12 Objects That You Need To Start All Over Again, On Very Little Money

India Currents, April 1, 2017

When I washed up in South Dakota—home to Mount Rushmore—I felt as though I’d washed up on Mars, alone. There, I had to build up a life from ground up, like a modern day Robinson Crusoe. I wasn’t sure if I’d be a permanent resident there or a serious sojourner. So, it made sense for me not to collect too many effects, for when it was time to move again, the more their number, the more the money that I’d spend in transporting them and the greater the risk of their breakage in transit.

I decided it was best not to be burdened by the weight of possessions. I lived minimally. The class of minimalism, encountered in science-fiction plots, set in gloriously tech-driven futures is, often, dreadfully expensive. But there are more ways than a red Knoll chair ($4,000) or a Herman Miller workstation ($1,500) or a litter of technological baubles to make an elegant, clean and Spartan pod of a home.

As a singleton, living in a one-bedroom apartment, where there’s a cap on floor area and cash, I bought a few essential objects, which would let me live elegantly, green, very economically—and remarkably, both without Wi-Fi and electricity. (I could always wardrive around campus for Wi-Fi, but chances of a steady connectivity 24/7 were as fat as Ally McBeal.) Understandably, most of the stuff I bought hark back to the age of the vinyl (and beyond.)

Beans cooking in a skillet over a grill.
Beans cooking in a skillet over a grill.

Lodge’s Iron Skillet. Making dinner, to some, is a dark art, best left to a microwave oven or a domestic helpmate. And failing either of these, they order takeout. But some people, like me, enjoy cooking. When one is living solo, one needn’t have a constellation of cookware. Owning Lodge’s iron skillet does the trick wonderfully. It’s a versatile receptacle that one can both cook in—sauté, sear, bake, or roast—and eat out of. Sear a slab of steak in it, pop it into the oven, and serve it directly on the table. After the meal, wash it with hot water and a soft cloth, coat it with a layer of oil, and replace it on the rack. Cost: $20

Really Useful Boxes

Really Useful Boxes. The “Really Useful Boxes” are truly “useful” in keeping one’s abode organized and free of dust. I got six big red and blue boxes, stacked one on top of the other, alternating a red with a blue, and set it up in one corner of the living room, creating the effect of a geometric cairn. I stowed away my quilts, comforters, luggage in those. For squirrelling away all manner of odds and ends, I got a dozen tiny ones, no bigger than a gift card holder, in candy colors: red, blue, pink, lime, aqua, green, and purple. They took good care of everything from paper clips, measuring tape, loose change, IDs. Cost: Depending on the volume, they can set one back anywhere between $2 and $15.

The Compass Hanger from Casamania.
The Compass Hanger from Casamania.

Valet Stand. When you don’t have a treadmill, you have a problem. You can’t prop your clothes anywhere. That’s where the valet stand comes in. It’s a piece of furniture for men, popular in the Victorian yesteryear, when sartorial choices were far more formal than today. Placed in the dressing room or the hallway, it was where gentlemen would hang their apparel and accoutrement: tailcoat, trouser, pocket watch, pince-nez, bowler, etc. But I, a 21st century women, felt the need to own one. I found it to be the perfect companion for arranging clothes to be worn the next day or for placing those garments that have been worn, but aren’t soiled enough to be laundered. Cost: $35

Cheval Mirror

Cheval Mirror. A kind of looking glass that can be tilted, a cheval mirror isn’t a space saver as is a quotidian mirror that can be affixed to the closet door. But it spares one sweat. As I didn’t have the resource to hire a handyman, I got a portable silver oval that I could just set down anywhere, without hassle (though the boudoir is the perfect stage for it.) Cost: $50

Étagère. A piece of furniture with cascading shelves, placed, typically, in the parlor, for displaying porcelain figurines, marble busts, and objet d’art, all of which, of course, one wants, but doesn’t need. But books? Yes. So, I filled mine up with as many volumes as would fit. After all, “what is a bookshelf other than a treasure chest for the curious mind?” Besides, when you have to spend your leisure hours without even a radio, what could be the most profitable way to keep yourself entertained than by immersing into a book? Cost: $25

Escritoire. For those of the intellectual bent, a writing desk is another precious possession, for you may want to sit down, and pen thought or a billet-doux on a Moleskin notebook.  It also helps to recall that without the Internet, there’s no opportunity to e-mail either, nor is there WhatsApp, Facebook, or Twitter. The only way to stay in touch then is through letters, handwritten or typewritten. Cost: $40

Futon. Hardy as one is, it’s still immensely difficult to sleep on a pallet of newspapers. A sleeping bag is a notch better, but it still won’t keep one off the hard floor. For lumbar care, you’d need something studier and softer. A bed is comfortable, sure, but it’s cumbersome to lug around. With a luxurious futon, on the other hand, the draw is that with the purchase of one, one also gets a bed—free. A sofa by day, a bed by night, it offers a terrific return on investment. Cost: $150.

Clock.

Clock. Of course, one would need one of these to keep track of the passing of time. Cost: $ 10 or less.

A Toas-Tite over fire.
A Toas-Tite over fire.

Toas-Tite. Before we knew about panini press, there was the Toas-Tite. This throwback is an efficient device for making grilled sandwiches. Of the days that I either too fatigued to cook or not in the mood for it, I’d fix myself a sandwich. Lightly grease the clamshell-like aluminum forms, place a slice of bread in each, add a filling, close the device, and place it on a burner or over a campfire for a short while. Turn it over, and you have a round, hot, and melty sandwich. Cost: $30

Moka Pot

Moka Pot. This is a clever contraption—invented in Italy 1933—for brewing coffee on the stovetop. The smallest pot of the series produces one demitasse of rich, velvety espresso. Cost: $14

Rubbermaid: Rubbermaid is today’s Tupperware (developed in 1946.) These airtight, waterproof plastic canisters and tubs are fabulous for keeping food. Cost: A 40-piece set will come to less than $10.

Candles. For a cozy fug, burn a cluster of scented candles. Cost: $10 or less.

The Two Schools Of Climate-Fiction

The Millions, March 6, 2017.

As I wrote this, from the corner of my eye, I could see CNN providing coverage of a gargantuan hurricane, racing resolutely towards the eastern coastal arc of the U.S., extending from Florida all the way up to the Carolinas. The footage shows fierce winds roiling the waters of the Atlantic; wave after wave, crashing against the shore, slopping out over the edge of the sea wall. It could have been an event such as this that prompted J.G. Ballard to write “The Drowned World”—a forerunner of a genre, dubbed in the 21st century as “climate-fiction”—in which he paints a nightmare landscape, where the seas have swelled and swallowed up the land.

Marine biologist Robert Kerans is a member of a United Nations military team, mapping the drowned harbors for future reoccupation. As they make their way in a catamaran, they enter a “wide circle of dark green water” through whose layers they can see the “outlines of buildings looming like giant ghosts.” A straight gray promenade stretched away between the buildings, the remains of some former thoroughfare; the rusting humped shells of cars still standing by the curb.” That’s a lagoon. Beneath it is a “spectral” metropolis: London. The British capital had sunk sometime in the “closing years of the second millennium.”

All over the world, mean temperatures rose till the polar ice caps melted and the glaciers turned into torrential rivers and the contours of the continents were altered. At around 350 degrees Fahrenheit, the equator had become a veritable oven. “Europe became a system of giant lagoons.” The American Midwest had become an “enormous gulf opening into the Hudson Bay.” Only the polar regions offered a feeble refuge from the encroaching searing heat.

As the mercury soared and the air boiled, the fauna and flora rapidly reverted to what they were during the Triassic, a geological period that ended 200 million years ago. The wheat fields of the temperate climes had been overrun by dense groves of towering calamites, ferns, horsetails, clubmosses, transforming them into Amazon-like rainforests on steroids. Darwinism dictated that creatures better adapted to a life in jungles, swamps and lakes flourished; those not, perished. Iguanas “perched in the windows of the office blocks and department stores.”

Today, there’s a growing worry that rising oceans will inundate low-lying areas around the world. It’s now known—at least, to some—that the agent of the recent climate-change is the result of industrial and post-industrial humankind. Over time, the relentless release of greenhouse gases (those that trap heat) has taken its toll on the planet.

Three years ago, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had reached an average daily level of above 400 parts per million, a number last known to have existed during an epoch called the Pliocene. The New York Times reported that experts feared that more emissions could trigger a return to primitive climate conditions.

Writing in 1962, in envisioning that the global climate would be thrown off-kilter, of course, Ballard is prescient, but his foresight likely came out of his rumination on the fate of the planet, not environmental study. In this particular novel, he attributes the alarming shift in Earth’s ecosystem to “a series of violent and prolonged solar storms,” triggered by a “sudden instability of the Sun.” Humans have no role in the apocalypse in Ballard’s story.

His thoughts, in this regard, have shades of H.G. Wells. In “Time Machine” (1895), as the temporal tourist travels forward in time, he remarks how much hotter it was in the future than it is in his own age. He can’t understand why that should be so, but he reasons: “It may be that the Sun was hotter or the Earth nearer the Sun.”

“Planets must ultimately fall back one by one into the parent body. As these catastrophes occur, the Sun will blaze with renewed energy; and it may be that some inner planet had suffered this fate. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that the Sun was very much hotter than we know it.” As he journeys, he watches the Sun grow bigger and bigger till it filled the sky. It “halted motionless upon the horizon, a vast dome, glowing with a dull heat.” Sometime, in the very distant future, it comes to obscure a good slice of the heavens.

The narrative of “The Drowned World,” likewise, is laden with the fiery power of the Sun and its engorgement. It’s no longer a “sphere,” but a “wide, expanding ellipse that fanned out across the eastern horizon like a colossal fireball.” It “filled the sky, turning it into an enormous blowtorch.” It even takes the form of an organic entity, pulsing, its “volcanic pounding” beckoning men to sail south as if it were a beautiful siren.

It’s not clear what president Donald Trump knows or thinks about climate-change, but he has called global warming a “hoax,” insisting that he’s not a believer in man-made climate change. There, he and the Republicans would be in agreement with both Ballard and Wells.

In most works with the science-fiction postmark, typically, victims flee from a cataclysm. Not in this. One fine day, when a swashbuckling buccaneer and his crew pull off a feat of derring-do by resurrecting the lost metropolis and London emerges “like an immense intact Atlantis,” the reaction of the last human survivors to it is not one of joy and relief, but total repugnance. They regard it as a hellish, “drained and festering sewer” and do nothing to reclaim it. Instead, they choose to stay in their surreal, silent, waterlogged reality. Their willful surrender to it stems from their staunch belief that it’s an act of god, in the face of which resistance is futile, even unwarranted.

Odds Against Tomorrow

Nathaniel Rich’s “Odds Against Tomorrow” is a tale in the same tradition. Published more than 50 years later, it proves what a difference half a century can make. A much-touted eco-fiction, it, like “The Drowned World,” is about a meteorological anomaly, but one that’s far more plausible. It takes place, where else, but New York?

A powerful hurricane makes landfall in the New York Bight. In its wake, all five boroughs of New York are battered, Manhattan being the hardest hit. The East River and the Hudson, which flank the slender island surge and converge in its middle, flooding it entirely. The United Nations Secretariat, a building built on bedrock called the Manhattan schist dips below sea level, turning into a “sunken ship in the East River.” The two-tiered concourse of the Grand Central turns into a “lake—or a sea, since it was impossible to perceive its boundaries.”

Rich marries calamity with capital. Mitchell Zukor, a young math whiz, is an economic Cassandra, of sorts. His job at a futurist concern, housed in the Empire State Building, is to forecast a myriad hazards—everything from asteroid strike to biological warfare to solar storm to pestilence to cyberwarfare—so that businesses can inoculate themselves against them, should they come to pass. When the storm strikes, though, no one is prepared. But Zukor is better equipped to navigate it only because of a luxe purchase: a canoe.

As in the “The Drowned World,” in this book too, the land becomes very, very hot before the deluge. The “whole Northeast was blanched; wilting.” There had been no rainfall, leading to a prolonged drought reminiscent of the Dust Bowl. The air was heavy with thick, black dust, forcing people to wear masks, now sold by bodegas.

Unlike both Ballard and Wells, Rich holds man squarely responsible for this ecological mishap, blaming it on his insensate greed to build on grounds reserved for fauna and flora. In its aftermath, the state government decides to let the soggy, peripheral wastelands in Brooklyn to return to swampland as it once was before the colonizers arrived.

Ballard gives a fatalistic shrug at a bleak future, asking man to become one with nature. Rich, on the other hand, calls for a distinct separation of spheres, urging us to co-exist with it as equal partners.

Why I Blog?

Red Fez, November 13, 2016.

I

The only time there’s been a long break in my blogging is between a day in November 2009 and a day in March 2010. By the standard of speed of communication in the Digital Age, that interval in writing is the analog equivalent of 50 long years.

When I resumed blogging after that gap, I felt like a weary, but happy, soldier, back from a war. But I didn’t offer any explanation as to why I’d suddenly stopped posting. None was needed. After all, perhaps no one was reading the blog. Acknowledging my leave of absence, as I’m now, in itself, is enough.

When I reappeared in my online grotto, oddly, I’d also returned to the comfort of my offline home. In the past, when I’ve been away from my blog, I’ve also been away from home. The blog is that plane then, where the digital and the physical meet.

It’d come to be an outlet of my intellectual expression after my move to the Big Apple, for it was only after I took up residency in Brooklyn that I began to bang out my thoughts there with fair regularity. The only occasions when I didn’t were when I’ve been harried to the point of panting, slipping, and scraping my knees to meet deadlines at work. For some puzzling reason, I attained that frenetic pace only when my job took me far from base.

In any event, I picked up where I’d left off.

II

Many moons ago, when I began blogging on Blogger—now owned by Google—the notion of blogging was at its infancy. Back then, I was in graduate school, toiling away. Back then, I had coffee with milk and sugar. Now, I take it black. Much has changed since.

As a photo album is a collection of memories, so my blog was intended to be a a depository of my reflections on anything: interplanetary travel; how I was smitten by a beverage bottle; an outing to the U.S.S. Intrepid museum; a book by Honoré de Balzac; an ode to SpongeBob. Yes, an eclectic mix. That could be because I’m a jack of all trades. Or, it could be that I have an assortment of interests. Which, of course, I do. Better that, than to have none at all.

Some six years ago, Anthony De Rosa, now of “The Daily Show” (with Trevor Noah), shared on his Tumblr stream that “we live in a world of digital feudalism.” “The land many live on is owned by someone else, be it Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr.” Sure, I didn’t own a piece of real estate on the web. But even as a digital fief, I could still till the land as I chose—as long as I didn’t pump out offensive or vulgar content.

III

The 15th century Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus asked his pupils to mark the occurrences of striking words, brilliant metaphors, adages, pithy wisdom, and archaic or novel diction. He also suggested that every student and teacher keep a notebook, organized by topic, so that as and when he came upon anything noteworthy, he may jot it down in the appropriate section.

Erasmus’ recommendation that every reader keep a notebook of memorable quotations was wildly followed. Such notebooks, which came to be called “commonplace books,” became fixtures of Renaissance schooling. Every student kept one. By the 17th century, they’d been adopted beyond the schoolhouse. They were regarded as vital tool for the cultivation of an educated mind. But their popularity ebbed as the pace of life quickened in the 19th century. By the middle of the 20th century, they fell out of favor.

Well, my blog is a 21st century edition of my “commonplace book.” Unfortunately, after I’d launched it, I hadn’t made much progress on it, when I was forced to neglect it all because of pressing demands on my time. Reason: I was busy earning bylines as a journalist.

IV

I’d dreamed of becoming an airline pilot, but by a quirk of fate—and under the tutelage of a pair of doting, but disciplinarian parents—I ended up being inside a newsroom, not the cockpit of a jumbo jet. I was a newspaper person, with little interest in newspapers, even though I cut my professional teeth in the most prestigious daily of the nation where I started out working. I did my job fairly well, even though I tempted the firing squad more than once.

So, I’ve tasted the magic and the dread of journalism. My career didn’t take me places. I took it, from the smog-drenched streets of a crowded and chaotic Asian capital to a tropical island (home to one of the oldest rainforests in the world) to the barren prairies of the American Midwest to Arcadian New England hamlets.

This journey—both through places and broadsheets—was an opportunity to cover a potpourri of events in municipal governments, cop houses, courts, schools, Main Street, and everything in between. At this writing, I’ve worked as a reporter and an editor; in print and pixel publications; in metropolitan dailies and community rags.

IV

As the pastures in the flagging media industry grew more fallow, I turned my blog into my own private newspaper, taking on the roles of correspondent, editor, and publisher. I made sure that I didn’t let it molder away. If anyone stumbled into it and read something that made them wrinkle their nose or hot under the collar, they could get in touch with me.

As far as interactivity went, though, Blogger seemed as lukewarm as the last sips of the deli coffee. Feedback was rare. “Blogging can be a very lonely occupation,” observed Sue Rosenstock, a spokeswoman for LiveJournal—now owned by SUP, a Russian online media company—in an interview with the New York Times. “You write out into the abyss.” That was one of the reasons blogs “[lost] their allure for many people.” People drifted to Facebook and Twitter, where they could connect with others.

But I made the decision to migrate to another blogging platform: WordPress. It was like arriving in a new country, with its new customs and codes (pun, please.) Slowly, I acclimated to the new environment. On another front, however, I dithered.

Should I make that space simply, a showcase of my work? If I did, it’d be a terrible waste of free storage space (of data.) So, I converted it into a dynamic venue, updating it every couple of days. But was I hankering for readership? If anyone happens to stop by, I smile. If not, I “keep calm, and carry on.”