Monday, February 18, 2008


Sweet, sweet perfection. Nothing so satisfying, nothing harder to achieve.

Here comes a smart thing. I didn’t say it, but I remember it, which is almost as good. The concept comes from an expert in childrearing, discussing the issue of spanking children, which he was categorically against. But the guy understood the problem with perfect behavior – it’s impossible to pull off – so his pronouncement on spanking was this:

“If you make a decision never to spank your child, you’ll spank them just the right amount.”

Smart, right? He’s saying if you at least shoot for perfection, you’ll get closer to achieving it than if you don’t shoot for it.

I aim for perfection in my writing. I never make it. Oh, a sentence here, a capsulizing turn of phrase there – “capsulizing” wasn’t the exact word I was looking for, which just shows you how hard this is. Writing’s a tough racket. Perfection, though imaginable, is forever out of reach. That’s what keeps it interesting. If you could express something exactly the way you wanted to say it, you’d be done. In writing, you’re never done.

This seems to be the deal. Since I know I’ll never be perfect at writing, I look for places where I can be perfect.

And I found two. That’s right. I’m perfect in two areas.

One: I never litter.

And Two: When I change a light bulb, the light always goes on.

I know. Not quite curing cancer or solving world hunger, but as a man I met named Pedro, who had fourteen children and when he asked how many I had and I told him two, said to me:

“Better than nothing.”

We'll go with that.


A minor vice, to be sure, and relatively easy to be perfect at. You don’t drop anything on the ground. I figure not littering’s the least I can do to improve the planet. Almost literally the least.

I’ve been known to carry a candy wrapper around in my hand for hours, looking for a receptacle to drop it in. Should the potential object of litter blow out of my hand, I always chase it down. When it blows onto the road and retrieving it means getting run over, I let it go.

In such cases, both I and the Talmud, when it speaks to the issue of littering, declare an exception. If you don’t agree with me and the Talmud, insisting on the standard: “Death before Littering”, then yes, I’m not perfect. I figure I’m perfect enough. And if you persist in your belief, you probably won’t be around to tell me I’m wrong.

Light bulb changer

This one goes back a while. Years ago, I was living in a condo, and they were holding elections for condo president, and such. I turned down the nomination for president. But not wanting to appear a slacker, I did volunteer for an equally responsible position: Light bulb changer.

I handled the job for four years. A condo resident would say, “The light’s out over the mailboxes”, and I’d change it immediately. Or when I got around to it, whichever came first.

Early in our marriage, my wife and I made an agreement. Whenever a light burned out, I would change the bulb. And she’d do everything else. Throughout our marriage, I have happily lived up to that agreement.

I love changing light bulbs. As a satisfaction, it’s up there with not littering. Not only does light bulb changing make me feel useful – you don’t do it, it’s dark – there’s also – I don’t want to blaspheme here – but there’s an almost-Divine pleasure in performing the task. You unscrewed the broken light bulb, you screwed in a new one…

Let there be Light. And there was Light.

Every time.

That's right. I was perfect at changing light bulbs.

Until today.

Here’s the story. Hold onto your hats.

A bulb burns out in our basement.

I spring into action. A couple of days later.

It’s recessed lighting, on the ceiling. A ladder will be required. And, of course, a new bulb. These are kept in two different places so, you know, we’re talking about a considerable amount of work.

I go to the cupboard where I store the light bulbs. (I buy the light bulbs too; I don’t just put them in.) I take the new light bulb downstairs. I go to the garage, I retrieve the ladder and I carry it into the house. I set the ladder up under the bulb, I climb the ladder, I reach high over my head – it’s a tall ceiling – and I unscrew the burnt-out bulb. I set the burnt-out bulb on the ladder shelf, I pick up the new bulb, and I screw it in. I climb down from the ladder.

Time for my favorite part of the job.

Let there be Light. And there was Light.

I walk to the wall. I flip the switch.

The light bulb doesn’t go on.

I flip the switch again. First, off, and then back on.

The light bulb remains lightless.

I stand there, confused. What’s going on? I’m perfect at light bulbs. Why didn’t it go on?

I walk back, climb back up the ladder, and I screw in the light bulb even tighter. I thought I’d tightened it enough, but apparently I hadn’t. Fine. I tighten it some more.

I climb down the ladder, I walk back, and I flip the switch.

Let there be…

No light again.

I’m gettin’ a little angry.

It must be the bulb, I thought. What else could it be? Lightbulbs Unlimited has stuck me with a dud.

I trudge upstairs for another light bulb. I return to the basement and repeat the procedure. Old bulb out, new bulb in. I flip the switch.

Let there b…


The light still doesn’t go on. Now I’m really confused. Two light bulb failures? After a record of perfection? How could that be? I wracked my brain for an explanation. I know. It’s the thing you screw the bulb into. Something’s wrong with the wiring. It had to be that. They couldn’t have sold me two dud bulbs. Could they?

I didn’t know what to do. Wiring’s not my area, I’m strictly a bulbs man. I’d have to wait till my wife got home. She understands household things. She can fix toilets.

The phone rings. It’s my friend Cliff. Great photographer. Weddings, graduations, Christmas cards. Everyone knows Cliff. And loves him. He tells me about having recently taken pictures of Nancy Reagan and the current president. We promise to get together real soon. I hang up.

Then I look at the ladder. Cliff’s phone call had provided me with a break from the light bulb crisis. I now realize what’s wrong.

Which was this.

The ladder was not standing under the light bulb that was burnt out. It was standing under different, nearby light bulb, a light bulb that wasn’t burnt out. It was now clear that I had climbed up the ladder and had replaced a light bulb that wasn’t burnt out. When I flipped the switch, the light didn’t go on, because I had yet to change the light bulb that was burnt out.

Amazing as this sounds to sensible people, I had changed a bulb that wasn’t broken. Twice.


I went over and moved the ladder, climbed up, and I changed the light bulb that was broken. I climbed down and I flipped the switch.

Let there be Light. And there was Light.

And this time, there was.

I had wasted twenty minutes of my life. I felt foolish. But happy. Had I been stupid? Yes, I had. But as a light bulb changer…

I was still perfect.


Max Clarke said...

Very funny, Earl, we have a moment of synchronicity here. On the walk home from work today, I stopped by Orchard Supply Hardware in Berkeley and bought a replacement light bulb for my small flashlight. I use the flashlight to burn the nickel hydride batteries to empty before I put them into the recharger. It's supposed to ensure a full charge of the AA batteries if you drain the power first.

Max Clarke said...

When I turned on the flashlight with the replacement bulb installed at Orchard Supply, I actually thought, "Let there be light," but that's the motto of UC Berkeley, so it comes to mind easily.

Rick said...

Sorry Earl ... don't mean to be nit-picky ... but didn't you notice the bulb directly above YOUR LADDER kept coming on? And the bulb not directly UNDER YOUR LADDER was the one not giving off light?

rick said...

... of course I meant "the bulb not directly OVER YOUR LADDER ..."

I guess I have to work on my own perfection!

Earl Pomerantz said...

To Rick,

I looked at the bulb that was out and it was still out. That's all I looked at. Maybe it's a matter of faulty depth perception. Or just being stupid. Or both. But I never noticed that the light directly above the ladder was on.

That's me, okay. That's how I am. Easily mystified.


Abigail Gonzalez said...
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Abigail Gonzalez said...
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