Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Horror of the Flooded Basement

Back in the twentieth century, I think many of us assumed that by the time we reached 2010, household disasters such as flooded basements would be dealt with by house-cleaning robots, or by miraculous self-cleaning and self-drying carpets, or would simply be a moot point because we were all living in flying cities or lunar colonies or something.  As it turns out, we deal with flooded basements in 2010 much the same way we would have in 1960, except that now we blog about it afterward.

Mary Lynn and I have been at war with our basement since we moved into this house.  The basement isn't exactly a basement; it's the lower half of a split-level section, and is about half underground.  The previous owners had converted this lower level into a master bedroom, and this was acceptable to us, except for one thing: the exterior stairwell.

Outdoors, behind the house, behind the split-level section, a concrete stairwell descends half-a-dozen steps to a doorway that leads into the bedroom.  We never really use this door, except to open it in the summer to let fresh air drift through the room.  The problem with this stairwell occurs when it rains.  Water flows downhill, of course, which in this case means downstairs, into the stairwell.  There is a small drain in the center of the bottom of the stairwell, but if this drain is blocked by leaves, the stairwell begins to fill whith water, and when the water rises to a level of about six inches, it's high enough to flow over the door sill and into the bedroom.

There have been several occassions where we have walked into the bedroom after a good storm to find that it has become a swamp.  The carpet down there is fairly thick (or, to be accurate, *was* fairly thick; but I'll get to that later) and absorbs all the water that flows into the bedroom, so we've never really been looking at standing water, just a thoroughly soaked carpet.  The days after this occurs are filled with wet-dry vaccuums and Rug Doctors as we attempt to get all the water out and clean the carpet as best as possible.

Just one of these floods was enough to encourage us to try to keep the drain clear as much as possible.  We're not always successful; sometimes we're not home, or just forget.  We went and purchased a small drain cover, a plastic cylinder with slots that is supposed to stand over the drain and block the leaves, so that the drain itself remains clear.  However, if the drain cover itself becomes entombed in leaves, then nothing can flow through it and we're looking at a flooded basement again.  Still, the drain cover provides more surface area that must be blocked, which means that a total blockage is more difficult, and we've gotten good enough at keeping the stairwell clear that we've been dry for a good while.

Until this week, when all of our preventative measures failed.  What appears to have defeated us this time is that a number of small trees and bushes have grown up around the stairwell, extending branches with very small leaves over it.  The rain and wind pulls down the small leaves, which are tiny enough to slip through the drain cover, but just large enough to bunch up in the slots of the drain itself.  The leaves, combined with the dirt flowing along with the water, cements the drain slots close fairly quickly.  Just sweeping the leaves off of the drain isn't enough to clear it; we must actually dig into the drain slots and scrape out the dirt and leaves.

As a result, we had two floods this week.  The first flood was about a 4 out of 10 on our basement-flooding scale; the water only spread out a couple of yards from the doorway.  However, this appeared to be one too many floods for the poor carpet; after we got it dry, it stank to high heaven.  It's been musty-smelling ever since our first flood; now it was atrocious.  We paid some folks to come buy and pull up the carpet and trash it, leaving us with a badly-painted (but reasonably dry) tile floor.

Then we had another flood.  And this time there was no carpet to absorb the water.  Mary Lynn woke up at about 2 AM, put her feet down next to the bed, and found a few millimeters of water.

In terms of surface area flooded, this one is about a 10 out of 10.  The water got into the bedroom closets, the corridor, the downstairs bathroom and laundry room.  Everything that was on the floor was soaked, and since we'd just moved a bunch of furniture around to pull up the carpet, there was plenty on the floor.  Which means that we are now spending our Sunday running around the lower level and dividing all of our worldly belongings into "dry" and "wet" piles.

Some investigation during the second flood showed us one contributing factor we've never noticed before; on the exterior of the house, at ground level, on a wall facing the stairwell, there is something like an air vent or grate.  During the rainstorm - in fact, even after the storm had ended - there was water gushing out of this vent.  I have absolutely no idea where this water is coming from.  Mary Lynn believes it's coming from a crawlspace under our living room, which is filling with water that seeps out of the sodden earth.  If that's true, then there's an unseen subterranean chamber under our living room that must be positively brimming with water after a good hard rain.  Who knows what else is down there?  Skeletons of Prohibition gangsters?  Deep Ones?

This isn't going to be cheap.  We'll need an expert to come by and figure out this whole situation and propose a workable alternative.  And in the short term we're going to have to be double-plus vigilant as regards the stairwell drain; we'll need to start checking it hourly or so during a rainstorm to make sure it doesn't clog.  I've hacked out all the little trees and bushes that had sprung up around the stairwell, and that should cut down on the fallen leaves, but at this point we have to be ready for anything.

All in all, it's a good house.  999 days out of 1000, it's good to be here.  But on that thousandth day, it's no fun at all.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Death of Sydney

In defense of the assertion that video games can be art, I offer the game Fallout 3, and in particular, one story element in the game that hit me unexpectedly:

In my trip through the world of Fallout 3, I found myself on a quest to rescue the Declaration of Independence from the ruins of the National Archives.  I stalked my way through the streets of post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. slipped into the shadowy building, and started prowling around the wreckage.

I ran into a character named Sydney who had fortified one particular room and was holding it against an assault of hulking Super Mutants.  We fended off the siege together, and afterwards I asked her what she was doing here.  She informed me that she was a treasure hunter, also looking for the Declaration, and offered to pool efforts with me for mutual safety.

Together we descended into the maintenance corridors under the Archives.  We dodged robots and security systems, and she offered suggestions about which way to go and where danger might be lurking.  She was capable, confident, and strong-willed.  I started to wonder whether or not she was going to continue in the story after the raid, and whether she might become a companion of my character, and whether they would stomp around the wastelands together, recovering the treasures of the old world from amidst its wreckage.

And then we got pinned down in a narrow room, with lethal automatic turrets in front of us and a pair of fairly determined robots coming up from behind.  It was a frantic, graceless firefight, and I spent most of it huddled in a corner, blasting away at nerveless metal monstrosities, praying I wasn't about to run out of ammunition.

Finally, the robots toppled, and the echoes of gunshots died in my ears.  I stood up and took a quick inventory of myself.  I'd survived, somehow, but barely.

And then I saw Sydney's body draped over a railing.

Out in the real world, I stared at the screen.  I couldn't believe it.  We'd worked our way down here together, and in the end, she'd been killed by a couple of machines, over nothing more important than a scrap of paper. And it was probably my fault.  I'd offered to go with her down into the tunnels.  I'd claimed to be competent enough to handle myself in a dangerous situation.  I was supposed to be watching her back.  And here she was, in a forgotten subterranean tunnel, her treasure-hunting career cut tragically short.

From the beginning of the game, I'd set myself a "no reload" policy - I wasn't going to reload the game and try again for anything short of getting myself killed.  I was going to take the good with the bad and experience the story more as a roleplaying game than as a shoot-em-up exercise.  I almost broke that rule right then or there.

Eventually I was able to talk myself into moving on.  I blasted through a couple more robots, and got to the room where the Declaration was.  I found that there was a master robot in charge of the whole operation, a robot with some level of intelligence, who had come to believe that it (he?) was one of the Founding Fathers and was defending the Declaration against the British.

This is why Sydney had died.  Because some ancient piece of machinery had delusions of grandeur.  My finger hovered over the trigger of my rifle for several seconds.

In the end, I played along with the robot's delusions, and eventually got the Declaration.  I could have blasted it to scrap.  It had a few automated gun turrets in the room with itself, and probably would have given me a good fight.  But I had enough firepower to turn the entire room to slag.  I could have destroyed it.  But Sydney would still have been dead.

She had a custom submachine gun with her, a particularly potent weapon.  She'd told me she was good with fixing weapons, that it was a talent she'd learned from her dad.  I took the weapon from her body and found that, yes, it was pretty damn effective.  And I still feel dirty every time I pull its trigger.  Because it's Sydney's gun.  And she deserved better than to have her favorite SMG taken from her by the man who'd led her to her death in some utility tunnel.

Plenty of people have played this game.  There's probably players who were able to finish this mission without getting Sydney killed.  There's players who probably put two rounds into her head the moment she appeared, stripped her weapons from her and moved on without a thought.  There's players who never even ran into her, never knew she existed.

But in my game, Sydney is dead, and it sucks.