I bought a lamp. I thought, when I was buying it, that it was a simple purchase, just a step or two more complicated than buying the sofa pillows that I also tossed into my cart.

I bought a lamp. I thought, when I was buying it, that it was a simple purchase, just a step or two more complicated than buying the sofa pillows that I also tossed into my cart. In fact, if I were to break down that shopping experience by degree of difficulty, choosing apples caused me the most mental anguish. The store offered far more apples than lamps, after all.

Then I got home and opened the lamp box, which was when I realized I had undertaken a singular and in many ways frightening task: assembly.

The lamp wasn't literally in pieces. I wasn't expected to wire the base or know anything about incandescence or fiddle around with filaments. It was a simple matter of screwing the top part into the bottom part, then adding the glass shade and the finial.

Before I could do all that, though, I found the instruction sheet. It was very nearly my undoing.

IMPORTANT SAFETY INSTRUCTIONS, the sheet began, and yes, it did speak in a loud voice just like that. Then it went on:


There followed a list of Things to Do. And I must say that I hadn't realized how extremely hazardous buying a lamp was. You think you're merely picking up a small electrical item, to lighten the darkness and banish the night, and it turns out you're taking on a project akin to the superconductor super collider.

"Turn off/unplug and allow to cool before replacing bulb, cleaning or other maintenance," the first instruction read. It seemed odd to put "Turn off/unplug and allow to cool" at the top of the list, when I hadn't even screwed the top part into the bottom part yet, but I figured these were professionals and if they decided that was the number one instruction, I'd go along with it. In spirit anyway. I couldn't actually turn off the lamp since I hadn't turned it on yet, but I did my best, while wondering what "other maintenance" was. I suppose a new lamp owner must resign herself to cleaning her lamp once in a while, but what other maintenance is there? Does an electric lamp need to be stripped down and rebuilt very often? Would abrasives and power tools be necessary? Jackhammers? Chemical solutions? I never took chemistry, thanks to some benevolent mix-up in the universe, but I'd be willing to add some chlorine if a reading indicates the lamp has high alkalinity or whatever.

The next instruction: "Bulb gets HOT quickly! Touch only switch/plug when turning on."

You know, I'm beginning to purse my lips a little at these instructions. Is the writer under the impression that most electric lamp owners are in the habit of grabbing the lamp by its hot bulb? Is this, in fact, a common mistake that amateur lamp users make? I wouldn't have thought so, but I don't come into contact with lamp users the way this company does, so I suppose it may know what it's talking about.

To go on: "Do not look directly at lighted bulb." "Keep lamp away from materials that may burn." "Do not remain in light if skin feels warm."

That first instruction is particularly intriguing. If looking directly at a lighted bulb is bad for you, why isn't this company issuing eclipse sunglasses along with its lamps? Wouldn't that be the safest, least litigious step to take? I may have to send the company a memo to that effect.

I could go on, but let me get to my real point, which involves the Assembly Instructions. I lied when I said I noticed the instructions right away. In point of truth, I had put the lamp together, selected a place for it, moving several other lamps here and there in the process, and had admired it from several angles and with the light on and off before I noticed the instructions. With a sinking feeling, I looked to see where I had erred:

"Lay out all the parts on a smooth surface as shown in illustration."

That was the first instruction and already I was sunk. Far from arranging the parts on a smooth surface, I'd pulled the two largest pieces from their molded Styrofoam nests and screwed them together pretty much in the same motion.

A list of alphabetical instructions followed: "Screw the neck B onto the body A and tighten." "Screw the seat C onto the neck B and tighten." "Screw the post D onto the seat C and tighten," all the way to "Screw in two 40W bulbs."

For several minutes I peered at my completed lamp, squinting in an effort to see mistakes, if any. It looked fine, but sometimes machinery that looks fine suddenly blows up or melts down or pulls out a squirt gun and starts blasting everyone in sight.

It was some time before I turned my attention to Maintenance, where instruction number one was "Light bulb recommended."

You mean as opposed to not using a light bulb? But what would be used instead, an egg? A tennis ball? A fistful of drinking straws?

It was this instruction that made me realize how extremely complex and technical buying a lamp is. As a person who never studied chemistry or even, to be perfectly honest, any of the higher math courses, I'm surprised I was brave enough to give it a whirl.

Write to Margo Bartlett at mbartlett@thisweeknews.com.