Much to my continued surprise, I find myself a New Yorker.  And by that, I don’t merely mean that I happen at this moment to live in New York.  I mean that I hate to drive.  That I’m overwhelmed by big box stores.  When I go to Times Square, I no longer marvel at its majesty, but instead complain about the tourists who block my route from the subway to the theater by staring up in the sky and posing for pictures with the Naked Cowboy.

But I’ve come to realize that there’s one part of me that’s still from the rest of the country.  New Yorkers, more than any other people I know, hire people to do their work.  They have housekeepers, doormen, handymen, personal trainers, personal shoppers, and dogwalkers. They send out their laundry.  And they have everything under the sun delivered.

Apparently I haven’t quite made that leap.  This week, I shocked my NYC friends by painting the wall of our apartment all by my lonesome.  Here’s the proof:


And next week I just might slap up some wallpaper.

Now, this DIY stuff is nothing new to me.  Back when my sewing machine still worked, I sewed my own clothes. And when I bought my first house on a baby DA’s salary, I spent every weekend at Home Depot.  By the time I sold that house three years later, I had tiled a hearth, lineoleumed a laundry room, laid down a wood plank floor, painted thousands of square feet of walls, replaced two faucets, and even built a cedar fence.  Consider me handy.

And in many ways, my recent painting adventure was typical of my do-it-yourself tendencies.  I do my own taxes.  I made my own video trailer for my new book, 212.  I navigate my way through the lay-out for the (admittedly imperfect) newsletter I send to my mailing list. And today, I’ve tinkered once again, creating a mystery thank-you gift to send to online friends who pre-order 212.   (Details below, online friends.)

But if you ask my husband, I’m no DIY-er.  He teases me that if we had enough money, I’d hire a butler to cater to my every whim.  Why would he tease me that way?  Because despite lingering self-reliance, in some ways, I have begun to adjust to the New York way.  My dog, the Duffer, has both a dogwalker and a daycare center.  I’ve been known to have wine, groceries, and even a small container of chicken soup from the downstairs-deli delivered.  If it were up to me, we’d send out our laundry instead of dealing with the apartment complex laundry room.  And, I’m ashamed to say it, I once paid a woman to clean out my closet.

So what’s the deal? Why do I happily entrust some aspects of my life to others while I pride myself on handling the rest on my own?  Am I hopelessly conflicted and inconsistent, or is there some method to my madness?

I tried to hire someone to figure it out for me, but couldn’t find anyone on Craig’s List (kidding, of course).  The most noble explanation is that I recognize which tasks I’m either really bad at or simply hate to do.  I’m bad at throwing out old clothes from my cluttered closet, but I’m good at taxes.  I hate folding laundry, but creating my home-made book trailer was pretty damn fun.

Or maybe it’s about bragging rights.  You can bet that I told every person who visited my Portland house that I built that (semi-crooked) fence myself.  And if I do take on that wallpaper job, I’m sure I’ll point to every bubble and wrinkle like a gold medal.  But there’s no glory to be gained in doing laundry or preventing your closet from ending up on the next episode of Hoarders.

Or, you know, maybe I’m just random and incoherent about these things.  I’d love to hear from others on this.  What sorts of things, both in your work and home life, do you do yourself, and when would you prefer to hire out? 

P.S. As I mentioned, my most recent tinkering was on a special mystery thank-you gift for online friends who pre-order my new book, 212.  For every hardback copy of 212 purchased by March 22, I will send a mystery gift to thank you for supporting my work.  See details here.  (And, yep, I did the html myself so forgive the imperfections.)

24 thoughts on “Do-It-Yourself-ing

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alafair

    Loved this. My husband, Andy, and I are both writers, which should make us arty and impractical, but we self-built our own house in windswept field 1000ft up the side of a Cumbrian fell. And when I say self-built, I *mean* self-built – tiling, flooring, underfloor heating, bathroom installation, kitchen installation, plumbing, internal joinery, drywall, lighting, electrics, walling, landscaping, slate roofing, etc.

    When I bought my first car, an elderly Triumph Spitfire, I learned to weld, and did my own bare-metal respray. In a weekend. My second date with Andy was spent changing the universal joints in the rear axle <sigh>.

    But I’m a huge believer in best use of skills. I know we can do some jobs better than a professional, because we take a bit more time and care over it. But other stuff, I’m straight on the phone. I’ve tried plastering and I’m hopeless. Plastering ceilings is a black art. Therefore, sometimes I know it’s far better to spend the time working to earn the money to pay someone else to do the work for me.

    Oh, and the best tool for wallpapering is a credit card. And no, I don’t mean using it to pay a decorator. It’s just flexible enough to flatten out those bubbles and press down the joins without damaging the wallpaper. The rounded corners are perfect for putting a neat silicone bead around the edge of a bath, too!

  2. Eika

    I was born and raised under the knowledge that it has to be done, and we should do it ourselves because it’s ours. Course, now that I’m older I realize we just didn’t have the money to have it done professionally half the time, but still.

    I know how to make a sturdy step for outdoors. I figured out how to make my own t-shirt (though next time, I’ll make the armholes bigger, so it’s easier to move my shoulders) and figured out how to make a braided rug from an on-line guide. I helped paint the living room, kitchen, and outside of the house; I held planks steady for the saw and got on the ladder to hold them steady when we had to replace the overhang just under the roof; I was made to help mix the groute when mom fixed the floor in the basement (and that stuff is just nasty).

    But, I’m glad I know all this. I’m glad Mom’s been growing enough tomatoes that she manages to can enough spaghetti sauce for a full winter (and many, many other vegetables) and that Dad’ll teach me how to clean a fish at some point, if I ask.

    I don’t believe in 2012, but with so much o the world going downhill anyway, why not be prepared?

  3. Karen in Ohio

    Actually, Elka, the closer to the armpit the armhole comes, the easier it is to move your arms. And yes, I have sewn a LOT of my own clothing, and used to teach sewing, in fact.

    Thanks for the picture of the Naked Cowboy, Alafair. He’s a local boy. Can you imagine, making a name for yourself by wandering around in your underpants, cowboy hat and boots, playing a guitar? It makes me thankful that all three of my kids are doing something useful.

    It’s good to have mad skillz, and to use them. Self-reliance is a wonderful thing.

  4. Jake Nantz

    Man, if we could afford it, I’d hire out for cleaning. I hate cleaning. Other than that, I kinda enjoy the DIY thing most of the time. Some days, though, it’d be nice to have the whole grapes-and-palm-fronds thing going….

  5. Alafair Burke

    Eika and Zoe, You sound damn handy, I tell you! I always feel weird telling stories about my parents since many of you actually know them, but my parents are, well, not handy. They actually hired someone to come over and screw hooks in the closet for their robes. When I was younger, though, they didn’t actually have any money to hire anyone, which meant that if something broke, it just stayed that way. I think that explains why my first instinct is to do it myself.

  6. Louise Ure

    Very funny post, Alafair. I’m happy to hire folks to do just about anything, as long as they can do it better than I can. Cutting my hair used to be in that category. No more. I’m hell on wheels with those scissors even without a mirror.

  7. Cornelia Read

    Alafair, that wall looks incredible. I’ve done a ton of painting myself, and every time I do it I swear "never again." But then I decide the living room needs five coats of red paint. Okay, this was two houses ago–but I did finish the final coat at 4 a.m. Thanksgiving morning when we were expecting 17 people for turkey. Oh, and five of them were from Kenya, so I also made six Kenyan dishes as sides. Sadly, they asked me what they were, so I guess Google is not exactly great for African recipes.

  8. Karen in Ohio

    It’s much more difficult to paint a dark wall than it is a light one. Good job!

    And Elka, you’re very welcome. We who still sew need to stick together. There are way too few of us these days.

  9. Rob Gregory Browne

    Alafair, can I get you to come to my house and do some work? I have a bathroom that needs new flooring and shower tile, a roof that needs to be replaced, and kitchen that is begging to be remodeled, and a carpet that needs to be ripped out and sent to the dump.

    What are your rates?

  10. Alafair Burke

    It dawns on me there may be another factor at work in my DIY decisions. Is it any coincidence that I chose to paint a wall just as I’m starting a new book and am not quite sure where I’m heading?

  11. pari noskin taichert

    Yep, Jake, I’d hire someone to clean if I could.

    And I don’t like big yard work — the getting rid of leaves and bagging pine needles — but I ADORE gardening and growing my own food. Also like weeding; it’s very therapeutic.

  12. kit

    hmmm..why am I a DYI-er…1).it’s an outside expression of the totall inner beauty within me.
    2) lack of money
    3) it’s soooo boring being independently wealthy, everyone needs a
    hobby or two or thirty. same reason I work…
    4) lack of money
    5) I dream of reaching my full potential as a self -actualized human being.
    6) oh, and did I mention lack of money to hire it done?

    But even I have to admit I can totally blow my own hair back that something actually turns out like I intended it to, or works, or is recognizable.
    With my first garden…i went out to pick some veggies for supper, I was so darn proud of them, that when the neighbors came over to visit…I shared to the point, I had to open a can of veggies for our evening meal, had given them all away.

  13. CarlC

    Alafair – Take it from the voice of experience–if you go ahead with the wallpaper project, do NOT have Sean working with you. Over 30 years ago my wife and I wallpapered just one 20 foot wall in our home in Virginia, and it was one of the low points in our now 45 years of marriage. If you need help, find someone who will take orders from you and to whom you are not emotionally attached.

  14. Alafair Burke

    Kit, It dawned on me as I was finalizing my post that money of course has a LOT to do with my choices. The cost of delivering chicken soup from downstairs is the generous tip for which the deliveryman thanks me. The estimate I received today to paper one freakin’ wall of my apartment was 700 dollars!

    Carl, Thanks for the advice. I have learned not to expect Sean to help me with my DIY ways. He took a golf lesson while I painted. I have a girlfriend who says she’ll help with the wallpaper, but I’m not looking forward to it. Anyone know a wallpaper pro in NYC who works for free books and beer?

  15. kit

    it may start out as a lack of funds..but sometimes you can just do a better job because you are vested in the project.
    I did wonder if you call it *research*, would you then be able to claim it as a tax deduction? 😉

  16. Alafair Burke

    Kit, But then I’d have to write about characters wallpapering! Okay, actually, that might be funny.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *