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Essays by Karen Anderson: Knowing How

Illustration by Kacie Brown

I am carrying my old desk lamp into the elegant lighting store, trying to slip past the crystal chandeliers on my way to the repairs department. Standing in line, I stare at the clutter of parts I can’t even identify. “Can I help you?” the man asks.

“I need a new switch,” I say, gesturing at my old lamp. “When I turn the three-way bulb on the lowest setting, it flickers.”

The man removes the shade and the bulb. “A 50-100-200-watt bulb is kind of hard on this switch,” he says, “but the switch itself is fine.” Then he holds my bulb up to his ear. “Listen,” he says.

I hear a strange low humming like the sound I imagine the universe makes in deep space. “The filaments are loose,” the man says. “Maybe it got bumped or something.”

He takes a 30-70-100-watt bulb out of a package and screws it into my lamp. “You might want to try a lower wattage.” And as he hands me my lamp, I realize again what it means to have really useful knowledge about the way the world works, about what goes wrong and how to fix it. To know it isn’t the switch but the bulb.

I reach for my purse, but he shakes his head. “No charge.”

Karen Anderson contributes "Essays by Karen Anderson" to Interlochen Public Radio.