This theme seemed like a good idea this morning, but here it's kind of falling flat...


Blogger Cathy Yow said...

I new the Newells when I was young and when they lived in Houston. Tom was principal Horn of the Houston Symphony; Louise was a violist in the HS. Thomas was my father's patient. Dad was a fine horn player himself and paternal toward younger Tom. Tom and I played the Mozart horn concerti together - me at age 11-ish and playing a piano arrangement of the orchestra.

I have several wonderful Tom-and-Louise stories, including that of my stay with them at Tanglewood in 1969.

1:47 AM  
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