Roll Like Thunder, Gone Like Smoke

Accidents happen. Specifically, motorcycles accidents. And I knew, as a rider, that sooner or later one would happen to me.

The day started out beautifully.  Bright sunshine, clear skies, temperatures cool enough to make wearing jeans, gloves, a helmet, and a padded jacket pleasurable. My husband Vince and I headed north from Pittsburgh, me on my sporty 883 SuperLow and Vince on his Indian Scout. 

Long shadows stretched over the asphalt as we rode up the interstate. Fog rose in white clouds among the treetops when we crossed the Ohio River. I revved into 5th gear and felt the wind rush over my hands, arms, and chest. And it felt good. 

Miles 1 through 46 of the journey passed without incident. After a hearty pancake breakfast at our destination, we decided to continue our ride along the shores of a nearby lake. As we made our way along the two-lane road that would take us there, I attempted to make a turn over some gravel. The motorcycle lost traction and went down, carrying me with it. In less than a second I found myself on the ground with my left leg pinned underneath 500-plus pounds of angry metal. 

I tried to pull free and couldn’t. The bike was too heavy, and my injured leg didn’t have the strength for me to drag it out. For a few scary moments I was pinned and helpless, cars passing me by on the road, until my husband lifted the bike so that I could get clear.

I knew I was hurt. I didn’t think anything was broken. Still, my knee was thobbing and once I was able to take a look I discovered a deep gash that had bled through my jeans. Tiny bits of yellow adipose tissue poked through the cut. My left arm and shoulder – the side I’d landed on – were sore. But thanks my helmet and leather gloves, my hands and face remained unscathed.

My first priority was treating the cut. We didn’t have a first aid kit with us, so Vince went into town to get supplies. Meanwhile, I made my way to a spot under some trees and rolled up the leg of my jeans. I wanted to allow the cut to bleed freely until I could properly clean it; doing so would help dislodge any dirt or debris that might have gotten into the puncture.

My impromptu wound triage was interrupted by the arrival of an employee of the small business whose parking lot I was loitering in, albeit under duress. He took a look at me and then my motorcycle, and quickly invited me in to use the sink and first aid kit. By the time Vince returned, all that remained was for him to ACE-wrap my knee. A couple Good Samaritans in the shop helped get my cracked windshield back into place. 

My options were now to either leave the damaged Harley behind and ride two-up behind my husband. Or I could climb back on for a 50-mile return trip to Pittsburgh.

Vince and I had never ridden with me as a passenger, and the highway didn’t seem an ideal place to learn. My motorcycle, despite its damage, appeared operable. So like the Chris Ledoux song, I decided to cowboy up. 

Thanks to the bandages, the bleeding on my leg was slowed. Still, it would likely need stitches. And since it was the leg I used to shift gears, the ride back wasn’t going to be exactly comfortable.

But I made it. There were challenges, and not just physical and mental ones. We had to make another stop to get my left mirror back into place after I found it was dangling dangerously askew (and preventing me from seeing any traffic on my left side.)  Seconds before I was about to merge back into the freeway I realized that my clutch was sticking.  A clutch lever that didn’t release meant that the engine wasn’t able to engage the transmission. No transmission engagement = no changing gears. Luckily, I was able to pop the lever outward and get myself into a gear that allowed me to travel at highway speed.

Troubleshooting mechanical issues while riding a motorcycle is never something I imagined myself doing. But I did.

Back in Pittsburgh and after my stitches from urgent care,  I immediately thought of what I could have done differently. Of what I would do better next time. Of how I could be safer. 

I took some comfort in the fact that I dressed for the occasion. Riding around in a t-shirt and without a helmet looks cool, but it’s not so awesome if your bare skin hits asphalt at 70 mph.  Motorcyclists have enough disadvantages when it come to safety to begin with – no airbags, no seat belts, no rearview mirror, no standard ABS – that any step to reduce risk is, in my mind, worth doing. If anything, I’m more convinced now than ever of the necessity of proper gear. (Kevlar-lined jeans, anyone?). 

Of course, protective apparel can only do so much. Skills and technique are also key. I’ve been reading up a lot on how to ride safely on gravel. Not surprisingly, there are an abundance of blog posts and even videos with tips on how to do this. 

As I look back and as the episode replays in my mind, I ricochet back and forth between thinking of it in two ways. The first comes from fear. What if. What if next time, I’m seriously hurt. What if my bike is totaled. What if it’s an accident that I can’t get up and walk away from.

The other is pride. Something scary happened. But I didn’t cry or panic or fall apart. I got back up, and I met the challenge. I’ll be better next time, and smarter, and hopefully safer. 

I still fight my fear. My first ride after the accident was me against my “what ifs.” I have to learn to trust myself again. And the only way to get better is to keep going.

Yesterday, for the first time, I went out on a road that has intimidated me for months. Stopping and starting on hills. Intersections. Merges. Curves. Highway. And I didn’t do it on my sporty. I did it on a burly 1700cc Harley-Davidson Softail Slim. I felt like I was punching a bit out of my weight class, but I came back smiling.   

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “Watch out for life.” Life on the highway threw me a few challenges. But something tells me I’ll be back for more.

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Confessions of an Insecure Biker Girl

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo, Unsplash.

An English major walks into a Harley dealership. No, this isn’t the start of an awkward joke. Or a dare. Or an accidental wrong turn off the highway.

It happened. And perhaps, it was inevitable that it did. Perhaps it was the culminating stage of my case of motoritis that had been progressing for years. (The early onset of this condition is chronicled in my previous reflections on doing scary sh*t.)

I’d been puttering along more or less happily on my little Honda Rebel 250. But I no longer wanted to putter. I wanted to roar. Motorcycles aren’t for those who want quiet lives.

What louder, badder, don’t mess-with-me motorcycle is there than a Harley Davidson?

Naturally, I did my research. I read online reviews, flirted with the idea of the now-defunct Yamaha Star, visited an Indian dealership to check out the competition. When I expressed interest in taking one of the Indian bikes for a test ride, the salesman demurred. I smelled a brush-off. And I suspected the reason why. Despite the salesman’s claim that no local dealerships were allowing test rides, I decided to try my luck with the Harley boys up the road.

Harley said yes. Sure, they wanted to sell me a motorcycle. But after checking my license and hearing my assurances that I’d brought my helmet and gear with me, there was no quibbling. And just like that, I threw a leg over a Harley for the first time.

And it felt good. Damn good. I remembered all too well my first catastrophic attempts to simply get a motorcycle started. I stalled out countless times. When I finally got the throttle engaged, I was so shocked that I lost control of the bike and down we both went onto the asphalt.

Not so today. The enormous Milwaukee 8 engine rumbled to life with the touch of a button. I asked and the machine obeyed. The grin stayed on my face through first, then second, then third gear as I made triumphant laps around the parking lot.

Some of the sales staff were less accommodating. At a different dealership, I got called honey and darlin’ so many times as to have a palpable effect on my blood pressure. But I wanted to upgrade my motorcycle more than I wanted to deliver a lecture on how to sell motorcycles to females, so I bit my tongue while quietly contemplating what it would take to start a woman-owned Harley dealership.

Because, as it turned out, I knew more than some of the men assisting me. In the wee hours of the morning, I flipped through parts catalogs and watched YouTube videos learning how to change rocker box covers. I’d always been an apt student, and darned if I wasn’t going to throw myself into learning as much as I could about the mechanics of riding free.

But of course motorcycles are far more than an intellectual exercise. There was the first time I caught my reflection after a ride, leather jacket on and hanging unzipped, helmet in hand, and the sight startled me. Same with when I saw my shadow as I rode through winding suburban streets on my sleek black Sportster. I was me, but me as I’d never seen myself before. And I liked it.

I’d reached the tipping point where excitement won out over fear. Sure, there are still some rides I don’t feel quite ready for. It’ll likely be years before I head out to Sturgis. Even Pittsburgh’s hills are notorious, and I practice my techniques for stopping and starting on inclines regularly around the neighborhood. It’s enough so that it gets noticed. In fact, it gets noticed by women. Women who ask how long I’ve had a motorcycle. Women who stop their cars, teenage daughter in the passenger seat, to say my riding looks good.  

And that is the best part of it. I like to think my shiny chrome pipes are blowing out estrogen along with exhaust. I like to think of other women who never waited for an invitation, but simply believed they had as much right as anyone else to ride. And so they did. And so do I.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece are the writer’s own and imply no formal endorsement of any brand or product.

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Doing Scary Sh*t

Photo by Djordje Petrovic from Pexels

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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

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