I am ambivalent when Jim suggests we join Carter in taking a motorcycle safety course. “What other way are you going to be able to spend a weekend with your sixteen-year-old son?” he argues. It’s a sound argument. Communicating with this certain sixteen year old boy has certainly been a challenge of late. The closest location for the class is in Silverdale, WA where Jim books us a room at the local Best Western. It has a hot tub and a pool and it’s right on the water. He does his best to sell to a luke-warm audience.

At 8am on a Saturday morning in pouring rain, we arrive at a tiny trailer in the middle of a desolate parking lot in the middle of a desolate airport. Many students are “soldier men” as Carter later calls them, young guys who work on the giant aircraft carriers in nearby Bremerton, a naval base. A couple are older men, and there is one other woman.

We are asked our reasons for taking the class. Why am I here? I’m scared of motorcycles. Though I have ridden on the back of Jim’s motorcycle on several occasions, clutching his waist for dear life, I have no real desire to learn to ride one of my own. I want to spend time with my boyfriend and son who proves entertaining in a classroom setting. No surprise. He becomes the class heckler. So similar to someone I once knew.

Carter motorcycle safety class
Carter gearing up for first class.

After lunch, we gear up (it’s still pouring rain), and select bikes. I end up with one held together by yards of black duct tape, and swipe the seat, doing little to reduce the puddle I then sit in. We learn to turn on the bike, then push them around in neutral, then crab walk them around before finally lifting our feet off the ground. I fumble the clutch and my left toe trying to differentiate neutral from first. I stall and stall and stall. I never do find neutral. I watch Jim, calm and confident. Carter looks grown up on his bike, his long, lean legs jutting out, straight back, head up. We share grins as we pass one another after an exercise.

One instructor is calm, calling out “good job!” after a maneuver, the other barks commands and makes me nervous. “Take your hand off the brake! That’s a terrible habit to get into!” I watch the other woman who can barely reach the ground with her toes when pushing her bike around corners and she seems to physically recoil each time she gets berated by Mr. Nasty. I want to kick him in the shins.

It’s not until we learn to weave between cones, that I find a certain rhythm and gain a sliver of confidence. By the end of the afternoon, we are all shivering from wet and cold. When we get back to the hotel, we sprint to the hot tub to defrost.

The next day, we take the written test and everyone passes. By 11:30, we are back on our bikes. The rain has slowed and thus the riding more pleasant. My braking hand continues to elicit anger in my instructor, but now I shrug at him. I flounder with the first exercise, the “quick stop.” I stop too soon. Or stall. Or have my hand on the brake. Or am going too slow. My confidence sags. Jim encourages me and instructs me between exercises. “You’re really solid on the slow maneuvers… Just keep it in first for that one… you’ll need to go faster on the quick stops.”

We do the pre-test and I feel fairly confident, though the quick stop still throws me. I either don’t go fast enough or I brake too soon. I do fine on the slow U-turns. I do a couple of swerves and lane changes, though don’t understand the cones and thus go through them rather than around them.

Proof that I actually drove my own motorcycle
Proof that I actually drove my own motorcycle

By the time of the real test, we have been on our bikes for 4 solid hours. The instructor asks if anyone wants to defer taking the test and I consider it. I am shaky and tired, but say nothing. The other woman in the class has already dropped out. Another of the older men also defers.

I am glad when the first test is the weave. I wiggle my way down the line, and somehow manage to stop in the yellow square. The next test is the U-turns and I am shaky. I put a foot down, I go out of the lines, I miss the stop zone. I’m convinced I have just failed. They make me do the swerve test a second time, taking it faster. I take it faster and swerve, but run over a cone. Another fail, I am certain. I shake my head at Jim and shrug. I am just too tired. I long for the test to be over. I redo the quick stop, ending with a sloppy double stop. I long for the catastrophe to be over. There is no way I have passed. It’s OK. Carter seems to be doing well. He’s the reason I am here, after all. I have no intention of actually riding a motorcycle again.

We stand outside waiting to be graded. I am shaky and thirsty and worried about the late hour. I have to be back in the city for an event. Gloria Steinem being interviewed by Cheryl Strayed about her book, My Life on the Road. I am on the board of Hedgebrook, a retreat for women writers, and they have asked that I do my best to meet some specific people – wives and partners of well-known bands and companies. There will be no time to go home to change now. I will arrive at the event wearing my “biking gear” of ski jacket, jeans and tall boots. I have helmet hair and wind blown skin.

Me and Jim in blue and red. Carter to left of guy in yellow.

I text a friend I have invited to the event to tell her I will be a little late. “Badass.” she writes. I smile. I guess I am sort of badass. I’ll be meeting Gloria as a badass! Does learning to ride a motorcycle make me a feminist badass?

We are back in the trailer as the instructor brings us individually back into another room to give us our result. Jim passes. A couple of the soldier men leave quickly with heads hung, green sheets of paper clutched in their hands. I am certain I will be leaving with a green sheet as well. Carter appears with a giant smile and his card. “80 percent! I just made it!” he says. I am called. “You lost 10 points on the U-turn for missing the lines and putting your foot down and another 5 points for hitting the cone during the swerve, but you’ve passed,” the instructor says. “I passed? Are you sure? That can’t be possible! I was horrible!”

“You passed,” he repeats. “Congratulations.” I walk out, mouth hanging open. I see one the of the green-sheeted soldier men duck out quickly. How must it feel for him to watch a 50 year old mom and her 16 year old son pass? I feel bad for him.

Cheeks flushed, I sit in the audience at Benaroya Hall watching Gloria and Cheryl, the ultimate badass women banter about Gloria’s book, My Life on the Road, life, feminism, and the power of story. “Women become more radical with age,” Gloria says. I chuckle and nod.

My terrible, blurry picture of Gloria and Cheryl.
My terrible, blurry picture of Gloria and Cheryl.

Was taking a motorcycle class a feminist act? Perhaps, because of Gloria’s influence, I didn’t need to think of it that way. Or was the fact that I took the class at the prompting of my boyfriend in order to be with my son the antithesis of feminism? Did it even matter?

The prelude of Gloria’s book opens with her meeting a couple of leather-clad bikers. The woman shows Gloria her big purple Harley, and proudly tells her how she used to ride on the back of her husband’s bike, but then put her foot down and insisted on having her own. Gloria writes, “…I’ve come to believe that, inside each of us has a purple motorcycle. We have only to discover it–and ride.”

Gloria’s message over the course of the evening becomes loud and clear, as it is one that is dear to any memoir writer: The world is changed through the power of story, of telling our truths. Incidentally, this is also the power of Hedgebook, whose tag line is “Women Authoring Change.”

“Telling each other our stories is the most revolutionary act.” Gloria says. “Change comes from telling the truth and discovering that we’re not alone.” This has certainly been true in the widow world, but is also true in any instance where something or someone renders a person invisible.

Gloria speaks about a book called Sex and World Peace, that talks about the one defining factor when it comes to determining how peaceful a country is likely to be: how that country treats its women. The is an audible “ah” from the audience as the simple truth is recognized. “The treatment of women affects all levels of society.”

“As women,” Gloria says later, “we deserve to be raised to be loved and seen as equal, but boys deserve to be raised that way too.” This makes me think of Carter.

Only then do I realize that in passing the motorcycle safety class, I have taught Carter something about women and being equal. For that, even if I never again drive my own motorcycle, I am claiming my badass-ness and my purple motorcycle. Thank you Gloria.


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