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.