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Seeing the light, and the value of a sledgehammer


Sometimes you win and sometimes you botch it big time. Recently I did both.

My big win was fixing a fluorescent light in a mere two days. One day was devoted to buying a new fluorescent tube, which may or may not have been needed.

Another day was devoted to replacing the starter, the small silver cylinder hiding in the back of the light fixture. The starter does for a fluorescent light what a cup of coffee does for adults in the morning, it gets things buzzing. When the light is switched on, the starter accumulates current briefly then releases it after the tube is lighted.

I was familiar with the wiles of the starter because some time ago I had done battle with another one. That experience taught me you don't storm a lighting fixture and randomly yank out parts. Instead, you follow protocol.

First you turn the power off and remove the fluorescent tube. Then you wrap the tube in something soft, like a bath towel. The wrap keeps the tube from rolling off a counter or table and crashing to the floor.

Next, you eye the starter. The tip of the starter is visible but the rest of it is hunkered down in a foxhole with sneaky little trenches that hold on to the starter's weird, fat feet.

You do not, repeat not, remove a starter from its foxhole by just pulling it straight out. This tactic plays to the starter's strength, its wide feet wedged in skinny trenches.

Instead, you gently press the starter in and turn it counterclockwise until its feet scoot out of the trenches into big holes. Once you've got the starter's feet out of the trenches and into the holes, it is easy pickings. Sometimes, as happened to me the other day, a defeated starter will give itself up by falling right into your hands.

I had a replacement starter in the basement and was able to quickly find it. It was every repairperson's fantasy.

I put the new starter back in the foxhole by putting the fat feet in wide holes, then pushing it down, and turning clockwise, securing the feet in the skinny trenches.

I snapped the tube back in, and turned on the switch. The once-dead light came back to life. I was impressed, so much so that I turned the light off and on several times, in the hopes that my family would applaud my handiwork.

Nobody cared. There was a supper that needed to be made, a skateboard that needed to be ridden, a baseball that had to be caught.

While no one seemed to notice my domestic triumph, everyone knew about my failure. I forgot the combination to the bike lock.

The lock was new. I had put it on the bikes last November. During the winter the bikes had been dormant and so, it seemed, had my memory. To open the lock you had to turn its wheels until the four selected digits appeared in a row. And so on a glorious day in May, ideal for bicycle riding, I found myself sitting in a darkened room, trying to remember a four-digit number.

I tried several techniques to jog my memory. First there was the remain-calm, let-the-numbers-float-to-surface approach.

I closed my eyes. I took a deep breath. I thought about numbers. All kinds of numbers ran through my mind. Old addresses. Old phone numbers. Old combinations for other bike locks. None of them worked on the lock.

Next, I tried to be a safe cracker, listening to the lock for any sounds out of the ordinary. This was a cheap lock, so I figured it would give easy clues. I figured wrong.

Then I tried to be a mathematician. I thought I could write down all the possible combinations, and try them out one by one. After all there were only four wheels on the lock, each with four stops numbered 1,2,3, 4. How hard could that be? Pretty hard. There were 256 possible combinations. I quit trying after 25.

Next I tried being a tyrant. I grabbed my two kids and sat them down in front of the lock. They had good memories. They were able to remember every embarrassing incident that ever happened to their parents. But they couldn't remember the combination to the bike lock.

After calm recollection, careful mathematics and youthful consultants had failed to open the bike lock, I switched tactics.

I bashed the lock with a sledge hammer. I snapped it off with one good shot. It was an uncomplicated, brutal act. I don't recommend it. But I will say that bashing a bike lock delivers a primal rush that fixing a fluorescent light, even one with a fat-footed starter, simply can't match.

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