WHEN I COME back from a road trip, I search for signs that my family missed me while I was gone.
What I am really looking for is evidence that I matter; that I have an impact on the homestead's operation.
Last week when I returned home after an out-of-town jaunt, the only sign of trouble during my absence was a burned-out light.
This, I figured, could mean one of two things. Either it meant that no one else in the family knew how to change a light bulb, or it meant that family members were saving this job for me because they think it is one of the few I am capable of performing.
Rather than dwell on either possibility, I simply headed for the workshop and grabbed tools. I have found that when faced with questions of cosmic importance, it is best to seek solace in the basement. There I grabbed a flashlight and my trusty stepladder, then headed upstairs to the laundry room, the site of the failed light.
A few days before I left town, the two fluorescent tubes in the laundry room light fixture had been acting up, flickering for a minute or two before they burst into full glow. I thought I fixed this problem by employing one of my favorite home-repair techniques, the jiggle. I had rocked the tubes from the light-fixture sockets, rotating them a quarter turn and checking the pins of their ends for dust before snapping them back in place. The jiggle had worked for a few days. But as soon as I left town, darkness had descended on the laundry room.
Up on the ladder, I removed the light fixture cover. Then I engaged in fluorescent-light profiling. I was confident that just by looking at the appearance of the tubes, I could tell which one was the troublemaker. One tube was unsightly, covered with specs of paint. Its ends were blackened. Experience has taught me that when the ends of fluorescent tubes start looking sorry, it is a sign that trouble and dim days are ahead.
I popped the ugly tube from the fixture and carried it over to the neighborhood hardware store. The hardware store guys didn't like the looks of the tube either, and found a brand new, handsome-looking tube to replace it. I was so taken with the tube's sparkling appearance that I bought two.
Back in the laundry room, I ascended the stepladder, one handsome tube in hand. I was looking forward to the bright glow of success that would come when the fixture began working. One of the more satisfying aspects of working in the light bulb-replacement field is that your success is apparent. You can bask in glow of a job well done.
This time however, there was no basking. The tubes did not brighten. I checked to make sure their pins were not playing peek-a-boo in the sockets, one slipping in the socket, the other slipping out. But the pins were firmly in place. The two tubes, the brand new one and the good-looking one, refused to spring to life.
The dead bulbs put me in a foul mood. I feared this meant the ballast, a device buried inside the fluorescent light fixture, had to be replaced. I had experience replacing a ballast in a kitchen light fixture and was not looking forward to a repeat performance. Replacing a ballast, especially one in a ceiling light fixture, promised to be hard work.
Then inspiration struck. Before yanking the laundry room fixture apart, I decided to test the two balky tubes in another fluorescent fixture, one down in the basement.
Sure enough, down in basement the new tube glowed but the good-looking one wouldn't fire. This meant that the good-looking tube had been a troublemaker all along. It taught me that you couldn't judge a fluorescent tube just by looking at its cover.
Finally, with two brand-new tubes in place, the laundry room fixture glowed and I basked in glory. I'd returned home, light had returned to the laundry and I had confirmed my crucial role at the homestead: chief bulb changer.