Idiot’s Catch

How many PhDs does it take to change a light bulb?

Two, at our house.

I like a three-bulb fixture above me for good lighting over my desk. Three 60-watt bulbs have always seemed easier to work under to me than the more common two-bulb fixtures. So that’s what I put in when we finished this part of the house off.

Last weekend a bulb blew while I worked on a manuscript in the morning. After lunch, I nonchalantly grabbed a new bulb and went back up to carry on. My office is separately insulated from the rest of the house, and it has its own separate heating zone. (This is a happy accident of the original builders not finishing this “bonus room” and our doing it years later.) As a consequence, the room is remarkably well sound proofed from the rest of the house when the door is closed. And as usual, I tipped the door almost closed when I entered.

It is easy for me to reach a ceiling fixture, so I just reached up and unscrewed the glass to expose the bulbs. Except that the glass didn’t come off—the whole fixture did. And suddenly there I am standing awkwardly with a whole fixture in my hands, held very high so I don’t put a strain on the electrical wires attaching it to the junction box in the ceiling.

The first thing I do is try to put it back on. Blindly. That’s a bust. And I can’t get the glass to unscrew from the fixture while holding the whole thing. It is much too heavy to let dangle from its wires. So I hook a leg around a nearby chair and climb up on that so my arms aren’t stretched so far. Ahh, I can see—the fixture twists onto two screws projecting down from the junction box. And of course it’s poorly designed to screw off in the same direction you would unscrew the glass. If you could get the glass unscrewed. I can’t. It’s a heavy, transluscent bowl, and at arm’s length the whole fixture is kind of heavy.

I repeatedly try to aim the fixture’s small holes onto those two screws, but I completely fail. Again and again I try. If I could only get the glass off so I could see from the bottom, I might have a chance. But no matter how I try, I just can’t unscrew it while holding the fixture at the same time, no matter how I wiggle my thumbs and fingers in various ways trying.

I’m probably ten minutes into this now, and my arms are getting tired of holding all this crap up over my head. I realize another pair of hands are going to be needed to get this resolved. So I yell loudly for Rose, who is just downstairs. No response. This is where closing the door was not a good idea. So I yell louder. And more. And louder still. Nothing.

More minutes go by, and I have yelled myself hoarse. My arms and upper shoulders are cramping with protests. In desperation, I hook a trash can to me with one leg, and, using my incredibly long monkey arms for one last gambit, balance the fixture on one hand and s-t-r-e-t-c-h the other out to snag the trash can. Which I then hurl as hard as I can against the closed door while yelling one last time.

Rose is there in a flash. And with her usual superhuman aplomb, she fixes the whole thing and we live happily ever after.

Well, for us mortals, let me give a slow-motion replay. She grabbed another chair and held the fixture while I let my arms rest for a minute. They were very unhappy. I thought that with four hands we’d be able to get the glass off. Nope. We couldn’t get it unscrewed; it was very tightly stuck. Rose said “You’re going to have to take it down.”

With her holding the fixture, I undid the three wire nuts and disconnected it from the ceiling. I was wishing I’d done that almost half an hour ago. We dropped the miserable piece of junk in the garage and left it sitting in the corner for much of a week to see if it would repent. A few days later, when my arms felt up to it again, I was finally able to wrestle the glass free—with the fixture upside down on the floor, standing on the fixture rim, and applying two palm-wide grips on the glass with two rubber jar-opening pads to help. Even then, I was barely strong enough to get it free. I have no idea how it could ever have gotten on there so tightly.

While it sat in the corner, I decided that if I could get the glass off, maybe I’d give it a second chance and replace all three bulbs with long-life LEDs so I wouldn’t have to take it off again for a decade or more. When I finally did get the glass off, I told Rose my strategy, and as she looked at the fixture’s construction, she said “Why don’t you put a wire on it so it can’t fall?”

The “idiot’s catch,” a simple wire hanger that holds the fixture up so it doesn’t fall. It stays put when the fixture is attached to the ceiling, for the next time I need it.

Brilliant. Rose invented it. I put it together and got to name it. And being the egotist that I am, I named it after myself. I had the new “idiot’s catch” implemented quickly and hung the fixture from it while I rewired it to the junction box in the ceiling. A short time later I had the screw heads projecting through their small holes, the fixture rotated back into place, new bulbs in place, and the glass—loosely—screwed back in.

And here I am on a dark winter’s night, well lit and back at it.

After sitting in a corner for a week, it repented.

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