Dear Lily June,
Once upon a time, when your mother was just a junior in high school, our country’s Secretary of Defense at the time, Donald Rumsfeld, got himself into a lot of hot water with the comments he made to justify the spurious link between America’s attacks on parts of the Middle East and the presence of weapons of mass destruction in those regions. (This all happened after a terrorist attack we dubbed ‘9/11,’ something I’ll inevitably end up talking with you about quite a bit).
To be precise, this is the clever twist of language he employed:
In case that video didn’t work, those words again, were as follows:
“…[A]s we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. …[I]t is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.” ~Donald Rumsfeld, February 12, 2002
Attacking another country based on unknown unknowns? Hugely problematic, at best. Possibly unconscionable at worst. Buying a home based on unknown unknowns? Almost entirely impossible to avoid.
The Known Unknowns of Buying our House
Last night, we sat at a conference table across from our real estate agent going through the 93-page inspector’s report and discussing all the issues with the home. Because we know that we don’t know how to repair any of the major systems ourselves, we wanted to find out how to negotiate these items with the seller, asking them either to take some money off the final price or to repair the things we know enough to know need fixed.
For instance, the wiring. The home, because it was built before 1959, doesn’t have grounded outlets (amongst other issues, like using the wrong sized breakers). Until I read this explanation, I knew I didn’t know what grounding did. I still know that I don’t know how to fix this on my own without becoming the Bride of Frankenstein at best and a charcoal briquette at worst.
I know this means we need to have some electrical work done to the home, but our real estate agent (who, through a turn we probably never should have taken, also represents the Seller) was trying to convince us that, after watching a couple of YouTube videos, we could probably rewire the home ourselves.
Lily June, your parents are present and former English teachers (your dad and mom respectively). We are educated just enough to be entirely useless in the real world. So I was dead serious when I leaned across the table to inform our agent that
“If you want someone to write a poem about rewiring a house, we’re your guys. If we want the home safely rewired, we’re hiring an electrician, someone whose skill level goes beyond Sonnet.”
She kind of combo laugh-sighed,and added it to the ever-mounting list of things we want to ask the Seller for. There is no telling how the Seller will react to our requests. It’s an known unknown.
The Unknown Unknowns of Buying Our House
We had an electrician quote us an estimate. At best, it’ll be $1850 to just squeak the home up to code, grounding the outlets we need for major appliances, replacing the ungrounded outlets with two-prong covers (instead of the deceptive three-prongs the Seller used), changing out the breakers, putting in GFCI outlets in the bathroom so we don’t die by dryer in the sink, hard-wiring smoke detectors throughout the home and so on and so forth. And that’s the cheap estimate. The costlier estimate would be upwards of $10,000 to rewire the entire home so that all the outlets are grounded. Our real estate agent ensured us with a look alone that we had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting the Seller to take that option.
So there’s the known unknown. There are still a terrifying number of unknown unknowns. Our roof in the attic has holes in the decking and weak rafters–ugly or fatal? Our foundation has leaning masonry blocks underneath–ugly or fatal? And, if either are potentially fatal, will the cost to fix these issues (and so many, many more, Lily) be reasonable or astronomical? Today, a plumber will go in to camera snake our pipes to determine if there are major root structures gumming up the works. Even though we know we don’t know these things, we don’t know enough to know what we don’t know about what we don’t know about. Does that make sense?
When you know you don’t know something, you can ask about it, research. When you don’t know you don’t know, you can’t even expect that It’s coming. If, for instance, it’s a possibility that the pipes can grow tiny goblins that could stab us with tooth-pick sized tridents in the Achilles heels, that something I didn’t even know that I didn’t know. I’m hoping the camera snake doesn’t reveal such a thing. But at the cost we’re paying to get the pipes looked at, I’ll almost be disappointed if the scope doesn’t reveal at least another known unknown. And then, we can see if the seller tries to tell us up which pipe we can stick our list of repair requests.
The unknown unknowns make me feel like this made up word, part of a list of 40 words coined for emotions you’ve felt, but couldn’t explain, imagined by writer John Koenig:
“Pâro–[noun] the feeling that no matter what you do is always somehow wrong—that any attempt to make your way comfortably through the world will only end up crossing some invisible taboo—as if there’s some obvious way forward that everybody else can see but you, each of them leaning back in their chair and calling out helpfully, colder, colder, colder.”
The Known Knowns
Of course, for as much as I complain, there are some known knowns. For instance, I know that, above your dad’s side of the bed will hang the picture that you got/made for him for Father’s Day this year. (Part of it is a print I helped you buy, if you scroll down to the one called King Size Bed from this artist, who may as well have been painting you and your dad, so uncanny is the resemblance. Not to be outdone, though, you also added your own painted handprint to the frame, in orange paint, your daddy’s favorite color.)
I know that, come Thanksgiving, your dad and I will be using the home’s double-oven (Hello, Brady Bunch kitchen) to cook some family members a loving meal, though the guest list at this point is still a known unknown. I know that we’ll finally have room for a table to sit at, which will hopefully mean less coffee and sauce stains on the floor, and more ability to break bread together instead of in front of our separate screens.
I know that the sun rises on your bedroom’s side of the home and sets on ours, so when you’re younger, you’ll probably toddle across the hall and into our bed to wake us up. I know that, when you’re a teenager, I’m going to buy you black curtains to keep you from waking up and toddling across the hall and into our bed to still (quelle horreur!) wake us up.
I know that someday, I want to buy your dad a recliner to replace the one that broke in our apartment when you were just a newborn, a chair he can lean back in and read poetry on, maybe aloud to us as family as we sit in the office den, lovingly ignoring him. 🙂 I know that that office will give us a place to put our collection of books, maybe no Beauty & the Beast style library wing, but something impressive to our hearts nonetheless.
I know, Lily, in all ways big and small, we’ll make the house–a collection of wood and brick and glass and plaster–into a home, framed in memory & insulated with love. Here’s hoping those items are enough to keep us warm by the time we’re living there for our first winter. If not, we’ll always have the appliance fires caused the ungrounded outlets to warm us, which we’ll be able to put out promptly once the pipes burst.
- By Jamain, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15114047
- Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1651341