Thursday, August 07, 2008

Heaven and Hell

Almost a month ago, we hired a contractor to replace our bath tub/shower. This meant that we would also have to replace the wall tiles surrounding that area. Being somewhat challenged as long term planners, we had given no serious thought to new tiles before hiring the contractor.

I was a little apprehensive about this approach, but Beth seemed certain that seeing the bare walls first was an essential part of getting ready to tile them.

We left on a week long camp trip and returned to find a new tub installed and the walls not quite ready for tiling. At the time I remember thinking that we were close to being finished. the scales have fallen from my eyes since then. Pete, our contractor, wrapped up the prep work for the tiling in a few short days, left us a bill, and told us to call him when we were ready to order tiles. He offered to install them or to train Beth for a day and then leave her to finish the job. We learned later that Pete doubted we'd be back to him before a month was out.

After Pete left we slowly descended into what I've taken to referring to as tile hell. Tile hell is actually not a horrible place, at least not in the conventional sense of the word. It is composed of myriad materials, colors, textures and shapes of miraculous variety. Glazes, glass, grout,Mexican, Moroccan, mozaic, matte: the lexicon of tile hell encompasses everything from aesthetics to zeitgeist.
Going to tile hell means that you must pay. Not for your sins but for your dreams. How much you pay depends on how good you feel about yourself. One Moroccan tile website asks visitors to click one of three project options before entering the site: $50,000.00 or more, $25,000, or $10,000.00 or less. Shipping alone would have cost more than many if not most of the other options we looked at. At the other end of tile hell are Mexican tiles which cost less than a dollar per tile but which are porous and need constant maintenance.
What I have learned is that your stay in tile hell depends in part on whether you believe in tile heaven. Choose a color or a material in haste, repent at leisure. The surest way to tile heaven is to go to tile hell and stay there as long as it takes to learn what it is you truly yearn for. Some people get in a hurry because they can't imagine living without a shower for a few days. We're going on three weeks now and I have to say that after some initial irritation over the disruption I haven't given it a second thought. We've got a solar camp shower in the back yard. I also pedal to the college and use the locker room there whenever it suits me. We throw the kids in the wading pool or go to the river or to the grandparents' house. Not feeling panicked about stuff like bathing is an important aid to spending one's time in tile hell wisely.
I should say that I don't feel that I personally have gone to tile hell, purgatory perhaps. Beth is the one who has taken the plunge, made that dramatic descent from which there is no certain exit. The reason is, I believe, that Beth cares deeply about things that remain mysterious and even abstract to me, things such as color and design and light and texture. In short, she is an artist, and as such her relationship to her ambient visual surroundings is not unlike that of a plant that needs light and uses it photosynthetically to transform itself.

Because Beth needs these things, she is predestined to languish for a time in the depths of tile hell where she is tortured by the multiplicity of possibilities. Colors spawning like salmon, designs morphing endlessly, and themes triggering counter themes and so on until there seems no way to get a handle on the beast that was once just a bathroom. Of course I haven't even mentioned the implications for the bathroom floor and the wall colors.

This is a necessary part of finding the way to tile heaven, provided of course that you don't succumb to the temptation of settling on something for the sake of ending it all. Settling will get you a functioning bathroom, which, if that is all you wanted in the first place, makes going to tile hell a waste of time. If you go to tile hell and come back with something less than you wanted, you'll be tormented by your bathroom for as long as live in that house. In fact, rather than getting you out of tile hell, settling for something less than you want locks you in there.

It's not easy to watch someone you love go to tile hell, cast about, flounder, question and despair. All you can do is remind them that there is a tile heaven and that they'll get there one day as long as they don't abandon the struggle.
For Beth, the way to tile heaven opened up inconspicuously one evening as we ate dinner at a local Mexican restaurant. I remembered that the waiter there, a friend of ours named Tyrone, had once laid tiles for a living. I suggested to Beth that she talk to him. He recommended that Beth talk to a local gift shop owner, Kelly, who has contacts in the remodeling world. Kelly told Beth to talk to Jamie, an interior decorator in Baker City. Jamie introduced Beth to a custom supplier called Pratt and Larson based in Portland. Beth went online, looked over their offerings, and ordered samples. The samples arrived, and they were absolutely beautiful. They were also out of our price range. The tiles alone would have cost almost $1500 for our measley 60 square foot job. It seemed that we were, once again, thwarted.
But then Beth discovered that Pratt and Larson had a seconds store where surplus or unwanted tiles were sold for next to nothing. The problem was that their inventory changed everyday and the possibility of finding enough tiles of the same color to fill our entire order was uncertain at best. The other problem of course was that a trip to Portland would cost about $150 in gasoline. We let the idea percolate overnight. The next day I went golfing in Pendleton with by brothers and my dad. I got home mid afternoon just in time to learn that Beth had been invited to accompany her brother who was driving to Portland for three days - and he was leaving in fifteen minutes. Beth looked at me with a twinkle that suggested to me that the stars might be aligning. Behind her on the stove top I saw canning jars boiling in a pot and a batch of fresh apricot jam cooking. Beth showed me the cookbook with instructions on what to do, gave us all kisses and was gone on her quest for tiles - there lay the way to tile heaven.
Beth had six hours on one day, Saturday, to find the tiles to wall our bathroom. Her plan was to stay there all day, break only for lunch, and report back that night. She called me around two in the afternoon. Her voice was dreamy. She had been gathering tiles all day - square tiles, rectangular tiles, round tiles, star-shaped tiles, large and small, decorative tiles, even some glass tiles, enough for at least two different bathroom schemes, more if you improvised combinations.

It was all good stuff. She was happy with everything and to top it off, the total cost was less than $25o. She had come; she had seen, and she had conquered.
In an email later that night, Beth described how pleasurable it had been to spend hours simply handling beautiful things, digging through boxes of tiles, finding things familiar and surprising. She had nearly forgotten about lunch. Slowly, tile by tile, a palette began to emerge. By the end of the day, Beth had filled at least eight boxes. Several times people had come up to her to ask for help, assuming that she worked there.

"I felt like I belonged there," she wrote.
"You do belong there," I wrote back. The there I was referring to was tile heaven.
Beth came home Monday evening. We unloaded the boxes on the front porch. The next day found her sitting there, her bare legs bent, leaning on one arm, gently laying tiles on the floor, creating different patterns like she was filling in some enormous jig saw puzzle without having a model to look at.

I joined her for awhile and played at making a tiny mosaic of my own.

We are not yet ready to call Peter as there are clearly many decisions left to make. But as I watch Beth play with her tiles on the porch, it is clear to me that she has found and brought home a piece of heaven.


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