I love Wirecutter. Before every purchase, I religiously check if Wirecutter has reviewed the category and let their recommendations heavily influence my decision. The people at Wirecutter are that good. I have referred to their advice on coffee makers, dishwashers, stoves and ranges, stand-in mixers, kid headphones, label printers, portable bluetooth speakers, bedsheets, backpacks, even umbrellas and iPhone cases. Sometimes, I read their reviews on random categories just for fun. The products Wirecutter recommends are not always available in Singapore but the knowledge is always relevant. I like to to know what features are essential vs. desirable, what to avoid, what are the leading products in different price categories, etc. 

So obviously when it comes to the RenoTransofrmation, I have been reading Wirecutter a lot. Last week we had to decide on switches and sockets, which I learned are called wiring devices. I would have never guessed. Anyway, I started searching Wirecutter for recommendations and found a whole section on Smart Home devices – smart bulbs, smart switches, smart security, smart locks and doorbells, smart home sensors, smart this and smart that. I realised I wasn’t very smart when it came to home tech. I have the required boxes for broadband, and Apple TV. And that’s about it. We don’t use Alexa or Google Assistant. Siri is used only to check the weather or to set timers or to have existential conversations.

Wirecutter Recommendations for Smart Home Devices

While it is very exciting to be able to control appliances, lights and fans with an app, I don’t think we are ready for it. First, some of the devices are not really needed. Our weather is uniformly hot all year – it’s either hot, or hot and wet. I don’t have central air-conditioning and I don’t need to maintain the house temperature throughout the day. I don’t need a smart doorbell with all the bells and whistles like security cameras, because Singapore is relatively safe and there is almost always someone at home. Second, the tech is expensive. Like any new tech in early stages, smart home tech attracts a premium. Third, I don’t want to rely on an app on my smart phone. What happens when I forget to charge my device (as it happens more frequently than I’d like)? What happens if there is a blackout and I lose wifi for hours and days? Or there is just poor connection somedays (as we have experienced in 2020). Fourth, ever-present security concerns pertaining to devices connected to the Internet – am I being watched? Who’s listening through my devices? Is my data being collected and transmitted and where?

The technology is evolving. Our architect narrated a story about a client who bought expensive smart bulbs only to find out a few months later that the smart functions now rested with the switches instead of the bulb. And the smart switches work with any type of bulb. It seems installing just smart bulbs and switches takes a fair bit of planning. I reckon that developing a harmonious ecosystem of smart devices is complicated, time consuming, and expensive.

Our requirements are simple – appropriate task and ambient lighting, easy to use devices, good clean design, and affordability. It’s easy to not get influenced by latest trends and buzz words when you are clear about your needs and what does/doesn’t work for your specific situation. Even if Wirecutter has an entire section on Smart Home appliances.

I’m curious and interested but as of now I’m going to sit out the Smart Home tech movement for now. When it comes to the adoption of this innovative tech, I don’t need to be an ‘early adopter’, I’m perfectly okay being a ‘late majority.’

I recently read an article in the New York Times about the current state of global shipping and the havoc created by, you guessed it, Covid-19. It seems that shipping companies are focussed on the lucrative China-North America trade routes. Containers sent to South America and Africa with medical supplies are empty and idling at their ports with no one interested in fetching them. Ports are short-staffed. Lockdowns create more chaos. And I can’t find a kitchen sink.

It started back in November, though at that time I didn’t realise that global shipping was going to affect our little RenoTransformation project in little Singapore. We visited the Bosch customer experience centre to view and select, and hopefully purchase some items and take advantage of promotions (i.e. discounts, freebies, etc). The first thing the sales rep asks is “when do you need the items?”. That should have been our first clue. She relaxed significantly when we told her we needed the items in March/April of 2021. Then she brought us to the dishwashers and pointed at a model saying “this one is our newest and best selling model but it’s not for you because it will take 6 months for delivery.” Further questioning revealed this interesting nugget – there is a 400,000 person global wait list for that particular machine. It seems a lot of people are cooking and eating at home and have discovered the value of a good eco-friendly, dishwasher and Bosch can’t manufacture them fast enough. We quietly bought the appliances which would be delivered in 3-4 months and bid aideu.

The same story repeated store after store – “Let me check my stock”. “When do you need it? Is May acceptable?” “We’ll try our best.” “Best to order now.” “Need to pay deposit now but we can’t guarantee delivery when you want.” And the most dreaded, “No more stock, don’t know when we will get more, choose something else.”

The whole situation is exacerbated by several factors – one, being stuck on the island has driven people to renovate homes with a vengeance, driving up the demand for supplies and labour. Two, labour that had to return home to Malaysia due to the pandemic never returned. Three, heavy rain in December/January have put roofers in such high demand that even scaffolding is in short supply. Four, not many young men and women want to enter the trades, preferring desk jobs to physically demanding roles.

The story continued. Tiles we chose one day, were sold out before we could put in the orders the next day. In January, the kitchen sink vendor Franke assured us of adequate stock and advised us to place the order one week in advance. Trusting the advice, we went in March and were told “Oops! The model you want is sold out. Next shipment is expected to leave Italy at the end of March, it takes a month, so maybe May.” We went scampering to two other stores and both reported “no stock”. One even complained, “we can’t get a container!” Even toilet paper holders have been affected! I was told that ships dropped supplies in Malaysia and then they haven’t been able to truck them across the border with the usual frequency.

The story doesn’t get better online. ‘Out of stock’ and ‘on back order’ are my least favourite English phrases at the moment.

Yes, it’s been frustrating. It feels like a weird home renovation version of Amazing Race where my husband and I have been given a list of items we need to buy and for each item we need to complete several challenges before we can complete the purchase. And of course we are racing against the clock which is the overall timeline for the project.

I realise I’m collecting memorable stories about the time ‘we renovated the house’. It’s amusing. What’s the point of getting all worked up? We try our best, do our research, and plan in advance. But if large container ship gets stuck in the Suez Canal because of strong winds, creating a massive traffic jam and shipping delays, there is precious little that I can do.

The house is barely recognizable!

To transform first you must strip out what was. Then change a few things structurally; changes that will never be seen on the outside, but make for a sound foundation and also minimise future issues. The renovation is becoming such a metaphor for the transformation I’ve been going through in real life. My house and me, together on a journey.

Due to the extensive nature of the renovation (bathrooms and kitchen), we’ve had to move out of our house for the duration of the project. We don’t have Airbnb in Singapore and real estate agents don’t entertain short term rentals. Fortunately a friend has allowed us the use of her apartment for the duration. So grateful!

The apartment is roughly 1/3rd the size of the our house. We have moved with only the bare minimum clothes, toiletries, shoes, pots and pans, tableware, stationery, books, etc. We bought some basic IKEA beds and mattresses that we plan to donate once we move back. Our living room furniture consists of a small 2-seater sofa, a bean bag, a chair, and a workspace for my husband and me to share.

Our house is on a quiet street, on the northern edges of the country, basically suburbia. The apartment we have moved to is about 20kms and a world away from our house. We are living on the 16th floor in a high-density residential area close to the heart of the city. The streets around the apartment are clogged with cars, delivery vans, trucks. The noise of construction is a constant soundtrack to the activity around us. In this relatively small space, with only minimal material possessions, I’ve realised we truly don’t need too much to be happy.

The couple of weeks we have lived in this apartment have been a enlightening experience.

I was worried about the size of the apartment and the absence of individual space to work and rest. But we are liking being in hearing and talking distance of each other and sharing comes easy.

I was worried we would feel frustrated with having so little of our stuff. I’ve realised we don’t need a lot of stuff. I’m enjoying my capsule wardrobe tremendously. Shockingly, I only need 4 pairs of shoes – my comfy avarcas sandals for daily wear, flip flops for the pool or beach, sneakers for long walks, and a nice pair wedges that match everything.

I was worried about fitting all our foods in the tiny fridge. But now I’m enjoying shopping for fresh produce and dairy every other day instead of stocking up. I have also realised that I don’t need 7 types of vinegar and 8 types of chili powder. I only buy what I need during the week. My menu planning is lot more efficient and food waste is reduced.

We didn’t bring our TV. But we have learnt we love playing card games after dinner or on Sunday evenings instead of watching a movie together or watching/reading on our devices in separate corners of the house.

The kids have adapted without missing a beat. And wondrously enough so have the adults. I hope never to lose this child-like spirit of adventure and taking things in stride. I expected discomfort and resistance, I’m experiencing an easy to manage, and light lifestyle. I’m going to hold on to that.

Sometime last year, we decided to repair and renovate our beloved house. What started as a kernel of an idea has grown into a sturdy little plant. After our wedding, the birth of our children, and our move from NYC to Singapore in 2007, this is the biggest, most transformative event for my husband and me. 

We were uncertain of embarking on a renovation journey during a pandemic. But it seems that being forced to spend most of the time within four walls of a house has sent people on a renovation binge like no other. Your house is now expected to function as a home, office, gym, restaurant, movie theatre, spa, play area/recreation centre. It seems most of us found our homes lacking or in our case, in need of repair. 

Our last renovation experience was ten years ago when we remodelled our kitchen and bathroom. At that time, when the contractor asked me what kind of kitchen countertop I wanted, I said “Black”. This time around you can quiz me on the relative properties and benefits of quartz, solid surface, acrylic, and natural stone as well as the brands available in the market, both local and European. 

In short, I have fully committed my creative energy to this process which I have lovingly termed “RenoTransformation”. Because I don’t merely want to fix my house and make it pretty. I want to make it fit for purpose and make it lasting. I want to use this opportunity to change some bad habits (e.g. cluttering) and form some new ones (e.g. composting).

I have borrowed the New York School of Interior Design’s Home: The Foundation of Enduring Spaces from the library several times. I have read most chapters from Lighting Design Basics a book on lighting design. I’ve been reading the relevant sections of L’art de la Simplicite for pointers on living more with less.

I have learnt that my design style is transitional or modern traditional. I like the idea of Scandinavian minimalism but I know I want pops of colour and ‘stuff’ in my house. Stuff that tells stories, that reminds me of places I lived in and people I used to be. I don’t want to rid myself of mementos and keepsakes and wipe away memories from my childhood, and my college years in Bombay, my time as a newly-wed in NYC, my work life in Singapore and of course my kids. 

I follow too many design and home decor Instagram accounts to count. I follow accounts for North American modern design, Indian textiles, Japanese pottery, traditional British design, Scandinavian furniture, European lighting design, local Singapore businesses and artists. I have discovered I love iconic pieces of furniture from the greats – Charles and Ray Eames, Saarinen, Arne Jacobsen, Hans Wegner, and company. Though I can’t afford any of them. 

It’s been an intensely enriching experience. 

Sometime last year, I looked at my bedroom and realised it said nothing about me. Looking at my room you couldn’t tell what kind of person I was, what my interest, hopes and dreams were. The room performed a function but it was so impersonal. It was a very depressing realisation. I want my home to reflect who we are as individuals and as a family, our heritage, our life in Singapore, our time in NYC, our current interests, and our hopes (e.g. the replica Saarinen table may one day be replaced with the original).

The beginning of a journey is always exciting, I feel like I’m at the start of an epic trek. I have a partner, a guide, my gear, the trail is mapped out, and my legs are rested and ready for the road ahead. I know there will be setbacks and missteps and compromises. They are expected. But when we reach our destination, what a view it will be. 

It seems unbelievable that we are now observing anniversaries of specific events and milestones of the Covid-19 pandemic. Reading my journals from that time, in February 2020 I was stockpiling wipes and hand sanitizer, on March 11, 2020 my husband took his last flight before we went to lockdown, etc. I remember discussing plans with friends for “when this is is over…”. What seemed like a quick efficient battle has turned into a war with advances and retreats on multiple fronts, mass casualties, and generation-defining changes to how we live, work, study and play.

For most of the lockdown (and thankfully Singapore only has had one), we gathered ourselves, maintained high spirits, and kept busy. Kids were educated and entertained, culinary heights were attained, old friends reconnected, events moved online, we figured out how to work effectively remotely. I started the Artist’s Way programme and every week revealed new insights and creative delights. That all dissipated in July. It felt like I had no more energy. The world was enjoying summer travel and life seemed normal in many parts of the world. We still lived under restrictions and leisure travel was impossible. My sister would be getting married in November in Mumbai and it was highly unlikely I would get to attend.

The three daily pages seemed difficult. They became short then sporadic. Creative projects seemed lacklustre. Yoga seemed boring. The baking slowed as supplies got difficult to obtain. The plants drooped and looked as unhappy as their carer. My basil died.

Then in September we took a decision to repair and renovate our beloved house. I guess we all need a project over and above our daily lives, something new, an adventure. By November we had a vision, a plan, and people to help deliver the plan.

The writing came back. I joined an online class to learn to chant the Vishnu Sahasranam with correct pronunciations, and then the teacher offered a beginners class in Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language, the language of Gods. I jumped in. Learning Sanskrit every week is fulfilling a lifelong wish.

Today, life in Singapore seems as normal as it can be. We wear masks, use a contact tracing app, and limit gatherings to 8 people. Staycations and cruises to nowhere are the leisure travel options unless you are willing to serve a 14-day quarantine at a hotel at your cost when you return. On the bright side, I practice yoga at the neighbourhood studio, my kids are in school, and I get to meet my friends for drinks or dinner.

For the last two months, I’ve written my pages everyday and have immersed completely in the creative process of home renovation. Artist’s Dates now include visiting shops for tiles, lights, and laminates.

My plants are blooming and so is my yoga practice.

I no longer bake Melissa Clark’s adaptable one-bowl cornmeal pound cake or banana bread on a weekly basis. They will forever be associated with the lockdown. But new recipes are created everyday and now that both King Arthur Flour and Bob’s Red Mill flours are finally available, new baking frontiers await.

When I started graduate school in New York City, my very first assignment was to write an essay so that the school could assess my writing skills. I was considered a foreign student, even though my entire formal education had been in English, and I had spent three years working for an American company in India.

The topic for the essay was to discuss the ethics of administering the smallpox vaccine. I spent an entire day thinking about what to write and came up with nothing. My challenge in writing this essay was that I couldn’t relate to the problem. Honestly, it had never occurred to me that there could be ethical considerations in vaccinating against a highly contagious and deadly viral disease like smallpox. I was vaccinated for smallpox as a child and I have a smallpox vaccine scar on my right arm. Most days I don’t even know it exists. It’s a small souvenir of a time I don’t remember. A time when smallpox was endemic across continents, and greatly feared as there was no cure or treatment, and the mortality rate was reported to be as high as 30 percent. If the infection didn’t kill you, it left you disfigured, blind and sterile. India launched a country-wide vaccination programme in 1962, which was later revised in 1972 in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO). It wasn’t until 1977 that smallpox was eradicated from India. Smallpox was a global health crisis that required a global response, and it remains the only human disease to be eradicated globally.

I somehow managed to write a short essay based on my shamefully limited knowledge of the history of smallpox eradication. I still remember the feeling of being confused and unable to comprehend why it wouldn’t be advisable to vaccinate if it was the one thing proven to protect you from a disease with terrible outcomes.

I’m feeling the same inability to understand the refusal to wear masks as a way to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Since June 2, 2020, wearing a mask when outside the home is compulsory in Singapore. Non-compliance results in a fine of S$300 (~USD215) for first time offenders, and higher fines or prosecution for repeat offenders.

Even before COVID-19 made the mask a necessary accessory, people with symptoms of a respiratory illness would wear a surgical mask when using public transport, in classrooms, and in offices. I always thought it was a thoughtful gesture. When my friend came to visit my newborn daughter, she wore an N-95 mask because she had a bad cough. We also regularly use masks when the haze descends on our island city and air pollution reaches unhealthy levels. I’ve maintained a small stock of N95 masks since the Southeast Asian haze of 2013. Wearing a mask is not a political act, it is an act of protecting yourself and others around you, especially the elderly and immuocompromised.

I don’t like to wear a mask. It is uncomfortable, and I haven’t found one that fits me well. I find it difficult to breathe when I’m walking briskly, and sometimes it fogs up my glasses. It is inconvenient because I can’t use my smartphone’s facial recognition technology when I’m wearing a mask. It muffles sound and hinders conversation.

However, the simple mask is one of the few tools we have to protect against the spread of a disease we are still studying and uncovering. Until we have a more complete understanding of the disease, I’m going to wear my mask and keep breathing. Hopefully, the mask on my face, like the smallpox vaccine scar on my arm, will soon become a small souvenir of a time gone by. But this time, I will remember.

And it’s done. Or is it just starting? 

I have finished the 12-week Artist’s Way program. I’m slowly sinking into the most delicious feeling of accomplishment. Over the last several years, I started more than my share of programs, challenges, courses, routines, everything from the spiritual to the mundane. And each time I gave after a few days or weeks. But I stayed with the Artist’s Way, and though I took my time to get through weeks 8-12, I finished the program. 

I set out on this journey, not knowing the end outcome but I knew the journey was necessary. I worked hard, dug deep, and stayed honest. I faced the monster under my bed. The journey has been so rewarding – I found MYSELF!

Thinking about change and nurturing myself were the key actions for Week 11. I reflected on all the ways I’ve changed since Week 1 and also made some commitment towards how I will continue to change. Reclaiming myself as a person, independent of the roles I play, has been the single biggest change I’ve made. Making time and space for myself, and teaching my family members to respect my time and space has been another major change. My daughter is welcome to use my desk, but she needs to clean up if she makes a mess. If Mom is doing her yoga class or writing morning pages, anything that is not a medical or fire emergency has to wait. Seems so simple, right? But we have been in a lockdown for three months which means we have been in each other’s presence constantly. Even now, my daughter is sitting next to me creating a game on a coding app. She is also very unhappy with my music choice pointedly asked if I could play something other than the rock music I’ve been playing all morning. My time, my music. 

This week I had to plan one loving action every day. I bought an art print from Libby Chambers Art because I love her use of colour, and her painting of magnolias makes me happy. There was much baking this week, of course. There was some yoga, some meditation. Lots of music courtesy Spotify and the Lincoln Centre Youtube channel.  I went for a walk in my neighbourhood and took the time to observe and photograph flowers that I’ve always ignored.  

The best thing I did for myself this week was sign up for two online experiences with Airbnb. One was a vegetarian Balinese cooking class in Denapsar, Bali, and the other was a piano meditation in Paris.  Honestly, I didn’t want the week to end! I have learnt that nurturing myself is possible; it doesn’t require a huge time commitment and it doesn’t have to be expensive. 

It is amazing what technology has made possible. I have toured museums, gardens and cities, watched music performances, browsed Art Basel, learnt to cook new recipes, chanted and meditated, and learnt dance without leaving my home. I’m extremely grateful to the Internet Gods for a strong, reliable network connection throughout this very strange year. 

In the last three weeks, I fell into the Virtue Trap (i.e. deprioritized myself), got scared of my own ambitions as laid out in the Goal Search during week 8, and almost made a creative U-turn. 

I spent the major part of a week planning and preparing for my mother’s online birthday party. Being new to hosting Zoom meetings with more than 5 participants, I needed to educate myself about the meeting features and practice hosting a few times. I wrote a script, picked music, invited close family members and friends to say a few words for Mom. There were also 10,000 questions from uncles and aunties who were excited about an online party but nervous about using Zoom. Plus, my co-hosts, my sisters, had an additional 10,000 questions and concerns and doubts. It took a lot of time and energy but it was totally worth it. More than 75 people showed up for the Zoom party, and Mom is still reading and responding to all the posts on her Kudoboard. The adrenaline from the party kept me up till 3am. The next day, I went into a state of lethargy.

Kudoboard, Zoom Screenshot, Draft Script Page 1

It took me 4 days, 3 baking projects, one furious game of badminton, and takeout from my favorite middle eastern-inspired restaurant to shake off the lethargy and get back to work. 

And it seems that simple task of sitting down at my desk, opening my book and picking up a pen, sent some sort of signal because I received exactly the help and guidance I needed to continue. The Artist’s Way seems enchanted sometimes because it gives me the words I most need to read and understand at that very moment. The exercises are exactly what I need to achieve the next breakthrough. So now I’m energized. I have a set of goals to orient me, and a set of actions to keep me moving towards the goal. 

My immediate goal for the next two weeks is to build consistency in my practice. The last few weeks have been a patchwork of sluggish unproductive days and scintillating days of work, exploration, and discovery.

Confronting fears is always uncomfortable and I think I’m in for a significant period of discomfort as I continue this journey. But is there really another option?

I took two weeks to get through week 8, and I’m glad I gave myself extra time for the week 8’s tasks. I felt overwhelmed thinking about goals and setting a 5-year horizon with actions for each year. It felt like I was about to make a major commitment. I was afraid to put my deepest wishes down on paper, because then they would be plans not wishes, and I would be accountable for them. I wrote a few things down and then found myself stalling. So I took a break. 

I kept up with the morning pages, affirmations and artist dates. I took care of my plants, and Pandoughra (my fledgling sourdough starter). I cleaned my work space and added to my wall décor. I used Canva to create an invite for my mom’s online birthday party and used Kudoboard to design an online group card. I baked brownies using Katherine Hepburn’s recipe. But the most serendipitous of all, I started reading Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic

I bought this book when it was first published in 2015. For 5 years it sat on my book shelf. I remember reading a few pages of the first chapter and then putting the book down never to pick it up again, until week 8. At the beginning of the lockdown (March 22, to be precise) I went around the house collecting books I had bought but never read. Big Magic was in that stack. I started reading two other books in that stack but not Big Magic. Until last week. Reading Big Magic during week 8 made a huge difference to my goal-setting approach and how I think about my creativity. Instead of feeling stuck and apprehensive about planning my creative future, I started feeling light and joyful. I didn’t plan to read Big Magic during this week or anytime soon, it just happened. Once again, I’m grateful for the gentle hand nudging me forward. 

I got back to the tasks on May 19, and by the afternoon of May 20 I was done. Last evening, I celebrated the completion of week 8 with homemade pizza and Chianti. Week 9, here I come!

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