Tuesday, December 13, 2011

How Qantas Saved Christmas

I have a strange life. I live in one of those perpetual tornadoes of weirdness where cats need hip replacements and ass muscles fall off and occasionally you need to be rescued on a Greek island by wheelchair rugby players or tell a masseuse in Turkey that, no, you don't want that kind of massage. This is not something I complain about, since I also have the kind of life where crappy things tend to work themselves out, usually as a result of there being good people in the world.

Case in point: this morning, I wrote a blog post about how I wasn't able to go to Australia to visit some friends because I failed to recognize that the fine print on my itinerary actually said that my credit card had been declined. (You can read the original post here). Just when I thought my Christmas Down Under was doomed to become a Christmas Sulking On the Couch and Overindulging in Homemade Boozy Chai Lattes, a Christmas miracle happened. Or a Twitter miracle.

I sent my original blog post to the Qantas customer service people via Twitter and they actually responded! Those of you who have heard the story of The Time I Went to France and Air Canada's Baggage Wankers Ripped a Hole in My Luggage and Despite Years of Trying I Never Got Compensated Because I Didn't Save the Receipt For A Four-Year-Old Bag (it's not a very exciting story, truth be told), will understand why I didn't expect an airline to really bother. After all, it was partially my faut; I should have read the fine print.

But Qantas responded, and within a few hours I had my trip rebooked at the same price I intended to pay for the original ticket, plus a complimentary pass to the Qantas lounge on my way back for my trouble. I'll be heading to Australia on the 15th and will arrive on the 17th. When I got off the phone with the Qantas people and discovered that I would indeed be able to go to Australia, it was like that moment in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas where the Grinch has a change of heart and throws all the presents down to the town below. (And what happened next? Well in Vancouver they say/ That the Arley's faith in customer service/ grew 4 sizes that day. Also: her butt grew several sizes in anticipation of all the Tim Tam's she's about to eat).

So thank you to Qantas customer service, and thank you to everyone who tweeted/ Facebooked their outrage on my behalf. While it will be strange to not spend Christmas with my family, I'm excited to be able to spend time with some truly awesome friends and explore Australia. Hopefully I will have some adventures worth blogging about! Thanks Qantas!

How the Qantas Stole Christmas

Update: Well, yay.  Qantas rectified the situation. Check out the updated blog post here.

One of the great things about having had a Paralympic wheelchair basketball career is that you have friends all over the world and a place to stay in nearly every country. One of the downsides, however, is that once you're no longer traveling around the world racking up Airmiles points and actually having one of those "real job" things, getting to see some of these friends is tough.

This year, I had planned to remedy that by spending Christmas and New Years with my friends in Australia, most of whom are on the Australian women's wheelchair basketball national team and too busy training for London 2012 to come visit me on this side of the world. I've actually never been to Australia, since the two times I was supposed to go for a basketball tournament I ended up getting sick or injured, so I was excited to finally experience the Land Down Under. What could be better than reconnecting with friends while soaking up enough vitamin D to get me through the rest of Vancouver's grey season?

Because of the last-minute-ness of my book tour, I wasn't able to confirm my travel dates until two weeks before my flight date, so the ticket price to Melbourne was at the top of my price range. I chose, however, to book through Qantas airline's website, since I was assured by friends that it was the most reliable site and Qantas offered the best service of any airline that flies to Australia. I submitted my credit card information and was directed to a screen saying that my flight had successfully been booked. Moments later, an itinerary arrived in my inbox. This itinerary had a booking number and reference number and the word 'confirmed' was written by every flight. Mission accomplished, right? Wrong.

Yesterday, I arrived at the airport packed and ready to go. In anticipation of having to spend some extra time at the Homeland Security Love Fest thanks to the artificial hip, I arrived at the airport 2.5 hours in advance, thinking this would be ample time to catch my flight from Vancouver to L.A., which connected to my flight to Melbourne. Upon checking in, however, I received a shock: I had no ticket.

That itinerary that Qantas sent me? Well, let's take a closer look.

Yup...this all looks solid. Booking number. Reference number. And you'd think that if something was important, they'd put it in those nice, bright blue letters. Right? Let's read on!

Confirmed! Confirmed is a good word! Scroll, scroll, scroll. Yup, everything looks solid! This is the point where I thought, "Okay, all looks well. Back to book touring." Mistake! Let's read on.

That's right, ladies and gentlemen. The minor detail that I HAVE NO TICKET was buried in the middle of the email in the same tiny capslocked letters that detailed the enhanced screening measures requiring me to stow my aerosols and gels in a transparent resealable 1 litre plastic bag. But hey, at least they used 10 whole asterisks. And we all know that asterisks in 10 pt. font mean business.

 The email continues on for another page in the same shout-y capslocks, before ending with this cheerful note:
"We wish you a pleasant journey" is apparently code for "Can't wait to see the look on your face when you get to the airport and realize that you have no ticket, sucka!"

Well, damn. No ticket. Now, I am a seasoned traveler. I have been all over the world for basketball and routinely fly for work. If I could get myself out of being chased by wild dogs at 3 am at the dock of a Greek island waiting for my stolen luggage to appear on a barge, I could remedy this situation.

I did not panic. I did not shout. I did not melt down. Instead, I called Qantas. We tried the credit card again. No dice. The nice Qantas rep suggested that I contact Mastercard. After 40 minutes on hold and a few dropped calls, I finally got through to Mastercard. Though my limit was well over the cost of the flight, I got my limit increased just to be safe. The representative at Mastercard suggested that Qantas could call them directly to remedy the situation, but that the payment should go through.

Time was ticking. I had only 45 minutes until my flight to L.A. I phoned Qantas again, waited on hold, but by the time that I got through to anyone and explained my problem, it was too late. The representative informed me that they could only process emergency payments in American funds, not Canadian funds, and would have to transfer me to another booking agent...and by that time it would be too late.

I asked if they could put me on the same flight on a different day, since Qantas did such a terrible job of informing me about the declined credit card. The agent said I should have read the fine print and it wasn't Qantas' fault. I asked if there was anything -- ANYTHING -- I could do. Nothing short of starting from scratch. And then she hung up. (Merry Christmas to you too, frosty Qantas lady).

Still not totally discouraged, I headed home to see if I could snag a cheap fare, but sadly the prices had gone up to over $3500, way, way beyond my budget. And even when I did find a single fare on a non-Qantas airline that was not ridiculously expensive, it turned out that Mastercard had put a block on my credit card. WHY? Because I tried to make a large purchase after increasing my credit limit. Face meet palm.

Between the Mastercard shenanigans and Qantas' refusal to offer more than the basic level of assistance, I will not be traveling to Australia this Christmas. I will not be sitting on the beach with friends for New Years. I will not be kayaking, snorkling, hiking or any of the other fun things I'd planned. I will not be taking a much-needed break from work. Instead, I'm spending this Christmas season getting caught up on work. And now, Qantas, I'm mad.

Because here's the thing. Yeah, I should have read the fine print. But crucial information such as the fact that my credit card was declined should not have been in the fine print to begin with. It should have been in a separate email. Or at the top of the itinerary in large, bold letters. Or anywhere but the middle of an email that appeared to be a flight confirmation, surrounded by a couple of asterisks and a few pages of information about security procedures. Had I discovered this problem quickly, I could have easily remedied the situation and would right now be shaking off the jetlag with an ice cold beer and a bit of sunshine.

So Qantas, you may have lost a customer, but I've lost my one chance for a vacation this year and that makes me terribly, terribly sad.  I hope you'll find some way to remedy this situation, or prevent from happening to anyone else. In the meantime, I will be sending this blog post to all my many Paralympic athlete friends around the world in the hopes that they do not make the same mistake as I did. I hope they will bear that in mind when choosing an airline.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Are the Paralympics Patronizing?

Before my hip replacement, I was a Paralympic athlete in wheelchair basketball. I won 2 World Championship gold medals (2002 and 2006) and won bronze at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. Today, the former athlete (and current disability studies enthusiast) in me was intrigued by a blog post entitled "Are the Paralympics Patronizing?" The article (here: http://blogs.channel4.com/paralympics/2011/12/07/are-the-paralympics-patronising/) reflects on a survey that found that less than a quarter of people with disabilities are excited about the Paralympics. This, the blogger says, "questions the core purpose of Paralympic sport."

I'm not so sure.

First, it's tough to make the argument that the Paralympics themselves are patronizing. Separating athletes out based on biological categories has been around since the advent of sports. Boxers and wrestlers have weight classes. Women have their own teams. There are championships for athletes of various ages from junior up to masters. No one is arguing that some 50 kg wrestler should hop in the ring with a 80kg wrestler. Why? Because sport is better when people compete against their equals.

One of our fundamental beliefs in sport is that champions are not born fully formed, but are created out of hard work and dedication.  Separating athletes into fair categories allows such a principle to be carried out. If sports like boxing or wrestling did not have weight classes, the athlete who happened to be born with the most appropriate body type would overpower athletes who trained harder, were smarter or more skilled. Allowing like to compete against like shows us true excellence, since the athlete who has done the most to maximize his or her natural gifts is the winner.

For this reason, the Paralympics as an event cannot be patronizing. What can be patronizing, however, is the way the Paralympics are represented in popular culture. Just as the lack of popularity of women's sport is less a reflection on women's sport and more a reflection on our culture's beliefs about women, the Paralympic movement reveals society's attitude towards people with disabilities. This attitude is often highly patronizing.

One of those patronizing attitudes is the notion that the "core purpose of Paralympic sport" is to inspire other people with disabilities. Athletes compete in the Paralympics to win. It is an elite sporting event and a wheelchair is just another piece of sporting equipment that allows athletes to achieve this level of excellence. When I competed, I did not get up at 5:30 every morning so that some 50-year-old accountant with polio could learn to follow his dreams. I got up at 5:30 every morning to win a gold medal. Athletes able-bodied and otherwise are notoriously bad at being role models (see: Michael Phelps) because their #1 goal isn't to inspire. Their goal is to win.

The problem is that when the "inspirational" narrative that exists in able-bodied sports gets applied to the Paralympics, it's filtered through a thick lens of ableism. Michael Phelps is inspirational because he won roughly 8 million gold medals. A Paralympic athlete, however, is inspirational because she overcame a disability (bonus points if this disability was acquired in a tragic manner) and is exhibiting hope and courage and rainbows and butterflies by just competing at all. To reduce any sport to a Hallmark made-for-TV movie is to cheapen it and the word "inspirational" as applied to Paralympic athletes has been degraded to the point that it's a dirty word.

This, I suspect, is what the bulk of people with disabilities are reacting to when they profess to be not excited about the Paralympics. Even the question is filtered through a bias. Why should one person with a disability be expected to feel a rah-rah sense of allegiance to someone else with a disability, be they Paralympian or otherwise? Why should a person who has no interest in sports be interested in the Paralympics just because he or she has a spinal cord injury or a missing limb? I imagine that by the time the Paralympics arrive, there will be a lot of non-sporty people with disabilities in Britain sick of being asked by well-meaning people on buses or in shops whether they're excited that The Disabled are being put on TV thanks to the Paralympics, in much the same way that conservative African-Americans must have gotten sick of well-meaning white people asking them if they're excited about the election of Barack Obama.

 Personally, I don't care whether only 22% of people with disabilities are excited about the Paralympics. I care that wheelchair sports are represented in a way that allows both able-bodied and disabled people alike to make up their own minds. When Paralympic sports are treated like the sports they are, we see time and again that people who love sports "get" them. A professional wheelchair basketball league is thriving in Europe not because people want to show their kids that people with disabilities can accomplish great things, but because wheelchair basketball is exciting, fast-paced and fun to watch. When a wheelchair is viewed as a piece of sporting equipment, all that awareness and advocacy and empathy stuff takes care of itself.

My hope is that in London 2012, the "I word" takes a backseat to an intelligent, honest analysis of Paralympic sports. The good news it that it's starting to happen, as more and more journalists (Gary Kingston, for example) and bloggers represent Paralympic sports for what they are. This may mean criticizing a team or athlete for underperforming, or it may mean admitting that some Paralympic sports (like some Olympic sports) are not as exciting as others. Without this honesty, however, the Paralympics become nothing more than an extended human interest story. And if that's the case, there will be a lot more people with disabilities changing the channel.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Getting Back On the Bike

This May, I rode a bike for the first time in 17 years.

You might say to me, “Wow, riding a bicycle. Colour me impressed. It’s not like my four-year-old niece goes off-road extreme mountain biking and punches cougars in the face when she encounters them out in the wilderness or my 80-year-old grandma is training for her 18th triathlon and built her own bike out of the bamboo she cut down herself during her trip to Nepal or anything. Did you bust out your fanny pack for your epic trip around the Seawall?”

Okay, yes, I realize that I am living in the epicenter of the Active Westcoast Lifestyle and everyone and their dog rides a bike here. This, however, is a big deal to me because it’s literally the only thing I can do post-hip-replacement that I couldn’t do before. (Well, I have found a few extra uses besides bike riding for my newfound ability to straddle, but let’s not go into that).

I resisted posting about this for several months because the person who taught me how the ride a bike is someone I was casually dating at the time. It’s a long-standing opinion of mine that blogging about an ex (even a casual, short-term-relationship type ex) is a one-way ticket to AwkwardTown with stops along the way at AiringYourDirtyLaundryInAWayThatWillCauseYouShameVille and TheMinuteYouMentionDatingCreepersOnTheInternetAreImaginingYouFucking-opolis.

I’ve decided to blog about learning how to ride a bike, however, because so much of Young and Hip has chronicled my disappointment with my hip replacement. I often get emails asking me if I regret it, and I worry that I am talking people out of a life-altering surgery. But even though I’m over a year post-hip-replacement (and two years since the first one), my hip still swells up like the ass of a baboon in heat if I try to do such extreme sports as…deep water aerobics. Or walking down the street. Or sitting in a chair for longer than 20 minutes. I still walk with a cane. I can never play wheelchair basketball again. If I work out for more than a couple of days a week, I’m in constant pain. Over the past year, I’ve honestly struggled with the knowledge that this is as good as my hip will ever get.

But back to the bicycling. I met D. on an online dating site. I was immediately comfortable around him, which is astounding because usually on dates I talk like a crack-addicted LOLcat (“O HAI!!”) and knock things over with my elaborate hand gestures. A few weeks after we met, I mentioned that I wanted to learn how to ride a bike. I joked about getting adult training wheels so I wouldn’t fall and bring about Total Hip Replacement 3: Rise of the Prosthetic Fractures. D offered to teach me.

I assumed that he meant that we would rent a bike by the seawall and he would attempt to catch me if I looked to be veering towards certain death. But D. surprised me by researching how to safely teach an adult how to ride a bicycle. Thanks to a few websites and several Youtube videos of old Chinese ladies becoming confident cyclists, he came up with a plan. (Is it a bad sign that one of the nicer things a man has ever done for me involved Youtube videos of old Chinese ladies?)

And so, on one of those rare Spring days when it’s sunny in Vancouver and your Seasonal Affective Disorder calls in sick, D and I went to Stanley Park armed only with the wisdom of the internet. D’s method involved me coasting down a grassy hill first with my feet touching the ground to get a feel for the movement, then again with my feet up, then finally while pedaling. And it was….really easy. Though the writer in me died a little, I had to admit that the cliché is true: you really never forget.

This was a surprise because when I tried to ride a bike several years before the hip replacement, I couldn’t get my left leg on the pedals, it nearly got caught in the chain and A. (who was holding on to both me and the bike) and I ran into a tree. This time, however, I took off riding up a hill. Wobbly, yes. Slow, absolutely. Graceful, sure as hell not. I, however, felt like Lance Fucking Armstrong winning the Tour De Fuck You Hip Replacement Because That Shit Just Happened.

D. and I took a break for lunch and then he rented a bike and we rode together around the Seawall. Because of my lack of speed and the fact that I was wobbling more than Lindsey Lohan after a rough night, cyclists kept chiming at me. At first, I mistook this for a friendly salute, as if they were saying, “Greetings and salutations fellow cycling enthusiast! May your journey be safe and free of ass-chafing!”, but D. informed me that ringing your bell is actually cyclist speak for “fuck you.” (Well chime chime to you too, Vancouver bike commuters).

Soon, however, I was coasting down hills, picking up speed and wondering how long it had been since I’d gone fast. That’s the one thing I miss about sport, and it’s something that elliptical machines can’t replace: just going balls out fast. I will spare you any clichés of feeling free – nothing’s free in Vancouver, let’s be honest – but for the first time my long recovery felt over. I was ‘better.’ Sure, it wasn’t the better I expected or wanted, but even though my hip was swollen and my back was sore and my anti-ass was like “fuck off right here and now,” it seemed like a better I could live with.

I looked at D., who was flushed from pedaling and who had gone to all this effort to teach me how to do something he didn’t even enjoy, and at Stanley Park, which was being all picture-post-cardy, and I thought: Best. Date. Ever. And that feeling continued for several more weeks….until it didn’t. And then it was over. There’s a Gloria Steinem joke here somewhere.

After the breakup, I’ll admit that I spent a day or two sulkily listening to “Blood on the Tracks,” but it doesn’t take long to get over a six-week thing with someone you only saw a couple of times a week. And it’s even easier once you realize that that the only thing shittier than a breakup is being unable to date because you’re stuck in bed post-surgery injecting yourself with bloodthinners and groggily watching some reality TV show about the joys of home renovation.

Because – watch out people! Literary Device Alert! Here comes a very subtle metaphor because I am a fancy, fancy writer! – after two years of medical limbo, I am happy to be back on the dating bike, and the social life bike, and the getting the fuck on with my life bike. (That’s a lot of bikes. What’s the metaphorical equivalent of padded bike shorts?) And even though it means accepting the notion that the cane is here to stay, I’m happy that the Great Hip Replacement Debacle is receding into a small point in the rear view mirror. It’s nice to not to catch myself starting the bulk of my stories with, “So I was at physio and an old lady said…”

So even though it didn’t lead to happily ever after, I’m glad to have a story that begins with the phrase “So I was dating this guy and he taught me how to ride a bike,” even if it ends with the phrase “yes, grandma, I’m still single. No, I’m not a lesbian.” Because several weeks after D. and I broke up, I bought myself a bike. Her name is Dorothy Mantooth and right now I only ride her around the quiet streets in my neighbourhood because cars seem like huge metal dinosaurs chasing me, though I have delusions of becoming a Serious Biker Who Wears Spandex And Refuels With Those Energy Gels.

A few weeks ago, I rode around the Seawall again. I passed a gaggle of elderly ladies stopping every few seconds to take photos of birds. I passed a tourist couple who kept announcing Vancouver’s beauty every 3.8 seconds to one another. I even passed a pair of girls who looked mildly athletic. Granted, I got my ass handed to me by several middle-aged rollerbladers, but let’s go ahead and chalk this up to a solid victory.

So if you’re in the Vancouver area and you see a very tall girl on a white bike making the Seawall her bitch, that is me, and I’m passing on the left. Chime chime, motherbitches!

And if you’re not in Vancouver and you’ve had a hip replacement and are looking for a safe way to relearn how to ride a bike without falling, here is a video of me doing so on a very good day with a guy I was dating. If you want to do a drinking game to this clip, take a shot everytime I say “yay!”

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

I'm Back! Kind of. Maybe.

After a six-month absence, I seem to have broken the cardinal rule of blogging, which is to post on a regular basis. I also broke the second cardinal rule of blogging, which is don't start a blog about your semi-detached ass, but I think I get a free pass on that one.

So, after 224 posts spanning several hundred pages and nearly 2 years, why did I suddenly go AWOL? Was it because my hip magically healed itself, my gluteus medius grew back and there was nothing more to write about? Nope. Was it because I got tired of making jokes involving puns on the word 'half-assed?" Unlikely. That shit never gets old.

In truth, there were several reasons, but the main one was that I just got busy. Right now, I have 3 jobs, 2 volunteer positions, a book coming out in the Fall and a cat who sits on my chest and slaps me in the face when I'm sleeping if I don't pay enough attention to her (true story). Plus, now that I'm living in Vancouver, land of "Would You Like Some Sky-High Rental Prices To Go With Your Seasonal Affective Disorder-Inducing Climate?", a girl's got to hustle to make ends meet.

Honestly, I was also getting tired of talking about my hip replacement. After two surgeries, months of rehab, and countless people approaching me on the street to ask what's, like, wrong with me, I wanted to get off the Arthroplasty Express and spend a little time in Normal-28-Year-Old-Chick-Doing-Normal-Shit-Town. (Okay, yes, I know. 'Arley' and 'normal' go together as well as 'Vancouver' and 'sunny days.' But still!) I was beginning to get known as That Girl Who Had A Disastrous Hip Replacement instead of That Girl Will Publish Her Second Book By 28 or That Girl Who Looks Totally Awesome And I Wonder If She's Single.

It all reached a boiling point when a guy I used to play wheelchair basketball with was like, "Arley's so obsessed with her hip. She doesn't talk about anything but her hip. She wants to have sex with her hip." I kind of freaked out and vowed to stop blogging that night. Working in wheelchair sports and having played them for most of my life, you get to know a lot of people with disabilities. 95% of those people are well-adjusted and generally awesome -- or well-adjusted but kind of douchy, it varies -- but there's a small percentage who seem to see themselves as A Disabled Person, as if that's the only thing about them. I didn't want to ever become the kind of person who devotes the bulk of their Facebook status updates to being like, "OMG! It is so hard being disabled! Recently, someone said something that could possibly have been perceived as discriminatory and I am going to freak the fuck out and go on an exclamation-point-fueled rant about how people are so ignorant and it's a good thing I'm so strong and brave and can overcome the weight of society pressing down upon me! P.S. I just got pink butterfly stickers for my wheelchair and they are totally rad." It's a problem whenever you can boil your identity down to a single phrase, whether it's 'disabled' or 'cat enthusiast' or 'a warlock with tiger blood and Adonis DNA' (#winning), and I didn't want anyone thinking of me as someone who's obsessed with her disability.

Also, not going to lie, it's a little disconcerting to be like, "Good news! My blog gets over 5,000 visitors a month. Wait, bad news! 86% of those visitors are just here for the 'sexual healing' post I did on post-surgical sex positions, which means that there are a lot of sick fuckers out there jacking off to cartoons of old people getting it on to the point of hip dislocation." (Side note to whoever Googled "Arley McNeney naked" and/or "Arley McNeney boobs": If you need the help of Google to locate my boobs, you are probably never going to see them in real life. And by 'probably' I mean 'absolutely.' And by 'absolutely' I mean 'Seriously. Really. Eww.') Bottom line: if I'm going to be helping some guy get off, I want to at least be enjoying myself in the process.

So those are the reasons why I left, but here are the reasons why I'm back. (Maybe. Hopefully. Depending on how the whole 'having 8 million jobs and trying to have a social life' thing pans out). First, my mom has been on my case about it forever. (Hi mom! Love you!). Second, however, my friend J.T. (no, not Justin Timberlake, though he and I are pretty close) is having a hip replacement tomorrow and we actually have the same surgeon. Don't worry, it's not the guy who did the first surgery!

One of the cool things about "Young and Hip" has been hearing from people all over the world who are thinking of having a hip replacement or have already had one or who are supposed to have one but now I've terrified them and they'd rather drag their arthritis-stricken hips through hot lava than go through with the surgery and wind up like me. (To the latter group, I have this to say: Despite everything that happened, I wish I'd had the hip replacement years ago. If I'd had my surgery on a different day or with a different doctor, you would never have heard about me because I'd be off living my life thinking, 'Hey, remember that mildly-to-moderately painful time in my life when I got a hip replacement? That was so worth it for all the awesome shit I'm doing now.')

Anyhow, while I've heard from tons of different hip replacement patients, I've never known anyone in real life who's my age and about to go through one. And considering all that J.T. has been through to get the surgery, I thought I'd give her a little shout out to wish her luck. So, good luck J.T.! Here's hoping that you recover quickly and are soon back to living the dream. Hip precautions may be annoying, but three months is a short period of time and soon you can throw away your ass cushion and post-hip-replacement sex manual and enjoy life as a pain-free bad-ass cyborg. Keep me posted!