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The Impossibility of Buying Light Bulbs

The Impossibility of Buying Light Bulbs

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It used to be a very simple task to purchase a light bulb.

Check the wattage on the dead bulb at home, go to the store and pick a similar one from the display shelf, take it home, remove the burned-out bulb from its socket, replace it with the new one, wrap the old bulb in some newspaper, and toss it in the trash.

That was before…before LEDs, compact florescent bulbs (CFLs), newer energy-saving incandescent choices, twisted shapes, round shapes, candelabra shapes, frosted, clear, or half-and-half glass, soft, bright, rosy, or bluish tones, wattage equivalent ratings, and cost to operate statistics. Then there is the set of 1,000 word disposal instructions in the tiniest print known to humanity, in both Spanish and English, and sometimes, French.

This reality is why I have a lot of skylights and windows in my house. They pretty much eliminate any need to turn on a light during the day and thus reduce the chance of my breaking one of these new-fangled illumination options that could, if they are florescent, expel a tiny ball of mercury across my floor—mercury the cats might ingest and cost me $5,000 in emergency veterinary bills. But, hey, I’m saving twenty-six cents a year in electricity and helping to slow climate change. That is clearly more of an impact on the environment than the 353,000 people born onto the planet each day! Let’s get our priorities straight here. My three-way light bulb, which is rarely left on for more than two hours per day, is the culprit!

I have visions of a set of condescending, self-righteous bureaucrats at the EPA having a lunch meeting, discussing the florescent mercury issue at a table replete with water bottles and utensils made of plastic and Styrofoam take-out containers. They decide Americans are too stupid to be concerned about the poisonous but playful bouncing metal mercury spheres, or too docile to complain about spending over $10 for a new light bulb, so they decide to impose a transition period from incandescent to non-incandescent illumination on over 300,000,000 unsuspecting people. What the heck, the new bulbs are eight times more expensive, but they last up to twenty years. Unless you drop one and it shatters. Then you are out $11.00, and your cat might be chasing mercury across the polished wood floor, the dog is chasing the cat, and you trip over them both and break your hip. You wind up in the hospital with battalions of mercury-laden florescent light bulbs above your head.

But here in the light bulb aisle in the mega store, you are faced with an array of choices that probably outnumbers the entire stock of light bulbs in the country of Chad. All you want is a 3-way incandescent light to replace the one that burned out in your Pottery Barn desk lamp. You select the bulbs you want, the ones you’ve always used, the ones you never keep turned on for more than two hours a week, and which may as well come with a warning label because they are soon going to be extinct. The EPA decreed it.

Despite the absence of any lawn at our house, my husband has been lost in the lawn mower aisle for an hour, inhaling the scent of new metal and engine oil, and finally he meets up with me in the “Illumination” section of the store. He looks at the package in my hand and shakes his head in disapproval and disappointment.

“These are not LEDs,” he cautions, still moving his head back in forth in patronizing censure. “They’re not even CFLs.”

“So what?”

“Everything is getting replaced with LEDs and CFLs. We really should go with the newest technology,” he says. “That means LEDs. We want those,” he declares with the certainty of a Supreme Court Judge, as he points to a dizzying display of LEDs.

“You mean, you want an LED.”

He gazes at the mile-long array of available lighting choices, and locates something I hadn’t seen before—a three way LED. I’m enthused. No mercury in the LED. Maybe they are becoming more versatile…you know, for the way people really live. I just want to use the 3-way switch on my light fixture.

I wonder which manufacturer I should select. Cree or Phillips? I don’t care. But my husband ponders the choice as though he is going to invest $100,000 in one of the companies the following morning. He turns each package in his hand, weighing them as though he were a balance scale, trying to determine which is heavier, and he squints at the impossible-to-read print. He whips out his ever-present little tape measure and determines which is taller. He reverts to his cell phone to research both manufacturers. It takes over a half hour. I pick Phillips, he picks Cree. The Phillips is $10, the Cree is $11. I’m still clutching my increasingly-rare, endangered package of incandescent bulbs, two to a package, for $3.95.

“Honey,” he says, “let’s get the Cree. It will last 20 years.”

“I won’t last 20 years,” I mutter through clenched teeth.

He snatched the 3-way incandescent bulbs from my hand and walked twenty-seven steps to get to the spot where they were displayed, striding purposely like Douglas MacArthur did when he sloshed through the water on his return to the Philippines.

I noticed other people reading the packages and shaking their heads, some of them arguing with their companions. Light bulbs are now something new for couples to quarrel about in America—as though we don’t have enough to argue about. Progress, I guess.

At home, my husband is eager to try out his new purchase. Without even stopping to pet the dog, he heads straight for my desk lamp and replaces the bulb in the fixture with the Cree.

“Do you want to see the light?” he calls out smugly, certain his decision to buy the LED was the best option, and I would immediately recognize the superiority of his analysis over mine.

I am feeding the two cats and dog, and stop filling their bowls in mid-scoop. I walk from the kitchen into the library, and all three pets follow me. The new light shines cheerfully in its socket. He switches it to the next level of intensity and stares. He scrunches his eyebrows.

“What’s wrong?” I inquire.

“Don’t you see it?” he asks, a little flustered, cocking his head toward the desk lamp.

“See what?

“Do you see the flicker?”

“What flicker?” I stare at the light bulb.

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“You can’t see it?” He throws his hands up in desperation.

“No. It doesn’t flicker.”

He reattaches the lampshade, and the flicker becomes immediately apparent.

“I can’t have this…it’s awful,” I say, shaking my head “No,” and placing my hands accusingly on my hips. Why does replacing a light bulb have to be such a damned production, I think to myself.

He sighs, unscrews the bulb, tapes it back into its packaging, throws it in the bag. “You’re right. I am going to return it. I’ll get you something different.”

He walks to the garage and the animals look at me, wondering when I am going to finish feeding them. I have already decided the following day I will buy every 3-way incandescent bulb in the store. Start my own black market. Sell them on some encrypted online site at premium prices, build a secret passageway in the house to an underground storeroom. My store will be the last haven for all those who just want to turn on the three way light on their desk lamp. I will become a folk heroine.

An hour later my husband comes home with the light bulbs I had originally selected…the two-in-a-package incandescent ones.

“But they do produce more heat than the LED or compact fluorescents,” he remarks, “they’re not as good for the environment.”

He is right. And I will be more than happy to embrace LEDs and CFLs when they don’t hum or flicker or require a hazmat suit if they break, and when they work as silently, safely, and perfectly as my three-way incandescent bulb, which does exactly what it was designed to do: illuminate. It doesn’t bear the burden of a political agenda or carry the banner of environmental zealotry.

A desk lamp is very personal for a writer. The light has to be perfect and steady and quiet. On that, I won’t compromise.

Sometimes, I wonder how many environmentalists it takes to change a light bulb.

Cover image by FEDx via Flickr

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