Within six months, I had emptied my cash reserves and credit line on a resurfaced roof, a repointed garage, and refinished floors. As funds depleted, genetics kicked in. I'm Midwestern on one side and Southern rural on the other, which is to say, I've got "can do" tattooed on my DNA. A friend, in fact, once declared that the world divided into two kinds of people: the troublemaking Mary Queen of Scots types and the practical Elizabeth the Firsts. I stood solidly among the latter, he pronounced. And so, somewhat naturally, I began to suit up and show up.

I still tithed generously to skilled tradesmen, but increasingly, I took on the upkeep of my home as a sport, a hobby. Which jobs could I do? How hard could this or that project really be?

In sweatpants and close-toed shoes, I apprenticed myself to the painter, so that I could do her scraping and spackling. Under her Jacqueline-of-all-trades supervision, I also replaced the O-ring on my kitchen's leaky faucet, which, even 12 years later, fills me with pride when I think of it. I spread 11 tons of gravel in the yard so that actual masons could come in and lay a salvaged-bluestone patio, and after inhaling clouds of lint, I managed to replace the belt on the dryer.

On my own, I redid the floor of my guest bath, covering a decrepit wood floor with one-foot square sheets of hexagonal white tiles that I laid and grouted. The renovation gods must have been in a generous mood that day, because even though I overlooked a little step called "leveling the floor," the surface has held up for years, none of the tiles cracking under the weight of foot traffic.


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