A-grouting, shall we go?

In coming back to America from England, I have developed a philosophy of grouting. Grout, for those whose kitchens are still new, is that fine plaster line filling the cracks between the glossy ceramic tiles on countertops or in shower stalls. Or, perhaps more properly, it is the plaster that used to fill the crack but has now chipped, cracked, and dropped out, leaving toothpick-size holes through which drops of water can weasel their furtive ways.

The latter definition, while less accurate, is more sociologically acceptable.For the fact is that most people think about grout only when it is not there. Yet it plays a solid (if narrow) part in our lives. It is surely one of our most widely seen and thinly appreciated substances. Where, after all , would we be without it?

Through no fault of my own, I find myself well placed to answer that question. For we recently moved into a house characterized by a monumental neglect of grout. Much of the house, I hasten to add, was in fine shape. But the only shower -- and as a man disinclined to stew like a prune in bathtubs, I emphasize the word "only" -- was a mess. The gray tiles of its back wall hung perilously upon a rotted and rippled plywood wall. The wall itself clung by rusted nails to two-by- fours with a consistency resembling stale devil's-food cake. Modest pressure of the hand as its base would open up a hole through which, as my father used to say, you could throw a cat. To shower in that environment was to deluge the cellar. And all for want of grout.

So it befell that, as the long winter evenings rolled by, I found myself squirreled away in that tiny room, hacking out the old wall, chipping the mastic off the tiles, and, finally, grouting. Not, one may say, the most mentally demanding work. Yet it had its redeeming features. It slowed the pace. It called forth patience. It gave time to think.

I found myself, at the outset, thinking, "Why am I doing this?" One answer was that I had always done these sorts of things. I recalled other projects I'd gotten involved in since, years ago, I worked summers for a carpenter in New Hampshire. In those days we knocked off whenever 4:30 came along. Working for yourself is different: You keep looking for something called "a good stopping place," and you work up such a head of steam that you can't quit until you find it.

So I got thinking about all those blindly willful late-nighters in our previous home. I remember using a router -- a power tool that sounds like a siren being tortured -- at 1 in the morning, outdoors, 15 feet from our neighbor's bedroom window. She was either out of town or incomparably polite.

And I remember the "one last hole" that took three hours. We needed a new electrical outlet. So I positioned my father in the laundry room to watch where the bit came through as I drilled into the family room paneling from the other side. All was going merrily when we heard a most astonishing crash, like a whole load of storm windows bouncing off the back of a truck. We ran to the laundry to find him, like a kind of bathrobed Banquo's ghost, dripping with assorted floor waxes, window cleaners, and detergents -- larded, in fact, with the once- bottled contents of a shelf which may drill had pushed clean off the wall onto the cement floor.

One recovers from such saucings, however, and counters get laid and outlets installed and houses improved. And I supoose, had I not had 18 months overseas. I never would have given it a second thought.I would simply have assumed, like many Americans, that to engage in do-it-yourself handiwork is to fulfill the highest good.

The British, I suspect, see it another way. I met not a few who were all thumbs over a screwdriver and would have gone to pieces before a miter box. Not that they didn't respect artisans and tool users. They simply had different interests. They would rather "have a man in" to fix a problem -- hard as it was to find a man -- so that they could spend their time pursuing those things (like gardening, or reading, or conversing) that make them such a splendid nation.

And, because we lived in England in houses not our own, I came slowly to respect those interests. I remember a damp and dripping kitchen ceiling. The upstairs shower, I thought with a groan. Then I realized that, for once, I didn't have to fix it. It was a most astonishing revelation: my wife simply called the agent, and a few days later I came home to find a newly caulked tub. I confess it gave me a start. Improvements could be made, repairs carried out, even without me doing them. I could read, write, and talk, and things would still get done.

And therein lies the kernel of the philosophy of grouting. For we in America are, by and large, a nation of grouters. It is not simply that we cannot afford to have a man in. It is that we tend to spend our efforts building environments , laboring to perfect every detail in our domestic surroundings -- so that we can, all too often, sit tidily in them and wonder what to say to each other. The British tend to spend their efforts building relationships with each other. They hold the art of conversation in high esteem -- although they may do it in rooms that Americans would find shabby and drab.

What took me by surprise during these recent winter nights, then, was the realization that I was gourting out of mere habit. I was doing something only because I knew how to do it.

I do not know, I confess, where that realization leads. Surely there is a value in all those qualities -- patience, persistence, a sense of visual design, a feel for structure -- that tools have taught me over the years. But surely, too, there is a value in a sense of community that sets human interchange above the skillful manipulation of matter.

Perhaps I should not call it a "philosophy" of grouting. Perhaps it is only, at this point, the glimmer of a paradox.

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