This is a story of abject failure that may depress you during the glad tidings of the holidays. I know it depresses me, but I’m forging ahead anyway.

screw holes 1219

My dad was a handy do-it-yourselfer from the word “go.” He maintained his own vehicles. He maintained other people’s vehicles. He repaired household items. He put a fence around our backyard. When we added a room onto the house, he and his friends did most of the work. One winter he converted the backyard into an ice-skating rink. He grew up on a dairy farm and put all that self-reliance can-do-ism to work his entire life, even though his blue-collar family was rather ashamed of his chosen vocation of college professor.

Well, this little apple fell far, far away from that tree. Catapulted clear out of sight of the entire orchard, apparently. And while my dad certainly wouldn’t have taken exception to any of my career choices, he might be saddened that I can’t screw a simple curtain rod into a wall.

I thought I could do that much. Can’t anyone?

Once upon a time I was semi-competent at skills learned at my father’s knee. I could — and did — gap a set of points in a car engine using a matchbook cover. I built a bench for my grandparents in junior high crafts class that held up for several years. I can take apart a U-joint under the sink to extract things like potato peels. After my dad died, I made sure Terri knew how to change a flat tire, which came in handy one year as she was coming home from college. When I couldn’t find the leaf for the table I’m typing on right now, I made one out of plywood.

But yesterday I was defeated by a stupid curtain rod.

At one point very early in our house-building process, when Dusty’s crew members were coming but mostly going and he was having trouble finding people, I gave small — very small, mind you — thought to giving it a try. I never ran this thought past him, nor the more sensible one that I could help him with his bookwork, which these days far more suits my skill sets. So I shoveled off our snowy foundation a couple of times, and Lynn did some of the painting, and that was it for sweat equity in our new house.

But then our contractor, whose reputation was that he stayed on-budget, ran way over. I’m sure he will blame us, but there’s the part where I kept asking for a budget-to-actual and instead got firm assurances that we were “doing okay.” So we authorized projects, like the deck and the deck railing, that had been on our down-the-road-if-necessary list, based on his assurance that we were on budget.

Until the day we weren’t. We are now way, way above the $175 per square foot he quoted us as his high end, and the bills just seem to grow ever higher. To fabricate and install a seven-foot counter, using materials we’d already paid for, plus put the finally-undented microwave over the stove, apparently required 15 hours and cost $1,500, according to the bill that arrived yesterday. With no promised discount for the previous hour that was 20 minutes that he charged us to look at Lynn’s shower and tell her it was just going to leak.

Am I sounding bitter?

Prior to this bill, I had already decided I need to take up the banner of self-reliance, in the time-honored tradition of my forebears, those stalwart New England dairy farmers descended from Pilgrims. But that’s not going so well, and it’s mostly making me feel incompetent.

It all started with a toilet, years ago. My mother and Lynn’s mother both assured us that swapping out a toilet was an extremely easy task. But it turns out, mothers lie. This toilet, downstairs in the Irwin house, might have been the toilet to end all toilets. It was mounted on some iron flange, and even after we admitted defeat and called in the cavalry in the form of Jim Barry, another do-it-yourself farm boy, it took all three of us three days and required the removal of parts of the floor . . . I decided right then to leave home maintenance to the professionals.

I had been sliding in that direction for years anyway. As engines got more complicated it was just easier to take the cars to mechanics. I stopped going after my own firewood, then I stopped splitting it. Then Lynn opted out of wood-burning devices altogether. A neighborhood boy showed up one day offering to mow my lawn, and I haven’t done that since, even though that first boy is long gone and probably has grandkids by now. And if I needed something built, even with a garage full of tools and scrap lumber, I called people like Jim Barry. Or Dusty.

I thought I could manage curtains on my own. After all, I just did this in my room, and the rods are still up, still holding curtains. But since then, all Lynn and I have done is put huge holes in our brand-new walls.

I will say, I’m quite sure I screwed into wood when hanging the curtains in my room, while every hole since has just gone into empty drywall. I apparently didn’t study our framing well enough, but I thought window openings all came with extra framing around them. But that’s certainly not true on our east wall, and we have lots of holes to prove it.

The curtain rod hardware does include plastic expanders for “non-wood” walls, but I failed abjectly there as well. I can’t get the screw to fit into the expander, and more important, I can’t get the expander to fit through the bracket hole, never mind getting it into the wall.

I gave up, and then Lynn tried. And gave up. Yesterday afternoon, before the latest bill arrived, I figured we’d just wait for however many more weeks we’ll be required to wait for the remainder of my bathroom vanity to arrive and have Dusty or Sam just put up curtain rods while they are here. Now this sounds like a $150 proposition at least, since I’m sure that this five-minute activity will be billed at an hour, minimum.

Once upon a time, after Dusty put new windows in our old house, I went for months without curtains, taping black plastic to the wall instead. (Eventually I installed curtain rods myself without any problem, and they were up until we left this summer.) Maybe that can be a new look here. Duct tape I know how to use.

I say that, but once upon a time I thought I knew how to put a simple screw into a wall as well. My dad would not be impressed.


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