Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Coming Down From the Mountain

They say that not all who wander are lost. That statement, however, does not apply to me. I am pretty much always lost. My Grade 8 Social Studies teacher once told me that women are bad navigators because they lack naturally occurring metals in their nose that act as a compass. (He also once did my astrological chart and told me that I would be very successful in life but unfortunately no one would ever love me…but that’s a blog post and/or therapy session for another day). By that logic, I must have terminally low quantities of nose metals because no one can throw a GPS into fits like I can. In the times before smartphones, I routinely had to phone friends to ask questions like, “Hypothetically, how would one end up in Kentucky when one was trying to get to Chicago?” or “I am at a place with a big tree and kind of a weird bird and it’s raining. Could you come and get me?”

Training for the Scotiabank Half Marathon has put my navigational deficiency into sharp relief. I tried to walk North Vancouver, discovered the pedestrian path of the bridge was closed for construction, and suddenly I’m in the woods going past tree forts built by homeless people and someone comes out of the bushes and I start to run ("run") and, poof, I’m in Burnaby. I attempted to make it 14.5 kilometers to my parents’ house in New Westminster and 18.5 kilometers later found myself slogging up the massive Canada Way hill, once again mysteriously in Burnaby. The only silver lining is that I’ve put myself weeks ahead of my training schedule just by adding unintentional kilometers on to every training session.
New blog series: "Where's Arley Now? No, really, where am I?"

My amazing personal trainer and pilates instructor Christie Stoll recently lent me the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed (aka that movie where Reese Witherspoon yells at trees). There’s a scene in the book where Cheryl – who is hiking the 1000+ mile Pacific Crest Trail -- encounters an unexpectedly snowy pass. Some of her fellow hikers choose to slog through it, but she decides to come down to go around the dangerous area. When reading this scene, my first thought was, “Oh, sure, she takes the easy way out.” (In fairness, I would not have even started the Pacific Crest Trail because I would have taken a wrong turn on the first day and ended up in the ocean). Later in the book, Cheryl Strayed learns that those who tried to push through the snowy pass actually ended up exhausting themselves and giving up on the whole hike. Following her instinct to come down and avoid danger was a smart one.

I have been trying to take this lesson to heart. When you have my litany of muscoskeletal problems – one wonky knee, two arthritic feet, three subluxed ribs and a partridge in the pear tree – the chance of injuring yourself is high. Through most of May, it felt like some higher power was playing a very bad game of Operation with my body. First, the arthritis in my feet started to flare up. Then, part of the top of my left foot started to burn and tingle – back problems? Shoe problems? Flesh-eating disease caused by those shoes I bought for $5 from a man selling them out of bucket on the street in East Van? – and my subluxed rib came out. Finally, my knee decided to tap out.

I will save you the history of my knee problems, but suffice to say that if the children’s rhyme about the hip bone being connected to the knee bone is right, then when the ass muscle isn’t connected to anything, and the hip bone’s connected to several pounds of reinforced titanium, the knee bone has a hard time staying where it’s supposed to.  (Yes, even my knee cap wanders off and gets lost). Three weeks ago, it started locking up and I began to feel an awful tearing sensation in the back of my knee. All of this was new. When it seized up for five minutes in a pilates class, I went to the walk-in clinic. Was it a bone chip? A piece of floating cartilage? Had I managed to contract Runner’s Knee without ever running a step? No one knew.

So, I took Cheryl Strayed’s advice and came down from the mountain. I stopped training and focused on icing, taking anti-inflammatories, stretching and trying not to sulkily spend hours listing to that John Prine song that goes “sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.” For someone who has a long and storied history of pushing herself too far (see: that time I fractured my back and decided to treat it with two strips of athletic tape and Percocet and won an MVP award but scored on the wrong basket once and also lost feeling in my left arch for two years) this is actually a big deal for me.

I was not sure whether I would be able to do the half marathon at all, which was upsetting to me because my friends and family have been so amazingly generous and I did not want to let them down. After several long weeks, however, the swelling’s gone back down and the pain is less, though the knee still clicks and locks up on occasion. I’ve lost a lot of fitness and stamina in my weeks off, but I have made peace with the fact that even if I don’t complete the course under three hours, I will count even dragging my carcass across that finish line at all to be a success. 

I originally decided to do the Vancouver Scotiabank Half Marathon for two reasons. The first was to give back to the community that’s given me so much. The second, however, was to prove that my version of success doesn’t have to look like everyone else’s. No matter how hard I train, I will probably always be the last one across the finish line. I will still be passed by old men with knee socks and fanny packs on the Grouse Grind. My downward facing dog and my backwards bend will look pretty much identical. And, though it has nothing to do with my disability, my lack of navigational ability will probably mean that probably 50% of the time I’m going to accidentally end up in Burnaby. But at least I’m out there, slogging away, finding a new normal. Gimpy little baby steps.

(And, hey, if you want to donate to my Scotiabank Half Marathon quest, you can do so here. You'll get a tax receipt and a personalized thank you letter and also a big, sweaty hug if I see you on race day).

Thank you all for your support.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Walking the Scotiabank Half Marathon Post Hip Replacement

On June 28th, 2009, I stood out front of UBC Hospital wearing a pair of leather Mary Janes. I was not allowed to leave the hospital barefoot, but my legs were so weak that I could only walk by scrunching my toes along the floor. I tried to take a step, but the rubber soles only scuffed against the pavement. I was fixed in place by a forcefield made of half a pound of rubber.

Mika and I on a very slow walk
That summer, I walked barefoot around the block as my hip replacement clunked around like a loose heel on a shoe. Sometimes my cat would join me. She would get annoyed by my slowness and sprint ahead in and out of bushes, then tire halfway through and flop down on someone’s driveway until my mom carried her the rest of the way home. I did my exercises twice a day in my childhood bedroom, napping, fading in and out of shows about home renovators and people with 19 children. At night, I slept under a ceiling fan that, decades ago, I had decorated with glow-in-the-dark stars and letters that read Arley Was Here. When the fan turned on, the letters blurred into a glowing circle over my head as I laid awake worrying that I would never get better, that nothing would improve, I would be stuck forever in this bedroom with the ceiling fan announcing that Arley Was Here Still Living With Her Parents And Had Not Worn Anything But Gym Shorts And T-Shirts In Over A Month.

Things did, of course, get better. I went to physio at Burnaby Hospital’s hips and knees clinic. I found a new surgeon, who diagnosed me with a torn gluteus medius, and I underwent another surgery to try to repair the gluteus medius and the hip replacement. (The gluteus medius reattachment failed. Cue a lifetime of half-assed jokes).

I graduated to a cane, then I ditched the cane because I thought that staggering around like a sea creature was somehow sexier than walking with an assistive device designed for old people and I was trying online dating. I earned the ire of the elderly women at deep water aerobics with my misplaced competitive drive. I wildly overestimated my physical abilities and tried to do the Grouse Grind, where I was passed by an endless parade of fit people, then children, then fat old men with their socks pulled up to their knees, then tourists limping in flip flops, but I did not die. I wildly overestimated my physical abilities and did a 20km+ hike to Garibaldi Lake, which caused all of my toenails to fall off, but which also did not kill me. I met an awesome guy, got engaged, and now boast a wardrobe that is only 30% comprised of workout gear. Okay, maybe 40%.

Hiking near Squamish
Today, I still walk like badly done stop motion animation. I will spare you the laundry list of my physical maladies, but suffice to say that if my muscoskeletal system was a house, it would be on Holmes on Homes. As a former Paralympian, however, I missed having a challenge. When one of the organizations I work for, BC Wheelchair Basketball Society, was announced as a charity for the Scotiabank Half Marathon, I once again wildly overestimated my physical abilities and decided to sign up. If I couldn’t run it, I would just walk it, and if walking proved too difficult I would just flail away in the direction of the finish line until I staggered across it.

Because the Scotiabank Half Marathon course closes after 3 hours, I decided to test my range at the four-hour Fort Langley Half Marathon, which unfortunately took place the day after I returned from a week working at the Canada Winter Games. I’d decided to go hiking the day before and got my shoes stuck in the snow, so they were damp. I was dehydrated from a week of event coverage, where I survived pretty much on coffee, popcorn and Starbucks’ lemon-cranberry scones (carbo-loading!). I had not trained. I was running on two hours of sleep. I remembered on my way to the race that I probably should have brought some of those replenishing gel pack things…or at least a bottle of water. I checked in at 6:30 am to a beautiful sunrise and wondered what the hell I’d gotten myself into.

Still, I was optimistic. Armed with a copy of Hole’s “Celebrity Skin,” which I listened to on repeat for the entire duration of the race, I set off to walk 21.5 kilometers. Several people stopped to ask what was wrong with me. Several more asked if I needed medical assistance. One suggested an IT band brace. One suggested that the medics could be here shortly if I needed them. A guy drove up in a car and asked if I needed help, then returned again to tell me a story about his friend with brittle bone disease, then returned again with a printed photo of a double amputee running a marathon to inspire me to finish. Around the 15Km mark, my gait pattern began to resemble that of Jack Torrance's in the "Here's Johnny" scene of The Shining. Still, I finished in 3:04, and I was not last. (Eighth to last…but still).
Celebrating after the Fort Langley Half Marathon
And so, on June 28th 2015, exactly six years after I left the hospital after my first hip replacement, I’ll be walking the Scotiabank Half Marathon in support of BC Wheelchair Basketball Society. Wheelchair basketball changes lives. It certainly changed mine. I want to give back in a small way to an organization that has given me so much over the years.

So far, I’ve been overwhelmed with the support I’ve received. My family and friends helped me reach my fundraising minimum in about three hours. My amazing personal trainer Christie Stoll at Spartacus Gym went above and beyond to set me up with a strength program to correct my imbalances and a walking plan to improve my speed. Even the sales guy at The Running Room on Cambie turned out to be a physiotherapy student and spent nearly an hour learning about my condition and finding me a pair of running shoes that would improve my foot pain.

Right now, I’m off to go walk 11.5 kilometers in the rain. I still need to shave five minutes off my time to cross the finish line in under three hours, but I plan to using the same strategy that allowed me to walk around the block in under 30 minutes that summer six years ago: trusting experts, doing a little more than yesterday, and being comfortable with being uncomfortable. Gimpy little baby steps, yo.

(If you'd like to sponsor me for the Scotiabank Half Marathon, click here. I'm grateful for any contributions).

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The "Money Talks" Project

My most embarrassing moment occurred as I walked across the stage during my high school graduation. A bit of back story is needed for those who did not get to meet the stunning vision of teenage glamour I was during high-school. To keep it brief: I started high school in a bright-blue half body cast and ended it in a dragon-theme prom dress. Key themes of my high-school experience included: novelty tee-shirts ("I keep hitting the escape key but I'm still here!"), elastic-waisted jeans, text-based role-playing games and an endless rotation of crutches/canes/wheelchairs/medical devices. Oh, and I'm 6 foot 2.
You know what looks great with half body casts? Pigtails.
Top of the dragon dress. There may or may not have been chopsticks in my hair.
That's a long way of saying that I wasn't winning any popularity contests at New Westminster Secondary School. As I walked across the stage to get my diploma, I was mostly concentrating on:
  1. Not tripping;
  2. Figuring out how to not drop my cane as I reached to get the diploma;
  3. Summoning enough hip flexion to bend sufficiently for the high school guidance counselor (who was shorter than me by several inches) to turn the tassel on my mortar board from one side my head to the other;
  4. Making it across the stage without fainting from the pressure of the aforementioned three items. 
I sat nervously among my classmates on the stage. My name was called. My big moment had arrived. Shaking, I stood up and began my walk across the stage.

And that's when it happened. The silence that followed the announcer saying my name was broken by someone yelling, "Hey Arley, lay off the steroids!!" My classmates laughed. Everyone turned to look at me. The guy who made the comment started murmuring to his buddies, praising himself for his wit. High-fives may or may not have been involved. I stared straight ahead, blushing furiously, trying not to break concentration or burst into tears. I don't remember what happened next -- other than forgetting to hug the guidance counselor in my haste to get off the stage -- but the incident remains one of the most embarrassing one of my life, despite how relatively minor it is compared to the endless Chaplin-esque highlight reel of my life.

For ages, that phrase -- Hey Arley, lay off the steroids -- would pop into my head whenever I was feeling particularly self-conscious.  On dates. While bathing suit shopping. While trying to converse with a group of short people at a loud bar. Hey Arley. Lay off the steroids.

I've been thinking about that incident a lot lately. For one, I recently picked up my old Complete Works of Oscar Wilde book and my high-school corsage fell out, sending me on a trip down memory lane. More importantly, however, I've seen an uptick in the level of stupid comments about my body from random strangers because I fractured my foot and, until recently, was stuck in an air cast. (How did I do this, you ask?  By dropping a wood-block cutting board on my foot as I was cleaning up after book club. As I said: Chaplin-esque).

Even though I don't use my cane as much as I should, and the homeless gentlemen who used to shout "Physiotherapy! Physiotherapy! Rehabilitation! Rehabilitation!" as I walked by has moved from his post by my house, I still get my fair share of bizarre comments from strangers on perhaps a weekly basis. You're tall! Your parents must have made you drink a lot of milk! (Yes, I am. Yes, they did). You're limping, did you sprain your ankle? (No, I did not). You're so large! Do you have a black boyfriend? (No I do not, random elderly Asian ladies, but thank you for asking).

Fracturing my foot, however, meant running the gauntlet of unwanted comments every day. A dude in the grocery store noted he'd "seen a lot of broken women lately" and speculated that if I'd dropped a knife on my foot, it probably would have healed more quickly. A man in the elevator inquired as to whether I'd had pins put in and informed me that, if I had, I'd be groped at the airport by the TSA agents and I might as well get used to it.

Showing off the air cast in a wedding photobooth.

One day I remarked to my boyfriend that if I had a dollar for every time someone said "OMG what happened to you?" I'd be rich. And then it hit me. I should donate a dollar to charity every time someone makes an unwanted comment about my body, therefore turning the incident from "awkward, embarrassing thing that made me momentarily annoyed" to "awkward, embarrassing thing that allows me to give back to charities that have impacted my life positively." My crankiness will be someone else's gain.

The two charities I've decided to give to are the BC Wheelchair Sports Association (who introduced me to wheelchair sports, which turned my 6 foot 2, limpy body into an asset on the wheelchair basketball court) and the Arthritis Society of BC (since the only avascular necrosis charities are UK-based and arthritis remains my biggest challenge post hip-replacement). I've decided to call it the "Money Talks" Project, because that sounds fancier than "when people say crappy things about me I will cheer myself up by trying to get some good karma with charity donations."

Here are the rules:
  1. For every unwanted comment I get about my body by a stranger, I will donate $2 ($1 to each charity) to a maximum of $100. Please note that this comment must be by a stranger who is unaware of this game, so don't get any ideas in your head about standing outside of my apartment urging me to lay off the steroids. (I mean, you can do that for fun, but it won't result in any money given to the charity. And I might cry).
  2. The comment must be given completely out of context. "Wow, you're huge! Do you have trouble getting a date?" while I'm minding my own business on the bus counts. Being asked how tall I am by a salesperson in a jeans shop while I'm bemoaning how hard it is to buy jeans does not count.
  3. Once I hit $100, I'll donate the money and start again.
If you get unwarranted comments on the street because of your height/weight/disability/race/Siamese twin attached to your neck, you should join me. Pick a charity or two to donate to and soon you'll be smiling to yourself every time someone asks you how the weather is up there, or to slow down hot wheels because you might get a speeding ticket, or that their friend had success losing 50 pounds on the paleo diet.

And if you want to hear what comments generate my donations, I'll tweet them on Twitter at @arley_mcneney .

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Arley 3.0. Or was it 4.0?

It's my party and I'll rant about my semi-detached ass muscle if I want to
This week, "Young and Hip" turned four years old. If this blog were a human child, it would be drawing semi-realistic pictures of horses and learning to ride a bike. (Actually, given that this blog is a 'child' of mine, eating Play-dough in the corner of the pre-school and memorizing the entire score of the Phantom of the Opera is probably more realistic). Time to celebrate with an overdue blog post!

Given that none of my limbs are coming into contact with a surgical saw these days, you might think that I had run out of things to complain about. (Spoiler alert: I have not. If you don't believe me, I have a 50-minute story about trying to get my apartment's toilet replaced that I'd love to tell you). These days, I have embarked upon yet another self-improvement project. The goal: to turn gangly, limping awkwardness into supermodel chic...or at least stop getting mistaken for a heroin addict by any members of the law enforcement community.

Because, see, in addition to having to sell a kidney to afford to live in Vancouver, one downside of the city is that practically everyone has a great ass. This is the Land that Lululemon Built, and its citizens' rear ends are sculpted by pilates and yoga and hiking and Zumba and Grouse Grinding (sounds sexier than it is) and basically springing like marble-assed Greek Gods across BC's rugged terrain. And because they have amazing bodies, they feel the need to dress them in appropriately amazing clothes. Clothes that, you know, fit. And are free from pen ink or coffee stains. And do not have drawstrings. It is enough to make a girl miss living in a small Midwestern town where not wearing the leggings-and-Uggs college-girl uniform made you look like a sartorial icon; (I  heart you Champaign-Urbana!).

Since turning 30 and moving to Yoga-Land, I have discovered that I need to Put Some Effort In. Now, see, some people can decide to dress better, walk into a clothing store, and walk out with some new duds, a lighter wallet, and a renewed sense of style. This is not a thing that happens when you're 6 foot 2, are missing part of your ass, have "wheelchair basketball arms" and one leg that's a different size than the other, and require an inseam so long that the tiny sweatshop children who make your jeans likely use the rejects as sleeping bags. Walking into a regular store and expecting to find clothes that fit you is like walking into McDonald's and asking to see their gluten-free, dairy-free, non-GMO menu.

But still. I was undaunted. I was going to look...better. Step 1: Undergarments! Thanks to weeks of internet research and staring at dozens of boobs on the Internet in the name of science, I emerged with a better-fitting bra that was a mere 10 inches smaller in the band than the ones I had been wearing. Bra fitting pro tip! If the garment slides down to your waist without the straps and/or if you can fit another person inside of it, it just might be too big.

Buoyed by my initial success, I got rid of most of my summer wardrobe. Goodbye too-short T-shirts! See you later pants I've owned since "The Thong Song" was #1 on the charts! I quickly realized, however, that there was a great reason why I was holding on to all that old, ill-fitting clothing. It turns out that 99.35% of all clothing made today is stamped Not Approved For Arley.

I know what you're thinking. But Arley! The Gap/ Banana Republic/ J. Crew make tall sizes! No. Those places make tallER sizes. They make sizes for "OMG! I am soooo tall! I can't wear my six-inch heels around my tiny hipster boyfriend!" tall. They do not make sizes for people so tall that elderly Asian ladies stop you on the street to point out your height and ask if you "make a million dollars playing basketball" or if you "have a black boyfriend' (??). Most of these stores simply slap a few inches on the bottom of the garment or the sleeve and call it a tall size, overlooking the fact that I am tall goddamn everywhere. I am not secretly a 5 foot 6 person on stilts. Someone call J. Crew and tell them to whip me up a structured dress whose waist is somewhere in the same area code as my own waist.

But Arley! What about Long Tall Sally? That mecca of tall lady clothing....assuming you are a tall lady that is larger than a size 6, by which we mean a 12 and also assuming that you have a fetish for zebra print! That store that dares charge $120 for a spotted jumpsuit made out of material so flimsy that reviewers report that (and this is a direct quote) "i came down from my car and people started telling me my cloth was torn at the back showing my underwear. looked round myself and i found out that my front, sides and the hip areas were torn."  (They do, however, have "trend inspired palazzo legs" so...you know...trade offs).  

Long Tall Sally's motto is basically, "Hey, I heard you're over 6 feet tall. Why not blend into your natural environment with our wide assortment of brightly coloured animal prints and/or headache-inducing stripes? No? Well, we just tore this floral print off some granny's couch. Maybe we can make you a dress from that. No? Well, have you perused our selection of jumpsuits? We have a metric fuckton of jumpsuits. Because, according to our market research, what women over 6 feet tall really desire is a wide selection of pleated goddamn jumpsuits with cap sleeves."

I will say, however, that one benefit of rebuilding your wardrobe is that you are forced to look at yourself objectively. This can be both soul-crushing and liberating. For many years, I dressed to hide various parts of my body. Cover up the big arms, the anti-ass. Conceal the small chest, the wide shoulders, the weird pointy rib situation I've got going on. You know what you get when you try to cover up your arms and shoulders and chest and waist and thighs and calves? This. Not quite the look I'm going for.

I don't actually think that I have bad self-esteem or a shitty self-image. Whether it's because of the hip problems or the height, however, I've always viewed my body as an annoyance to be minimized, like that loud girl at a party you avoid talking to. The act of finding flattering clothes, however, forces you to confront the fact that some parts of your body are not The Worst Thing Ever, and that playing up these attributes will make you look better. And somehow feel better. And maybe strut a little like the sassy thing you are. And maybe, also, admit that you're not this or this or this, and that even if you were that wouldn't be the end of the world.

I'm not going to give any fashion tips for How To Dress If You're 6 Foot 2 and Gimpy because a) I'm still not there yet and b) who in the world besides me needs that guide? I will say, however, that I'm working on it. Which is the same thing I say about walking better. And learning how to turn my head while riding a bike without falling over. And being just a little bit easier on myself.

Because, however I look, I can take pride in the fact that my accessories are no longer so cumbersome. And my camera phone technology has improved by leaps and bounds.

The great What Not To Wear Before and After

Baby steps, yo. Gimpy little baby steps.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Shedding and Shredding: My Jillian Michaels 30 Day Shred

When I played varsity wheelchair basketball, the pre-season conditioning/team building/Stockholm-syndrome-acquiring exercise was "ramps." Both the men's and women's teams would meet at Memorial Hall Football stadium at 6:30 a.m., which at that hour would be would be so cold that your fingers would be too numb to grip the pushrims. The coach would put two trash cans on the bottom level-- they smelled like rotten soda and rust -- for everyone to vomit in. For several hours, we would push up and down the steep concrete ramps: short pushes, long pushes, power starts and stops, backwards. You'd get to the bottom, take off another layer of clothes and gulp some water before the coach shouted 'Go!' and you'd push back up past dead birds and oil stains, sometimes past the maintenance guys on golf carts, the exhaust of which would both choke you and give you a contact high. When "Living on a Prayer" came on the boombox exactly halfway through the workout, the entire team would sing along, and the dozens of voices echoing Bon Jovi off the concrete walls made the stadium sound like church.

Anyhow, it was hard work. It was really hard work.  (Josh Birnbaum documented it in the photo essay 'Uphill Battle.' Click on the link and scroll right until you get to the 5th image). But at the top, you'd get to look for a few seconds out over Champaign-Urbana looking all stark-midwestern-pretty in the August light. Your brain would be flooded with exercise endorphins, the breeze from the windows would feel good against your salt-encrusted skin, and you would think: damn, I have done a really hard thing. During the next hard thing -- say shoveling your car out of a few feet of snow to get to practice in the dark at 5:30 in the morning -- you'd think, "Well, hell. I got through ramps. This isn't going to kill me."

For the past three years since the hip replacements, I have missed that sense of accomplishment you get from pushing your body to its physical limits. Because of the two hip replacements, I can never  play wheelchair basketball again: a fact that's taken me a long time to accept. Given that "Take it Easy" is just a Jackson Browne song in my world, I've been trying to find something that will give me the same feeling.

First, I wanted to be a runner. Runners get to achieve personal bests and cross finish lines and show off their well-toned asses in spandex as they glide along the Vancouver Seawall. Not to mention that running is free, and, unlike using the elliptical machine, you don't have to spend hours pondering why the person next to you felt the need to eat 20 cloves of garlic as a pre-workout snack. So, despite the fact that running is a no-go for people with hip replacements, I downloaded a little training plan from the Internet and set to work. I will spare you the messy details, but let's just say that it's hard to really get a sweat on when people are stopping you every 5 minutes to ask if you're alright. If you need a visual image of me running, think of those blow-up noodle-y figures they have at car lots.
So, fine. Running was out. Next, I got a one-month Groupon to a gym that offered a bunch of fitness classes thinking I would try them all until I found one that worked. Spin classes caused my hip to swell up faster than a Real Housewife's lips. At Jazzercise, the instructor stopped the entire class to a) praise my T-shirt (which featured Omar from The Wire) and b) inform me that I "needed to be a little jazzier." (When you walk through the garden, you better watch your jazz hands). By 'jazzier,' he likely meant "try to look less like a giraffe suffering from a severe neuro-muscular disorder,' but in fairness, it's not easy to be jazzy when you're surrounded by small, pert women who have been taking this class so long that they probably wake up in the middle of the night grape-vining. Exercise classes were out.

I tried biking, but the combination of "missing half your ass" and "jamming your ass repetitively* against a hard bike seat" is not a successful one, no matter how many pairs of padded shorts you wear. Plus, when I realized that the learning curve for biking outside involved the risk of getting beat-up by an aggressive Vancouver cyclist (yeah, chime chime to you too, wanker) or getting smoked by a semi, it became clear that cycling wasn't for me. I try to avoid activities that have a high percent chance of turning me into meat-paste.

*Apologies in advance to anyone who found this post by googling the above phrase and is now deeply disappointed.

And so, I arrived at the wonderful world of at-home exercise DVDs. I picked up the Jillian Michaels 30 Day Shred (and her 'Shed and Shred,' which I plan to do next) because I watched The Biggest Loser obsessively when I was in bed for 8 months following the first hip replacement, and because years of being coached make me respond well to someone shouting at me. (In fairness, Jillian Michaels is not super shout-y in the videos).

The concept is simple: The 30 Day Shred has 3 levels of punishing circuit-style 30-minute workouts and you do them for 10 days each. I figured they'd be short enough that my hip wouldn't swell up, but challenging enough that I'd feel a sense of achievement when I finished the entire plan.

And I was right! Though I had to make a few modifications for exercises that I didn't have enough hip flexion to do, (looking at you, Mountain Climbers), I quickly fell in love with the program. It was great starting every day with an exercise endorphin high. I could flail around in the comfort of my own home where only my cat and boyfriend would judge me. Actually, being an expert at both 'shedding' and 'shredding,' Mika was more than happy to pitch in. During push-ups, she'd lay underneath me and lick my nose every time I dipped down to her level.  It didn't even matter that, because of my ground floor apartment, people would routinely peer into my living room with perplexed expressions, trying to work out whether I was channeling spirits/ speaking in tongues/ summoning the rain gods. It also didn't matter that my clomping around made the entire apartment complex shake (Arley Stomp! Arley Smash! Arley Do Jump Squats With The Daintiness of Donkey Kong!). I was feeling good.

Now, when you've had two hip replacements and your ligaments are basically held together with duct tape and you've got all of the '-itis'es, there are bound to be hiccups. My 30 Day Shred was actually more of a 33-Day Shred, because I took three days off after my knee took issue to over-compensating for my hip and decided to go rogue. In the days of yore, a sore knee would have translated in my brain into "shut up body! You're not the boss of me! Watch me push through harder until I literally cannot walk and THAT will teach you." These days, however, I've dialed the intensity down several crucial notches. I realized that it's better to do a 33-Day Shred, than a 30-Day-And-Knee-Reconstructive-Surgery Shred. When I returned after the three days, I even helped my knee get through the rest of the workout with ice packs, anti-inflammatories and anti-inflammatory cream. I'm not sure if this is what maturity feels like, or if this what old age feels like.

And so, today, I got ready for the final day of the 30 Day Shred. I imagined how triumphant I would feel. Perhaps there would be an exclamation-point-filled Facebook status update. Perhaps I would cue up "Eye of the Tiger" and dance around my apartment while Mika looked on with deep scorn. My back had been stiff and achy for the past couple days, but during the warm-up I was feeling okay. During the first circuit set I was feeling okay. And then, during the one-handed clean-and-jerks of Circuit 2, I felt a sharp pain in my back. The pain shot down my leg and into my knee. There is the good pain (the kind that leads to you getting mightier) and then there's the bad pain (the kind that leads to bed rest), and this was the latter.

I stopped. I paused the DVD. I limped around my apartment. The pain didn't go away. I got a glass of water. I limped some more. The pain didn't go away. Every step sent a blast of pain from my back to my hip to my knee. I turned off the video and hit the showers, feeling more disappointed than I'd been in years, feeling like I'd fallen on my face a few steps from the finish line. I mean, there is no medal for finishing the 30 Day Shred, but I'd wanted to kick its ass. I wanted to do the thing I had set out to do. I wanted a moment like I'd had on the ramps, where I'd done a hard thing that would propel me to accomplish more hard things (like, say, finishing the novel I've been working on).

Now that a few hours have passed and I am sitting here with an icepack on my back, however, I am trying to see my almost-30 Day Shred differently. Before the hip replacement, I routinely pushed my body further than I should have. I got injured or sick, played through, got more injured, played through, got frustrated because I couldn't understand why things weren't improving, played through, blamed myself for not trying hard enough, played through. I bought into all those Nike commercials about pain being weakness leaving the body. But sometimes pain is not weakness leaving the body. Sometimes pain is just damage happening. Knowing the difference is not the kind of slogan that looks good on a T-shirt, but it does prevent you from having further hip replacements.

And so I will declare my 30 Day Shred to be a qualified success. I did have to modify it. I did take more than 30 days to do it. I did stop with 11 and a half minutes left to go in the final damn workout, turn off the DVD and walk away. But I also achieved more leg strength than I've ever had. I did both walking and traveling push-ups from my toes. I did lose an inch around every part of my body and about 6 pounds overall. And, if I do say so myself, my ass is looking damn impressive...ish.

I guess that's the take-away message for those trying to work out with arthritis, or post hip-replacement. You push until you feel the wrong kind of pain, you take a step back to recover, and then you push on. Your path to success looks like stairs, not like a ramp. You do small difficult things over and over again until they are no longer difficult.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

In Defense of Frankie Boyle: Why You Should Make Fun of the Paralympics

I developed a sense of humour one day in October of 1996. This feat was achieved thanks to the following factors.
·      I was 13.
·      I was nearly 6 feet tall.
·      I was in a bright blue half body cast that forced my legs apart at 45 degree angles.
·      To achieve this angle, a wooden hockey stick had been casted between my legs, necessitating snaps in my underwear like the kind used in baby onesies.
·      I most often dressed in long peasant skirts (to avoid the need for snaps) topped with a series of T-shirts that proclaimed me to be a “Big Dog.” (The “Big Dog” shirts had no medical function, though they probably could have been used as a diagnostic tool for depression).
·      I had just started high school, and getting my wheelchair to class required the use lifts installed over the stairs. These lifts emitted warning chimes similar to those of an ice cream truck, which routinely caused stoner boys to sneak from their classrooms expecting a Fudgesicle, then look at me with an expression of deep, soul-crushing disappointment.
On that day, I was late for class and the lift was moving at a glacial speed down the stairway, chiming so loud that three teachers came out to see what the fuss was about. I was frustrated and embarrassed. I was dressed like a lady hobo. I had just started high school and would have to see all these people for 4 more years. There were snaps up my underwear. My cast itched and smelled. And suddenly, I looked down at the piece of wood forcing my legs apart and thought, “Oh my God. Even though it is impossible for me to close my legs, no one even wants to rape me.”
This is a truly awful thing to think, but I started to laugh. My whole perspective on my body had changed.
Since then, I have told many jokes about my disabled body, and very few of them have been kind. I make fun of the fact that I walk like a crack addict, or a zombie. When I was single, I often joked that since sex is one of the few things that alleviates my chronic pain, I should register myself as a non-profit organization so that I can issue tax receipts to men who fuck me.  I have been chided by (able-bodied) people for denigrating myself, but I see it differently: when you can make fun of something, it loses its power over you. I know for a fact that if I hadn't developed the capability to tell off-colour jokes about myself, I would not have survived. I would have wasted away into a ball of seething frustration and ironic T-shirts.
A few days ago, there was a furor over British comedian Frankie Boyle telling some Paralympic jokes on Twitter. (Here's an article on the controversy). I thought they were funny, but then again I also thought it was hilarious when I posted a video of wheelchair rugby heavy hits and someone commented that the hardest hit was the car crash most of them were in.
C4 has had some really interesting discussions on whether you can laugh at the Paralympics. I think you can -- and you should -- but that there are two questions every comic should ask him/herself when doing so.
1.     Is the joke funny? To me, that’s the standard on which any joke’s success should be judged. Does it have that element of surprise, of originality, of intelligence? The offensive Paralympic jokes I've seen have failed not because of their subject matter, but because they just weren't very good. If you're going to take on a taboo subject, you better bring your A game.
2.     Does the joke come from a place of respect or at least understanding? It’s very easy to tell when a comedian has bothered to understand and respect the target of his joke, or whether he is accidentally revealing prejudices. (Note that showing respect doesn't equate to being nice, but it does mean having a purpose other than petty mockery or perpetuating some shitty stereotype). That’s why people who do the “Chinaman” voice or the “person with a mental disability” voice are nearly uniformily unfunny. It’s also why Louis C.K. can tell a joke about sexual assault, but your rapey Uncle Steve can’t.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that jokes are the ultimate form of respect. When you put disability up on a pedestal and treat it as Serious Business, it becomes the elephant in the room. People with disabilities are cast as some “other” who must be treated differently than “normal” people. If Paralympic athletes want to be respected as the elite athletes they are, then they need to accept everything that comes along with it. David Beckham lives with people joking about his Mickey Mouse voice or calling him out if he has a bad game, and so should every Paralympian. (Boyle tweeted something similar to this, saying it was his job to make fun of the Paralympics just like it was his job to make fun of the Olympics, and I agree).

The narrative of a Paralympian as a heroic source of inspiration is boring. If journalists and fans are only allowed to talk about the Paralympics in one way -- if only one type of conversation is deemed politically correct -- then we will never get the well-rounded, nuanced coverage that the Paralympic movement needs. To get this nuanced coverage, we have to test (and keep testing) to see where the line is.
When done well, humour can be a force for change because it forces people to confront prejudices they didn't know they had. The best humour challenges the status quo and upsets the balance of power (see: joker characters in Shakespeare). Frankie Boyle is no Shakespeare, but I would pick someone telling a joke about "Taliban-inspired" Paralympic performances over someone approaching me on the street to praise me for my courage/inspiration/whatever any day.
The Brits are known for their great sense of humour, and I hope it’s on full display at the London 2012 Paralympics. In that spirit, I will be judging the success of these Paralympics based on whether there is a nod to the Ministry of Silly Walks sketch in the Closing Ceremonies.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The London 2012 Paralympics: The Best Show You'll Never See

In 2004, I competed in the Athens Paralympics in wheelchair basketball. I was not a starter. I played mostly in the round robins and the highlight of my entire Paralympic experience was scoring 7 points in the first quarter against Mexico, which landed me very briefly on the high scorer board. My mom has a photo of this high-scorer board. Along with that photo, she also got bruises up the backs of her legs from tensely pressing her calves against the seat, and a sore throat from cheering that took weeks to clear up. A few days later, my family watched me stand on a podium and receive a bronze medal: an experience that they never could have even dreamed of during the early years of hospital stays, half-body casts and surgeries.
The game I was in would never have been shown on TV and at the time webcasting didn’t exist, but my parents were able to share this moment because they had the means to travel from Canada to Greece. Thousands of parents, friends and supporters of the athletes who will compete in the London 2012 Paralympic Games this summer, however, do not. Those who cannot afford to visit an expensive city like London are banking on the fact that the Paralympics will be webcast.  The good news is that they will:  the U.K. Channel C4 will be webcasting many of the events with a professional feed complete with colour commentators. Here, however, is the bad news: unless you live in the U.K., you will never get to see it.
If you ask C4 why they have restricted the feed to a U.K. audience, they will tell you that they don’t want to interfere with other countries’ television broadcasting rights. (That sound you hear is thousands of Paralympians snickering at once). The channel with the broadcasting rights in your country will provide coverage, they say. This is all well and good if you live in a sport-mad country like Australia, but less good if you live in Canada, where CTV (the channel with the Olympic and Paralympic broadcasting rights) had to be publicly shamed into airing the Vancouver 2010 Paralympics’ Opening Ceremony, even though it took place in their own country. And it’s even less good if you live in, say, India or Africa. Or if you play a sport that is not one of the Paralympic marquee sports like wheelchair basketball.
Given that most countries will not be offering up-to-the-minute Paralympic coverage, and given that a webcast is an entirely different medium than television and its picture quality and reliability do not compete with television, the true reason the Paralympics are not being webcast worldwide is a financial one. C4 is so protective of its market that it does not even release made-for-web videos to a non-U.K. audience. It does not see an incentive to work with other broadcasters to ensure that the Paralympic Games can be seen. But there are some very compelling reasons why they should. Here’s why.
Because the people who need to see Paralympic sports are the ones with the least access to it. It is not an exaggeration to say that involvement in wheelchair sports (or any Paralympic sport) saves lives. People who play wheelchair sports at any level have fewer hospital stays, fewer secondary complications, less depression, more independence and greater employment. But it’s more than that. During the Paralympics, you will hear over and over again how an athlete’s involvement in his or her sport was the number one factor in their adjusting to life after acquiring a disability. When you hear Paralympians say that they would not be here if not for sport, this is not an exaggeration in the least. There are thousands of athletes at a recreational level who could tell you the same story.
These athletes could also tell you that they initially resisted becoming involved in wheelchair sports because they did not think it would be competitive. And then, one day, they came out to a wheelchair basketball practice and saw someone sink a long three-pointer, or saw a head-on collision at a wheelchair rugby game, and the spark was lit. Today, thanks to webcasting technology, that spark can be lit at 3 am in front of a computer screen. It can be lit in a developing nation where there is not yet a single sports wheelchair. (During the webcast of the 2010 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships, 1 in 6 viewers were from countries that did not have a wheelchair rugby team). Once every four years, people with disabilities from around the world have a chance to see wheelchair sport played at its very best and so see what they might also be capable of. Without a webcast, many will never get this chance.
Because the Paralympics deserve to be seen. When parasports are shown on TV or reported about in newspapers, if they are shown at all, they are generally framed by able-bodied journalists who are not experts. Lacking expertise in the technicalities of the game, the journalist must resort to the old clich├ęs about how inspirational the athletes are, about how much they’ve overcome. It’s not the journalist’s fault that they are not equipped to interpret wheelchair sports, but the end result is that the sport never gets a chance to speak for itself.  Nor is it the fault of television executives that there is not the market to put a full wheelchair basketball gold medal game on during a time when people would conceivably watch it. Thanks to the webcast, however, people have a chance to see a full game presented the way it is. The game is not a human-interest story, but a fully realized sport with its own intricacies, strategies and feats of athleticism. The viewer can make up his or her own mind.
We’ve seen over and over that when people see wheelchair sports, they fall in love with them. The professional wheelchair basketball league in Europe plays to packed crowds. The 2010 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships made $40,000 in ticket sales. But a barrier exists in wheelchair sports that able-bodied sports don’t face, which is that before you can get someone to watch a game, you must get them past the stereotypes they hold about people with disabilities. A highlight package on the local news will not overcome this barrier, but a webcast can.
Because the Paralympic community deserves more. I work for a wheelchair rugby team and that sport has some of the most dedicated fans around. At every tournament, friends and families and volunteering, fundraising and cheering in the stands. It makes sense. Say that you are a mother who nearly lost a son in a car accident, who was told by a doctor that he had become a quadriplegic, who supported him as he re-learned basic life skills, who watched him transform from someone barely able to sit up in bed to someone representing his country on a world stage. Imagine you have seen all that and you don’t have the money to travel to London. Imagine that someone tells you that you will not be able to see your son competing at his most proud sport moment because some television channel might kind of sort of maybe possibly want to do a 15-minute highlight package two weeks after the Paralympics are over. You would find that answer unacceptable, and so do I.
Now say that you are a Paralympic athlete. You moved thousands of miles away to train with the best coaches. You got up at 5:30 a.m. for years. You routinely push your body so hard that you throw up. You have been to 8 countries in the past year just to qualify. And now say someone tells you that, though the technology exists, your friends and family will not be able to see you represent your country on the world stage. You would find that answer unacceptable, and so do I.
Webcasting is a developing technology and it raises many important questions about broadcasting rights. These must be discussed. But it also raises new solutions, and none of these solutions involve apathy. C4 could sell its webfeed to other broadcasting companies. It could sell individual events 30 minutes after the match is over in iTunes. A major sponsor could step in to cover the cost of the bandwidth and ensure that Paralympic sports can be seen worldwide. From a purely financial standpoint, it’s in C4’s best interest to get this right. It seems better to make the webcast available worldwide and profit off the advertising, than to have Paralympic fans access the webcast via other means.
The Internet is a global medium and the Paralympics are a global movement. Both are evolving rapidly and there are many kinks to work out along the way. But if the Paralympics are about anything, they’re about refusing to accept the easy answer, about proving someone wrong when they tell you it can’t be done or it’s not possible. The London 2012 Paralympics deserves to be seen, and every athlete, supporter and ever stranger should be loud enough to demand it.
And here’s how.
1)   Ask C4 Paralympics to make the webcast for the London 2012 Paralympics viewable to people in every country. You can reach them on Twitter (@C4Paralympics), on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/C4Paralympics) or via their website (http://www.channel4.com/4viewers/contact-us)
2)   If C4 will not show Paralympic sport outside its market, then the broadcaster with the official broadcasting rights in each country must do so. In Canada, this is held by CTV. Contact them on Twitter (@CtvOlympics), Facebook (Facebook.com/ctvolympics), or via their website (http://www.ctvolympics.ca/contactus.html)

 There are 100 days to the Paralympics. Let's make those 100 days count.