Monthly Archives: January 2015

This & That

– Somehow, I stumbled into foot fetish hashtags on Instagram yesterday. Whoa. What a strange, fascinating world. I’m not sure what exactly makes an attractive foot, but red nail polish and wrinkly soles seem to be popular. I don’t get it.

– I really like the flat white at Starbucks. I can even drink it without any sugar!

– I’m trying to accomplish more in the evenings during the workweek so I don’t spend my whole weekend doing chores and errands. This week, I paid bills, wrote/wrapped/mailed a bunch of thank you cards and gifts, ran two errands, had a dentist appointment, and straightened up the house a little. Not too bad!

– There’s apparently a name for those ad nauseam and highly-styled Instagram photos of Kate Spade day planners, Laudree macaroons, Michael Kors watches, Starbucks cups, and Essie nail polish bottles taken from above: the flat lay. #itsallthesamestuff #overandover #makeitstop

– I’m only excited about the SuperBowl because of the snacks.

– I’m behind on Downtown Abbey. Gotta get caught up before Sunday night.

– In North Korea, airline pilots and crews are closely monitored by the state/military…even in the sky.

– I have some new blog posts written but I haven’t taken the photos to go with them…in weeks. Sigh.

Happy Friday!

Ninjas on Happy Street!

The Lunar New Year is here!

The Lunar New Year is here–with ninjas!

A new Happy Street update hit my Apple App Store on Saturday and it’s…a little confusing to me, to be honest.

The update includes three new Valentine’s Day buildings and a bunch of new ninja stuff to commemorate the Lunar New Year and the Year of the Goat. The update release notes refer to the ninjas as “tanuki ninjas,” which I had to look up. Tanuki is the Japanese name of the raccoon dog, which is an Asiatic animal in the fox/dog family that resembles a raccoon in coloring and markings. According to a Google search, tanuki feature prominently in Japanese folklore and tanuki ninjas seem to be popular characters in modern anime. All of this is new information to me. Plus, I think of China when I think of the Lunar New Year and Japan when I think of ninjas and anime, so the combined theme is a little confusing to me, but maybe I just need to relax and go with it.

Anyway, this is a large update that brings 10 new buildings and a hefty price tag. The new Valentine buildings cost a total of 180 Flooz and the new ninja buildings cost a total of 390 Flooz. Yeefs. For the first time ever, I might not be able to get everything before the themes expire from the shop. I used all of my Flooz on December 24th to finish visiting/decorating my Christmas tree and now I’m broke! I used to be able to get an extra 20 Flooz a day from watching short video ads, but those haven’t worked for me—or most people, according to the internet—in months. I don’t believe the free Flooz videos were ever available to non-Apple users, either, which doesn’t seem fair. Now, I can only get the standard 8+ Flooz a day from sales to Pepin, full train loads, mini games, etc. Sigh.

New Valentine's Day goodies in the Happy Street shop!

New Valentine’s Day goodies in the Happy Street shop!

Anyway, the new Valentine’s Day buildings include a Valentine’s Flowers shop, Chi Choc Lovers chocolate shop, and a red Heart Warming Sculpture that creates a decorative street backdrop. The new Lunar New Year buildings include the Tanuki House (topped with a ninja throwing star), a Fire Mountain ride, a Taiyaki Cookies stand, an Omamori Lucky Charms shop, a New Year Goat Statue, a Tengu Statue, a Kappa Statue, and Kanji Ground. I had to look up many of these terms:

  • Taiyaki is a traditional Japanese cake baked in the shape of fish and filled with sweet red bean paste, custard, chocolate, etc. Some savory versions also exist. The cakes are prepared like waffles by pouring batter into a molded iron press.
  • Omamori are Japanese good luck and protection charms sold at religious sites and dedicated to Shinto deities or Buddhist figures (I remember reading about these in Marie Kondo’s book). They provide blessings and benefits to their owners for a year and are then returned/exchanged for new charms.
  • “Tengu” means heavenly dog. These are creatures found in Japanese folklore and they are also considered a type of Shinto god. Tengu depictions usually look more bird-like than dog-like, and traditions describe them variously as demonic or protective forest spirits.
  • A Kappa is a scaly, humanoid, river-dwelling, mischievous-to-malevolent creature in Japanese folklore. They are often drawn to resemble turtles.
  • Kanji are adopted Chinese characters that are used in the modern Japanese writing system.
  • Shintoism is an ancient religion of Japan that believes in multiple gods/spiritual powers in the natural world.
New Ninja goodies in the Happy Street shop...

New ninja goodies in the Happy Street shop…

More ninja goodies in the shop...

More ninja goodies in the shop…

These are horribly abbreviated definitions about very broad, very ancient topics, but you get the idea. It’s funny—I’ve definitely learned several new cultural tidbits from Happy Street across the years (like about Haussmann architecture in Paris…and steampunk…and new details about Day of the Dead…).

All of the old Valentine buildings and Chinese and Japanese buildings are available again in the Happy Street shop, too, plus there’s a new outfit to sew in the tailor shop—a Mighty Monkey 2 outfit. Is that another anime reference? #clueless

I’ll focus on getting the new Valentine’s Day goodies first. I like to save enough Flooz to buy all the “matching” businesses and houses at one time so my neighborhood grows together at the same rate. The high price of everything is really daunting, however. I appreciate the hard work of the Happy Street developers, but I do wish we had more opportunities to earn Flooz in the absence of the ad videos.

Book Review – Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Image from

Image from

After I finished Suki Kim’s memoir about her time as an undercover teacher in an elite North Korean high school, I browsed Amazon and bought Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. Stories about North Korea are so grotesque that I feel compelled to keep reading them—I’m not sure why. Maybe I hope to find that other sources don’t support the horrible, outlandish stories. Unfortunately, though, everything checks out.

In Nothing to Envy, Demick tells the stories of several North Koreans who were born and raised under the “Great Leader’s” dictatorship but ultimately escaped to China, South Korea, or other safe countries. She relates their stories beginning with their early daily lives in North Korea, when they were faithful and loyal to the regime. Demick then describes the unique events that led each person to the questioning of that faith and then the final, irreversible decision to escape the country. Escapes from North Korea are extremely rare, incredibly risky, prohibitively expensive, and highly convoluted, so it’s amazing that Demick found a diverse—albeit small—group of people to interview.

The common thread that seemed to push these once-loyal citizens to question authority and consider fleeing was the severe nationwide North Korean famine of the 1990’s. Demick’s book describes the famine in wrenching detail through the eyes of her sources, which include a mother, a doctor, and a teacher, all of whom witnessed the slow, painful deaths of family members, patients, and students due to starvation and malnutrition. To me, the most striking realization of this book was that the famine that almost obliterated the North Korean people was also the main cause of the first real cracks in the power of the regime. Demick does a great job of connecting the dots in her storytelling; here’s my summary:

Crop shortages cut off the internal supply of food and raw materials in North Korea, and a ruined economy (and callous or stubborn leaders?) prevented the purchase of outside food and goods. Factories began to lie idle for want of raw materials, so the (unpaid) workers were eventually allowed to drift away from their controlling work places to forage by day for enough calories to support themselves and their families. Personal gardens and capitalistic black markets began to emerge and thrive, giving many citizens real control for the first time in their lives over their time, personal finances, and decisions. Exotic outside goods—and information—began to trickle into North Korea, too, as hungry border guards were now more easily bribed with food and luxury goods. Demick’s sources reported seeing new fruits and vegetables for the first time, and hearing of the riches that ordinary people had in neighboring China.

In fact, right after one of Demick’s sources escaped into China, she remembered stumbling upon a full bowl of rice lying on the ground in the dark. She hadn’t eaten that much rice in North Korea in over a year, and she was shocked to realize that this was the meal of a pet dog. Another woman in the book remembers being completely amazed by the ordinary household gadgets of her Chinese host family, especially their automatic rice cooker. The cooker would make mounds of steamed rice every morning and turn itself off when the rice was perfectly done, sounding a little alarm to let the household know the food was ready. The woman had a few lingering doubts about her decision to escape North Korea, but they dissipated after she saw the technology of the simple rice cooker and began to realize just how much she had been denied.

In short, mass starvation, porous border patrol, and new information emboldened Demick’s sources to risk escape. The people she interviews are extraordinarily hard workers and incredibly brave, and it’s hard not to feel in awe of them. It’s also hard not to feel sorry for them. They are wracked by unimaginable guilt because of the punishments their families must have surely endured because of their defection. They must also adjust to the realities of life in the modern world, and a wildly shifting sense of self and personal identity. It seems horribly unfair to survive so much mistreatment in North Korea only to suffer still in freedom.

Demick’s book also made me much more aware of the enormity of the problem of an oppressed people like the North Koreans. Demick’s sources relate in detail about how difficult their transitions were from life in North Korean to life in South Korean—of having to quickly process and absorb all kinds of shocking new factual information, technology, social practices, etc. Even if the North Korean regime were to fall tomorrow, how would it be possible to help millions of people “catch up” with their South Korean brethren? Millions would need mental and emotional counseling, education, medical care, job training…The task seems like it would be impossible.

I highly recommend this book. It provides a great introduction to the general political history of North Korea as a whole, alongside honest, inspiring, and heart-wrenching personal stories of some of its brave former citizens. I hope you check it out.

Birchbox Review – January 2015

My first Birchbox of 2015 arrived yesterday!

The box itself is super cute—the bottom is printed with colorful confetti and the top is a matching purple—but the contents were a bit of a disappointment. It’s often hard to tell right away, though, if something will be a hit. I have to experiment a little. Some of my favorite products creep up on me—they’re things I’m not excited about initially but then grow to love…like Coola BB cream, Real Chemistry enzyme peel, Marcelle Power Serum, etc.!

Here’s what I got in my box:

TOCCA Hand Cream in Cleopatra scent – This was my sample choice this month. I was excited to see it as an option because I had been thinking of buying a mini tube of TOCCA in the Birchbox store. Unfortunately, though, I don’t think this lotion is for me. Cleopatra is a nice grapefruit and cucumber scent, but it’s way too strong for me. I forgot that I can’t do heavily perfumed lotions. Plus, the sweet, heavy scent reminds me of middle and high school, when everyone used Bath and Body Works Cucumber Melon lotion. 🙂 I wonder if I could handle the Bianca scent better—it’s green tea and lemon.

The Balm Staniac in shade Beauty Queen – Huh. I wasn’t excited about this cheek and lip stain when I first saw it in my box, but I tried it this morning on my cheeks and I like it. I normally use a cream blush but the kind I have is so messy to work with—it oozes out of the sides of its container and gets everywhere. This Staniac seems like a good alternative—compact, tidy, and powerful. I used just three or four dots on the apples of each cheek—and quickly blended them in—and it seems to be working great. The color has a little more red than my current blush, which is a subtle but nice change.

Neil George shampoo and conditioner – Meh. These generous sample sizes smell nice (clean, fresh) but I’m not very familiar with the brand. It doesn’t seem particularly fancy or interesting. I might try these or I might add them to my donation stash—I haven’t decided yet.

Christian Siriano Silhouette perfume – Sigh. Another miss this month.   I can’t figure out how to open the sample bottle, but I can smell the perfume and it’s too musky/amber-y/mature for me.

Maybe I’ll get some chocolate or something in my February Birchbox. Chocolate is always a hit with me. 🙂

Book Review – Without You, There is No Us

Image from

Image from

** Happy New Year! **

The best thing about my holiday break was that I got to read. A lot. Sometimes I have the time to read but I can’t find a book I’m interested in, and other times I have a good book but I don’t have the time, energy, or peace I need to read. The stars aligned for me this holiday, though, and I finished THREE good books! Here’s a review of the first one I read:

I first heard about author Suki Kim when Jon Stewart interviewed her on The Daily Show. Kim is a journalist who posed as an English teacher to work at one of North Korea’s most elite high schools for boys. She captured the experience in a memoir entitled Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite.

I’m fascinated (and infuriated) by North Korea, and many books and documentaries have described for me the brutal realities of life inside the dictatorship. For the vast majority of North Koreans, daily life includes brainwashing, thought control, paranoia, poverty, famine, starvation, lack of access to reliable information, no modern technology, and the ever-present threat of banishment to one of the many political concentration camps in the country. The list of humanitarian wrongs in North Korea is endless, and I urge you to learn more about it.

Kim’s account was fresh to me for two main reasons: 1) she taught in 2011, so her report from inside North Korea was more recent than most of the other materials I’ve encountered, and 2) she moved among the favored, educated, well-fed elite members of the regime. There are many eye-opening stories in Kim’s book, all of which detail an oppression that seems particularly striking to me because I thought the elite in North Korea would fare better than the common man…but it appears that the elite, too, suffer many of the same injustices.

For example, there are essentially no consumer goods to be had in North Korea, even if you account for a non-capitalistic society, and even if you have the money. Kim had to bring her own toilet paper, coffee, and refrigerator into the country. The food served at the prestigious school was simple and spare, too—all thin soups and no meat. There was also no modern technology or internet to speak of, even among the elite. Kim’s students described using a kind of limited, closed intranet email system among themselves at a prior school, and a handful of (adult) students were beginning lessons in basic internet literacy with highly-restricted access to only certain websites. There was also no form of communication with people outside of the campus, either—not even a phone or postal system for students and parents to contact each other. There were a few televisions and radios on campus, but only certain channels and programs were available to the students.

Interestingly, Kim and the other foreign teachers had access to the internet and some foreign television channels in their rooms. Also, the teachers were all volunteer workers, yet they had to pay for every detail of every special field trip they took, including trips to tourist sites they did not request to visit but that the regime wanted them to see. Kim’s descriptions of the empty highways on these trips are eerie and apocalyptic—there were no cars in either direction as far as the eye could see. She would see the occasional emaciated citizen walking alone on the side of the road, or a group of people sitting down and talking in the middle of the deserted road.

It’s hard to choose only one, but the most striking impression this book left on me was the realization that there was absolutely no freedom of movement for Kim, her colleagues, or her students. The school grounds were patrolled by guards, like a prison, and everyone had to stay within the campus boundaries. Kim couldn’t just walk out of the compound to jog or shop or go out to eat (not that there were many shops or restaurants to visit). Students couldn’t leave to visit parents, and no one was allowed into the compound, either, so parents couldn’t visit students. The rare trips off-campus were group activities organized like field trips, with buses and weeks of required pre-planning and pre-approvals.

As English practice, Kim assigned her students to write letters (which they could not mail or deliver, of course) to whomever they wished. The letters were heartbreaking. Students most often expressed their wishes to visit their families and old friends from previous schools. Most strangely, the students had odd habits of promising to visit loved ones even when they knew they literally could not visit, or they fabricated personal excuses for why they weren’t able to visit. They apologized for having too much schoolwork, for example, or for being sick, as if the lack of freedom or movement was a personal failing. No one even hinted at the reality that such visits were prohibited by the state.

By the end of the book, I was (somewhat) heartened by the fact that the students seemed to be increasingly aware of the disconnects between their indoctrination and the real world. I loved that Kim would plant small seeds of information and doubt in her students whenever she could, to help them begin to imagine the realities of the world outside of North Korea—the information, technology, entertainment, and freedom. She did this at her own peril, because who knows the kind of punishment she might have received if her state “handlers” found out what she was sharing.

I highly recommend this book. I couldn’t stop reading it once I began, and it made realize the mind-boggling pervasiveness of the North Korea regime’s power over its citizens—even the most worldly ones.

Other recommendations:

Kim’s book explores the lives of elite youth in North Korea. For an account of the brutal life of a young man born and raised in a North Korean political concentration camp, read Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden. For accounts of working class life in North Korea, read Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick (my review is here).