A review of the “conscious box”

This post is going to be a bit of a deviation from my normal posts, so if you don’t want to read it, don’t read it!

A couple of months ago Grace and I both got sucked in by a Facebook ad for this strange product called a Conscious Box. Basically it promised to be a box full of goodies that you might like to try but usually wouldn’t, and most importantly it promised to send the first box for next to nothing. Anyone who’s been to a market with me knows that I don’t mind a good free sample, so we signed up on the promise that we could cancel before the second month and never have to pay for a box.

Well, we fucked it up. We went to Puerto Rico and when we came back we had emails saying our second box was on the way, and we’d each had $20 – that’s no small sum – taken from our bank accounts. We had a look around on their website and it seems like this happens to a lot of people, judging by the disclaimers and extensive explanations of the process (they bill on the first day of each month, so if you sign up at the end of the month like we did you only get a couple of days to cancel).

Because one of my favourite things to do on the internet is to write reviews of products, and because I couldn’t find a very good place to write a review of this one, I’m going to do it here.

And the summary of my review is: what a waste of money!

Seriously. As far as I can recall here’s what we got in the first box:

  • A shot of some quackish medicine that claimed to cure some kind of illness, but came with a disclaimer insisting that it wasn’t meant to cure anything at all
  • A banana and chocolate bar, which was delicious
  • A small packet of concentrate which could be turned into a lemon drink to soothe a sore throat
  • A few random teabags (I mean really fucking random: one had no explanation but we looked it up and it turned out it was for people who were trying to quit smoking! Another was a savoury tisane made from spinach and assorted herbs which also said you could use it to flavour your rice!)
  • A wet wipe or two (I haven’t opened the pack to be sure) made from bamboo
  • A small pack of a chocolate-like substance that claimed to help you sleep, but on closer look wasn’t chocolate at all (I can’t comment on the sleep because I get to sleep easily enough already, thank you very much).

There might have been a couple more things but that was about it, basically a bit of a laugh for $5 and probably just about paid for itself with the banana chocolate bar and some of the other bits and pieces.

But. This month’s box is getting judged to very different standards. Here’s what’s in it:

  • 1oz (that’s 28g) of “pasta chips”
  • Two shots of “Florax DS diarrhea relief” (remember that we have two of these boxes, so double everything) (also what a random place to discover another American misspelling!)
  • Some more random teabags (four to be precise, none of them as quacky as last time, which was kind of disappointing)
  • Two “Kramp Krusher vegetarian electrolyte chews”, clearly marked “FREE SAMPLES NOT FOR SALE”
  • A one-use sachet of “Via Nature Soothing Skin Lotion with antioxidant omega essential complex”, also clearly marked “SAMPLE – NOT FOR RESALE”
  • As above but “Moisturizing Skin Lotion with argan oil and hyaluronic acid”
  • Two individually wrapped squares of organic free trade chocolate
  • A tiny but cleverly shaped sachet of “Lotus Moon vitamin B hydrating gel”
  • An organic lip balm (okay this one is actually cool, properly sized and I will definitely use it)

Wow. I can’t believe I just typed half the words in there. If I had to add up the value this box will contribute to my life I’d go with about $3 for the lip balm, 10c each for the chocolate, the chips and the teabags and bugger all for everything else. If I were the type of person to get excited about beauty products I might get up to $4, and maybe a dollar more if I happened to regularly shit my pants (then again I’d probably already have medicine for it).

So there you go. If you somehow randomly found this page on a google search, here is your takeaway: You can order the introductory box and cancel straight away without feeling bad, you will get about what you pay for.

If you came here from Facebook, you may now return.

Five American culture shocks

A few people have asked me about the culture shock I’ve experienced since moving to the US. I always tell them that obvious things – right-wing opinions, guns, toilets that flush strangely, etc. – aren’t shocking, because we know what to expect. More shocking are the small things that are just as different, but that I could never have seen coming.

So here are five examples of real culture shock. They might not be the best ones, but they’re the ones I can remember right now.

1. The first time someone told me they don’t recycle.

To me this statement was about as weird/surprising/ridiculous as saying “I don’t put my rubbish in the bin, I go down to the river and dump it there instead.” How can people not recycle? Recycling isn’t something you choose to do or not do, it’s just something you do.

Or so I thought. Apparently only 30% of people in America recycle, even though all you have to do (in Richmond at least) is put your paper, plastic and glass in the green bin instead of the black one. Apparently that’s too hard for the majority of the population.

Now that I’ve heard this from quite a few different people it no longer shocks, only saddens.

2. The time someone gave me a mug of cold water and a teabag.

This whole experience was kind of weird. However I should note that I have nothing against the people who this story is about, for they are awesome people, and apparently this is quite a normal thing in America. But for me it was a terrible shock.

We were at a friend’s house and I was walking by the kitchen when our friend offered me tea, and told me to grab a mug from the dishwasher. I picked the most attractive looking mug and she told me to put it back: “That one has metal in it, it can’t go in the microwave.”

Woah. I knew this was a warning sign, but I didn’t quite know what it meant, and I guess I was scared to draw the logical conclusion. I picked another mug and looked around for a kettle – usually a pretty good start, I thought, having made quite a few teas in quite a few foreign kitchens.

There wasn’t one. No matter how many times I scanned the same benchtop, no kettle appeared. My bewilderment was clearly showing, for at this point our friend decided to take control of the situation. She took the mug from me, filled it with cold water from the tap, gave it back to me, and also gave me a teabag.

I was no less lost.

At this point our friend started to laugh. She looked at the microwave, and said something along the lines of “Um, haven’t you ever made a cup of tea before?”

“What do I do here?” I asked, eager to fit in and learn the local ways. “How long do I put it on for?”

Apparently the correct amount of time to boil a mug of water in a microwave is something you’re just supposed to know, because at this point my friend burst out laughing. It was obvious that I had no idea what I was doing. “Do I just put it on and watch until it boils?” I ventured.

More laughter. I decided to take the plunge.

It turns out a mug of water in a microwave takes a long time to boil. I think it was about three minutes, but I don’t think it actually ever boiled. It seemed to take a long time, and I was scared the mug would explode, so at some point I decided to cut my losses.

I put the teabag in and nursed the cup, waiting for my pride to heal. Our friend shook her head, wondering which planet this idiot had just arrived from.

3. The time a referee carded a player for saying “Jesus”.

And then stopped the game to explain that swearing was fine, but blasphemy wasn’t.

4. The time I saw this bumper sticker on a car.

Actually, I can put the image in the post. That would be revolutionary. Here it is:

I knew America was a pretty militaristic place, but nothing could have quite prepared me for the amount of joy some people seem to take in the deaths of others. This particular car (not the one in the picture – the one I saw was red) was covered in anti-Islamic stickers, many of which were similarly offensive.

On a related note, a neighbour interrupted us one day to have a big rant about a Coexist bumper sticker on Grace’s car. “How would you like to coexist with people who walk through your door and throw Molotov cocktails at you?”, he asked.

We didn’t have a good retort, so he kept going, saying something about Muslims and Gaza and eventually offering/threatening to throw a Molotov cocktail through our window so we could see what it was like.

5. The time we heard a chilling scream and my first instinct was to investigate.

I thought that was what you were meant to do when you heard someone who seemed to be in need.

Apparently not in a society with guns.

Grace talked me out of it and made sure I stayed inside. I ended up calling 911 to report what we’d heard, because I wanted to help in some way, and because it made me feel like I was in an American TV show.

Everyone we’ve spoken to since said we did the right thing. Apparently you don’t respond to screams unless you have a gun that you’re not afraid to use.


Why all weather is climate change

 A few years ago I worked as a bicycle tour guide in Sydney. Each day I took groups of a dozen or so riders on tours that took us along the shores of the harbour and through the CBD, stopping for lunch at a pub in the Rocks. This being Sydney, the weather was always on the menu: either it was perfect or it wasn’t, and either way people had something to say about it.

Often these conversations led to the guests talking about the weather in their hometowns. Whether they were from Amsterdam, London, New York, San Francisco, New Delhi or Tokyo, they invariably had stories to share of bizarre, unseasonal weather: snowfall in summer, heatwaves in autumn or cyclones in the dry season. On many occasions I saw groups of tourists with nothing in common, living in completely different climates, united by shared observations of the bizarre. Far from its usual role as boring filler, talking about weather got everyone going.

When I stopped working as a tour guide and travelled to India, a place I’ve visited many times, I noticed that people had become troubled by the unpredictability of the annual monsoon. In Mumbai I was told that traditional ways of predicting rainfall, which had kept people in good stead for many years, had suddenly stopped working. One year the monsoon arrived more than a month later than usual, and with much greater ferocity, causing floods in which hundreds of people died. The year I was there the rains arrived, but then stopped after a week, leading to widespread confusion among farmers who didn’t know what to do with their crops.

When I travelled north to Nepal I heard the same stories again. I stayed in a small village called Palubari, where people were still talking about a single day, two years earlier, when snow had fallen long after the end of winter. The villagers in that area rely heavily on potatoes: to give you an idea, the house I stayed in had a dedicated “potato room” where the year’s harvest was stored for several months. As well as making up a large part of the local diet, the potato harvest provides the village with one of its few opportunities to make cash money in the markets of Kathmandu. That one unseasonal day of snow had wiped out that year’s harvest, freezing the saplings and leaving the village critically short of both food and money.

These stories are of course anecdotal, but they start to form a pattern. When we put anecdotes like these together with the overriding scientific consensus, we begin to see that the strange weather events taking place in cities across the world are in fact part of a larger pattern. Across the world, uncertainty is the new norm.

Five or so years later, I find myself living in the USA, where a series of extreme weather events have paralysed cities across the country. I’m not completely on top of my American geography but all the news I’ve seen has been sensational: Snow here! No snow there! Power lines down here! Random hot days there! Homeless people dying everywhere! All of it has come with the message, sometimes implicitly but more often than not explicitly, that this is not normal. When it snowed in Tokyo last week I heard the same message.

The message I haven’t heard is that all this weather is part of something much larger. Every day weather forecasters get on TV and say “we’re going to have some unseasonal rain this week, because of this low pressure system”, or “well you might have thought it would never snow at this time of year, but tomorrow it will!”, but rarely do they go any further. What caused this unseasonal low pressure system? Where did this weird and wacky summer snowfall come from? Why is it that these “once in a century” events seem to be happening every second week?

We certainly don’t know everything about climate change, and not every abnormal weather event is a shining example of it. Of course there were ice ages, fires and floods that we couldn’t understand long before we started filling the skies with tremendous amounts of CO2: that’s half the reason we have gods.

But we do know, now in 2014, that every bit of weather that ever happens, anywhere on the planet, is in some way connected to climate change, and that climate change is in some way connected to us. When it’s colder than it would normally be, that’s climate change. When it’s warmer, that’s climate change. When there are no bananas for a year, that’s climate change. When monsoons fail and millions starve, that’s climate change. When it’s a perfectly normal, seasonal day – and there are less of them every year – that’s a reminder of what we stand to lose.

On the joys of semi-vegetarianism

We hear a lot about climate change and the need for sustainability, and usually it’s a massive overwhelming problem that’s completely out of our hands. I’m not a great fan of this portrayal, because the truth is that the rich-ish humans could put a huge dent in global warming simply by consuming less, buying less, eating less, driving less and needing less. We can do this in every aspect of our lives, but this post is about food.

I’m not going to get into the whole environmental argument here, but like a lot of other forms of consumption, the amount of meat consumed by Americans and Australians is completely unsustainable. This graph gives you some idea of how much meat we consume, although most other sources have Australia (and NZ) right up alongside the USA and on a completely different level to the rest of the world.

Australians and Americans don’t just eat a lot more meat than poor countries, they also eat more meat than other rich countries with more balanced diets (and, funnily enough, lower levels of obesity) (and funnily enough, lower per-capita CO2 emmissions).

Most of us also agree that the way most of our meat is produced is pretty sickening, and most of us choose not to know about it so that we can keep eating unsustainable amounts of meat without feeling too guilty, and because cheap meat is a pretty easy way to put together a filling meal.

And then of course there are the tiny minority of vegetarians (5-10% of the population), who for various reasons forsake meat altogether. For every vegetarian there seem to be another half a dozen people who appreciate the idea behind vegetarianism, but “couldn’t live without meat”, and thus carry on eating including meat in almost every meal.

What’s generally been lacking is a middle way: ordinary people who choose to eat less meat, because the reasons for eating less meat are just as sound as the reasons for eating no meat at all, and you don’t have to give up meat.

I’ve seen this thought pop up from time to time – recently I remember reading a story about people who were “weekend vegetarians” or “weekday vegetarians”,  thus reducing their meat intake by 30-70% – but I haven’t yet seen it develop into a strong movement.

Anyway, last August Grace and I moved into a nice little apartment with a gas stove and a large fridge, which gave us the perfect opportunity to embrace this semi- or almost-vegetarianism.

The first decision we made was to only buy what we would call “ethical meat”, which isn’t a hard and fast definition but an answer on a case-by-case basis to the guiding question, “would I feel good eating this?”

That doesn’t mean “if I buy this nicely processed, plastic-wrapped piece of chicken from the supermarket for $2.99, with no knowledge of the journey it took to get here, will it taste nice?”

It means “do I want to buy this meat, in full knowledge of how it came to be here?” That means most of our meat comes from the farmers’ market, most of it is sold to us by people who understand and can explain the process of raising animals (which we know almost nothing about), and most of it comes from farms with philosophies that go far, far beyond producing the cheapest cuts of meat.

Yes, this meat costs more than it would at the supermarket (although not necessarily more than the technically-organic-but-still-mass-produced meat at the supermarket). All this means is that the price we pay much more accurately reflects the cost to the land, the atmosphere, the farmer and the animal that we are eating. It’s a fairer system.

Most days we don’t eat meat at all. Last night we had mushroom risotto and a salad. The night before we had sweet potato chips and a big salad full of butternut pumpkin/squash and goat’s cheese. I like to start the day with scrambled eggs, avocado and spinach on a bagel. These are simple, cheap, delicious meals. We eat a lot of eggs, a fair few mushrooms and a little bit of tofu. We have a few different superfood grains that do different magical things, and Grace tells me which ones to use when we need a bit of protein in our meal.

Even when we do eat meat, we’ve realised that we don’t need much of it. Growing up in a family that used a kilogram of mince in an average meal, this surprised me. As little as a quarter to a half of a pound of meat generally satisfies the two of us. A sausage each – if they’re delicious enough sausages – is enough to go alongside a nice salad and some good bread. Half a pound of bacon can impart enough flavour to make a delicious soup for six. The same amount of beef gets us at least two meals of lasagne.

When we go out, we’re not fussy. If we arrive at someone’s house and they offer us meat, we eat it. If there’s a free sample, we’re all over it. Last week we went to a superbowl party and I ate a massive pile of pulled pork and ribs. Once I event went to the local fried chicken shop for a cultural experience with a friend from home. We don’t miss out on anything: if we see meat and crave it, we eat it, or we go home and have something even yummier. Not setting onerous boundaries means we don’t  have a month-long existential crisis every time we look at a steak, or a menu for that matter.

But being aware of our meat consumption, and making a conscious effort to connect with the meat we do eat, has led to six months of the most delicious eating I can remember. I’ve never felt that I’ve missed out on anything – in fact the exact opposite, as we’ve discovered a whole range of delicious seasonal vegetables that I never knew existed.

So without giving up anything, we’re eating well under the world average meat consumption of somewhere between 30 and 40kg/year, a third to a quarter of what the average American or Australian consumes. I reckon some more people should try it.

Some thoughts on Australia Day

It’s Australia Day, which tends to bring out the best and worst in Australians. I’ve celebrated by having a couple of drinks, as is my duty, and so this post may not be as coherent as it otherwise may be.

Like many others, I don’t think this is the best day to celebrate all that makes our country great. The events of 26 January 1788, and what they represent, are not the most glorious part of Australia’s history. But that’s not to say there’s not a lot to be proud of.

Travelling gives us the opportunity to compare our society to the rest of the world, to see where we are doing well and where we need to improve. I’ve been away for six of the last seven Australia Days, spending one in Nepal, one in the USA, two in India, one in Vietnam and one in Singapore. Along the way I’ve visited Vanuatu, Bosnia and Herzogovina, Pakistan, Italy and a lot of places in between. To be honest, I’d almost forgotten that Australia day existed. Thank god we have Facebook to remind us of such things.

As an Australian I’m lucky to have the ability to hop so easily around the world. Very few people in the world can travel as easily as we can. I have friends across Asia who will most likely never be able to visit Australia, or any Western nation. As Australians we can’t imagine having such restrictions placed upon us.

I personally think this should change, but even if it doesn’t, I think Australians would do well to appreciate their unique position. The KC family in Palubari, Nepal, welcome me into their lives whenever I get the chance to visit. They cook my meals, clear a bed and share every aspect of their lives with me. Even if I could afford to return the favour, I wouldn’t be allowed to: the KC family would have to demonstrate that they had stable, well-paying jobs, bank accounts full of savings and treasured possessions to draw them back to Nepal. They have none of the above, yet they still treat me like a son.

Travelling makes me grateful for the wages I can earn as an Australian. Last year I shared an office at UTS with a man who told me hated dole bludgers, hippies and anyone who took anything from anyone else. He particularly hated trade unions, which he saw as hotbeds of corruption. His job was historically heavily unionised, his wages were set by a collective bargaining process that over the years had led to huge wage rises, important improvements in working conditions and extra goodies like extended parental leave and five weeks of paid leave. Every three months his wages went up 2%, and he barely noticed.

This year I’ve been living in the USA, where many people share my coworker’s views. In September I applied for the same job that I had at UTS, only the pay was three times less. I didn’t get the job; unemployment here is several times higher than at home. If I had got the job I would have had one week of annual leave, and would have needed to visit a doctor and obtain a medical certificate to take a day’s sick leave. It would cost $50 to go to the doctor. Sometimes it takes a bit of distance to see how lucky we are.

Travelling lets me see how people live without iPads, smartphones and all the rest of it. I’ve lived for extended periods without electricity, without running water, without meat, without telecommunications. Some people I know in Australia would call waiting an extra month for the iPhone 6 an economic crisis. Some people I know in South Asia call living without power life.

Being overseas makes me appreciate how safe I feel in Australia. Here in Richmond, multiple people have to die for something to become a “shooting”. In Sydney a shooting is when shots are fired at the front wall of an empty house. Richmond, a city of just over 200,000, has more murders than Sydney, a city of just under 5 million.

This is a day we should recognise how lucky we are. Above all we are lucky because we earn more than almost anywhere else in the world for the work we do. That gives all of us the ability to make our own choices, to consume as we wish, to exercise our political power in our everyday decisions as well as every few years at the ballot box. Our society is closer than most to an egalitarian one, because on the whole we don’t believe that people should make more money simply because they started with more money.

But I worry we’re becoming increasingly complacent with what we’ve got, forgetting why we have it, and presuming that someone else will preserve it. A nation where everyone’s rich – which, more than anywhere else, is what we have become – is at risk of forgetting what it’s like to be poor. The ex-colleague I mentioned above received a good public school education and a free university degree, but now he can afford to send his kids to private schools he sees no use in supporting the public system. We can’t let that mentality take hold, because there will always be people who are poorer than others.

And it might make me a dreamer, but I feel that we can do more than revive our egalitarian spirit for ourselves, and start to share it with those beyond our borders. Most of us still agree that someone who works a hard day’s work deserves a decent wage, but we don’t feel the same about the Bangladeshi that sews our shirts, the Indian who answers our phone calls or the Malaysian who processes our credit card transactions. At the very least we can start to think about them, and how we might go about including them in our lives, and not just in our economies.

It’s my shout. Happy Australia day, and happy ruminating.