The Physics, and Metaphysics, of Paint

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An essayist discovers the power of paint while doing a home-remodeling project.


WEEKEND EDITION essayist Tim Brookes recently tackled a whole remodeling project. There were problems, of course, but Tim found a solution.

TIM BROOKES: My wife, Barbara, decided to move her therapy practice into the apartment built onto our house, a conversion that required a certain amount of moving things around. A kitchenette to be taken out, a couple of walls and a window to be put in and the vertiginously steep stairs to be sloped back a bit. That was the idea. But between the idea and the reality, as T.S. Elliot wrote, falls the shadow.

An idea is a mental event consisting of biochemistry and electricity - pure, exciting, unaffected by municipal codes or building inspectors. The reality turned out to be trickier.

The staircase that came downstairs from the therapy room to be and to the waiting room to be threatened to crash into a built-in glass cabinet. It would have to stop and make a right angle turn. Tog(ph) the friendly builder, marked all these out, cut the stairs and then found the turn to cut most of the waiting room. He changed the angle of descent. Marked it all out again. Cut another set of stairs and found that they didn't have enough headroom to pass code. And when he tried to cut more headroom, he ran smack into the underside of the bathtub.

Then the stairs had to be widened to pass code so a wall had to be moved. By the time he finished, every alteration, every change of mind, could be seen embodied in angled wood and the bare sheetrock. The place looked impossibly Rube Goldberg. No good therapy could happen here. It had a feng shui of O'Hare Airport.

The answer was paint - that medium of illusion. We painted everyday for a week. The pencilings outlining three different iterations of staircase vanished under Benjamin Moore antique white. The blue closet was now a bay in the blue and white therapy room. The livid green kitchenette was now simply part of the coffee and cream waiting room. Bare wood became finished pillars and windowsills. Paint buried hesitations, bonehead errors, made the idea seem right all along.

We finished just before her first client was due - hauling the paint cans into the garage, hanging the matching curtains, moving the blue gray couch up against the blue gray trim.

T.S. Elliot was wrong. What falls between the idea and the reality bridging the inevitable gap between the physical and the metaphysical is not the shadow. It's the paint.

(Soundbite of music)

HATTORI: Tim Brookes directs the writing program at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont.

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