Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner-city Funeral Home

At age fifteen, Sheri Booker got a part-time job at the Albert P. Wylie Funeral Home in Baltimore, Maryland. Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner-city Funeral Home is a memoir of her time spent there. Booker grew up, so to speak, in a funeral home and her second family were her colleagues. Her girlhood crush was none other than her boss's son. She wove stories about her job with those that affected her personal life, which created a wholly engaging story underlined by death.

For anyone, especially a teen, a funeral home might be the last place one would ever seek employment. It surely would qualify as one of the creepiest. Booker, however, showed a level of maturity beyond her years in bravely facing her duties. She showed her professionalism early on and without tears, or by using the coping mechanism of uncontrollable laughter in the constant face of death. Finding suitable employees who could cope under intense emotional pressure are hard to find, and the staff of the Wylie Funeral Home made sure that Booker received the appropriate training. When your line of business is dealing with death, the employee turnover rate is high.

Booker's colleagues embalmed corpses, dressed the bodies, did their hair and makeup and placed the bodies into the caskets. As a door greeter and office worker, though, Booker didn't come into close contact with the casket occupants. She even kept her distance in the viewing rooms as bodies were laid to rest for the mourners. Yet when your place of employment is a funeral home, pretty soon you're going to come into intimate contact with a corpse. Booker was frightened of this inevitability, and one of her colleagues carefully and respectfully eased her way towards a body laid out to rest at a viewing:

"'Are you scared of dead bodies?' She laughed.
'No,' I lied.
'Come on.' She motioned for me to follow her.
I wanted to show Marlo that I was tough, since she looked like the type of woman who would clock a mugger before he even had the chance to grab her purse. She led me down the long hallway back to the chapel and then guided me inside to the casket. The woman was wrapped in a shroud, and pearl beads hugged her neckline. She lay with her face pointing up toward the ceiling, and her eyes were sealed shut. Her makeup was flawless and her arms rested across her waist as her hands held a bouquet of flowers.
Marlo walked up to the woman and placed her right hand on the woman's hand.
'See?' she said while caressing the inert hand. I watched carefully to make sure that the woman didn't move.
'Touch her,' she said firmly.
I looked up at Marlo's stern face and then turned to the woman in the casket. I wanted to whisper an apology in her ear, but instead I extended my hand toward her. I hesitated at first.
'Go on, feel her face.' Marlo urged me to get it over with."


"That wasn't so bad, I thought. Maybe it was Marlo's presence, but somehow I felt safe."

Marlo, without showing any disrespect towards the deceased, helped Booker ease her way in and alleviate her fears.

Booker worked behind the scenes and revealed many secrets from the funeral home industry, from stuffing clothes to making the bodies feel fuller to filling in visible face wounds caused by gunshots. Since hardly anyone smiles at the precise moment of death:

"I would later learn that death smiles are man-made, a minor technique of skin adjustment."

Mr. Wylie would say to his staff countless times throughout Nine Years Under, "you only have one chance to get it right". The work of the staff makeup artist seemed to cause the greatest shock to grieving families, as sometimes her work was a little too good to be true:

"But some people couldn't handle their loved ones looking too much like they'd looked when they were alive; it was as though they needed the body to look fake after death for the whole thing to actually feel real. Mr. Wylie would do his best to give them what they wanted to see."


"When his daughter came in, she stood before the casket for a few moments, inspecting everything, and then she walked around and read the notes on the cards before circling back and pausing again in front of the casket. Then she burst into tears. 'He doesn't look dead enough. I don't like it. He looks too healthy.'"

Everyone working at the Wylie Funeral Home had to have an incredible amount of sensitivity in dealing with grief in all of its manifestations. For Booker to work on the front lines answering phones, dealing with all kinds of callers in their bereaved, silent, distracted, or even hysterical states of mind, shows she was well suited for the job:

"The subject was that sensitive. I had no time to test pens or search beneath the clutter for a message pad. The world stood still when the voice of grief was on the other end of the phone. You forced yourself to memorize names and numbers if you had to. But most important, you reached deep down inside to muster up every bit of compassion you could.
Answering the phone was an art, a technique that I quickly mastered. This wasn't so for many of the women Mr. Wylie hired. They easily found themselves standing in the unemployment line because they couldn't perfect the death call."

Sometimes tears could not help but fall. At moments like this, Mr. Wylie offered the following advice:

"'Look at the wall. Look at the wall. That's what you do when you think you need to cry. Crying is unprofessional. How can you help these families if you are out here crying too?'"

There was almost inevitably a lighter side of working in a funeral home, and Booker provided plenty of examples of the comical goings-on that sometimes seemed to take place when you least expected them. Widows sparred with mistresses over their deceased husbands or boyfriends. Staff received conflicting information on how to dress the deceased when he was born male but lived as a transgendered woman. Booker even saw the humour in her own trepidations when she stepped into the embalming room for the first time. The funniest incident of all was the mixup of two deceased women and their families' reactions to seeing the wrong woman laid out in each casket. That the families couldn't even recognize their own mothers when the bodies were switched back added another wacky element to the story that even when you make things right, you can't win all the time.

Near the end of her time at the funeral home, Booker made some poignant observations. The services she and her colleagues provided to people at their most vulnerable made them appear invaluable in the eyes of the bereaved:

"There's nothing like entrusting your loved one to a friend, or at least someone who could pretend to be your friend. It took me years to realize that ninety percent of the people who said they knew Mr. Wylie personally did not really have a relationship with him at all."

That they provided this level of comfort to their clients shows that they had performed a job well done. Her concluding revelations felt as though she left the funeral home more vulnerable than strengthened:

"When you spend almost a decade working in funeral service, there are some things you learn to forget. Tears were the first thing I sacrificed to become a part of the business. But I mistook control over my tears for control over myself.
As I reached deep down to find the words to tell this story, I found the residue of emotions that I had buried within myself, feelings that I couldn't articulate at the time, memories that I camouflaged in the spongiest parts of my brain. And now that I'm older, they resurface."


"I don't regret saving my tears all those years. It was the one thing I walked away with from Wylie Funeral Home. Not a church fan, not a pen, not a paycheck. I walked away with a bank full of tears."

In spite of a general perception of having a depressing subject matter, the book was indeed a pleasure to read. I was most impressed by the level of writing in Nine Years Under, and I see great promise for Booker as a writer of nonfiction as well as fiction. There aren't that many books by young authors where I felt dazzled by their choice of words and range of emotions. I often told myself as I finished a chapter "Damn, this is a good book", knowing that I was in the midst of a great new talent. I have already bookmarked Booker's website to keep up-to-date with her career and any personal appearances.

Friday, May 23, 2014

In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea

Global Positioning Systems (GPS) use trilateration to pinpoint something on a map. So what does this have to do with the tarnished image of civilization? Well this “pinpointing” process reminds me of the approach taken by John Armstrong in his book In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea. Instead of satellites in space, however, Armstrong uses ideas.

Armstrong’s project is to attempt a reasonable definition of the idea of civilization. The concept of civilization has been badly mauled by scholars and left empty of content as a guiding principle in our world today. So we need a better one.  This task is harder than it seems. Armstrong’s approach is to look at civilization from different angles—like holding a crystal up to the light. Every chapter in this little book (it is 196 pages) is an effort to tilt the crystal slightly and tease out more of its detail.

Each chapter plays with some aspect of the idea of civilization. I’m using the word “play” in this context because that is the impression I have from reading each chapter. The ideas are developed organically, almost haphazardly as you sojourn through the pages. Haphazard may be too strong a term. I don’t want to mislead anyone. Armstrong does have a plan and the book progresses from more ancient understandings of civilization to newer ones. Yet the details he picks out are novel and the connections he makes between ideas are not ones you would normally think to link. The exercise is illuminating. Armstrong examines the leisure time of influential Romans, he spends time in Moore’s Utopia, he ponders Mona Lisa’s sexy smile, and he converses with Freud and others. This isn’t dry bones systematic lecturing but more like coffee time on a comfy chair thumbing through a photo album of western civilization’s picture-ideas.

The conclusion? Armstrong suggests you have civilization when a high degree of material prosperity and a high degree of spiritual prosperity come together in mutual enhancement. His book makes a solid case for the efficacy of this definition. Political leaders (actually anyone with a stake in building our society) should take note.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia's Underground Railroad

Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia's Underground Railroad by Melanie Kirkpatrick is the best book I have read on the subject of the hidden network of routes, safe havens, brokers and agents who assist North Koreans in their life-or-death quest to escape their country. Kirkpatrick has written an account of the new underground railroad by covering all bases in her interviews. She spoke with the North Korean refugees themselves and with those who live across the border in PR China who shelter them. She met with numerous religious and humanitarian organizations who help directly or raise awareness of the refugee situation. Kirkpatrick even managed clandestine meetings with brokers who arrange the transport of refugees out of mainland China. Once the North Koreans have made it to the South, Kirkpatrick interviewed those in Seoul who work with them, and she even spoke to several high-ranking officials who had defected from North Korea. Escape was a rapid read that I could not wait to finish. Kirkpatrick, formerly a writer with the Wall Street Journal, organized her story intelligently and did not resort to American jingoism, although that's what I felt when I saw the title of the penultimate chapter, "Invading North Korea". Instead of a military invasion by the South, she was referring to an infiltration of the North by technology, the inevitable opening of the country by smuggled cellphones, DVD's and flash drives.

Kirkpatrick spoke to escapees of all ages who risked their lives leaving North Korea. The primary reason for their flight was that of hunger. Those who fled were mostly from the north of the country, the area that was devastated by the famine that started twenty years ago. The refugees were overwhelmingly women, who sometimes fled with their children or sent for them after they had reached a safe haven. Simply put, it was easier for women to escape, as they could be more inconspicuous in a society which polices every city limit and bars anyone from entering without the proper paperwork.

The border with PR China is "wet"; in other words, it is a water frontier. Two rivers separate the two countries, the Yalu in the northwest and the Tumen in the northeast. In the winter, these frozen rivers can be crossed on foot, while at other times during the rest of the year there are certain points along their course where one can wade across. Kirkpatrick impressed me in that she also covered the rarely talked-about escape route over the short 17-km wet border North Korea shares with Soviet Russia.

Once safely across in PR China, refugees meet those whom they would otherwise consider the enemy. It is these people who end up being their rescuers:  

"And yet many North Koreans who escape to China, although they've been warned against Christians all their lives, end up turning to Christians for help. This is particularly striking given that some of the Christians are South Koreans or Americans, two other groups of people the North Korean regime has demonized."

While religion may be quietly tolerated in the People's Republic of China, the government has less tolerance for those whom the religious organizations shelter. Using the excuse of legally repatriating North Koreans as "economic refugees", likening what they do with the United States and its refusal to grant admittance to illegal Mexicans, PR China will not hesitate to send North Koreans back across the border:

"China's repatriation policy dates back to the early 1960s, when it concluded a secret agreement governing the border area with North Korea. In 1986, the two countries signed another bilateral agreement. It mandated the return of North Koreans who crossed into China. Beijing's official position is that it strictly adheres to this obligation and that there are no exceptions."

The key to avoid detection, then, is to catch a ride on the underground railroad shortly after crossing the border. One has to make one's way out immediately after crossing in. Refugees must navigate carefully among those who have set up safe shelters, and avoid those whose job it is to lure them into traps sending them back to North Korea. Often those who proffer assistance are only interested in preying on the most vulnerable--again, almost all women--to sell them as brides to Chinese men. Those who spend only a brief time in mainland China before leaving for South Korea don't have to worry about blending in with the local population who can tell North Korean escapees from their appearance alone. Sarah Yun, an American who manages a shelter for North Korean refugees in an undisclosed southeast Asian city, makes the following assessment of the coping skills of North Korean refugees:

"Yun notices a difference in attitude between North Koreans who arrive directly from North Korea after having spent only a few days or weeks in China and those who have lived in China for extended periods. 'Those who come straight out are pampered,' she said. It's an odd word to use to describe people who have just left the world's most repressive state. She puts it another way: Many North Koreans go through a version of adolescence once they reach a free country, she says. They are used to having decisions made for them in North Korea. Now, for the first time in their lives, they are expected to take control of their own lives. They don't understand how to handle their newfound independence, she says, and they can be overwhelmed with choices and responsibilities. Life in North Korea has left them with few problem-solving skills."

Integration into South Korean society is easier said than done. This is the impression made throughout Escape. Once in South Korea, many North Koreans cannot grasp the foundations of a capitalist economy and personal progress:

"The director of Hanawon [1], Youn Mirang, explained: The North Koreans 'don't understand the real meaning of competitiveness or competition,' she said. Teaching such concepts is difficult. North Korean refugees are good at taking directions, but they are very passive workers. 'They accept orders, but that's it,' Youn Mirang said. 'They don't have any initiative.'"

Sixty years of separation since the Korean War armistice has taken its toll on the people separated by the DMZ. We are definitely not dealing with a situation like that between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, where although the same people was divided by an Iron Curtain, those in the east had full access to the west via TV and a little island called West Berlin. Mail also flowed between the two Germanys, which is still not possible between North and South Korea:

"Even a low-tech form of information technology--the mail service--is highly restricted. North Korea is a member of the Universal Postal Union, but it has direct postal service with a limited number of countries. South Korea is not among them."

I have to take issue with this statement, as I myself sent numerous postcards from the DPRK to several countries: among them Switzerland, Australia, England, Finland, Canada, plus the great imperialist aggressor the USA, and they all got delivered. What does Kirkpatrick mean by "direct postal service"?

Kirkpatrick in borrowing the metaphor "underground railroad" for a new context in southeast Asia, used the expression "the new underground railroad" to excess. I am sure readers would have understood perfectly well what underground railroad she was referring to if she had left out the adjective "new". The phrasing, "the new underground railroad" was burdensome for the eyes to trip over.

One final item puzzled me. Within the photos section was a shot of American activist Suzanne Scholte addressing the North Korea People's Liberation Front. This is a Seoul-based organization comprised of more than one hundred former North Korean soldiers, whose vow is to overthrow the Kim family regime and unify the Korean peninsula. That's a pretty spectacular mission statement, yet there was no mention of the North Korean People's Liberation Front anywhere in the entire book, except within the photos section. Granted, the focus of Escape is the untold story of Asia's underground railroad, yet I would have expected anything in the photos section to have some kind of antecedent in the text.

[1] The Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees based in Seoul.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Be a Free Range Human: Escape the 9 to 5, Create a Life you Love and Still Pay the Bills

Here it is. The perfect Business Beach Read. It’s Marianne Cantwell’s Be a Free Range Human: Escape the 9 to 5, Create a Life You Love and Still Pay the Bills.

You know that annoying thing you do compulsively, that thing that makes the people around you say “enough already”?  No, not THAT thing, but perhaps it’s the fact that you can’t stop singing, or that you try to fix every problem that your friends have, or maybe that you always build on someone else’s idea until it’s been transformed into something new? Or are you too witty for your own good? It’s that predilection that you’ve always regarded as a personal weakness because you’ve never been doing it in the right place with the right tools.

Cantwell says “it turns from a weakness to a strength when a) you do it in the right environment (ie: not unasked among family or within an organisation that truly doesn’t give a damn) and b) you step into it and own it.” Cantwell’s book (there’s also her blog at presents a series of exercises to determine your secret, untapped, irritatingly buried abilities.  Her first question is wonderfully whimsical: “When you were about 8 years old, [what were] the three things you could generally be found doing for play”?

If you think about it, that really is rather telling.  Were you building Lego? Now, was that to see how high you could build, or was it to create a scene you could play X-men in? If you were riding your bike, was it as a means to go visit friends, or to fly down the nearest hill? Why you did these activities is as important as what the activities were.

This is a quirky book, so be prepared for it. Enjoy the process! No more singing only in the shower. Get out there and let them hear you!

Originally posted in the May 2014 edition of the Business Bridge.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

What's a Dog For? The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man's Best Friend

John Homans' What's a Dog For? The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man's Best Friend is my kind of dog book. I don't care for memoirs of heartwarming doggie hijinks or heartbreaking rescue odysseys. I've lived those stories myself, and books of that sort don't advance my knowledge of the species I've shared most of my life with. I am endlessly fascinated by canine behaviour - by what we know, and don't know, about dogs. So is John Homans. Homans is the executive editor of New York magazine, and before he adopted his lab-mix Stella, was a relative novice about dogs and the human cultures that surround them. He became curious... and so we have this very informative and entertaining book.

What's a Dog For? is a survey of canine science to date, and a history of the evolution of humans' relationship to the domesticated canine (that is, humans in one part of the world). Homans describes new trends in canine science, introducing readers to the proponents and detractors of the "convergence" theory, which holds that living so closely among humans has changed the dog's brain and made it more like humans. This type of study, Homans says, "is intended to shed light not only on what makes dogs dogs but also on what makes people people." Much is made over a dog's ability to understand a pointing motion, something even chimpanzees and other non-human primates can't do. Anyone who has marvelled at how their dog seems to read their mind will enjoy the analysis of this seemingly simple communication.

As the title says, What's a Dog For? is also a book about history and politics. Homans walks us through the evolution of attitudes towards dogs in our society, from the days of rampant and brutal experimentation (much of it with no scientific value), to the mania of inbreeding for specific appearances, to the mass euthanizations of "the pound" (thought to be humane in its day), to no-kill shelters, spay-neutering awareness, and the current culture of rescue and adoption. The book is not a polemic, and the most disturbing parts of that history are merely stated, not described in gory detail. But What's a Dog For? is definitely a book with a point of view - not a radical point of view, but one that many readers will find enlightened and perhaps a bit provocative.

Homans sometimes oversimplifies and stretches reality to make a point. In researching Stella's roots, Homans discovers what he calls a North-South, or red-state-blue-state, divide, between the US states where lax animal-cruelty laws reflect regressive attitudes towards animals, and states that supposedly protect animals. In the world of dog-rescue, this amounts to supply and demand: a large number of dogs are rescued from puppy-mills in Tennessee, Kentucky, and other Southern states to be adopted in Northern states.

While that last part is true, it is only part of the picture. In order to make his animal-cruelty story work, Homans writes, "If we leave out pit bulls...", thus negating an egregious form of cruelty to dogs, which takes place all over the US, in both urban and rural areas. Homans adheres to the red-state-blue-state divide as if he doesn't know that New York City may be blue, but the rest of New York State is red, or that rural California between the Bay Area and Los Angeles does not exist. Pennsylvania, a northern state, was the puppy-mill capital of the US not very long ago. It's not necessary to paint "the South" as an ignorant backwater and "the North" as the land of enlightenment; neither is accurate. Having lived most of my life in the US, I find that dichotomy a bit ridiculous, and I wish Homans hadn't framed a big segment of his story around it.

This criticism aside, What's a Dog For? has much to recommend it. Charles Darwin and Jane Gooddall both figure into the story, as does Pavlov, but the reader is introduced to the work of many anthropologists, psychologists, and animal behaviourists who are not household names, who are advancing our knowledge of both canines and ourselves. The history of dog breeding, of the now-defunct high-kill shelters, and of the animal-rescue movement, is a hopeful one. Here in North America, it's an unfinished story, and in much of the world, it has yet to begin.

I didn't always agree with Homans' conclusions, but I'm grateful for his curiosity. He's unpacked many fascinating stories and tied them together in an excellent book. (This review was originally published here on wmtc.)