We're remodeling our basement.
This news, while objectively fascinating, may also come as a surprise to certain people. I’m thinking particularly about those people who’ve heard me say -- on several different occasions -- that “I will never remodel my fucking basement.”
And I did say that. But in fairness, I said it a few years ago, back when we were still in the salad days of our new Wisconsin life. It was a different time back then. A time before I had forced myself to stop saying the F-word in public, or at least in front of preschool teachers. A time before I realized that some people call Panera Bread a “restaurant.” A time when I still believed I might enjoy gardening. And would occasionally walk to the grocery store. This was pure folly, of course, because where we live in Wisconsin, walking requires athletic clothing. If you walk down a suburban street in regular clothes, you will probably be mistaken for a streetwalker. And if you kiss someone on the cheek, in the course of saying hello, people will think you belong to some kind of retro-Parisian gay artist cult.
Back in the salad days, the basement wasn’t even on my radar for fixing because back then, we had too much other shit to fix first.
Before you move out of an apartment, and into larger suburban home, you can’t possibly fathom how much house shit needs to be fixed. That is an unfortunate blind spot because relative to your old apartment, your new house is actually the size of an entire apartment building. Unlike apartment buildings, though, suburban houses don’t come with an immigrant who lives downstairs and gets paid a modest salary --and a lot of sizeable cash tips -- to fix shit.
And mark my words: Houses never don’t have shit to fix. The minute you purchase your suburban apartment building, you will absolutely have to turn around and pay even more money to a bunch of other people, including but not limited to the leaky window guy, the leaky toilet guy, the leaky roof guy. Constantly getting shit fixed may not be how you envisioned homeownership. That is because you were single-mindedly focused on how much you'd love your favorite new hobby, gardening. And all the exciting new couches you’d get to buy, now that you had more than one room to fill with furniture. But the fact is, fixing all of these things -- leaky roofs, leaky toilets, and your disgusting potty mouth -- takes priority over fixing up your ratty old basement.
Over time, though, after we’d plugged all the other leaks, I got to thinking about the basement. Our basement objectively sucked. It flooded on a monthly basis. It smelled like a morgue, and probably unofficially was. One of our cats was in the habit of chewing on the exposed insulation, which probably wasn’t good for either of them. And personally, I got tired of turning my ankle whenever I pushed open the basement door carrying arms full of groceries, and stepped on my kids' shoes, which had been “put away” in the doorway.
And then – as if I’d finally been awaken from a good dream -- I remembered what living in Wisconsin was really like. I mean, really like. Not just in the summer, or that one month after the summer that people call autumn. And that's when I said to myself: If this is what our lives are going to be like for the next 15 years – or until one of us finally accepts that Wisconsin is not, in fact, a state that people move to – we should just go ahead and remodel the basement.
And here are my top 3 reasons.
1. There Are Wisconsin Mole People. And Resistance is Futile.
If you lived in New York in the ‘90s, you surely came across the term, Mole People. Mole People are a subculture of regular homeless people who live – on a more full-time basis than regular homeless people -- in the subway tunnels. According to a writer named Jennifer Toth -- who wrote an entire book in the ‘90s about the Mole People – the Mole People live so full time in the tunnels that they actually developed a primitive yet elaborate subterranean civilization.
Full disclosure: I never read that book. I didn’t think I needed to because I had already read about it in the newspaper. And eventually, I figured, I would meet the Mole People myself, in mole person. This would happen one day when my train got stuck inside a tunnel -- for several days, if not weeks -- and I was forced to barter my apartment keys, rubber hair bands, notebook paper, and other precious natural resources for foraged scraps of food.
Well, that never happened. But the book was widely discredited, anyway. According to experts who study things like subterranean bartering civilizations, the author of the Mole People book made it up. As it turned out, her argument about the Mole People's civilization was based on a whole bunch of evidence which – ironically enough, like the Mole People themselves -- never actually surfaced.
What people may not realize is that Mole People exist in other cities and locales, as well. Homeless drug addicts in Las Vegas, for example, live in the sewer system in order to escape the extreme temperatures. And that is objectively sad. But understandable, because if you think about it, Las Vegas is in the middle of a desert. Its natural habitat is virtually uninhabitable by anyone other than lizards, and certain western species of cactus. If you don’t believe me, just ask the other drug addicts, who never sees the light of day in Las Vegas, because they’re playing blackjack all day in excessively air-conditioned casinos.
And then there are the subterranean primitives who dwell underneath the silty topsoil of the Upper Midwest. Midwestern Mole People are a lot like their Las Vegas counterparts, in the sense that they also take refuge underground to escape the extreme weather. They are also like their New York brethren, in the sense that they often have some form of mental illness. Sometimes this is a genetic condition but more often, they are simply made crazy by an extreme deficiency of vitamin D and a prolonged lack of fresh air. Either way, the illness is often so severe that – from early November to late May, when winter finally winds down -- residents resort to hiding themselves away in elaborate subterranean environments, known colloquially here as basements. Or when the rest of the family is upstairs and dad is down there doing God knows what in the basement alone: man caves.
Unlike their New York and Las Vegas counterparts, Wisconsin Mole People do not live in dirty subway tunnels or stinky sewer systems. To the contrary, in fact, their subterranean societies are the opposite of primitive. They are floored with luxury vinyl, sided with luxury faux-wood paneling, and stuffed to the gills with television sets. They have video game consoles, dart boards, stereo systems, and – if they renovated their basement in 1986 -- air hockey tables. They have second refrigerators that are bigger than their first refrigerators, and are perpetually stocked with spreadable cheese. They have coolers filled with beer, which they keep right beneath their mounted deer antlers, and custom-built mini bars filled with hard liquor.
The Wisconsin Mole People don’t eat garbage. But if they had to barter some, in exchange for a beer, they would gladly do it.
More than their urban counterparts, Wisconsin Mole People may suffer from an high rate of drug addiction. Except that they don’t call it suffering. Or addiction. You know how people in England drink so much tea all day -- like it’s water -- that you sometimes wonder why they don’t just shrivel up from dehydration? That’s how people in Wisconsin drink beer. Whether it’s technically still “the morning,” or they’re technically out “driving” in the car. On a recent trip home from the north woods, we passed a guy who’d been pulled over for a sobriety test. He was failing it, visibly and miserably. It was 9 am. In Wisconsin, when men get drunk and become verbally abusive at a hockey game, it’s just called a hockey game. In other states– and with the possible exception of Massachusetts – they call that alcoholism. But never mind that. Because the fact is, a basement full of sports channels and video games is a perfectly safe place for depressed abusers of alcohol to go and pickle themselves for the long winter ahead.
Even if you don’t have a family member who drinks to the point of verbal abuse, you need a subterranean cave to keep up with the Joneses. Or at least, to hide away like the Joneses for most of the winter. My first few winters here, I made a valiant effort to stay mostly above ground. I quaintly read books by lamplight and mulled my wine, hoping that a neighbor might stop by on their way home from a snowshoeing adventure. I killed time by obsessively reading the status updates of friends and family members who’d wisely left town on vacation.
But after a while, I noticed that none of my neighbors were actually stopping by. In fact, nobody was walking outside at all -- not even the neighborhood streetwalker. I spent every one of those long, 4-hour winter days looking out the window at the post-apocalyptic snow desert outside. The only people I could see for miles and miles appeared to have bodies made of balls, eyes made of sticks, and noses made of carrots. At 11 o’clock in the morning, in the faint light of the rising sun, I almost mistook them for snowmen. But then I realized I was just already drunk.
Where, I wondered, were the Joneses? Were they in the Caribbean? No, they were in their basements! They were safe and warm, partying underneath the frozen ground, just like the weeds, and those other hardy perennials I don’t know the name of because I hate gardening.
And now I realize: Resistance is futile, newcomers. Renovate your basement, or your kids will run away to live off of party-sized bags of Ruffles in the Jones’ basement. Finish your basement or your husband will run away to watch sports with Big Daddy Jones, because unlike you, Big Daddy Jones won’t ask him pesky questions like “was that a foul?” and “who is Lebron James?”
Fix up your basement and become one of us. Or the rest of the Wisconsin Mole People will steal your family, and barter them away for beer.
2. Don’t Renovate Your Basement for Toxic Mold. Do It For Tornadoes
Tornadoes are a sensitive subject right now but in my opinion, tornadoes are always a sensitive subject. Personally, I find it easier to joke about drunk driving – which is even less objectively funny -- than I do about tornadoes. But I can’t help talking about it. And anyone who grew up in Wisconsin in the 80’s will never forget the deadly F5 tornado that tore through the town of Barneveld in the summer of 1984, and wiped the town of Barneveld off the map.
I gathered from recent news reports that many Oklahoma homes do not have basements. This I found particularly hard to believe. Because for all that Wisconsin homes lack – including superintendents, and a nearby bodega -- they typically do have basements. It might be a simple hole in the ground that’s made of poured concrete and filled with toxic mold. It might be a crawl space with a low ceiling like a root cellar, that was once used by 19th century homesteaders to store their only winter vegetables. Turnips. I’ve heard tell that some Wisconsin farmhouses even used their cellars as dead body rooms, so that grief-stricken relatives had someplace to keep their deceased family members cool and crisp until the ground thawed for burial in the late spring. But whatever the underground space – and no matter how many spiders or monsters or dead bodies may have been down there – most people I knew growing up in Wisconsin had a basement.
The basement of my childhood home was one of those poured concrete holes in the ground, with a very low ceiling, that ran under only part of our house. It could not be renovated, without digging out an entirely new foundation. So my family used it – and basically still does -- for three, main purposes. First, it was for laundry and storage. At some point, my mom also moved a second refrigerator down there, and occasionally made us go down to fetch meat or retrieve ice cream. I was so afraid of our basement that I would turn on the light, run down the stairs as fast as I could, and silently pray that I’d pull out a pint of orange chocolate chip before a vampire pulled me into the crawl space for his nightly feeding.
We also used the basement – once, at least -- to breed a super-race of mice. This wasn’t exactly intentional. There were brown field mice down there, as a matter of course. But then, one winter, my older brother’s white lab mice escaped from his bedroom cage. We presumed them dead. The following spring, however, my dad spotted a number of mice in the basement that were half brown and half white. We figured they probably had the field smarts of the brown field mice, and the intellectual prowess of the white lab mice. We poisoned them all anyway.
Third, and most importantly from my perspective, we used the basement to escape tornadoes. As far as we were concerned -- and I’ve since met tornado chasers who agree -- tornado sirens usually go off between 3 and 5 minutes after a tornado passes through the area. In the presence of a super cell, therefore, and on stormy nights, we thought it advisable to spend the better part of our entire evening sitting on the concrete floor in the basement in the dark, covered in spiders.
Or at least, some of us did.
Whenever a tornado warning was issued, my dad would usher all four children into the basement with him, until the warning had passed. But my mom elected not to go. She instead sat upstairs -- next to the large and highly shatterable lakefront picture window – calmly reading a book. Barneveld or not, she had literature to consume. And she subscribed to the local wisdom -- which may have come from the same fact warehouse that supplied evidence for that Mole People book -- that “tornadoes never touch down on an isthmus.” Either way, I thought it was an awesome family arrangement. My mom showed us how reading could be the better part of valor. And when you’re a kid, the only thing better than being dragged down into an unfinished basement full of vampires and cobwebs and half-intellectual dead mice during a potentially deadly weather event is worrying that your mother might also be smashed to smithereens by a tornado, because she felt compelled to finish The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency for book club.
For some reason, my sister and I are now both irrationally afraid of tornadoes. (My brothers might be too, but I don't know, because they no longer live in tornado alley.) The slightest rumble of thunder causes both of us to precipitously hurl all of our flashlights, several bags of dried fruit, a sheep’s herd of extra blankets, and all of our children down the basement stairs to safety. Since my sister has purchased fairly new homes since returning to Wisconsin, she’s never actually made her kids sit in toxic mold while they wait out a passing tornado. And that is nice for them. But I have already done this several times, and I'm here to tell you, I didn’t love it.
Not long ago -- in a scene remarkably (and ironically) similar to the one played out by my family of origin – I stayed to finish dinner with my friend Katie at our local golf club, while my husband ran home to usher the kids downstairs. The tornado sirens were going off. I did force Katie to join me in the golf club tornado shelter – aka the men’s locker room – but this didn’t turn out to be so bad. Because most of the other patrons apparently come from the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency school of tornado preparedness, and they didn’t even leave their tables. Since the waiter was working through the storm anyway, he just served us our pie in locker room. But the poor babysitter had to spend several hours huddled with my kids on our dirty basement carpet. And when I got home, I found them all there. Sitting right next to my husband. Who had laid down on the dirty carpet and promptly fallen asleep.
So after 4 years here, I have finally decided that if my family can wait out a tornado on a nice new carpet, with a couch and a fridge full of spreadable cheese, it’s probably worth spending thousands of dollars to clean up the mold.
3. Keep Your Friends Close, and Your Daughters’ Boyfriends Even Closer
I’m not sure about the theory about tornadoes on the isthmus. But when it comes to local wisdom, this I do believe: If you finish your basement, you have a decent chance of convincing your kids that it’s cool to hang out at home.
I believe this because when I was a kid, I hung out in many other people’s basements. None of them were my own. I mean, I invited friends over to hang out in my basement. But the 5-foot ceilings and dead mice turned out to be a bigger deterrent to middle school socializing than any of us could have anticipated.
Many of my friends’ basements, on the other hand, were not only finished with that ubiquitous faux-wood siding, but were also equipped with VCR’s, and extremely comfortable sofas. And since several of my friends were basically latchkey kids -- and I most certainly wasn’t -- we spent a fair amount of time in junior high sitting on their sofas without any adult supervision whatsoever. And with boys.
We all knew that our basement activities were not fully sanctioned -- either by our parents or the nuns at Catholic school. We were strictly prohibited even from wearing blue jeans at school – except for on the occasional Friday, I think -- because denim was sinful. Or maybe it was just too alluring and sexy. Either way, we were instructed to stay chaste until marriage, and I figured the school just banned the denim to cover all of the bases. In reality, though, most of the kids I knew were already covering the bases after school. On some latchkey kid’s basement sofa.
I’m sure my kids will never make bad choices. And that in high school, they will probably just want to spend their weekend nights with their mother, doing Xbox dance competitions in the living room. But if that turns out not to be the case -- and they decide instead to fraternize with the enemy -- I’d like to have somewhere for them to go that isn’t the sewer system, a "hockey game," or the Joneses’ basement.
No offense to the Joneses. I know you probably have some sweet luxury vinyl, a super cozy sectional couch, and an awesome laminated minibar.
But with all due respect, Joneses, your man cave will never be good enough for my daughters.