Afterthoughts: Beginning to See the Light

I’ve been overthinking light bulbs.

A couple of weeks ago, a light bulb burned out in my kitchen. It’s startling to be munching on toast in the morning and suddenly plunged into darkness. Your first move, when a light goes out, is invariably to look around to find the extent of the crisis. Just my apartment? The entire city? Are the end times upon us?


Fortunately for me, and civilization, it was just the one bulb, so after work I headed to the hardware store for a replacement. As I stared at the wall of boxes in front of me, I realized I have definitely not been keeping up with advancements in technology when it comes to light bulbs.


Afterthoughts Highrise lights
Illustration: Vidhya Nagarajan


There were no incandescent bulbs for sale. Not one. Instead, I was presented with row after row of LED and halogen bulbs, in a whole galaxy of options. It was as if I had turned the corner and walked right into the future. (The homeowners among you are shaking your heads right now at how late this discovery comes to me, but, hey, I’m a renter, and I’ve somehow managed to go for a few years without having to buy light bulbs.)


Isn’t it great when it turns out that things have been getting better and more advanced while you weren’t paying attention? It’s like being a kid and realizing it’s Christmas morning today, without the agony of anticipation. Or discovering an entire new, awesome, multiseason TV series on Netflix you’ll be able to devour all at once, rather than champing at the bit for each week’s new episode.


Anyway, I was unexpectedly impressed at how futuristic—and cheap!—my light bulb possibilities were. Such are the joys of middle adulthood.


I picked an LED number that looked like it’d do the job, plus a backup, brought them home, installed the bulb, flicked on the switch. And, oh, man. My kitchen now looks like an operating room. So bright!


I think the new, intense, almost bluish-white light actually works in that particular corner of the apartment—kitchens are utilitarian and you want to be able to see what you’re doing—but there’s an obvious shift in color tone when you walk into the living room or the bedroom. Operating room to orange-y, fire-lit cave, basically. I’m not an interior design expert, but this feels like an aesthetic faux pas. Since you can buy LED bulbs in just about any hue these days, I’m going to have to pick an apartmentwide light color and stick with it, right?


The question now is, am I a warm, yellow-light person or a neutral, bright-white-light one? The choice feels a bit loaded. I’m not a luddite, after all, one of that tribe that clings to its old, inefficient incandescent bulbs for the nostalgic analog warmth they throw off. Hurray for modernity, I say, and for seeing the colors in your apartment as they really are. And yet there’s a romance and a comfort to that cozy yellow—a feeling that you’re not in the office any more, you’re home and can relax.


I’m torn.


I took a walk through my neighborhood one night to take an informal survey of light-color preferences. It’s a pleasant meditation once in a while to stroll through the darkness and soak in, from the sidewalk, the glow of families and couples and individuals whiling away their evenings. If you look up at any Honolulu high-rise at night, you can see the divide between the two camps—the whole building a patchwork of warm yellow and cool blue lights spilling out from each apartment. It’s a beautiful effect, really, a subtle, diffuse Mondrian painted by committee. And it helps my decision not a bit.


Maybe I need to turn another room blue or yellow to figure out my ideal personal color temperature, or else learn to love my own patchwork of an apartment. Or, wait, maybe ever-advancing technology can save me! Doing a quick web search reveals there’s now such a thing as color-changing LED bulbs, like the Philips Hue Connected Bulb. It syncs with your smartphone and, with one swipe of a slider, you can go from cool to warm or even bright pink or green. Brilliant.