Unknown Unknowns–In Which My Anxiety Needs Its Own Walk-in Closet

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.

Just your mother doing a little home repair. No big.

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.


Picture Credits:

11 thoughts on “Unknown Unknowns–In Which My Anxiety Needs Its Own Walk-in Closet

  1. joyroses13 says:

    I love your wit! And would have enjoyed seeing the expression on the agent’s face when you said that about hiring a electrician 🙂 You go girl! Breathe and try to relax, knowing that in the end it will all be taken care of. The T’s will be crossed and the I’s will be dotted 🙂 and you may have just a few strands of gray in your hair! 🙂 OH, but hey you can forget the black curtains when Lilly is a teenager! Trust me, teens don’t get up before noon even with the light shining! LOL!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. amy ann says:

      ^^^ I was thinking the same thing about teenagers! Even my 12-year old doesn’t want to ever get up until she absolutely has to. I’m sure it sounds enticing now, but you’ll miss these days, too. 🙂


  2. amy ann says:

    Love. This. Literally laughed out loud when I read the bit about writing a poem about someone fixing the wiring… And I’m sitting in my office at work where I am surrounded by people but it is dead silent! Well, until now. 😉 Also, felt the strings of my heart being pulled by the word you shared for that feeling we can’t give name to. But that’s it. That’s totally it. Thank. You. For sharing. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Allie P. says:

    Funny – I was just explaining grounding to a colleague of mine yesterday. Imagine that your wires are a hose and that the electricity passing through those wires is water. Water goes in one end and out the other (the volume of water in the hose is voltage and the speed of flow is current, but to take the metaphor further would be a lesson for another day). Grounding is the same as pointing the water from the hose into the earth (there is literally a wire that connects your home’s wiring to the ground) so that the water doesn’t inadvertently splash you (or in the case of electricity – give you that extra jolt).

    Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Blathering says:

    When I started reading this I thought you were responding to the Chilcot Report, released last week, which has caused the speeches made around the time of the Iraq war to be plastered everywhere again.(Now I realise you wrote this 2 weeks before it was released). As someone who proudly wheeled my then-2-year-old in a pram at anti-war rallys back then, I feel somewhat vindicated, but it’s awful to learn that one known known at the time time was the advice by terrorism experts given to Tony Blair and other key leaders, that going to war in Iraq would inevitably lead to a future increase in terrorist attacks on western countries. Well that’s now known to be true.

    I hope you sort out the grounding and the wiring and the pipes….I’m sure it will all be worth it. We’ve had that kind of minor rewiring/grounding done, and at least for the cost you’ll feel a sense of reassurance about your safety. And as others have said, at least you can save on those dark curtains – even if a teenager gets up early, the last thing they are going to do is come in to wake their parents up. Unless it’s because they have an 8am basketball match an hour’s drive across the other side of town and you said you’d drive them and pick up all their team-mates on the way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      The house didn’t work out: It needed a $15,000 foundation repair, so we backed out. C’est la vie. In the meantime, as an American, can I just say I’m sorry for the whole War on Terror? As usual, our ignorance and hubris as a nation has inexcusably harmed others. I love my land, but rarely agree with the decisions of its leaders, and in the past have marched on Washington to make this apparent. Thank you, too, for your dissent.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Blathering says:

        Ah, I realise I need to catch up on your posts – if I had, I would have known that about the house! Glad you were able to back out; sorry though, for the inevitable disappointment that must have caused. On the issue of both our countries going to war in Iraq, we can both feel angry and disappointed.

        Liked by 1 person

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