The other day, I randomly picked up a book from the “Little Free Library” box in my neighborhood (see The book is called Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, written by Barbara Demick, a former correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. I don’t usually dedicate blog space to discussing the books that I am reading, but felt compelled to make an exception for this eye-opening nonfiction exposé concerning the lives of North Korean defectors from the regime of Kim Il-sung and his (now deceased) son, Kim Jong-il.

Picture an entire country literally swathed in darkness—without electricity for weeks and months on end. Picture a country where you do not get to select your groceries; when you are lucky enough to have ration coupons and the equivalent of a few dollars’ spending money, you go to a state-run commissary where you are given bags filled with whatever (and however much) “they” decide you should eat, based on ill-defined state standards and whatever happens to be available at the time (which isn’t much when your country is barren and sealed off from the rest of the world). That is, until the food supply dries up and there is nothing at all left to put into those bags. And forget about fashion; you’d be lucky to own a few sets of drab, petroleum-based clothing and canvas footwear.

Picture a place where you do not get to decide what you will be when you “grow up,” much less improve your social or economic lot in life by “climbing the corporate ladder” once you do. Your best hope is to be accepted into the Workers' Party (which basically controls everything and everyone through a network of military-type “enforcers” and neighborhood spies). But even this isn’t possible if your blood is tainted with South Korean, foreign, or disloyal droplets, or you so much as utter a word against the revered (in theory) dictator. They do offer free, on-site childcare—in factories where women toil fifteen hours per day, seven days a week (that is, until they run out of raw materials and all the workers become unemployed). This, on top of raising children, keeping rudimentary homes clean, attending compulsory propaganda lectures, and polishing mandatory photographic displays of Kim Il-sung and his son on a daily basis with state-supplied cleaning cloths.

I may complain about the deteriorating state of our country, but Demick has given me a sobering dose of perspective. Clearly, the good old U.S. of A. gets a “needs improvement” in several important areas: Health care, infrastructure, education, political leadership, and unemployment, to name an obvious few. But on our worst day, we are light years ahead of places like North Korea (and similar such places peppering the planet). If you ask me, our biggest failing is that we have too much, and don’t know what to do with it—or ourselves. We don’t recognize when enough is enough, and so we've become fat, selfish, silly, and self-aggrandizing. Instead of putting our excess capacity to work improving our nation from the bottom up (not to mention the rest of the world's far less fortunate inhabitants), we invent superfluous virtual gadgetry, obscenely overpriced and unnecessary material goods, and astronomical wealth for the few at the top. Meanwhile, the rest of us are content to be drugged with fake food and cheap electronic devices, because that's what enables us to wander the earth with a blind eye toward those who don’t have it quite as good. This sense of entitlement has turned us soft and largely removed from our collective consciousness any concerns about basic human survival or notions of fairness and economic parity.

On Monday, we honor those who gave their lives fighting for this country. I cannot say that all those lives were lost for good and just cause, but I can say there are still a few things worth dying for—and certainly speaking up for—starting with the preservation of our (mostly taken-for-granted) freedom from dictatorship and oppression. So on Monday, before running off to WalMart or Target or wherever, let’s take just a moment to appreciate how lucky we are to have indoor plumbing, reliable electricity and running water; and roads and cars and stores that supply us with anything a human being could possibly need or want in this lifetime. Oh, and did I forget to mention the freedom to post this blog?