It'll be easy, I said!

By: MikeOct 13, 2016

Somehow summer has slipped away and fall ambushed me while my back was turned. I'm not sure where the time goes. We're always busy, and always running behind. How is this possible?

I was looking at my feet, pensively pondering this perpetually-perturbing puzzle, when I remembered some sage advice: To see what has eluded you, look beyond your current focus. Well, something like that anyway. Since I was currently looking at my feet, I squinted a little (my eyes are older than they once were) and tried to look beyond them. It took a little while, but in a sudden rush of inspiration, I saw what I'd been missing. . . the floor.

Beneath my feet was a new tile floor, missing only grout. It's the latest in a never-ending series of projects, and not a particularly impressive effort. But the more I thought about it, the more I understood how time (and money) manage to mysteriously slip away.

We're trying to focus our efforts on completing the office building for Patty and her trusty assistant Ann. I decided that learning to do some basic tile-work would be a good way to contribute. There's a lot of tile work to be done: the kitchen, bath, and stairway all need tile and the installation costs are prohibitive. I know a fine gentleman named Cruz, who has worked for us periodically over the past several years. He's skilled in many areas, including setting tiles. I asked him if he might be willing to come work for a few days, and teach me the rudiments of setting tile, and he agreed.

At this point, Patty reminded me that our budget is pretty tight, and asked for an estimated cost. Every project has three costs: The amount I think it will really cost, the amount it really does cost, and the amount I tell Patty it's going to cost when I'm trying to get her approval. Now, before you get judgemental, I never, ever lie to my wife. However, my estimates are often a little, um, conservative. For example, the office porch isn't terribly large: about 300 square feet. I had just seen some discount tile at 99¢/square foot so that's about $300 in tile. Cement is cheap so I'll ignore that, and I already have a tile saw. I can't imagine it will take more than three days of Cruz's time, so at a ballpark that's what? About a thousand dollars, more or less?

“It will cost about a thousand dollars”, I stated confidently. Who says I'm not an optimist?

The next day Cruz showed up bright and early, and we headed out to the tile store to buy materials. I looked at the cheap tile, but there was some very nice imitation slate tile — the same tile we used on much of the house. It's on sale for $2.99 per square foot and being discontinued. Perfect! Of course, I should buy a little extra for wasteage. The salesman asked how many linear feet of the porch are not against the building, and suggested buying edge tiles with a round bullnose since they're safer than the sharp edges of a regular tile and give things a finished touch. It sounded like a good idea to me, so I agreed.

The little buggers were $4.00 each, and I need 45 of them. And who would have guessed that thin-set tile adhesive was so much more expensive than concrete? It's nearly $40 a bag, and I was told I needed at least eight bags. Also, while we were driving over I'd been thinking that plain square tile was a little boring, so I decided I'd cut the corners of the tiles and inset some little diamonds cut from black granite tile. While we're at it, a black granite border would certainly enhance the overall appearance, so I added a few flats of polished granite tile. Oh yeah, we'd better grab a couple of new diamond saw-blades for the tile saw, and a few miscellaneous bits and pieces . . .

And so, long before lunch on the first day, the thousand dollar budget was a distant memory. We set to work, and Cruz began instructing me on the art of laying tile. We ignored the edges, which would be full of laborious custom cuts, and started filling in the floor. It was slower and more tedious than expected, and by the end of the first day, we'd only laid about fifty square feet of tile. It looked pretty good, and I was confident that we'd do better the next day.

The next morning, Cruz was gleefully tapping tiles, and pointing out the ones that I hadn't seated properly. They sounded hollow, and would need to be removed, the dried cement cleaned from tile and floor, and the tiles reset. Probably a quarter of the previous days tiles were bad, and it took most of the day to repair them. And so it went. As I slowly learned to lay tile, the days flew by.

A week went by. The next week, I had Cruz working alone for much of the time. I was busy with all of the other myriad tasks that stack up on a farm. Cruz in in his late 70's and not quite as fast as he once was. Also, he began teaching me to cut tiles to fit along the irregular base of the stone-faced wall. It can easily take a half hour per tile to mark and cut the complex curves for each tile. And, of course, if they're going to break, they do it at the last possible moment. The second week flew by. And a third. I'd learned a great deal, but I'm still a beginner. Cruz still delights in pointing out the crooked or poorly-seated tile, and making me pull them up and re-do them. We still have to take horses to the vet, visit with our lawyers over business deals, and take trips to various doctors for the ailments of the no-longer-young. Summer has gone, so it's often been too rainy to work. One night a cloudburst ruined the whole day's work on the border tiles, so now we don't work when it's going to rain. And the days go by all the same.

So, looking at the tile, I realize that I tend to have a single focus. I see the better part of month gone, and the project I confidently estimated at three days still not finished. It's easy to forget all of the many side-jobs that cropped up along the way, the hours spent editing manuscripts, designing things for the store, or caring for horses. Most of those hours were spent in the company of my beautiful wife, and while I considered them a disagreeable distraction, time with her is always delightful. I'm so focused on pruning the garden, I risk not seeing the flowers.

In Jurassic Park, Jeff Goldblum's character said, “Life. . . Finds a way.” I think that life, with all of its surprises and unexpected twists, gets in the way. It gets in the way of our boring, predictable projects, ruins our carefully-planned monotony, and upsets the hum-drum dreary dullness that would otherwise permeate much of our existence. Life, it turns out, just happens, and it's far more stimulating than the banal, hackneyed existence that would get the porch tiled quickly. It's seldom precisely what we planned; it's more engrossing and abundant than our pedestrian imaginings. The porch isn't done, but life is wonderful, and in the broader context the hours and days are well-spent.