The Walls Around Us

Time spent rocking and taping can make a man appreciate gypsum wall board, one of the most common fixtures of our lives and one of the most unjustly taken for granted


AN IMPROVED HOME IS THE ONLY MAJOR CREATIVE work most of us will leave behind when we step into the void. How will future generations judge us? What will they think of the new medicine cabinet in the upstairs bathroom? Will they wonder—in the same way modern scholars attempt to sleuth out Michelangelo’s thoughts about chiaroscuro—why we didn’t buy a more expensive model? Philistine home-improvers, enamored of shortcuts and cheap solutions, don’t care. But domestic artists do. We visit libraries, loiter in hardware stores, pore over tool catalogues, memorize how-to books, buy graph ‘paper, consult experts, and dirty our hands in the dust of our dwellings. We feel the burden of both the future and the past and contemplate our role in the great conversation of mankind—home improvement for its own sake.

The first thing one needs before dedicating oneself to home improvement is a home that needs improvement. Regular readers of this magazine, or at any rate my parents, may recall that my wife and I own a very old house that, when we bought it, was filled with horrible wallpaper. Phis wallpaper—vast geometric schemes in clashing colors, floral fantasies, perching birds garlanded with fruit—had been put up with oceanic thoroughness by the previous owners, and much of our first year in residence was devoted to getting rid of it.

Getting rid of it turned out to be harder than we had anticipated. In the first place, our house’s relationship with ugly wall coverings proved to have been not a passing fancy but rather a marriage of some two centuries’ duration. In one room an exploratory core sample revealed (from the surface inward) ugly wallpaper, oldish gypsum wallboard, ugly wallpaper, a thin veneer of plaster, ugly wallpaper, and a proper plaster wall.

In the second place, the previous owners’ devotion to wallpaper considerably outran their skill at putting it up. We found several walls that had not been correctly prepared before being papered over and were thus unwilling to surrender the offending layer without surrendering much of themselves as well. In other places the wallpaper was serving less a decorative than a structural function—in fact, preventing the walls from tumbling down.

My wife and I, at times resembling one of those happy, industrious couples in cigarette advertisements, scraped wallpaper off as many walls as we could. Simply painting over the remaining wallpaper was considered but rejected; there were too many bumps, lumps, tears, holes, gaps, cracks, and crevices. Demolishing the walls and starting from scratch was a possibility, but a messy and expensive one. It was at this point in our thinking that we called in the pros.

WHAT TO DO WITH THE INTERIOR WALES OF ONE’S dwelling is a problem of antique standing. For a surprisingly large stretch of human history a frequent response to this problem has been plaster. The pharaohs’ toilers heated crumbled gypsum, mixed it with water, and spread the resulting paste over rough walls made of stone, brick, mud, or reeds.

A wide variety of ancient peoples did essentially the same thing, with gypsum, lime, clay, and other materials. In doing so they anticipated with their usual uncanniness the way we do things today (except that, for the most part, we don’t do this thing today, the plasterer’s art having gone the way of the other arts—but I get ahead of myself).

From the time of the Egyptians onward, plaster has been recognized to be a remarkable substance, and indeed it is one: as richly smooth and pliant as the material Freud called the child’s first gift, yet clean, white, pristine—primal slop bleached of unpleasant associations. When properly prepared, it is sturdy enough to mock the eons, yet its supple plasticity endears it to the artist, who, with a delight presumably not unlike that of the Shaper of the original clay, et cetera, et cetera.

Plaster, like almost everything else, reached its aesthetic zenith during the Renaissance. Exacting craftsmen filled magnificent rooms with moldings, reliefs, and other ornaments, achieving a degree of interior decoration seldom aspired to nowadays beyond the city limits of Las Vegas. When Michelangelo sprawled on his back for four years beneath the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it was onto wet plaster (fresco means “fresh,” the condition in which the surface to be frescoed must be) that he painted his astonishing vision.

Plaster has wholly utilitarian virtues as well. It deters rodents and is of no interest to termites. It is fire-resistant. A modern wall made with gypsum wallboard—basically, two pieces of heavy paper with a layer of plaster in between— can hold its own against flames for about an hour. Plaster walls were viewed, correctly, as one solution to the fires that regularly blackened London for so many centuries. “Bild up an hous of fyne lyme playster to keep away the flaymes” was the wording, perhaps, of some medieval edict.

Before a house can have walls, it needs a frame. Early American houses, including my own, were framed with a small number of massive, hand-hewn timbers held together with fancy joints and wooden pegs. The vertical members, called posts, stood at the four corners and, depending on the size of the house, at key points in between. Horizontal members called girts and plates connected the posts at ceiling height. In the spaces between the posts, like bars in a cage, were smaller vertical members called studs. The studs bore little or none of the weight of the house; their function was to provide a skeleton to which the inner and outer coverings could be attached.

Modern houses are framed with larger numbers of smaller pieces of wood (or, occasionally, steel). Builders eventually realized that massive posts were unnecessary and that a house could be held up by studs alone. The standard modern stud is a piece of wood called a two-by-four. True to the spirit of the times, the cross-section of a two-by-four measures one and a half by three and a half inches. In addition to holding up the house, modern studs do what oldfashioned studs did: provide a skeleton for inner and outer coverings.

In the earliest days of the American colonies the inner coverings of houses were simple wood planks. These were nailed directly to the studs. Soon, though, plaster became the covering of choice for most walls. Until the late nineteenth century or so, plaster in American houses was typically made of lime, sand, and the hair of animals. Sand and animal hair are familiar to all; lime is calcium oxide. It is produced by crushing and then calcining (by heating) limestone, seashells, Turns, or some other rich source of calcium carbonate. Freshly calcined lime is called quicklime; pouring water into it causes a hot, nasty chemical reaction. After this nasty reaction has taken place, quicklime is known as slaked, or hydrated, lime. It is from this that lime plaster is usually made.

A similar substance is calcium sulfate, or gypsum, whose use as a building material is reputed to have been introduced to America in 1785 by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin had learned about it in France. Gypsum occurs naturally in many forms, including satin spar and alabaster. As a lad, I had a piece of satin spar in one of those boxed rock collections sold at souvenir stands in national parks. As hard as it is to believe, I think my mother later threw it out. Wherever it is today, that little chunk of satin spar, like all gypsum, contains a great deal of water: roughly 50 percent by volume, not including the dab of amber glue that held it in the box. Crushing and calcining drives off most of this water, yielding the remarkably useful material known as plaster of paris. Gypsum wall plaster is usually made of plaster of paris and additives that keep it from setting too quickly. When water is mixed back in, the gypsum’s original crystalline structure re-forms. The water content of hardened gypsum plaster is about the same as that of gypsum rock. It is this internal water that accounts for gypsum plaster’s resistance to fire. For roughly a hundred years now, most plaster has been made of gypsum.

Plaster, like cake frosting, needs to be spread on something. The supporting surface onto which plaster is spread is called lath. From Colonial times until well into this century lath was made of wood. My house has two kinds of lath: hand-split wood strips from the late eighteenth century and sawn strips from the nineteenth. Both kinds were nailed horizontally across the studs with small spaces between the strips. Plaster was spread over the lath.

Shortly before the dawn of the twentieth century a dreamer named Augustine Sackett sandwiched three thin layers of plaster of paris with four layers of heavy paper to produce Sackett Plaster Board. Each board was thirty-six inches long, thirty-two inches wide, and a quarter-inch thick. The quality of the early product was such that it could be used for very little. It was ugly, heavy, and weak. However, it was fast. Before Sackett’s invention walls had usually consisted of lath and plaster. After Sackett s invention they still usually consisted of this, but sometimes a builder would save himself a good deal of trouble by nailing plaster boards directly to the studs, covering up the seams and nailheads with a plaster-like material, and letting it go at that.

In 1909 Sackett (whose business by then spanned the globe from Garbutt, New York, to Fort Dodge, Iowa) sold out to the United States Gypsum Company, a mining and manufacturing concern that had been founded seven years before. The company refined Sackett’s invention—for example, eliminating the two internal paper layers. As quality improved, gypsum wallboard became increasingly popular as an inexpensive substitute for lath and plaster. In 1917 the company introduced the product that has been the mainstay of its business ever since, a much improved gypsum panel called Sheetrock. In the most common of its many configurations, a Sheetrock panel is eight feet long, four feet wide, and half an inch thick. If you’re like a lot of people, you can touch some from where you’re sitting right now.

Along with Kleenex, Kitty Litter, and Windbreaker, Sheetrock is, I think, one of the world’s outstanding trade names. People tend to use it, improperly, as a generic term for gypsum wallboard. But in proper usage it applies only to various products of USG Corporation, as the company is now known.

USG is the biggest manufacturer of gypsum wallboard in the world. It shipped seven billion square feet of it in this country last year. Seven billion square feet works out to 160,700 acres, 65,000 hectares, or 26 million square rods. That’s a lot. Still, two thirds of all the gypsum wallboard shipped in America in 1986 was made by other companies. The second biggest producer, with just over five billion square feet, was National Gypsum Company, which makes Gold Bond brand wallboard.

WHEN MY WIFE AND I CALLED IN A PROFESSIONAL builder to deal with our remaining wallpaper problem, he suggested burying it beneath a layer of gypsum wallboard. The wallboard, he said, could be attached directly to the existing walls. This idea was attractive for several reasons. First, it would leave the old walls intact but out of sight. Second, putting new walls over old was clearly a tradition in our house. Third, it would be relatively inexpensive.

Gypsum wallboard, whatever its brand name, has a lowly reputation. When people complain about how much worse things are nowadays, wallboard is one of the things they often complain about. You never heard about people putting their fists through walls before Augustine Sackett came along, these people will say while poking you in the chest with their stubby fingers. Wallboard is usually less durable than lath and plaster. It’s also cheap (about twentyfive cents a square foot at my hardware store), which makes it irresistibly attractive to the sort of people who are irresistibly attracted to cheap things. Since this describes almost everyone, almost everyone has at least a little in his house.

Still, wallboard doesn’t have to be installed poorly. Nor does it have to be thin. Indeed, when you attach it to a wall that’s already there, it makes the wall thicker than it was before. My wife and I decided to start with the front hall and the living room.

Standing around watching workmen work would be a pretty good job, many people probably think. When my lather retired from business, he embarked on a new career that consists to a great extent of watching people fix the things that break in his house. When the workmen arrived at my house to put up the new wallboard, I decided to follow in the old man’s footsteps and spend a lot of time standing around watching them do it.

Laminating wallboard over existing walls is made somewhat difficult by things that stick out from the walls: moldings, baseboards, window trim, and the like. The cornice molding in our hall and living room, for example, was in the way. Fortunately, it had been put up by the previous owners, not by Thomas Jefferson. The workmen pulled it down and threw it into their dump truck, which thev enjoyed driving into the yard. If the molding had been something special, they would have saved it and put it back up later, after trimming it to fit walls that would be slightly closer together than they had been before. Instead, when they were finished, they put up new molding that gratifyingly looked older than the old molding.

The windows in our living room and the principal doorways in the hall are old and nice. Taking them down was out of the question. Fortunately, the casings around them stuck out an inch and a half from the old plaster walls. Likewise with the top of some old raised-panel wainscoting along one wall. Reducing the protrusion by half an inch made no difference. The baseboards in the hall were ordinary modern pine boards three quarters of an inch thick. Setting wallboard above them cut the protrusion to a quarter of an inch and actually made them look more in keeping with the age of the house: Colonial builders used to nail baseboards to the framing and then apply the wall plaster Hush with them.

Wallboard is heavier than I had thought. A panel eight feet by four feet by a half inch weighs a bit under fiftyeight pounds—about as much as a healthy third-grader. Despite its heft, though, it’s remarkably easy to work with. You don’t have to saw wallboard (although you can). If you score it with a utility knife, you can break it cleanly with your bare hands, like Bruce Lee. This is what the pros do.

For most of its history gypsum wallboard has been put up with nails. There are several specialized kinds. Some are coated with a cement that bonds to wood. Others have little rings around their shafts that do the same thing. The workmen in my house used cement-coated nails. They also used some screws. Screws are more expensive, but they hold better and you don’t need as many. Screws eliminate one of the most common problems with wallboard: nail pops. A nail pop is, to use technical terms, a nail that has popped. A standard two-by-four stud can have a water content of well over 25 percent. Over time this usually drops to 12 to 14 percent, depending on the house’s climate. As it does, the stud shrinks away from the wallboard nailed to it. The nails, though, stay put. Everything looks fine until someone leans against the wall. Pop! The round nailheads poke through the surface, looking like buttons you might push to open secret passageways. Screws, in contrast, follow the wood as it shrinks, taking the wallboard with them. (The framing in our house is so old that shrinkage isn’t a problem.)

The most time-consuming part of any wallboard installation is covering up the heads of the fasteners and the joints between the panels. Nails and screw’s are driven slightly below the surface of wallboard panels—not enough to tear the paper but enough to create a slight depression. This depression (called a dimple in the trade) is filled with three or four applications of a plaster-like material called joint compound or mud. Repeated applications are necessary because joint compound shrinks slightly as it dries. Tossing around a little casual banter about “mudding the dimples" is a good way to make a wallboard installer think you’re out of your mind (“spotting the nails” is what pros usually say).

Joints between panels are harder to cover than dimples. First the joints are “buttered,” or covered with a thin layer of compound. The compound is applied with a spatulalike knife about four inches wide. While this compound is still wet, a strip of two-inch-wide paper tape is embedded in it. Joint tape reinforces joints. In the old days it was always perforated, to facilitate bonding; nowadays it usually isn’t. Instead, its surface is mechanically roughened, giving it a slightly hairy texture. Once embedded, the tape is covered with several layers of joint compound, applied with successively wider knives or trowels. Each new layer of compound is “feathered,” or squished flat, beyond the edges of the previous one, creating a smooth, continuous surface. After the final layer has dried, the compound is sanded, creating a blizzard of white dust that takes several years to vacuum up.

W ALLBOARD is seldom done INSTALLATION as slowly and IN NEW carefully CONSTRUCTION as it was at my house. On big jobs payment is usually based on the number of panels, which creates a powerful incentive to be sloppy. Once it occurs to you to look, you can spot bad wallboard installations almost anywhere. When I find myself waiting in someone’s office now, I pass the time by looking for sloppy taping jobs. Lumps, trowel marks, bubbles in the mud: they aren’t hard to find.

Instead of embedding joint tape by hand, big-time wallboard installers often use a long tubular device, called a bazooka, that dispenses tape and mud simultaneously. (There’s a similar, smaller device called a banjo.) This is very fast, but it doesn’t always produce terrific results. Some tapers make do with just two layers of compound, instead of three or four. Ceilings in many new houses and apartments are given the once-over with a bazooka and then sprayed with a gloppy-textured finish known as popcorn. Popcorn ceilings are fast, cheap, and, i think, extremely ugly. If you’ve ever hung by your ankles above a big rectangular vat of cottage cheese, you have a pretty good idea of what it’s like to look up at one. Popcorn ceilings save a lot of time, though, and some people think they look sharp.

Fast isn’t necessarily bad. Even first-rate rockers (short for Sheetrockers) work at a pace that can give an average do-it-yourselfer the vapors. I spent a very cold morning watching two deft rockers named Billy and Spanky put up walls and ceilings in a brand-new house not far from where I live. First they stood around smoking cigarettes in front of a kerosene heater. Then, when they had warmed up, they cut about a foot off a twelve-foot panel, hoisted it to the ceiling of the dining room, and banged in enough nails to hold it up. Then Spanky “screwed off” the panel with an electric screw gun, putting in a screw roughly every foot along each joist. While he did this, Billy measured and cut the next panel. The entire ceiling took about ten minutes to finish.

The walls went even faster. The front wall had a picture window in the middle of it. Billy and Spanky nailed a big panel over the top part of the entire wall, covering up half the window. Then, while Billy cut the next panel, Spanky used a router with a special bit to cut an opening around the window. (The recommended procedure is to measure and cut openings before hanging panels, but Billy and Spanky got good results in less time doing it their way.) When Billy trimmed a panel, he was thinking several moves ahead, like a chess player: a window cutout from the dining-room wall might become the ceiling of the front-hall closet; the fourteen-foot panels stacked in the living room would work better in the kitchen.

Rocking and taping are separate trades. Practitioners of each are scornful of the other. Billy and Spanky talked about tapers the way doctors talk about dentists. Tapers, meanwhile, view rockers as brawny louts with no sense of artistry. Of course, each crew that passes through a construction site blames the previous crew for all its problems: painters curse tapers, tapers curse rockers, rockers curse framers. Billy and Spanky didn’t have too much to complain about on this job, they said, because the framing was basically straight (where it wasn’t, they whacked it into line with their wallboard hammers). The worst jobs, Billy said, are in condominiums, where the framing is almost always way out of line.

BY THE TIME I WENT TO WATCH BILLY AND SPANKY, I’d done a little rocking and taping of my own. One of the nice things about gypsum wallboard, as opposed to genuine plaster, is that an amateur can handle it. I prepared myself by watching the workmen in my house, reading all the home-repair books I could find, and running up a big tab at the hardware store. My first project was repairing a badly deteriorated plaster wall in the upstairs hall. Measuring, trimming, and nailing up two eightfoot panels took me most of an afternoon. (Billy and Spanky put up from 80 to 90 twelve-foot panels in an average workday.) Taping was intimidating but not impossible; I got a little jaunty with the joint compound, but sanding removes a multitude of sins.

My second wallboard project was in the playroom. I did a pretty good job. Indeed, I would be unashamed to display my playroom joints beside the joints of almost anyone. The same goes for my dimples.

The only real setback I encountered involved a wallboard screw that made a funny noise as I drove it in. I looked at it for a while and then unscrewed it. A thin column of water streamed horrifyingly through the hole. Like most plumbing disasters, this one occurred late on a Saturday night. I had to shut off the water in the basement, drain the line, and rip a big hole in the wall I had just put up. I made a temporary patch in the pierced copper pipe by dipping the wallboard screw in epoxy glue and driving it back in. This, surprisingly, kept us dry until the plumber was able to come, on Tuesday.

My next wallboard project was in the dining room. While patching a crumbling plaster wall there one day, I noticed a small splash of color behind the lath and decided to find out what it was. Using a hammer, a crowbar, and a saw, I knocked a hole in the wall and stuck my head into it. Behind the dining-room wall, I discovered, was a six-inch airspace filled with extremely old-smelling air and, beyond that, another lath-and-plaster wall, perhaps the original one. In keeping with the rest of the house, this wall was covered with ugly wallpaper (an off-white print with a brown border of flowers).

A few weeks later, burning with curiosity, I decided to get a better look behind the wall. I knocked down all the crumbling plaster on a six-foot-wide section between a window and a corner. The plaster was made of lime and sand; I could see wisps of animal hair along the broken edges when I held pieces up to the light. Then I pulled down all the lath, which had been put up with little square nails. The studs were two-inch-thick oak slabs, one of them more than eight inches wide. The studs had bark on their edges: they were thick slices of tree limbs.

And then there was the older wall. In places where the plaster had crumbled, I could see the old lath, which was hand-split oak. The nails were handmade and had huge, lumpy heads. I removed samples of everything, took a few pictures, and signed “George Washington" in pencil on the wallpaper. Then I closed the opening with Sheetrock. The studs were so hard that I had to recharge my cordless electric screw gun after driving just a dozen screws.

MOST OF THE HOME-IMPROVEMENT GLIDES I’VE seen aren’t entirely reliable on the subject of gypsum wallboard. The Readers Digest Complete Doit-yourself Manual appears to advocate an unnecessarily sloppy taping technique; the disembodied hands in the illustrative photographs are probably still trying to sand those lumpy blobs. (A really good taping job requires very little sanding.) The Walls and Ceilings volume in TimeLife’s useful home-improvement series is better, but several important steps are more implied than explained. A newer book, This Old House Guide to Building and Remodeling Materials, a spinoff from the popular television series, unfortunately gives some very bad advice about taping: it approves of using a new fiber-glass mesh tape on wallboard joints instead of traditional paper tape. The mesh tape is indeed easier to handle, but it has next to no strength when used with ordinary joint compound. Wallboard joints taped with mesh tend to crack when stressed. (Mesh tape does work with real plaster, which has different properties. It is also useful in patching holes and cracks that don’t come under stress.)

I learned about the problem with mesh tape and joint compound from Marty Cook, an executive at USG. Cook has been with the company since 1950 and knows almost everything there is to know about wallboard. He is someone to whom you can say, “Marty, let’s talk about type-W bugle-head wallboard screws for a while.” I did, and we talked about them for a while. We also talked about joint compound. There are a number of different kinds, including taping, topping, and all-purpose. Taping compound bonds powerfully and is best for embedding tape; topping compound is weaker but shrinks less and is easier to sand, and so is preferred for the final coat; all-purpose is a compromise between the two. “You can use taping for topping, but not topping for taping,” Cook said. Hardware stores usually carry all-purpose.

All-purpose joint compound is terrific stuff. I’ve used it to patch cracked plaster, to resurface an ugly ceiling, and to make little pretend animal cookies for my daughter. Joint compound isn’t as strong as plaster, but it’s a lot easier to handle. (You can toughen it up for patching, I’ve heard, by mixing in a little plaster of paris.) I have some friends who used joint compound to make a good imitation of an old textured-plaster wall. They just slopped it on bare wallboard and spread it around with plastering trowels. Another good thing about joint compound: if you buy it pre-mixed in the five-gallon size, you have a swell plastic bucket when you’re finished.

Mostly, Cook and I talked about wallboard. For as long as he’s been in the business, he said, the walls in expensive new houses have been the same as the walls in inexpensive ones: half-inch wallboard put up with nails. In recent years, though, builders have been clamoring for something fancier to use in expensive houses.

“This began to happen several years ago, at the National Association of Home Builders meeting in Dallas,” Cook said. “Builders were coming up to me and saying, ‘Thirty years ago we were building twenty-thousand-dollar houses and using half-inch nailed-on; now we’re building threehundred-thousand-dollar houses and we’re still using halfinch nailed-on. People are buying thirty-thousand-dollar bathrooms and fifty-thousand-dollar kitchens, and we’re still messing around with half-inch nailed-on!’ ” When Cook heard this, he said, “Hell, we had an answer to that thirty years ago, but you didn’t pay attention because you wouldn’t pay a nickel more for it!”

The answer thirty years ago was to install a double layer of wallboard. This is still a good technique; it’s what I did when I closed up the big hole I had made in my diningroom wall. The first layer, installed vertically, is glued to the framing with construction adhesive (Liquid Nails is one popular brand) and then nailed or screwed. The second layer, installed horizontally, is bonded to the first with blobs or beads of taping or all-purpose joint compound (other adhesives can be used, but joint compound costs least and works best). Nails or screws are used only along the edges of the panels, which are later taped. Doublelayer installation eliminates nail pops and can produce walls that are anywhere from three quarters of an inch to an inch and a quarter thick—the kind of walls you can really pound your fists on.

More recently USG has begun promoting two new techniques also aimed at the higher end of the housing market. In one, five-eighths-inch-thick Sheetrock panels are glued to the framing and screwed only along the edges. In the other new technique special wallboard-sized backing panels are glued and screwed, and then covered entirely with a very thin plaster veneer. USG says that veneer plaster is about 16 percent more expensive, on average, than traditional half-inch nailed-on. This could be good news or bad news, depending on what you think plaster is worth. Veneer plaster does have the advantage of being very fast: a house can be veneer-plastered in a single day and be ready for painting after two days.

OF COURSE, IT’S ALSO STILL POSSIBLE TO PUT UP genuine plaster walls. Nowadays the plaster is applied not to wood lath (which went out of use forty or fifty years ago) but to smallish Sheetrock-like panels known as gypsum lath. This is seldom done in houses, though. It’s expensive, and skilled plasterers are increasingly hard to Find. Historical restorations and buildings that get a lot of wear and tear, such as hospitals and schools, are among the few remaining outlets for plaster work.

Should we be sad that wallboard has eclipsed real plaster? I don’t think so. For one thing, many fewer people would be able to afford their own houses if we still did everything the old-fashioned way. For another thing, the old plaster walls that people rhapsodize about weren’t always so great. They cracked and crumbled and pulled away from their lath. People who own old houses are susceptible to a silly form of reverse snobbery in which ancient plaster is cherished because of its imperfections. Maybe nail pops will someday be exalted in the same way.

The problem with modern walls is less the materials than the spirit in which they’re used. In most new construction the walls aren’t given much thought. Architects and their clients worry more about where walls will be placed than about what they’ll be made of. Someone who really cares about well-made walls can still have them today. The double-layer Sheetrock patch in my dining room is more durable than the plaster it replaced.

My dining-room patch is also something more. It’s one of my own small contributions to an artistic effort that, with varying results, has been going on in my house for more than two hundred years. Many hands, one tradition. When I finished the job, I stood beside it proudly with a beer in my hand and a dopey look on my face. Then I started to look for something else to improve.