Unknown Unknowns

Rarely do I see eye-to-eye with Donald Rumsfeld, but there is something he said once that resonates with me. In a press conference over the Iraq war, he said:

There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.

Now, this has been called an abuse of language, but to me it is a piece of great genius and wisdom. In my experience, especially my recent experience, it is the unknown unknowns that cause the problems. Those are the ones that will sneak up and chomp you on the ass.

Many of the unknown unknowns I have recently encountered have involved adventures. Like when Shanna and I followed Google’s directions to Bagby Hot Springs, only to find ourselves 10 miles up a logging road with no civilization in sight1. Or when Zack and I signed up for a “Moonlight Kayak Tour of Ross Island”, advertised as a no-experience required glide along the river, only to find ourselves locked into a five-mile slog, paddling desperately to keep up with the guide and our more experienced tour-mates.

The unknown unknown that I have been grappling with most recently is that of my kitchen floor. Thursday evening, as I was tidying up the kitchen in my new apartment, I decided to be extra thorough so as to be properly warm for my evening swim. I swept the floor, and pulled out the steam mop to take care of a stubborn sticky place or two. Things were going well until I got to the stubbornest sticky spot, which required longer than I expected to clean.

After a few seconds, I noticed something weird. The floor was actually getting stickier.

There must be some kind of dried-on film of dirt, I thought. So I continued mopping away.

Then, the film of dirt started to pill up, like a jersey-knit skirt that’s been worn a few too many times. This, I decided, was not normal floor behavior. So I switched off the mop and headed off to ask the Internet.

Unfortunately, the internet held no wisdom for me, beyond a thorough scolding for using a steam mop on a wood floor. Since it was too late to undo that part, I returned to more closely inspect the floor. Maybe I could just widen the area I was mopping and everything would be fine.

Upon lifting the mop, however, I met with another unpleasant surprise. The area under the mop had turned a ghostly white. I touched it, and it separated from the floor. It, and the surrounding area, peeled off the floor like dried glue on the hand of a fourth grader, like a bad sunburn.

I didn’t know what to do, so naturally I kept peeling the whatever-it-is off my floor, hoping that I could just remove it from the whole floor and everything would be dandy. After all, the wood underneath the plastic-y film looked just fine! Soon, though, as the difficulty in peeling an entire floor became apparent, I returned to asking the Internet, terrified that I had already damaged this apartment after only three weeks of residence.

The internet’s best guess seemed to be that this was an acrylic floor wax, but I lacked ammonia to test this hypothesis for sure. So Friday afternoon I gathered up a few peels of floor skin and made a pilgrimage to Home Depot. Surely, someone there could solve my mystery. Surely, someone could identify this substance and tell me how to remove it safely.

No such luck. I had hoped to live a long time without stumping my local home improvement folks, but alas, that dream was shattered. The gentleman in flooring had no idea what it was, or why anyone would apply it to their floor. His best guest–my worst nightmare in this scenario–was that I had actually melted the top layer off of a laminate floor. He gave me samples of both laminate and hardwood flooring, and instructed me to go home and check.

At home again, I compared the edge of the flooring to the samples, determining–to my great relief–that I did not have a laminate floor. (This determination was made after spending at least half an hour on my belly in the kitchen, searching for repeating patterns in the woodgrain, like a madwoman or a particularly blessed individual from the later books in the Ender’s Game series). Further, the floor in the hall, made of the same wood, was not coated in the… whatever it is. Unfortunately, I forgot to buy ammonia, so I still have not conclusively determined the provenance of the weird floor skin. Doubly unfortunate, the building’s annual maintenance inspections happen tomorrow, so I may be putting down a throw rug over the section of my kitchen that looks like a computer scientist’s back a week after a trip to the Bahamas.

At least, however, my unknown unknown is now a known unknown. Known unknowns are much less troublesome. You can ask questions about them. You can find people who have more information who may be able to help you. You can read and search and maybe–hopefully–make your known unknowns a known known.

As for the unknown unknowns–I guess the only antidote to those is experience. Hopefully other people’s experience, but, failing that, your own. Well, good time or good story, right?

[1]Other unknown unknowns about Bagby that made our trip there more on the good story side of the good time/good story continuum: the hot springs is a 1.5 mile hike from the parking lot; you have to carry 5 gallon buckets of cold water across the slippery decks to mix with the hot springs water in order to not boil yourself alive; and the corks that hold water in the tubs often leak, so after you’ve hiked a mile and a half through the rain and schlepped 30 gallons of cold water into your tub, you may be stuck in a tub that will only fill to your ankles.

Unknown Unknowns

2 thoughts on “Unknown Unknowns

  1. Shanna says:

    Another unknown unknown : the discount gummies at the ranger station are approximately 700 years old-hence, the discount.

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