Doing Scary Sh*t

Photo of a woman holding a motorcycle helmet
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo, Unspash.

When I was 21 years old I wanted a motorcycle. A Honda Rebel 250, to be precise. In red. I was an English major at a small and lovely Southern liberal arts college. Perhaps the neo-Gothic dignity of my academic environs, where I spent my time explicating John Donne’s poetry and debating themes within Russian novels, did a little to push me towards something that would brand me as raw and rebellious. I had a pen. But I wanted a sword.

I graduated college sans motorcycle. But the fascination lingered. Many years later I found myself in another quiet, decorous environment, this time on a tree-lined street in suburban Pittsburgh. And the urge to shatter the quiet grew irresistible.

Granted, the past years had been difficult. I’d lost family members, including a cousin younger than I, and before that, my Harley-riding uncle. There was professional upheaval as the company I worked for underwent an acquisition, and personal upheaval through an interstate move. I searched for something that would center me. I searched for an escape. And sure enough, fate brought me into the path of another red Honda Rebel.

The student in me chose the classroom route for learning to ride. I gathered with 7 other aspiring motorcyclists on a bright morning in the parking lot of a community college. My borrowed helmet glommed onto my head like a barnacle, growing hotter and heavier as the day warmed.

My first challenge was simply starting the bike, and it quickly assumed Herculean proportions. I had never done this before. Manual transmission was as foreign to me as driving a horse and carriage. Conceptually, I understood what was supposed to happen: Turn on the ignition. Open the choke. Set the engine switch on. Pull in the clutch. Start the engine. Ease the clutch open. Gently roll on the throttle.

Perversely, the motorcycle refused to cooperate. Every time I either opened the clutch too fast, or the throttle too soon, or some combination of both, and the engine would stall out amidst the stares of my classmates. After about two dozen attempts the motorcycle lurched forward, carrying me with it – but handling and braking hadn’t been taught yet, and I quickly lost control of the bike. Down we both went.

So far I was about 20 minutes into my motorcycling career, and it was kicking my ass.

Nothing prepared me for the sheer physicality of motorcycles. I bruised my leg on the pavement, burnt my hand brushing against the hot engine. My wrists ached from the unfamiliarity of using the throttle. But I refused to give up. No one else could ride the bike for me.

So I did. Somehow, at last, the bike started and together we moved forward in a cautious glide. I had no more falls. I learned how to brake, and to turn, and by day’s end I was riding between a series of staggered cones in a way that felt almost easy.

I am not a Jedi yet. I’m only closer to being mistress of my fear. I’m a little closer to being able to go into an arena where failure is not only probable, but certain, and once I’ve failed to get back up again. There is a thrilling beauty in breaking away from the known. There is the thrill of feeling, for the first time, the bike respond to me, of body and machine working together. Few other places in my life have such visceral immediacy.

As we age, fewer things are new to us. We grow wary and risk-averse. We avoid danger, because we know better. We gain comfort and experience but lose the ability to lose ourselves. Motorcycling gave that back to me. The rebel rejoices.

Continue Reading

Fantasy Football and the Married Woman

Baseball may be America’s pastime, but football is her heart and soul.

A quick comparison between the World Series and the Super Bowl confirms this. “Super Bowl Party” is a household term; a World Series Party is not.

Football quarterback preparing to throw the ball
Photo by Riley McCullough on Unsplash

On any given Sunday, you generally won’t find folks wearing the jersey of their favorite baseball player. Foodwise, the Super Bowl has spawned dishes created solely for the purpose of noshing while watching the Big Game. Is anyone making the family’s secret recipe chili to watch the Pirates take on the Orioles? No?

None of this was on my mind when I started my inaugural fantasy football season in 2012. I could care less about tradition. All I wanted was to win. The stakes were heightened considerably by the fact that my husband and I were newlyweds and “happened” to be in the same league.

I started off well, winning three out of my first four games. I was elated. Yet in week 5, things started to go south, badly. My star wide receiver, Jordy Nelson, failed to produce. Maurice Jones-Drew suffered a season-ending ankle sprain, leaving me without a key running back. My quarterback Matt Ryan choked and put up a measly 8 points.

It was alright, I figured. Everyone had their off days and we had to take our losses along with the wins.

But my players continued hemorrhaging until my starting lineup looked more like an injury report. I searched the waiver wires, adding and discarding players in an attempt to shore up my struggling team. I listened to radio programs dedicated to fantasy football advice. I chatted with coworkers, debating various defensive lineups and whether or not it was worth handcuffing pairs of likely receivers.

Two things happened. First, I began having conversations that had previously been unimaginable. Is a healthy Heath Miller better than a less-than-100% Jimmy Graham? Will Matt Ryan come out of his slump? Is Beanie Wells ever going to have a breakout week?

Secondly, I could be fickle.  I couldn’t change my job, my house, my car, or my spouse. But by god, I could change my lineup. I blew through men faster than Elizabeth Taylor in her prime.

Things came to a head in week 13. I was playing my husband on what happened to be the weekend of our first wedding anniversary. I needed a win, and I had just the weapon to get me there: Robert Griffin III in his very first season with the Washington Redskins. With stakes high, I turned to an expert source on which quarterback to start. Via Twitter, Fran Tarkenton kindly congratulated me and advised me to go with Matt Ryan over RGIII. I did. I lost.

I don’t blame Fran. I ended the season 2012 season 7-6, which felt pretty good, all things considered. Because there is always next year with more players, more opportunities, and yes, more fantasy.

 

Continue Reading

The Makeup-Free Meeting

makeup brushes and eyeshadow
Photo by kinkate from Pexels https://www.pexels.com/

As Halloween comes around, it’s a time of year to think about costumes, masks, disguises. About being other than what we are. About trying on an alternate identity, even if just for a night.

The opposite of that, I suppose, is using nothing that alters the way we naturally appear. Earlier this summer, I was challenged to attend a business meeting at work sans makeup. I accepted.

It was a fearsomely hot day in August, the kind that swelters before the sun even rises above the horizon. I’d already walked my two dogs and was back in my air-conditioned home, gulping coffee while frantically running a blowdryer through my hair and wondering just how much more the thermostat was going to rise. I opened my cosmetic bag to begin my usual routine…and I just couldn’t. Too. Darn. Hot.

So I slathered on a little moisturizer and checked my face in the mirror. I hesitated. I looked again. And then, I cheated. A little bit. I dabbed a bit of pore minimizer onto my T-zone and swiped some chapstick over my lips. Then I was out the door before I could second-guess myself any further.

All day I waited for someone to make a comment that I looked tired or ask if I was feeling well. But no one did. During my afternoon meeting, business proceeded as usual.

For a decision that felt bold and daring, an act that flew in the face of workplace conventions, it was stunningly anticlimactic.

Despite the fact that I suffered no ill effects (and a remarkably shortened morning routine) from my makeup-free experiment, I haven’t repeated it. I’m still beholden to cosmetics to allow me to create my workday face.

But as for the weekends – those are the days you’ll find me barefaced, heading to the supermarket or out to hike in the Shenandoah Mountains.

As far as Halloween, I love a good costume, the chance to disappear into a role. And maybe, just maybe, by expressing a dimension of our personality that isn’t part of our day-to-day life, we actually become a bit more honest about ourselves.

 

 

Continue Reading

The Timesuck of Being Female

You could make the argument that a woman’s worth is measured by her face – perhaps literally. A recent survey reports that women in the United States spend $300,000 over the course of our lifetimes, just on products that go on our faces. There is some regional variation: on the East Coast, women have more expensive faces, wearing  an average of $11 worth of beauty products each day. In the Far West, in areas like Montana, the average cost drops to around $5 a day.

Amy Arden hiking with a backpack in the grand canyon
Barefaced hiking out of the Grand Canyon in 2009.

By the time I walk on the door on a workday morning, I’ve applied no less than thirteen products. The idea, I suppose, is to look like me, only better. The tally doesn’t count shampoo, facial cleanser, body wash, and shaving cream in the shower.

They are:

  • Hair volumizing spray, applied while hair is damp to coax it into having some body
  • Facial moisturizer
  • Facial primer
  • BB cream with sunscreen (I mix two tubes to get a shade that better matches my skin)
  • Blush
  • Eyeshadow shade #1, base color
  • Eyeshadow shade #2, contour color
  • Mascara
  • Eyebrow pencil
  • Lip balm
  • Lipstick
  • Hairspray

You could say that it is my choice to do this. No one is forcing me. And yet.

I work as a consultant. There is an unspoken but no less potent expectation that women in my field will dress according to a certain standard and arrange their physical appearance accordingly. Every woman in the management chain, from project managers through vice presidents, wears makeup. I have only seen a single exception (and even she highlights her hair.)

I did the math. If I spend 15 minutes on an average workday styling my hair and putting on makeup, for 250 workdays per year (roughly) = 62 ½ hours go into looking better.

That’s over 1 ½ workweeks. And this calculation is only scratching the surface; it doesn’t count time at the gym, time getting haircuts, the occasional manicure or pedicure. All of this is time I’m not researching or reading or building new professional skills. All of it is time I’m not writing.

Applying makeup before my wedding in July 2012.

So comes the double burden for women in the professional space – and arguably, anywhere that women work in Western culture. We must not only be competent, but also attractive – or at least take steps to enhance our attractiveness. There are real financial costs if we don’t. According to a landmark study by Cornell University, attractiveness, and specifically weight, have measurable impact on promotions and wages.

So we are in a bind, spending our time putting this stuff on and then spending our hard-earned wages on buying more of it.

I don’t know if Jane Austen reached for the rouge pot before setting off for a local dance, or if Charlotte Bronte plucked her eyebrows before her meetings with her London publisher. And while I’m bold enough to spend most Saturdays bare-faced, I’m not ready to brave a client meeting in such a state. Yet I can’t help but wonder what would happen if I did.

 

 

Continue Reading