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Morning becomes electric when I fix a three-way lamp


Family room furniture is, by definition, endangered. Lamps live an especially precarious existence. So when a lamp in our family room flickered, I was not surprised.

My guess was that the lamp had been hit by a flying pillow, a missed ball or an airborne family room wrestler. I surmised that before any adult showed up on the scene, the fallen lamp had been righted, evidence of misbehavior had been eliminated, and vows of silence had been taken. That, as I recall, was the routine my brothers and I followed when we were kids and in our lamp-predator stage.

The flickering family room lamp worked for a while. Yet no matter how many new three-way bulbs I fed it, it would produce two levels of illumination: dim and dimmer.

Eventually I unplugged the lamp, carried it down to the basement and attempted to fix it. I had never repaired a three-way lamp before, but I was somewhat familiar with lamp parts. When you knock down as much furniture as I did in childhood, you learn how a lamp goes back together.

Quickly I took off the small decorative cap that held the lamp shade in place. A book told me it is called the finial. Next, I removed the harp, the oblong wire form that helped support the shade and seemed to offer the bulb some protection from flying objects.

That left the lamp socket, the part that holds the light bulb. I unscrewed the bulb, and I looked for a place to pry the socket loose from its cap. There is a little spot on most lamp sockets that reads "press." Almost any fool can see this spot. I didn't.

If you "press" on this spot with the tip of a screwdriver, the part of the socket with the lamp switch easily pops loose from its cap. If you press somewhere else, as I did, the socket comes loose, but not willingly.

Having done one dumb thing -- pressing at the wrong spot on the socket -- I did a couple of smart things. First, I left the old socket cap, which did not need to be replaced, on the lamp. Secondly, I noted which wire was connected to which screw in the old switch. I marked the wire connected to the brass screw with a green marker.

I did this to prevent connecting the wrong wire to the wrong screw. I had read that if the lamp were wired incorrectly, the "polarity" of my home's electrical system could be jeopardized.

Somewhere back in high school when the physics teacher explained "polarity," I must have been looking out the window. As a result, I have never understood what these warnings about bad polarity meant.

In an attempt to make up for part of my misspent youth, I pulled out a couple of science dictionaries and tried to read up on electrical polarity.

My readings convinced me that it is hard to teach an old brain new tricks. I read a lot about electricity. I understood very little.

The way I figure electrical polarity, there are two gangs or "charges," which we'll call positive and negative. These two gangs roam around in different colored wires. As long as gang members are mixing with their own kind, things are calm. But if they cross-pollinate, sparks fly. In other words, if this do-it-yourself electrician got his polarity crossed, he could end up a Crispy Critter.

I unscrewed the wires from the old socket and carried it over to the neighborhood hardware store. Experience has taught me that the best way to find the correct new part is to carry the old part with you to the store. The guys who work in hardware stores love it when, instead of hearing a customer's long-winded description of the "thing-a-ma-bob that went blooey," they are instead presented with what they recognize as a burned-out three-way lamp socket.

I took a new lamp socket home. This time, I pressed on the correct spot, and the socket opened up easily. I connected the wire I had marked green to the brass screw and the other wire to the other socket screw.

I put the new socket in the lamp. To test my workmanship, I put a cheap light bulb in the lamp. If I blew up a bulb, at least it would be a 70-watt type, not one of those more expensive, three-way numbers.

When I turned on the switch, nothing went "blooey." Feeling confident, I replaced the cheap bulb with a three-way bulb. And so the family room lamp, with three levels of light, was in working condition.

It will stay that way for years, or until the next pillow fight.

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