Roof cement may be the most satisfying artistic medium in which I've ever worked.

It comes in big, tarry gobs that you dig out of a five-gallon pail with a little plastic tool, wood shim, trowel, or even -- what the heck! -- your bare nekked hands. The instructions contain two of my favorite words:

"Apply Generously."

You smear the stuff on, thick. Rain or shine -- doesn't matter -- and Lo, your disintegrating shingles are instantly sealed tight. No moisture will intrude. Best of all, a five-gallon pail of this magnificent gunk costs about $12.

Afterward, you may want to take a bath in paint thinner and put your torn, tarred blue jeans up for sale on eBay.

Recently wrapping up a vacation in my little cottage here on the St. Lawrence River in the North Country of Upstate New York, I stood back and surveyed my handiwork. There -- under intense blue skies, surrounded by sun-splashed forest greens -- a glorious, gleaming pastiche of veiny black seams drifted across gray seas of crumbling asphalt atop my cabin.

Folk art.

After I'd bought the place 20 years ago, I remember standing in roughly the same spot with a local contractor, looking up at that roof and being told what was painfully obvious -- it needed to be reshingled right then and there. It was in bad shape. The contractor gave an estimate.

I thought about that estimate and, as I did so, years passed. In fact, decades passed. I began to realize that, while the roof looked more dilapidated when I returned each summer, it was still intact, tenaciously holding out against the ferocious northern winters.

Never did get it replaced.

Arriving at the cottage this year, however, the roof caught my attention right away. On the south side, exposed to the sun, some of the old shingles had detached and were sliding down the roof onto the lawn.

Not good.

I pulled a couple of old ladders out of the garage -- including one fitted with stoppers on the end so it could be laid on the shingles to help you scoot up safely -- and had a closer look-see.

If you can spot problems from the ground, I soon realized, they're bound to be startlingly worse seen up close. I was looking at a fair amount of bare wood, some of it soft and rotted.

A new roof would cost plenty, and I'd just laid out a small fortune to replace the septic system. In addition, the place needs painting. Sometimes it's just one damn thing after another, but I decided to adopt a positive attitude and enjoy the situation.

After all, life -- like the old roof -- ain't going to last long, so why not have some fun with it?

I quizzed a couple of old pals about roof cement. "I hate the stuff with a passion," Paul S. Richards, a local contractor, told me. "All the contractors around here call it bear poop, because that's exactly what it looks like.

"I remember when I was a young kid, roofing with my father. He'd put that bear poop all around the chimney, he'd try to use that to retain the old flashing. Sometimes it'll hold it, too. That's the thing with bear poop."

So what's not to like?

Paul chuckled. "It's incredibly messy. When I was young we didn't have a lot of money and I only had two pairs of jeans. I'd go to work with that stuff and ruin one pair. I tried wearing gloves, only to get the gloves filled up with bear poop.

"I can remember one time working with my brother, it was late and we were cleaning up. I came down off the ladder and left a big bucket of it at the bottom and he came down and stepped right in it!"

James J. Spilman, who with his brother Steve ran Morristown Fuel and Supply for 40 years before his recent retirement, told me roof cement is indeed a time-honored "stopgap" solution. "Chances are it'll stop the leaks for a year.

"It's a great product, because it can be used for so many different things," Jim added.

Apparently it's used in liquid form to coat old roofs completely. In a different consistency, it's applied to the foundations of new houses to keep water out. Then there's a version with aluminum pigments to "give you the aluminum look, which also reflects heat better. A lot of mobile homes have that on top."

Jim said that next year, when I'm looking for a more permanent solution, I should consider one of these new metal roofs that seem to be all the rage around here now. They're more expensive than shingles, but very handsome and can be installed right on top of any old roofing.

"It'll last the rest of your life and longer," Jim promised cheerfully. "All you'll ever have to do is look at it."

It was a tough job up there with that roof cement, but I loved every filthy minute of it. I had ropes tied to cedar trees in the yard so I could hang onto them and not fall off the roof and die.

Istretched out the job, day after day, trying to plug every little seam where water could get under the shingles. "Think like a raindrop," I began telling myself, realizing as I said this that maybe the vacation was kicking in and I was actually getting real good and relaxed. You couldn't offer that kind of advice to anyone in Washington, even privately, without people thinking you were nuttier than a fruitcake.

There were wasps flying around up there and we had several confrontations until I finally gave up and waited for cloudy weather, when they seemed to stay in their nests.

Every day I bathed in paint thinner after work. It made my fingernails hurt because I'd been biting them while reading all those Raymond Chandler and Hammond Innes books I've got stashed away in the cottage.

It was a great vacation.

Chandler may have lived, as he once said, for syntax. Me, I live for roof cement.