It’s Never Too Late?

All Rights Reserved © 2008 Thomas W. Day

Keven Cameron’s book, Top Dead Center, ends with the following paragraph: “People are clever creatures, but today in our world of specialists we tend to think we need lessons in order to tackle such activities as riding a pony, resetting a circuit breaker, or changing engine oil. This is unfortunate, because it gives people the idea that technology is magic, that there is nothing we non-wizards can discover or do about it. This puts a wall between people and the things they could otherwise understand and therefore enjoy more. The wall takes some climbing, and the ascent is easiest begun in childhood, but it’s never too late to begin.” There are some things that are only done well by the young or the specially skilled. I, for example, will never dunk a basketball on a regulation court. Being, literally, half-blind, my odds on the race track were limited by my inability to accurately judge distances. None of that kept me from flailing away on a basketball court or from holding down the middle-of-the-motocross-pack.

Since 2001 I’ve been coaching MSF Basic and Experienced Rider classes. For four decades before that, I was often employed to help a variety of people learn how to ride motorcycles, make or record music, write fiction and non-fiction, experiment in electronics and physics, use computers, manufacture electronic and mechanical equipment, and implant medical devices in surgical patients. Sometimes I knew what I was doing when I “taught” those things and sometimes I learned while I went, often just a step ahead of my “students.” Regardless of the subject, I was informally schooled, often self-educated, in the subjects I taught. The fact is, the best teachers I’ve known in my life are rarely formally “educated” and have been driven by their desire to understand how things work rather than inspired by the education system, academic or industrial, to learn their subjects.

Both of my parents had formal education credentials and they both said their formal “Education” classes were the worst taught, most useless classes they took in their long academic careers. My father was a 50-year-veteran high school teacher who taught math and business until he was forced to retire at 73. My step-mother taught individual and group private piano lessons for 30 years and received her MA when she was 66. The skills they used to teach hundreds of students those complicated subjects are not found in any theoretical education textbooks.

scott jarrettA friend of mine, Scott Jarrett, is one of the most technically accomplished people I know. He deftly avoided the honor of a high school diploma and moved directly past “Go” into a career in music and recording engineering because he was driven to understand and excel at that career. For a while, he and I worked together as instructors at a private college. I learned more about teaching, music, and technology during that period than I had in all of the classes I suffered in my ludicrous 25-year pursuit of a college degree. In his late-fifties, Scott went after new knowledge as passionately as many of us did when we were teenagers. Most recently, I watched Scott jump into figuring out how carburetors work, simply because he wanted to understand that part of his new motorcycle. Soon afterward, he became involved in the creation of an on-line education program with the same kind of fearless creativity I have come to expect from him. Now, he’s designing a multi-faceted music and technology program for a college in Santa Fe, New Mexico. One of the inventors of the implantable cardio-defibrillator, the ICD, held a degree in philosophy and his name is attached to dozens of electrical patents, all of which would make an MIT engineering graduate jealous. Obviously, his drive to understand technology was not inhibited by a formal engineering background.

greatbatchIn 1991, I took a position with a medical device company. My new boss told me, “At your age, this is your last chance to make something of your career.” Wilson Greatbatch, the inventor of the implantable pacemaker and the lithium-iodide battery among other things, began a research institute searching for a cure for AIDS when he was 80 years old. Ten years after my “last chance,” when I was 54, Mr. Greatbatch told me, “If you are only working for the money, you are wasting your time.” A few months later, I quit working for a company that only offered money as compensation for my time. I have not regretted that choice, once, in the last decade. Turns out, it wasn’t too late for me to switch career directions.

One of the many cool things about an activity like motorcycling is that it is so complicated that you never stop learning about riding and working on these machines. Like lawyers and physicians, we are all “practicing motorcyclists.” Only a few will actually ever become skilled in the art. As long as you are curious and interested, you can find something new to learn. I try to do some kind of experiment in every corner I turn, to either reinforce what I know or to see if I can learn something new. Every time I do some basic maintenance on one of my bikes, I read some odd part of the service manual to learn something more about the machine to which I trust my life. The fact that this activity requires some physical capacity inspires me to work on my conditioning, to stay flexible and strong so that I can keep doing it a few more years, is just topping on the cake.

Discouraging Boomers and older folks from taking up motorcycling seems like the logical thing to do. Riding is a moderate-to-high risk activity. Getting old means your bones become brittle, your reflexes slow, your eyes deteriorate, you lose strength, and your mind is addled. Positive values of all of those qualities are needed on a motorcycle. Still, you will never be younger than you are today. Life is brief and it should not be boring. I still want to fly a glider, jump out of an airplane, and travel the Pan American Highway to the southern tip of South America. I’m too old to do any of those things, but I hope to do them anyway. It’s not too late until the day you die.

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