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Hills & Gardens: Recalling Years of Discontent

By Trudy Whitman

For those of us of a certain age, bombarded as we are on a daily basis by reminders of our vulnerability to danger from without (If you see something, say something), it is sometimes difficult to recall the intensity of America’s internal turmoil when we were young. The recent New York Times Magazine cover story on Judith Clark, the imprisoned getaway driver in the 1981 Brink’s heist and shootout that resulted in three deaths, brought it all home for me: National Guard troops paroling my campus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; rioting students; the smell of tear gas; the boycott and cancellation of classes; and the bombing of a campus building that killed a graduate student shortly after my graduation in 1970.

On his campus at Columbia University, Baltic Street’s James S. Kunen took an active role in the youth protest that rocked this country. His experiences during that turbulent time led to his first book, The Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary, published when he was only twenty. A literary hit on publication, The Strawberry Statement is still used widely in college classrooms to help students understand how young people began the snowballing rebellion against the politics and policies of the time.

So how did a college revolutionary find himself in middle age discontentedly schlepping up the subway stairs every morning on his way to a job as director of corporate communications for Time Warner?

“Get real!” we might have said in bygone days in response to this question; there was a mortgage and tuitions to be paid. Or as Kunen sometimes futilely rationalized to himself: “I’ve been cast against type, and, never having aspired to be where I am, try to think of my work as strictly my day job, even though I have no night job.”

Jim Kunen’s serendipitous road from college protester to corporate suit, his soulless firing after Time Warner merged with AOL, and his search for work that would feed his soul are deftly and wryly explored in the writer’s latest book, Diary of a Company Man: Losing a Job, Finding a Life, published by Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press.

The irony of Kunen’s elimination by Time Warner was that one of his responsibilities at the company was to soothe nervous employees with artful words as the merger was taking place, and then through the rounds of layoffs that followed. “Bloat?” Kunen marvels in Company Man, “I’d seen that word used in reference to other people at other companies, even in reference to anticipated cost cutting at Time Warner, but now me? For the first time I felt the word’s vicious sting.”

Jim Kunen’s journey toward “meaningful” work began after college when he backed into journalism as a result of the success of The Strawberry Statement. During that particular era, he reminded me during a telephone interview, young men were not devoting too much time to thinking about careers. “The main future was the draft,” he said, “being drafted or resisting the draft.”

Upon graduating from Columbia, Kunen was sent to Vietnam by True magazine to write a series of articles. This assignment led to his second book, Standard Operating Procedure: Notes of a Draft-Age American, published in 1971.

The freelance journalist stint was followed by law school, after which he joined the Public Defender Service in Washington, D.C. Again, Kunen used personal experience as the basis for a book. How Can You Defend Those People?: The Making of a Criminal Lawyer was published in 1983.

Ultimately, Kunen concluded that the law was not his true calling. “I was certainly living in accord with my principles and feeling that I was doing good work … but I wasn’t great at it,” he told me. “I was very good in the courtroom. I was very good at counseling clients. I was not good at writing motions and arguing from precedent and working within the straitjacket of legal argument.”

So it was back to journalism. He worked as an op-ed editor for Newsday, a contributing writer for Time magazine, and a featured writer and senior editor for news at People. Reportage on a tragic school-bus crash led to the next book, Reckless Disregard: Corporate Greed, Government Indifference, and the Kentucky School Bus Crash (1994). In 2000, Kunen left People for Time Warner. He was pink-slipped in 2008.

Soul-searching is an inevitable sidebar to losing one’s job. Kunen did a lot of that. During his time as a corporate man, he had volunteered with several organizations as an English coach for immigrants. After he left Time Warner, he increased this satisfying pro bono work. “Reverse-engineering my life, I can see that since I’ve repeatedly chosen to teach immigrants, I must like it,” he writes in Company Man. He became licensed in ESL, eventually landing a teaching job at LaGuardia Community College.

Kunen was gratified by his work and energized by his students whose stories of survival kept things in perspective for this former company man. When he begins to worry about such things as status, he writes, he recalls a friend’s advice: “. . . if I’m happy teaching and unhappy when I step out on the sidewalk, what I need to change is not the teaching part but the sidewalk part. I need to work on my sidewalk attitude.”

At the end of Diary of a Company Man, we find ourselves congratulating the author for — as we might have told him in the ’60s — keeping it “real” and being “relevant.” He has learned, it appears, to trust himself as his students trust him—even though he is well over thirty years old.

Diary of a Company Man is available locally at Community Book Store, 212 Court Street, and at the Court Street Barnes & Noble.

January 25, 2012 - 1:15pm


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