There are some folk who don't see the gem inside my rough exterior who might consider me a hot head. To which I say a hearty "bite me". But let this opinion be a caution that within this blog may lurk items of a venting nature or perhaps those which might be considered a rant. So be it. Proceed with caution. You have been warned.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Lawn Mowers - Spawn of Satan

When I was quite young, perhaps between 6 and 9 years old I was sometimes permitted(!) to mow my grandparents' yard using the only implement then available, the rotary push mower. For those who are too young to have first hand knowledge, these implements of destruction were heavy appliances equipped with a rotor on which were mounted from four to six blades which spun and mangled grass when enough forward propulsion was supplied by means of human muscle being applied to the wooden handle. Pushing one of these with enough force to both make it progress in a forward direction as well as spin the rotor took every bit of effort a young lad could muster. Frequently while straining over this contraption I wished for something better, something more modern. Sometimes we are cursed by getting what we wish for.

My family's first power mower was a gold colored Lawn Boy which my father pushed home proudly from the dealer who lived only two blocks from our house. Glittering in the sun it promised adventures in lawn care hitherto undreamed of by boys previously indentured to creaking rotary antiques. Alas, it was not to be. Although that first day the shining new Lawn Boy started on the very first pull it was to be the last time for such compliance, thus foreshadowing a lifetime of combat to come. I made the trip to the dealer's garage many times over the next few years where he would disappear with the Lawn Boy into his shop. Usually after about 20 minutes of clanking and swearing I would hear the machine cough to life and be sent home to mow. Eventually it got to the point where he would bring the mower out to me still running and tell me that I should probably not shut it down if I wanted to get any mowing done that day. I became a familiar figure in the street trudging the two blocks to my house with the mower merrily roaring away. This led to many a taunt from passing cars of teenagers about how well I was keeping the grass down on the blacktop. In my youthful innocence I would think "someday I will have a mower of my own and it will be a good one." Ah, the foolish dreams of youth.

Now many many years later I have owned many many mowers. I have also owned and used many other gas powered tools - chain saws, weed whackers, snow blowers, stump grinders, sod cutters, and lawn aerators to name a few. Based on this record of experience my conclusion is that the lawn mower industry's goal is to screw the customer hard and long. Maintain your chainsaw properly and it will give you years of willing service. Follow the manufacturers advice and your snow blower will get you out of your driveway with great reliability. But no matter what you do, no matter how diligently you pamper and service your lawn mower, it will fail time and again and at the worst possible moment. And it does no good to insist that you get what you pay for as, over the years, I have come to such a white hot hatred of lawn mowers that money is no object if I could obtain one that was reliable. Starting with budget K-mart mowers and progressing over the years through Craftsman riders and pushers to the current state of the art Snapper, no matter what you pay, no matter what the sales literature insists, lawn mowers are designed to move heavy, unwieldy chunks of metal as quickly as possible from the dealer showroom to the city dump.

Mower manufacturers are devishly clever in devising ways for mowers to fail. First it goes without saying that the day you bring the mower home will be the last time the mower starts as advertised. During the life of any mower arcane rituals requiring priming, pulling, cursing, and procedures from the sacred texts known as owners' manuals will be necessary to bring the machine to life. During my own long history I have had mowers defeat my efforts to start them in a variety of ways; starter rope breaking, starter recoil spring breaking, engine seizing, magneto failure, fuel line obstruction etc. Mowers that have any part of their mechanism driven by belts will slip the belts and/or tear the belt to shreds at least once annually and frequently more often. Self propelled mowers will throw belts, break c rings, jam, throw bearings or become clogged with debris. Any part of the mower that is expendable needing periodic replacement will be hidden behind shields and proprietary fasteners and will be so inaccessible that special tools and dental mirrors will be needed to effect a replacement.

My latest demonic entity is a top of the line Snapper self propelled mower less than three years old bought at daunting expense. I thought that Snapper, having fended off the attempt by Wal-Mart to absorb it and being built in the United States, deserved my patronage after the latest Craftsman's starter mechanism failed like a cheesecloth pup tent. In the showroom I mentioned my doubts about lack of either primer button or choke. "New technology." said the satanic minion attending us "It will start on the first pull everytime." And once more I believed and broke out my checkbook. It did start on the first pull. Once. Taken back to the "we service what we sell" folks they assured us there was nothing wrong with it and demonstrated starting on the first pull. Unbeknownst to me, it will start on the first pull once hot, but no power on earth will make it start when cold except yanking the rope at least a dozen times and then letting it sit for up to 20 minutes before trying again.

In the owner's manual I was warned that the oil must be changed after so many hours of use, so I attempted to change it. Of course the oil plug was concealed by the housing - but not to worry, the manual assured me that you could drain the oil through the filler spout by turning the mower upside down. Yes folks, I do possess a modicum of commmon sense, but there it was in the manual - turn it upside down and drain it through the filler spout. So I did. Huge mistake! Knowing what I know about the useful lifetime of a mower I would have been better off just to run it until the congealed, gritty old oil ruined the engine. After this fiasco it took two days of effort and supplication before it deigned to start again. Then, as soon as it started spewing huge clouds of oil smoke it broke a retaining clip on the self propelling mechanism and pushing it became a task for the World's Strongest Man competition. It's going to the shop tomorrow. Do I have high hopes? HA!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Playing for Nothing

I majored in music education in college. I picked music because there was little I enjoyed more than making music (with my friends - thanks Willie). During my final two years while I was playing piano, bass, sax, clarinet, bassoon and trombone at every opportunity and conducting every group I could that I was not actually playing in, my clarinet teacher gave me a piece of advice that I have come to recall many times in the years since. "Never play for nothing", he cautioned me, "people will think that's what you are worth."

I've been on both sides of the pro/amateur musician profile and in previous entries in this blog I've gone to some lengths to explain the rewards of bringing live orchestral music to those who otherwise could never afford to attend and providing full pit orchestras in venues that could never afford the pros. Evidently full pit orchestras will soon go the way of the dodo everywhere as even shows appearing on Broadway are making every effort to replace musicians with digital synthesizers while musicians' unions make futile efforts to preserve these jobs. So even as amateur musicians are working to provide and preserve music performance that is either rapidly vanishing or becoming prohibitively expensive, organizations and individuals who recruit amateur groups to enhance their productions are doing their very best to demoralize and discourage the very people they depend on to complete their audience's experience.

Our local ballet company has been trumpeting their pride in that our city finally has a year round professional ballet. Be that as it may, for a live orchestra this professional company still turns to the amateurs and it is easy to see why. For a recent engagement there were three rehearsals and two performances. The going terms of the musician's union local would be $90.00 per person per 2 1/2 hour service. $90.00 X 40 musicians X 5 services is $18,000.00, a sum that would leave this company, like many throughout the country, using recorded music were it not for volunteer musicians.

Faced with these facts you would expect volunteer musicians to be treated with respect and gratitude. Nothing could be further from the fact. Instead they are treated like galley slaves. Four to five hour rehearsals with no breaks are the norm. With no constraints on time or costs, rehearsals are disorganized and the musicians sometimes wait idle up to forty minutes while problems are worked out that could have easily been addressed in technical rehearsals requiring no live music. Promises as to rehearsal length are made and quickly broken. Offers of buffet lunches in return for early rehearsal times for people who all have day jobs are made and not realized. Musicians arrive and leave for each rehearsal and performance without a single word of appreciation from either those in charge of, or participating in, the production.

Lest I be accused of picking on this particular organization, this has been the norm in various summer theater productions as well. It has brought home the perception that one of the reasons that musicians' unions exist beyond the obvious remuneration consideration is that union contracts force those in charge of productions such as this to realize that a musician's time has value and is to be wasted at financial peril.

My own perception is that money alone is not entirely a substitute for respect and gratitude, but it helps. People that wish to treat others like indentured servants should expect to pay for the privilege. If you can't afford to pay, then consider doing without if you can't extend common courtesy to those you wish to exploit.

My teacher was right. In spite of our huge contribution to these local performances, somehow because we play for nothing, far too many people think this is what we are worth. Personally I have been burnt too many times and am getting to old to expect things to ever change. I'm going to have to rethink the cost/reward equation of doing these things in the future.