May 12, 2018

Last One of the Year? Or Ever?

October 7 & 8, 2017, I taught my last MSF Basic Rider Course (I) of the year. This year, in July, I will be "officially 70" (officially, because I’ve called myself “70 years old” since I passed 68 1/2). I’m having a hard time imagining myself teaching kids and middle-aged students motorcycling at that age. 70 is REALLY OLD and I’m feelin’ it. After one of those half-day classes, I can barely move. Six years ago, I was regularly doing doubles but today I wouldn't touch a double with your legs. Guys a lot younger than me say that their day is finished after a morning or afternoon hiking around the BRC range. I’d still be up for the old 2PM to 7PM classes, but we don’t run those anymore: not enough students. Getting up at 5AM to get to a Cities’ range at 7AM isn’t my idea of a fun way to spend a weekend. Early in the season, driving or riding 50 miles in the dark when I'm exhausted and sore is far from my comfort zone.

Teaching motorcycle classes was a terrific income gap-filler when I first left the medical device industry in 2001; before my consulting and repair businesses took off and the college teaching gig became full-time. Yeah, I enjoyed teaching people about motorcycling and getting to ride the state’s motorcycles for money, but it was always close enough to “work” that I wouldn’t have done it without the money. It’s actually a lot of work. In the early years, 2002-2010 or so, I did 20-something courses a summer; pretty much every weekend of my whole summer for a lot of years.

From 2007 to 2011 I made space for at least one several week long trip every season: Alaska in 2007, Nova Scotia in 2008, the Rockies with my grandson in 2009,. North Dakota ghost towns in 2010, the Lake Superior loop with my brother in 2011. I decided on different excitement at the end of 2011: a hip replacement. I made another loop around Superior late that summer, but I put on a lot fewer miles than I usually rack up on that route. I followed that up with a heart attack and a surgery in late 2012. I retired my businesses and from my college instructor gig after the next spring school semester in 2013 and turned a simple RV retirement trip into an extended and miserable VW repair extravaganza. We moved to Red Wing later that year, sold our house in the Cities in early 2014, and . . . that’s about it. The only trip left on my bucket list would be a run down South America’s Pacific Coast Highway. That’s probably not gonna happen.

Since 2014, more than half of my classes scheduled at Red Wing’s site, Southeast Technical College, have cancelled. For the last decade, most of the classes I taught have been at Century College in White Bear, about 50 minutes from our home in Little Canada; but an hour from Red Wing. I have spent a lot of my life arranging my work and home to minimize commuting time and distance (in that order). I’m not going to stop now. I compulsively calculate my actual hourly rate, after 50 years of billing customers for work, and I’m making about $18/hour in real dollars, pre-tax, with the motorcycle classes. Not awful, but certainly not great.

That last 2017 October weekend, I worked with one of my favorite co-instructors: John Wright. If anything could convince me to put in another year or two at this gig, working with John would do it. As always, working with John was in no way like working. I went home sore, a little frustrated with the process and the fact that at least three of the students who "passed" had no business being on a motorcycle, and feeling like I have probably over-extended my use-by-date as an instructor. In early April this year, just like in my first experience with Pat Hahn and the old MSF program, I gave John a volunteer hand with a one-instructor class in Red Wing. After that part-time afternoon on the range, I was almost crippled for a day or so. One of the unexpected benefits of the motorcycle teaching gig has been the people I’ve taught with over the years. The list is long and memorable: motorcyclists and instructors who have not just taught me about motorcycling and teaching, but a whole list of subjects have been explored and appreciated. I feel incredibly lucky that the MMSC opportunity came along when it did; thanks to Pat Hahn and Bill Shaffer for encouraging me to battle through that first mostly-miserable year and the training program. I believe those two friends where hugely responsible for most of the good times that resulted from walking away from my lucrative but miserable medical devices career. If I tried to list all of the instructors I've enjoyed working with, this paragraph would be ridiculous. However, if I didn't mention Greg Pierce and Duane Delperdang, the two program managers who have run the best MNSCU/MMSC program in the state (Century College), I would be sorry for a long while. Not only is the Century program the poster child for a well-run training facility, but those two guys are also a pair of my favorite coaches to work with. Ben Goebel, Mike Jagielski, Jed Duncan, Sev Pearman, and Ken Pierce all make my list of favorite people with whom to spend a weekend standing on hot asphalt for a couple of ten hour day and in the 250+ courses I taught over the years, most of those days were spent with the guys listed in this paragraph.

My first year teaching the MSF program was not that much fun. For a while, that first year, I wouldn’t have bet much on my lasting another season. Since that first year, I’ve worked with several experienced coaches who are not only a lot of fun, but educational, interesting, skilled, and good people. Partially due to location convenience, I ended up teaching mostly at Century College where the program directors have also been coaches.  Working for someone who knows the job, the customers, and the challenges, makes the job a lot more predictable. Oddly, a guy who is no longer with the MMSC program as of a few years ago was the first decent, experienced instructor I worked with: Steve Lane. Steve taught, mostly, at Dakota County Technical College which is often referred to as “the Wild West” by instructors from other locations. Over the years, DCTC became the place for instructors who wanted to make up their own wacky rules and course "design." I quit teaching there more than a decade ago, with once-every-three-or-four-years experimental toe-dip just to see if anything had changed. It’s a little more controlled now, but not consistent enough for my personal liability comfort-levels.

Now, after 16 years, I’m in a similar place as that first year; except I don’t need the money. I don’t like the early morning travel; especially riding or driving in the dark. The work is physically hard on me and has been harder every summer for the last couple of years. I don’t like scheduling my spring and summer weekends seven to eight months in advance; instructor course sign-up occurs in November and December depending on the school where you work. I was in no hurry to make a decision about retiring, but I wanted to as fair as possible to the MMSC program and people who are counting on me. At least until the course sign-up meetings began last winter, I could put the decision off for a while. For that matter, I could just do fill-in work in 2018 and put off the decision until the new BRC 2 kicks in in late 2018. I could have done that, but after evaluating my lack of motorcycling, physical conditioning (especially eyesight), and lack of enthusiasm this spring, I decided to officially retire this month.

Throughout the 2018 season, instructors will be training for that "new" MSF program, the BRC 2, this spring and summer (2018). That is a long two-weekend commitment and I suspect it would be a make-or-break event for me; and lots of other trainers. The rumor was that about half of Wisconsin’s trainers quit during and after their 2015 BRC 2 training (Transitional RiderCoach Prep or TRCP). If history repeats itself, it could be hard to find a Minnesota motorcycle course next year. Finding new coaches is getting tougher because there aren't many younger skilled and experienced motorcyclists and even fewer of those riders are willing to donate the time to become a trainer and put in the work to become a decent coach. It takes a few years to become much of a teacher, if it is ever going to happen for you. Like most professions and human activities, "90% of everything is crap." Once you are a MMSC/MNSCU motorcycle trainer, the state pays something for the semi-annual training requirements, but you have to get past that first long and intense training hurdle on your dime.

Quitting was a tough decision, even with all of the reasons I've listed above. I retired from my college instructor gig 5 years ago and almost all of the friendships I made there have become distant memories. Even though I've continued to teach at Century during the last 4 years, most of my friends there are now only seen in passing and rarely even then. Absence does not "make the heart grow fonder," the more accurate saying is "out of sight, out of mind." But everything changes and so have I and so have you.

Stay safe everyone and thanks for all the fish.


RichardM said...

I think that it is wonderful that you were willing to invest so much time and effort into rider training programs. And I'm sure that most of your students got some benefit beyond just the endorsement.

Congrats on the final class!

T.W. Day said...

Thanks, Richard.