Thursday, February 16, 2012

2011 In Review -- Part 4: Disability Aids and Home Decor

Getting back on track with my 2011 In Review series, next up is home decor and disability aids.  I should start out by saying that I don't do a lot of home decor sewing.  It's always been one of those things that I can do, when I need to, but I don't get a lot of joy out of it.  Unlike clothing and costuming, home decor feels (to me) both restrictive and boring.  Restrictive in that decor is what your house wears every day -- most people don't change throw pillows or slip covers or curtains as often as they change outfits -- and in that I share my house with my husband and my cat, so I have to take their needs and desires into account too.  (MB's opinion on what clothing looks good on me gets a lot of weight, but I ultimately decide; Kitty Pryde, on the other hand, doesn't really get a vote.)  And boring in that much of home decor sewing is straight lines and easy shapes, with no challenging fit to tackle.

So between 2000 and 2010, I sewed one pair of throw pillows for our sofa, and nothing else that could even loosely be termed home decor.  2011 didn't bring a sudden burst of home decor sewing inspiration, but as we headed into the second half of the year, inspiration of another sort struck.  I somehow got it into my head that I would participate in National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo.  Not just participate, but finish, which involves writing at least 50,000 words of an original work of fiction within the 30 days of November.  Now I've done some writing before, both technical and fiction writing for various games I've worked on (and others I can't mention), as well as fanfiction and some original poetry, but I tend to be a pretty slow, perfectionist writer.  I have a couple of outlines for novels that I've been kicking around for a few years, but have never taken the time to tackle.  My logic last fall was that participating in NaNo, forcing myself to devote all of November to writing 50,000 words, would help break me of my perfectionist habits and just get something down on the page.  All good in theory.

I do this to myself from time to time, in all sorts of areas.  I'll set up some ridiculous goal and loudly proclaim that I am going to meet it.  But at its root, it always seems to come down to "If I can accomplish X, then it'll mean that I'm not really chronically ill, that my illness doesn't dictate that much of my life."  In the past it's been jobs, social activities, dance classes, travel, and probably more I've forgotten about.  In the fall of 2011, it was writing a novel.  I would push through the pain and write a novel, and thus prove that my illness can't stop me from doing anything.

Yeah, that didn't work out so much.  After psyching myself up, prepping my work space (which is what this post is about, promise), developing my characters, outlining my plot, etc etc -- I crashed hard on November 2nd.  So it goes.

But in the months and weeks leading up to NaNoWriMo, I focused on prepping my work space to best allow me to put in the hours I knew it would take to write a 50,000 word novel.  I tend to live at my computer, between writing, blogging, reading blogs, playing video games, and once upon a time making video games.  My knees and hips are my most pain-ridden joints, and there's a certain point of the day, each and every day, where I can't sit in my desk chair anymore, no matter how many prescription painkillers I load up on.  The idea started to form in my head that I could sew things that would extend the hours I'm able to comfortably sit at the computer.

My work space, such as it is, consists of a computer desk and chair in the center of the large open main room of MB and my condo, about equidistant from the tv and my sewing area, and framed by our couch on one side, MB's matching desk on another, and the front entry way on the third side.  Most days, it looks like this:

Only usually without flowers -- MB got me those for Valentine's Day, and I'll happily sacrifice surface space for flowers any day.

Being the short, hypermobile person that I am, my desk chair is always set to the highest possible height, to keep my arms at the correct height for keyboard use -- which leaves my feet uncomfortably far from the floor.  Before last fall, I'd developed a bad habit of crossing my ankles and resting my toes on the roller stand of my desk chair, or alternately folding one leg under me and keeping the other foot on the roller stand, simply because my feet couldn't reach the floor on their own (you short ladies will know what I'm talking about -- nothing in this world is made for someone 5'2", I swear).  This, of course, did very bad things to my already painful and hypermobile hips and knees.

My feet are also perpetually, unceasingly cold, to the point that it doesn't matter how many pairs of socks I wear (I'm wearing two pairs right now, one of them SmartWool, and a pair of legwarmers besides -- and it's 68° outside, I have a fire in the hearth beside MB's desk, and my feet are still cold).  It's gotten so bad in recent years that the only way to keep my feet from aching with cold is to put a heating pad directly on them.  So an idea started to percolate for something I could sew that would give me a better place to rest my feet while sitting in my desk chair, and potentially keep my feet warm.

I started with a set of 15"x17"x2" high density foam cushions I found at JoAnn's.  I bought three, brought them home and tucked them under my desk, and was happy to find that the combined 6" height was the perfect elevation for my feet and the 15"x17" surface area was just a bit bigger than the heating pad I usually use for my feet.  Based on the measurements of the foam, I sketched out some very basic plans:

MB suggested I just stack the three layers of foam and call it done, but I knew I could do better.  I pulled out the leftover home decor fabric I had used for the throw pillows from where it had languished at the bottom of my stash for a good five years.  I didn't have a ton of it, so I also pulled out some spare muslin.  Starting with the side of my foam cube that would be against the ground, I cut out a piece of muslin 40cm x 45cm (15"x17" plus a 1cm seam allowance on each side -- I switched to using cm in my sewing while making my steampunk Tinkerbell corset, and I've never gone back; inches are just too imprecise for me).  To that I added a 40x45cm piece of non-slip pad, cut from a too-big pad currently folded up under an area rug by our tv.  I ran a quick machine stitch around all four sides to keep the muslin and the non-slip pad together.

(Pardon the pile o' pink in the background there -- that's a UFO that I hope to finish this year.)

Next, I cut 45x17cm rectangles from the left-over throw pillow fabric, to cover the front and back edges of the cube.

I sewed those to the 45cm long sides of my non-slip bottom layer, drawing on the way we used to make paper cubes as kids.  I was worried I wouldn't have enough of the home decor fabric, so I cut the 40x17cm side pieces from muslin and sewed those rectangles onto the 40cm long sides of the non-slip layer.

For the top of the cube, I used bit of leftover black fleece from my stash -- once finished, this would form part of a fleece-lined pocket for my feet on the top of the footrest.  I cut out another 40x45cm rectangle from the fleece and sewed it to the free edge of what would eventually be the front of my footrest.

This is where it started getting a bit tricky, but thankfully my sewing machine cooperated and I was able to sew up each of the four corner seams, and then sew the top to the side panels, all while keeping it fairly flat.  Only once I started putting the foam pads in did it actually start looking like a cube.

I added some loose recycled fiber type stuffing (salvaged from an ugly-as-sin giant heavy pillow that I'd been using as a footrest before) on top of the three foam pads to give the footrest more of a pillowtop feel, then hand-sewed the fleece top layer to back side of the cube.

The next step was to make the top of the pocket where my feet would go.  I wanted this top piece to wrap around from the side, up over the top of the footrest, then down the other side, with enough room in the front for me to put my feet in, but closed in the back near where my toes would be -- in other words, a trapezoid shape roughly 80cm long in the front and 76cm long in the back, and 38cm wide.  I cut this shape once from the home decor fabric for the outside, and again from the black fleece fabric for the inside.  I sewed the 80cm edges together with the wrong sides facing each other, then flipped it right side out and topstitched it, so the front edge would be nicely finished.  Then I set about hand-sewing this outer pocket piece to the cube.

And quickly realized that the pocket top wouldn't completely cover the white muslin I had used on the sides of the cubes.  Thankfully I had enough home decor fabric left over (way more than I thought I would have, in fact) that I was able to cut a couple of smaller rectangles to cover the muslin that showed on the sides.  Rather than take the whole cube apart to re-do these seams, I just turned the edges under and hand-sewed the rectangles directly onto the muslin.  If I had to do this project over again, I would definitely do this part differently (and in fact did do it differently when I made a similar footrest as a gift for my mom, but I'll get to that in the next post).

With the muslin covered, I got back to hand-sewing the pocket top into place, first along the two outside edges, and then with an envelope fold in the back, to tuck it all down tight at the back edge while leaving the front edge open enough for my feet and ankles.

Once it was finished, I tucked my heating pad into the fleece-lined pocket and put the footrest under my desk, where it has lived ever since.  In fact, if you go back and look at my first shot of what my work space looks like today, you can just barely see it peeking out from under the desk.

It turned out to be exactly what I needed, and has significantly increased my comfort while sitting at my desk.  Now I can sit at the right height for keyboard use and still have my feet flat.  It's light enough that I can pick it up and move it without having to worry about consciously engaging my upper arm muscles to keep my elbow from subluxing (like I have to do when picking up groceries, books, and overgrown cats), but the non-slip pad on the bottom means that it won't move unless I want it to, even on our Pergo floors.  And a heating pad inside a fleece-lined pocket?  Best thing ever for cold feet.

While I was working on the footrest, I started evaluating what other parts of my desk set up were causing me pain.  I narrowed in on the shape of my chair's seat.  Now, there are a lot of things I like about my desk chair, including how high it goes and how high the arms are, which are perfect for resting my elbows on while I type.  But the center of the seat portion is weirdly curved inward, and as I started evaluating my work space, I realized that that inward curve was doing odd things to my hip joints -- it felt as though my tailbone was sitting significantly lower than my hip sockets were, putting strain on my hips and subluxing them by the end of any given night.

So while I had the salvaged loose batting out for the top of the footrest, I grabbed a big handful and plopped it down on my chair, then sat on it for a few days.  Any time part of my hips didn't feel supported, I'd grab any bits that had started migrating towards the edges and move them back to where I needed, and a couple of times added a bit more batting to the pile.  Over the course of a few days, a shape started to emerge from the batting pile, a circle roughly 37cm in diameter, with one flat edge where it meets the back of my chair.  Using the batting pile as a guide, I traced this shape onto more of the same black fleece I used for my footrest, mostly because it was soft and already out on my sewing table.

I folded the fabric in half along the flat side and cut two layers of fleece.  I machine sewed along the rounded edge, leaving a couple of inches open, then turned the whole thing right-side out.

Using the same couple of inches that I left open to turn the cushion (lower right in the above picture), I took the batting that had been living on my chair and stuffed it into the cushion form.  My plan was to hand-sew this area up once the cushion was stuffed, but I realized that I would probably want to add more batting to it at some point, so I safety-pinned it closed instead.  Three and a half months later, the safety-pin is still there, but I think it's just about time to add more batting.

It's not the prettiest thing ever, but it does what it needs to do, and it allows me to sit at my desk chair for longer stretches of time, and later into the evening, which is a good thing even when I'm not trying to write 50,000 words in 30 days.

After I finished the footrest and the seat cushion, I did some careful measuring and realized I had juuuust barely enough of the home decor fabric left over to re-cover the all-purpose bench that I use when sewing, playing the piano, doing my makeup, etc.  The bench originally had a black (faux?) leather covering, but as any cat owner knows, cats' primary goal in life seems to be perforating every bit of leather they come into contact with.  And this bench had been claimed by Kitty as what we call "The Princess Chair" -- if I'm ever not actively sitting in it, it's her little throne -- so it had more than its fair share of claw marks. 

I measured the bench and cut five sides of a cube as one piece (again drawing on those old paper cubes from childhood), sewed up the corners, and plopped the whole thing on top of the bench, with a little extra loose batting for good measure.  I attempted to staple the raw edges of the fabric to the underside of the bench, like I had seen in so many episodes of Trading Spaces back in the day, but I don't know if it was my materials, my stapler, or my technique, but it didn't quite work like I wanted it to.  Did you lead me astray, Vern

I may at some point try to get back under there with a needle and thread and hand-sew the top fabric to the crappy fabric covering the cardboard or whatever the lowest layer of the bench is made of.  But it's my sewing chair, and I don't do well with sewing either on the floor or standing up, so I keep putting it off.  But it's a vast improvement over the ripped and cracking pleather, and with the extra batting it's more comfortable now too.  MB keeps saying we should get at least one more of these, if not two, so I can stop carrying it from room to room depending on where I need seating.  Sounds like a great idea, but I'm all out of that home decor fabric now, so additional benches wouldn't match, sigh.

All told, I made two home decor pieces and modified a third.  The footrest and the seat cushion in particular really allow me to live with less pain, so I would consider those "disability aids", though the line between home decor and disability aid is pretty fine for me -- just as the line between "clothes that accommodate my illness" and disability aids is a pretty fine one.  Especially when it comes to home decor, if I'm going to take time to sew it, it's probably because I need it to fit my exacting specifications.  Otherwise it's just throw pillows, and the two I sewed in 2006 will hold me for quite awhile.

And as far as the novel that inspired all of this fix-up-my-work-space sewing?  I'm still planning on writing it, but I've come to my senses and realized that NaNoWriMo is probably out of reach for me.  And that's fine, I don't need to stick to anyone else's schedules.  But these characters still live in my brain, especially my heroine, who is in her own way a means of dealing with my illness.  I hope I get to introduce her to all of you someday.

Monday, February 6, 2012

On Murphy Vs Zooey

I'm working my way through my next "2011 in Review" entry, but this post over on got me thinking today.  Below is a slightly-edited version of the reply I left on the original post.

I've been watching The New Girl fairly casually (mostly because Community is on hiatus right now, sigh), so while I love Zooey, I haven't followed much of the press about the show.  I hadn't heard this divide articulated as Murphy vs. Zooey, but I think that encapsulates it well.  This is something I've struggled with myself over the last decade and a half, and as I'm nearing 31, I think I finally have a good handle on it.  Maybe.

I spent most of the last decade working as a video game designer (until taking a chronic-illness-induced sabbatical about a year ago).  It's a very male-dominated industry, with about 90% of designers identifying as male, and about 95% of programmers.  There's not a lot of interest in or patience for anything twee, and being too girly can get you mistaken for the receptionist, rather than taken seriously as a creative professional.  Having an influence on the creative process at all requires that you speak loudly, clearly, and with a good dose of sarcasm and wit.

Those are things I've never had trouble with.  I've always been loud and sarcastic, despite being small in stature and easily injured physically -- I was the one child in the school play who was told to speak quieter instead of louder, and the girl who when offered $5 to eat a relative's Thanksgiving corn kernels, countered with $10.  Like I said in my intro post, I chose the moniker "GlassCannon" because my outward appearance and physicality often doesn't match my internal feistiness.

For years, I tried to make my exterior presentation fit with the idea of a tough, snarky video game designer who can keep up with the guys.  After wearing my hair long for a few years, I went to a salon and actually said the words "I need something edgier, my hair is way too sweet for me."  The hairdresser cut it into a style inspired by Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama, proving that not even my request for "edgy" was taken seriously.  But I spiked it out and got progressively shorter, edgier cuts.  I wore sarcastic tshirts and big Doc Martens and shrugged off colleagues' comments that I was "dressed up" when I wore even a jersey skirt with my sarcastic Ts and combat boots.  And beyond that, I focused on my designing and writing and pushed hard to be taken seriously by the male-dominated industry.

But early in my career, I came down with a chronic illness.  As it got worse, I stopped working full time in offices with other designers and programmers and started working more from home.  I would still carefully construct professional-but-edgy outfits for in-person meetings, but when working from home, I didn't really give it much thought.  I stopped worrying if a tshirt accurately expressed my inner snark while papering over my outer girliness.  I grew my hair back out.  I took the plunge and got Zooey bangs, even.

And somewhere along the way, I realized I don't have to walk around in a tshirt that says "snarky video game designer" to be one.  I don't have to wear my profession on my sleeve -- or my politics, my sexuality, my geek-cred, or my snarkiness.  I like to make my own clothes, and I don't have to save those skills just for making geek-themed cosplay to retain my geek-cred.  I can wear vintage-inspired dresses that I designed and sewed myself, I can wear my hair long and curly with Zooey bangs, and it has absolutely nothing to do with my ability to design video games just as well as a guy can.  It also has absolutely nothing to do with my standing as a feminist.

So when Virginia said "I find this exciting, because it means we get to decide which aspects of these narratives apply to our own lives", I think she hit the nail on the head. We get to choose, for ourselves, how much of Zooey we want to incorporate into ourselves, and how much of Murphy. And we get to change that ratio whenever we want. They aren't mutually exclusive, and I think calling women out on choosing to be girly is going against everything the Murphy Browns of the world fought for. Forcing women into a Murphy stereotype is just as bad as forcing women to be homemakers. Isn't feminism about choice?

Personally, I like being snarky and tech-y while wearing petticoats and winged eyeliner. Retro femininity is something that feels good on my body, that works with my body type rather than against it, that makes me feel good about how I look. But my personality isn't Zooey, much less Jess -- maybe Zooey a la Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, sarcastic and adventurous and likely to shoot a guy (with an empathy gun, probably -- maybe). But I shouldn't have to act like Jess to defend the fact that I dress a bit like her, any more than I should have to dress like I stepped off the set of Hackers to defend my geek-cred.

And I agree with Zooey's comment in the NYMag article about New Girl: "I think the fact that people are associating being girlie with weakness, that needs to be examined. I don’t think that it undermines my power at all."

As far as the end of the latest New Girl episode, with Julia coming over and joining in on crochet time, I didn't feel like it was a slight against the Murphys of the world. To me it said that it's important to accept each other and support each other as women regardless of our Zooey dresses or Murphy Brown pantsuits. Feminism shouldn't be dependent on what we wear, and it certainly shouldn't be used to dictate what other women wear. To me, that was the lasting message of the episode.

But this Pintrest thing? That I still can't quite wrap my head around. ;)