The Professor Raves, Rants and Rages Against the Machine

[one good use for a leafblower by artist ruben ortiz-torres]

[elevating the annoying to the sublime: gold-plated leaf blower by artist ruben ortiz-torres]

The Professor has recently noticed that his hours and days trickle by slowly but the months and the years feel as if they race by. It’s part of the aging process. So, too, is the feeling that there are so many occasions to rave, rant or rage. In such a state [agitation, not California], almost anything can set The Professor off. Sure enough, the next thing The Professor knows, he is waving his hand-made walking stick at speeding cars [“It’s a 25mph zone!”] and yelling back at the TV [“Don’t you see—the ancient aliens built it!”] with “TV” meaning television but also indicating Tucker Viemeister, the NYC-based design statesman who The Professor will gratuitously mention that he once worked alongside of.

Around The Professor’s neck of the woods, Fridays mean one thing, and one thing only. Not fish sticks in the magisterial cafeteria with the other faculty wonks. Not “OMG can you believe it’s the weekend, do you have to work on school projects or can we go rock climbing” with the undergrads. And not it’s “Friday night, I just got paid, party hunting, feeling right” per the classic, heading out to the clubs to-blow-my-dough 1988 song by Johnny Kemp.

Instead, Fridays are leaf-blower days at The Professor’s place. The grass, the shrubbery, the sidewalk, even the interior courtyard [the “hardscape”] gets the leaf-blower treatment from the guys with the contract. To their credit, they use their leaf blowers to collect the grass and leaves into piles that then get carted away so it can be mulched in our sustainability-minded, politically-correct compost. But this isn’t about the guys; they aren’t the problem.

The leaf bower is the problem, and that’s the machine that The Professor is Raving, ranting and raging about. Granted, it does have the styled look of a professional industrial tool; the machines appear as if they were more than a little proud of their jaunty notice-me safety colors, their complex yet smoothly molded housings, their textured ergonomic grips, their roar of power unthrottled, and their overall effort to communicate a message of efficient and advanced technology.

But the better analogy for the leaf blower would be a weapon, something between a gun and a bazooka. That’s because the leaf blower has one key detail, though small in scale that sticks out like the sore thumb it might likely cause. To The Professor, it’s what separates the leaf blower from all of the other garden tools: the fact that this tool has a trigger.

With that one detail—and with a barrel-based configuration to play off of—the leaf blower becomes something else beyond a simple, directly functional tool. It becomes a weapon of grass destruction; a determined if over-masculinized displacer of debris; a blaster of mind and matter; a first-generation Borg-like excuse-for-a-prosthesis; a feeble, phallic throbbing gristle of an engine; a failed attempt at man-machine Henry Dreyfusian integration; a cleanliness-is-godliness liturgical engine for the ritual cleansing of real estate and property-value elevation; a device that expresses faux ergonomics [for these are not comfortable, friendly or healthful to wearer or neighbor]; yet another machine in what, at this point, is a long line of machinery wielded [the jet ski at the otherwise pristine lake or the snowmobile breaking the winter stillness, to name but two] so as to torment and tame that bitch Mother Nature, Gaia-what’s-her-name; a way of slapping some sense into The Eternal Goddess for being too damned alluring, too fecund and most of all, too messy with her leaves and stuff, and that, if left unattended, might make us question our dominant Cartesian-coordinate-based paradigm.

Now when The Professor was a young man known colloquially as The Computer and living with his parents, it was his responsibility to not only rake the front, back and side lawns, but to also rake the better part of the woods that filled out the one-plus acre rural Connecticut lot as well. So The Professor knows—in his hands, in his body and in the forced zen-mind that only chores or minimum-wage work could create in late-20th-century youth—the relative inefficiencies and drawbacks of even the most advanced raking techniques. Despite that knowledge, it would still unequivocably be The Professor’s preference in this day and age to rake, and to have others rake as well.

And the answer to the follow-up question is” Yes,” The Professor would gladly pay the landscapers and gardeners more money to do so. But he would also not demand perfectly scoured grounds in the first place; he’d prefer to live with some of the leaves, to have longer grass, even to say good-bye to the grass [in favor of a xeriscaped approach] and he’d suggest to other interested parties that they consider doing the same.

Because The Professor has yet to master the Jedi skill of shutting his ears the way that most humans shut their eyes, there is no body-based way to block out sound; if a leaf blower is operating nearby, the whole neighborhood is potentially effected. The dental-drill screech of the leaf blower is matched by the tone of its engine complaining that it can’t breathe, either. Incompletely combusted gases from its motor—along with whatever particulate matter, dust, mold, spores and fecal material that gets picked up—can travel surprisingly large distances quickly. When that kind of material is accelerated into the air, it becomes a public nuisance, capable of drifting across boundaries, past property lines and into open windows to gather in your asthmatic aunt’s lungs and to coat her precious tchotckes.

While it may have been hysterical to see Beck performing “Loser” back in the days of his “Mellow Gold” album where he uses a leaf blower on stage, or to see the daft geezers on Top Gear employ leaf blowers for their lift force on a semi-chubby of a hovercraft, the day-to-day reality is that these machines don’t just blow, they suck. As a people, we should be embarrassed by the present-day leaf blower; they make us soft, deaf and irritated. As designers complicit in their creation and propagation, we should feel remorse, or worse: that our design profession has sold-out. If the leaf blower is to continue to exist, it needs to get something akin to the Dyson treatment, it needs to be conceptualized anew and rebuilt from the ground-up as Sir James Dyson famously did with the leaf blower’s close cousin, the vacuum cleaner [by integrating a new cyclonic technology into the machine and by ridding the vacuum of its need for dust bags].

The mark of a maturing creative profession isn’t that it bills clients with an extra zero, but that it proactively takes charge of things when they go sideways. Toward that end, our concerns must become cultural more than commercial. The leaf blower’s not our fault, but it’s our responsibility, and we should all take some of the responsibility for its change or its demise—and that’s why they call me [“Hey, this is a 25mph zone, slow down!”] The [raving, ranting and raging] Professor.
©2014

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One response to “The Professor Raves, Rants and Rages Against the Machine

  1. I concur wholeheartedly. Trying to get our gardner to set down the leaf blower and pull out a rake, or heaven-forbid, to squat down and pick something up off the 100 square foot space he “blows” each month is akin to asking him to use his blower to fly to the moon.

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