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The Girl With Seven Names had nine lives


If someone on your Christmas list enjoys books, I have a great recommendation and it’s not too late to have it delivered from Amazon. The Girl With Seven Names is the true story of how a young woman, with no foresight or planning escaped North Korea and became an international advocate for human rights. The book is a beautifully written, first-hand account of life for the average person in North Korea by someone who later came to experience the world beyond the Kim Jong autocracy. During her escape and resettlement, Min-young assumed a series of seven different names as part of the strategy needed to hide her past and create new identities to protect herself and her family still in North Korea. Hyeonseo Lee is the final name she retains.

Min-young was born and grew up in Hyesan, a North Korean town on the northern border with China. Hyesan was separated  from Changbai in China by a narrow river. Locals could wade across the river in waist-deep water or over ice in the winter when border guards on both sides were looking the other way or were sufficiently bribed to look the other way. This arrangement resulted in a brisk black market trade of superior Chinese consumer goods and food items coming across the border that were unavailable to most North Korean citizens. This trade supported Min-young’s family.

As a rebellious teenager of seventeen, Min-young made a decision to cross the river one night to visit the Chinese side, planning to return a few days later. Because of her age and naivety, she gave little thought to the gravity and consequences of her decision. If she had been caught coming or going, she and her entire family would be executed or at the very least deported to a labour camp. A series of decisions resulted in her being unable to return to North Korea. She traveled to visit distant relatives on the Chinese side who provided her with accommodation and help. She was constantly under threat of being exposed as an illegal immigrant which would result in her deportation and execution. An arranged marriage with a Chinese national seemed the only solution but Min-young got cold feet and fled. Over the next few years she assumes various identities and moves across the country trying to stay one step ahead of authorities, criminals and traitors. Through a complicated set of manoeuvres, Min-young eventually manages to escape to South Korea where life is not as she imagined it would be.

Who doesn’t love finding a good book under the tree? For you or a book-lover you know.

Most of us think we live in the best country in the world. Canadians are certainly entitled to feel we won the lottery being born in Canada. Americans have traditionally considered the United States to be the best country in the world, although, in fact, they fall further down the list. Canada consistently ranks as number two and the best is Switzerland, Germany or Denmark, depending on the source of the research. Citizens of North Korea have also been indoctrinated by the Kim-Jong regime to think they’re living in the best country in the world under the benevolent leadership of three generations of the Kim family. Despite famines, starvation and deprivation, North Koreans have no sense of context to compare their lives with the rest of the world. They grow up worshiping their ‘Great Leader’ or ‘Dear Leader’ as a god and their source of life. Those who escape quickly learn that things in the outside world are very different from what they’ve been told.

I absolutely could not put this book down. The author employs a literary J.R. Ewing cliff-hanger at the end of each chapter that further induced me to push on which I often did into the night. Hyeonseo Lee as she is now known has achieved local, national, then international acclaim for her human rights advocacy work, sharing her experiences to help others in similar situations. To be able to view life in North Korea from the perspective of someone who grew up there and compare it with a new life in a once-forbidden world is a rare insight. It’s a harrowing story of injustices suffered by citizens who live in countries without the freedoms we take for granted in Canada—a real eye-opener that will make you further appreciate our Canadian way of life and values. There wasn’t a single page of this book that I didn’t love and in view of the current tensions between the United States and North Korea it’s a timely read.

To order The Girl With Seven Names from Amazon.com click here.

 


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What did you have for breakfast?


Not in my front yard.

Our house is located at the end of an eleven-home enclave on a T-shaped street. It’s tricky to find without specific instructions, particularly on a dark night. Naturally, little Halloween trick or treaters are reluctant to turn the corner where our illuminated pumpkin on the front porch confirms we’re open for business on the big night. I particularly love the little ones who often look bewildered as they’re being toted from house to house in the dark, wearing funny outfits they don’t understand. We ate dinner early to be ready for the onslaught, stacked the goodies by the front door, turned the inside front hall light on and sat anxiously in our his and hers La-Z-Boy® chairs waiting for all the little Cinderella’s, Spidermen, zombies, Big Birds and other assorted costumed munchkins. We turn every outside light on to make the path to our house less scary and more welcoming but despite our best efforts at hospitality we received only two (!!!) visitors on Halloween this year—the 12-year-old boy in camouflage gear from two doors down and a single pint-sized superhero of indeterminate gender. What happened? Were the parents unable to cobble together a politically correct costume for their little ones so they just opted out and stayed home?

I can see I’m going to have to take extra measures to try and lure trick or treaters to our house next year. I could place fluorescent traffic cones along the sidewalk and hire a policeman with white gloves and an official flashlight to direct children to our door. Or does that sound too creepy, even for Halloween? We’re still smarting from the rejection and don’t care to experience a repeat of this year’s poor turnout.

You can never be too prepared.

Last year we had sixteen visitors and our friends at the more visible front of our little court received over one hundred trick or treaters and had to come and relieve us of some of our loot to pass out after they ran out. We’re never quite sure how many will ring our doorbell on Halloween but just to be on the safe side, I stock extra goodies. With the foresight of any good host, my hand-outs are something we enjoy in case there are left-overs. Then, there’s also the issue of the peculiar ‘evaporation’ of supplies before the big night so extra inventory is essential. This year I bought a box of fifty bags of potato chips. I actually prefer ripple chips but they went the way of Trump’s integrity this year and were nowhere to be found—not at the grocery stores, Costco or Wal-Mart. Since potato chips are rather unimaginative, I felt a bit embarrassed and planned to top off the handout with little chocolate bars. Then, at the last minute on Tuesday, I sent my husband out to buy packages of red licorice Twizzlers (see personal preference comment above) in case we or our neighbours ran short.

Because we had only two visitors, I’m now researching how to recycle ninety packages of red licorice that cost $25.00 (that’s what happens when men shop) that are now on sale at the same store for half-price, forty-eight bags of a brand of potato chips I don’t care for, and several dozen little chocolate bars that taste like icky brown wax. Any suggestions? I suppose I could make forty-eight tuna casseroles to crumble the potato chips on. Or use the puffy bags of chips as packing material when mailing packages at Christmas. I’m sure the grandchildren would much prefer bags of potato chips instead of styrofoam pellets in their gift boxes. The chocolate bars could be handy for stabilizing wobbly chairs or table legs. They might even work as temporary glue when I run out of Elmers. With a little zap in the microwave to soften them up they could be repurposed as caulking around our drafty doors and dryer vent. Or, I could keep them in the console of my car as part of my emergency rations when I’m stranded in a snowstorm. The problem with that is emergencies are highly subjective and they might not last until winter. Waiting at a slow red light qualifies, as does going through the automatic car wash. And as we all know, frozen is no obstacle to devouring canned chocolate frosting, cake, cookies and other rations in times of need. We’re experts at adapting stale and otherwise inedible treats to accommodate cravings.

Breakfast of champions.

The beauty of Halloween candy is it keeps forever. I’ll bet the archeologists who uncovered Tutankhaman’s tomb in ancient Egypt found toffees that were still edible after centuries of being stashed in cool, dark urns. In a few years when I’ve passed on and my executors go through my house, they’ll still be able to eat those tiny Mars Bars and KitKats they find hidden in my night table. That’s the advantage of buying quality. It lasts. When you’re having menopause cravings there’s nothing as satisfying in your hour of desperation as year-old Halloween candy. Ask any baby boomer woman. In fact, the calories probably diminish after awhile so the older, the better. I should probably tackle those boxes of goodies by the front door right away as they’re a definite tripping hazard and at my age I can’t afford any broken bones. I’m pretty sure I can find a use for the red licorice but I won’t disclose it here in case my friends at Weight Watchers read this. Or I could save everything for next year. In the meantime, I’m going to have to keep an eagle eye on what my husband eats for breakfast until I dispose of the loot. A woman’s work never ends.

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I’ve hit an existential wall. Am I the only one?


Do you ever get the feeling that everything is just too much? Too much bad news. Too much media. Too much poverty and abuse in the world. Too much crime, conflict and consumerism. Too much Trump. The wars are unending. Cancer is rampant and still impacting far too many lives. I’m personally spending too much time on Facebook, too much time reading newspapers and not enough time being productive, whatever that is. So many issues are pressing on me to take a moral position—the new niqab laws in Quebec, political rhetoric, women’s issues, saving the environment and bettering humanity. Are our politicians ever going to actually represent the interests of the people and not just their own political interests? And now, O.J. Simpson is back out on the dating scene, living the high life. Are we on the eve of destruction or have things always been this bad? And, as a baby boomer, I remember the protest riots against the Vietnam war, racism and threats of nuclear war we experienced in the fifties and sixties.

The irony is that I am happier than I’ve ever been in my life. I’m retired with a comfortable home, a great husband and financial security. But television commercials, billboard and magazine advertising are always reminding me that I should be better, do better and generally live my life better. Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I still fall far short of the best me. I still drink Diet Coke from time to time. I do not practise yoga or lift weights to build bone density. I do not volunteer time to help my community and I should probably give more of my time and energy to worthy causes. I’m now about three months into my latest television news sabbatical which spares me listening to some of the wretchedness of the world. And reading the newspaper with my morning pot of tea allows me to skip over the parts that cause me stress.

Am I a bad person?

I never miss Real Time With Bill Maher on HBO on Friday night. His liberal (to be clear, that’s a small “l”) perspective is interesting and thought-provoking. But last week he wacked me upside the head with his final comments at the end of the show slamming our obsession with digital media—Facebook in particular (YouTube link below). It was a reminder that FB can and has been a dangerous tool in mind-control for political purposes. It’s largely an exercise in vanity and ego inflation. He suggests it has moved away from its original purpose of sharing—in a good way. Ouch! I know I spend too much time on Facebook. I use it to extend the reach of my blog and post little to no personal content. I also enjoy keeping track of people I have little other contact with, scoring great recipes from time to time and seeing what friends and acquaintances are up to on FB. I can’t disagree with him but I still love Facebook and the internet. Does that make me a loser? Am I part of the problem?

What does one have to do for a living to be able to afford this kind of disposable income.

Consumerism is superseding community

I love to follow blogs for baby boomer women and in the course of my searching have come across a few sites that are shockingly materialistic. In particular, one blog resells designer purses, shoes and accessories and quite frankly following the postings is one of those guilty pleasures I can’t resist. When I read that someone is selling a $1,200.00 pair of Valentino cage heels because she’s bored with them after one or two wearings, I’m practically apoplectic. Or what about the top half of a teeny tiny boring little Gucci bikini (she lost the bottom half!!!) that cost more than a thousand dollars for a few square inches of boring navy fabric. The other day there was a $12,000.00 Rolex watch for resale (not sure what the original price was). My posted comment “What on earth do you have to do for a living to afford accessories like this?” was removed by the moderator. I feel ashamed to even read these postings but my indignation keeps my blood pressure surging. There are obviously people out there with problems that do not involve global warming or worrying about whether Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee are going to nuke us off the face of the earth.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the advocates of minimalism and much as I admire their ethic, it’s not something I could ever achieve. While it’s lovely and virtuous to imagine living with one good jacket, the perfect pair of jeans and a few tee shirts, it’s not going to happen in this household. And for that I feel guilty. I feel guilty that there are clothes in my closet that are never worn but for a variety of reasons (you know what I’m talking about) cannot part with them. I feel helpless when I see the endless ads on television asking for money for children living in poverty overseas. I know there are so many people in the world who have miserable lives and I’m so blessed.

The more I hear, see and read about, the more stressed and depressed I get. This is despite the fact I’m retired and no longer facing daily workplace stress, sexual or gender discrimination, financial difficulties or serious health problems. But because so many others are, I cannot clear my head and find a way of living with peacefully with my blessings. At the same time, I don’t want to isolate myself from what’s happening in the world by eschewing media completely. Perhaps it’s time to dig out my gratitude journal and start making daily entries again. Am I alone in feeling this way? How do you cope with the wall of bad news we encounter every day?

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I’m glad I don’t have to outfit children for Halloween


It’s a political mine field.

The PC’ers are now targeting Halloween costumes. It has been deemed politically incorrect to appropriate a variety of ethnic looks adapted for Halloweening at school and in your local neighbourhood. Dressing as a Japanese geisha, an indigenous North American or an Arab sheik is considered disrespectful appropriation of other cultures. Don’t even consider outfitting your child in a striped Breton T-shirt and beret to pretend they’re French for an evening of fun. Our go-to home-made costume as boomer kids was usually a tramp because, unlike today where everyone buys their ready-made costumes at the store, we fashioned our own from whatever we could scrounge from around the house. In today’s world that would eliminate a tramp costume in case it disparages the economically underprivileged. Even dressing as a witch supposedly demeans the Wicca religion.

Let me state clearly up front, I agree that Halloween costumes that are intended to negatively represent cultural or religious symbols are absolutely not acceptable. However, some of the most creative and endearing Halloween outfits I’ve ever seen were never intended to demean but most often were aspirational. The children considered their look a compliment, an homage to whatever style they were portraying. Many years ago, a little bi-racial boy in my neighbourhood regularly turned up hand-in-hand with his mother at my door in his dalmatian costume, until he outgrew it. I adored his costume and him. Another little curly-haired brown-skinned seven-year-old was decked out in a three-piece pinstriped suit with crisp white shirt and tie depicting Johnny Cochrane. We may not have admired Johnny Cochrane’s cause, but the costume was brilliant and deserving of an extra treat.

Could this offend farmers?

These issues must present incredible challenges for parents trying to create imaginative costumes for their children. No more cowboys and ‘Indians’; no turbans, no ‘blues’ musicians. Will we be offending a particular group if our children are dressed as rappers or crew members from McDonald’s? If I answer the door dressed as myself, an aging baby boomer in a comfortable T-shirt and yoga pants will I offend my entire generation? That just leaves the graphic not-quite-human comic book heroes like Batman, Spiderman and Wonder Woman. Or would that offend the acting profession? Should we revisit the ethics of actors wearing ethnic costumes of any kind? Would dressing your child as a pumpkin offend farmers? Would dressing as a farmer offend farmers?

When I was little, I dreamed of being a saloon girl, just like Kitty on Gunsmoke. I couldn’t imagine anything better than wearing beautiful, sparkly evening dresses all day every day, feathers in my hair, a handsome Marshall as my boyfriend. I often pretended I was Kitty when playing with friends. But dressing as a benevolent hooker for Halloween in today’s world is unimaginable. I’m just glad I’m not the parent of young children faced with running the gauntlet of political correctness. Oh no! I said ‘gauntlet’. Did I just offend indigenous people? Give me strength. Do I need sensitivity training? Now I can’t even dress up as a ‘Smartie’. I’m so confused. I think I’ll just turn out the lights and hide behind the sofa on Halloween rather than offend someone in the LGBTQ community by giving candy to a small child dressed as a princess.

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Have the feds gone mad?


First it was the farmers. Now it’s the minimum-wage earners working in the retail sector. Can the Revenue Canada bottom-feeders stoop any lower? Their pathetic proposed tax grabs are beyond punitive; they border on masochistic. Canada’s Minister of Finance Bill Morneau obviously did not grow up on a farm, or even keep company with someone who grew up on a farm. If he did, he’d think twice about sticking it to farmers who pay their children a couple of dollars an hour to help in the barn with the milking at 6:30 a.m. before they eat breakfast and go off to school. Or variety store owners and other family businesses whose children work nights and weekends to help keep their businesses afloat.

Now the feds have retail and other lower to middle-income workers in their sights. They’re proposing to tax employees on the value of their employee discounts, a tax grab that is beyond shameful. Retail sales associates in clothing stores are encouraged to wear brands carried by their stores to help promote sales. And the system works. I’ve often been in a store, admired something a sales person was wearing and purchased it for myself. That sales person probably earns minimum wage or slightly more and often spends most of what she or he earns in the store. And now that miniscule benefit has caught the attention of the Revenue Canada rapists.

Unless you’re a McCain or a Weston, most family businesses are marginally profitable and come without pensions and other benefits.

Several years ago I worked for a company that provided free parking to employees in the company-owned lot beside the building. The tax auditors tried to extract taxes on an obscure estimated dollar value of that benefit for an amount the employees didn’t even receive. Premiums for supplementary health benefits provided by employers are taxed. Support payments to single mothers that have already been taxed are re-taxed when received by the parent with custody of children. Child support payments are obviously a huge windfall for struggling parents. When is the insanity going to stop? We elect our politicians to represent the people but it seems we’ve elected an economically elite group of Marie Antoinette wanna-be’s who are completely out of touch with how real people live and try to make ends meet. I have no objection to going after the high rollers; that’s the nature of a capitalist society. But picking on the little guy, the ninety-nine percenters is just plain immoral.

Taxpayers must remain vigilant and not let the government get away with their dirty tricks.

I don’t know what the answer is. If I thought elected officials actually listened to the constituents who pay their salaries and grotesquely generous pensions I’d suggest writing, calling or emailing your member of parliament. But they’re probably too busy trying to figure out how to tax the income on your child’s lemonade stand. But it’s worth a try. Unless we storm the Bastille, the elite in Ottawa are going to step up their dirty work. We must remain vocal and invested in what they’re trying to sneak past us. I think they’ve gone mad. They’ve certainly made me mad.

 

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Never send your husband to the grocery store unsupervised. The sequel


Early cave men were traditionally known as hunter-gatherers, bringing home the wild bacon and mastodon steaks to feed their families after a rough day on the tundra. Their wives then took over roasting the kill over the family fire and kept the cave swept clean in case company came. Things haven’t changed much as I discovered this past week with the tundra now replaced by Real Canadian Superstore. It’s common knowledge among women (gained from years of experience) that men cannot be trusted in grocery stores. They take leave of their senses and the stupid gene kicks in. Before you can stop them they’ve loaded up the cart with giant bags of Cheesies, popcorn, Pub Mix, sugary fruit danishes and gallons of nutritionally questionable beverages.

I’ve written about this issue before (click here to read the original Never send your husband to the grocery store) and it’s obviously a genetic flaw that was passed down through the centuries and endures to this day. When medieval wives screamed that they had enough fermented mead beer already, hubby kept sneaking it in, stashing the barrels behind the pig pen and enjoying a flagon or two when mummy went to visit a girlfriend. Whenever I go away for a few days, I’ve no sooner turned the corner at the end of the street when my husband peels out of the driveway and heads to KFC, after which he and the dog blissfully survive on a bucket of greasy chicken bones and fries. By the time I get home, the recyclers have carted away the evidence.

Men have a different concept of healthy eating.

The hunter-gatherer reemerged this week. It was with a great deal of hesitation and reluctance that I asked my husband to pick up a pork tenderloin on the way home from golf. Sounds simple. There were four of us for dinner (the fourth does not eat meat) and I figured that would be a perfect amount to barbecue with a bit left over for the dog.

Along with the meat, in he came with a super-sized bag of Chicago popcorn, two giant bags of Brookside chocolate-covered blueberries, a bag of Kilimanjaro deluxe chocolate nut mix (“it’s the healthy kind with 70% cocoa”), two bags of ripple chips (“but they were on sale just inside the door”), a bottle of Italian salad dressing, a jar of extra spicy salsa and for good measure, a $20.00 lottery ticket. And, instead of getting a tenderloin, he’d bought an enormous full loin of pork that was so huge I could hardly lift it out of the bag. I really didn’t know pigs had loins that big. We have enough to feed mushu pork to all of mainland China for the rest of the year. After cutting it up, I bagged enough pork chops for fifteen (15) meals. My honey still isn’t quite sure what he did wrong and in fact is rather proud of himself. Needless to say, the dog is ecstatic.

If you haven’t seen it already, check out this hilarious YouTube video Don’t Send a Man to the Grocery Store from YouTube by Jeanne Robertson. Click here.

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In order to be truly proud, Canada still has work to do


The Canada Day 150 celebrations over the weekend prompted me to briefly relax my television news embargo. Hoping to see a lot of feel-good immigrant success stories (which I did), national coverage of patriotic local events (which there were) and a healthy dose of congratulatory video vignettes (tick that one off too), I tuned in. What I saw also reminded me of why I keep taking regular news sabbaticals.

The one issue that refuses to go away and deeply disturbs me is our government’s treatment of our indigenous people. Watching the mix-up around the installation of a teepee on Parliament Hill was unsettling. That was followed by a story about a group of bullying idiots throwing live fireworks into a group of indigenous women who had set up a peaceful camp to protest the industrial pollution of their source of drinking water. Another story highlighted the tragedy of forgotten murdered and abused indigenous women whose perpetrators were never caught and many of the women never found.

Surely, as a nation we can do better.

What is it going to take to sort out the problems with our native Canadians? The government has a tragic history of mismanaging the issue and there are struggles within the indigenous community itself. Let’s accept there is fault on both sides but the problems remain. Last year I read a moving book entitled “Invisible North” written by Alexandra Shimo, a young female journalist who moved into a northern native community. It paints a grim picture of life on a remote reserve. Basics such as clean drinking water and a supply of healthy food including fresh fruit and vegetables were scarce to non-existent and prohibitively expense in a community where most of the people are unemployed. Various make-work and entrepreneurial initiatives presented by local bands had been rejected by government authorities. Many communities have no local fire department which means over-crowded, small pre-fab bungalows quickly burn to the ground when there is a fire.

Prime Minister Trudeau seems to lend a sympathetic ear but what happens when he walks away from meetings with local bands? I suspect the government continues to drop the ball since the problems are compounding. Solutions are complicated but is asking for progress too much to ask? Is there not someone who can take this bull by the horns and start unraveling the problems and bring employment opportunities to these remote communities? Coal miners in Virginia are being trained to write and program computer code. Can this not be done for our indigenous Canadians? If call centres can be operated from places like India and the Philippines, why not on remote reserves? Norway has managed to build and operate successful greenhouses to grow local produce in Arctic climates. Can we not do the same?

I strongly recommend reading Invisible North. I honestly do not know what each of us as individuals can do to make the situation better but we do need to keep pressure on our government to stop dithering and start doing. Sympathetic handshakes and listening circles do not provide infrastructure for clean drinking water, health and safety services and access to decent food.  As Canadians, that’s the minimum we should expect from our elected leaders.

Click here to read earlier blog:  Better understanding the challenges of Native Canadians on reserves

To order Invisible North, The Search For Answers on a Troubled Reserve by Alexandra Shimo from Amazon, click here.

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