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Henry_David_Thoreau

July 12, 2017 is the 200th birthday of Henry David Thoreau, the godfather of the Green movement, the original proponent of civil disobedience, a likely virgin and one of the world’s great aphorists.

Like many others, I first real “Walden” in high school, and found it inscrutable.  I reread it in college and was inspired by the themes of independence, simplicity and naturalism.  I thought it might change my life, but alas, it didn’t really. Or at least not too much.

And then as a worldlier adult I read it a third time and found myself vaguely annoyed at the impracticality of it all.  It’s all well and good for Thoreau to live simply because modern capitalistic society has made it possible for someone to easily acquire the basic necessities of life.  Five hundred years ago a person living in the woods alone would have spend all his time growing and hunting food and would have no time for writing books.

Walden book

(My very dog-eared copy of Walden from high school)

It’s probably not useful today, if indeed, if ever was, to look at “Walden” as a practical guide to living.  However, it is a remarkable self-help book.  His exhortations to simplify your life, to stop chasing material wealth and to get more in tune with the natural world are more important today than ever before.

Walden Pond itself has been a place of pilgrimage over the years and I’ve been there twice myself.  Both times the site of Thoreau’s cabin was represented by some stone markers, although I understand an actual replica cabin has since been constructed.

Gary At Walden

(This was the site of the cabin in 1980)

Thoreau's_cabin_near_Walden_Pond_and_his_statue.jpg

(Here’s the cabin today)

Whatever you think about Thoreau’s philosophy, there’s no denying he is a remarkable writer.  Walden is full of beautiful inspiring language.  Almost every page has a sentence worth underlining (and having read the same volume three times, there is plenty of underlining in my copy.)  Here are some of my favorite quotes from Walden.  It would not be hard to assemble twice as many from his other writings.

  • The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them.
  • Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.
  • I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
  • I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.
  • However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse.
  • As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.
  • Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.
  • Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.
  • A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.
  • Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.
  • Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.
  • Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.
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[Note: This post was originally published on another platform on April 6, 2011)

Graceland Mansion Living Room

Graceland Living Room, Memphis Tennessee

William Faulkner and Elvis Presley, two sons of the South born 15 miles apart in Mississippi, were mama’s boys, barely high school graduates, champion substance abusers and of course artists at the pinnacle of their fields. They were also property owners, each purchasing large estates as soon as they could scrape the money together.

I recently visited both Graceland, in the Memphis suburbs and Faulkner’s lesser-known home, Rowan Oak, about 90-minutes south in Oxford, Mississippi. It was impossible to approach these places – especially Graceland – with an open mind, but that turned out for the best, because the contrast between what I was expecting and what I saw actually intensified the experience.

First consider the fact that they even have names.  You would expect a nouveau riche rock-and-roll star to give his new home a fancy title, but you wouldn’t really think that the greatest American novelist – a true artistic soul – would be so pretentious.  In fact it’s worse; Graceland is named after Grace Toof, the aunt of the original owner, so Elvis had no part in choosing that metaphorically apt name.  In contrast, Faulkner himself came up with “Rowan Oak,” which is also the name of magical tree in Celtic mythology.   Faulkner gets points for originality and romanticism, but still, it’s the kind of affectation you’d expect from the plantation owners in Gone With The Wind, not a Nobel Prize-winning writer.

What I did not expect was that Graceland and Rowan Oak would be about the same size.  Graceland is really not that big.  A classic Colonial built in 1941, it’s a comfortable home, but it’s smaller than about a dozen houses within a ten-minute walk of where I live.  Probably considered a mansion in its day, by today’s standards it’s only a lower-upper-class home.  The rooms are nicely proportioned, but there aren’t that many of them.  And the kitchen?  Well, let’s just say that this would be the first thing to go in any HGTV makeover.

Rowan Oak Living Room

Rowan Oak living room

Rowan Oak, a Greek Revival home built in the 1840’s, is almost as big as Graceland, with large spacious rooms and a gentile atmosphere. (To be fair, Graceland is definitely larger if you count the subterranean space – it has a huge cellar with numerous game and trophy rooms).  Faulkner bought the property in 1930, when he was only 32 and barely supporting himself with his writing; he struggled for years to pay for the upkeep and repairs, at one point even taking a job as a maintenance man at the local power plant.   In other words, he wanted to be true to his Muse, writing novels that were barely comprehensible to a popular audience; but he also wanted to live the life of a country squire even if that meant diverting time from those novels to churn out semi-trashy short stories for popular magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and spending years writing Hollywood screenplays.

Rowan Oak

Rowan Oak entrance

What’s most striking and unexpected about Graceland and Rowan Oak is their handsome grounds.  Both are 15- to 20- acre estates set in average middle class neighborhoods where the other houses sit on half- and quarter-acre lots.  They have beautiful sweeping lawns with paddocks and riding areas.  They are both fantasies of how landed gentry would live.  One of them even has a “meditation garden” – and it’s not Rowan Oak.

What makes them different is their overall ambiance and how they reflect on their owners.  Each is decorated to appear as they did when Elvis and Faulkner lived there and this has not been a benefit to Elvis’ overall image. As a poor boy who suddenly found himself rich, he spurned antiques and other classic decor as “old,” insisting instead that all his furnishings be new.  Unfortunately, he had the bad luck to die in the 1970s, a decade that now appears to be a bad joke all the way around.  I doubt that many of us would emerge with enhanced reputations if our 70’s interior decorating were exposed to the rest of the world.   To be fair to Elvis, though, much of the house, especially the living room and dining room, is actually quite tasteful (although I bet that, as in many homes of that period, these formal rooms were rarely used).  The famous Jungle Room is certainly over the top, but kind of fun and the TV and game rooms in the cellar are not that different from the game rooms of my youth.

In contrast to Graceland, which is frozen at the moment of Elvis’s death, Rowan Oak hearkens back to a period before Faulkner was famous.  Faulkner died in 1962 but it is clear that no fifties or sixties decorators ever set foot there.  I wonder if this is really the furniture that was left there in 1962 or if an attempt was made to recreate the years (in the 30’s and 40’s) when Faulkner was writing his masterpieces?  The furnishings aren’t the high-end antiques that Elvis scorned; these are just old tables, chairs and couches that were probably in the family for generations.  The house does have a lived-in feeling (lived in by the Waltons maybe) but there’s nothing to suggest anyone lived there after World War II.  The most revered item in the house is Faulkner’s Underwood manual typewriter, which could have come off the set of The Front Page.  The two concessions to modernity are a radio from the last 1940s in his daughter’s room and an air conditioning unit installed in his wife’s room the day after his funeral.

Elvis gets a bad rap for tastelessness and trying to rise above his station – kind of like the Beverly Hillbillies – but I think people should cut him a break.  Graceland is a little garish but not as bizarre as I’d heard;  what critics really object to is the 70’s itself and the refusal of Elvis’ fans to treat it as a joke.  Maybe some of that cynicism should be directed Faulkner’s way.  He too aspired to rise above his station but he worked harder than Elvis did at creating his own myth.  Or maybe we ask too much of our artists.  In the end they are human too, with the usual delusions, dreams and ambitions.  It’s one of the reasons we go to see where they live: to remind ourselves not just that they are people, but to hope that a little bit of the immortality they created will rub off on us.

catcher-in-the-rye cover

There are people who read a “Christmas Carol” every Christmas but my holiday tradition is a bit different: every five years or so I read “The Catcher in the Rye.”  It’s a Christmas story, it’s easy to read, it’s funny, and as I grow older it provides a good time to take stock of my own struggles with the “phonies”.

I first read “Catcher” when I was 13 and younger than the 16-year-old protagonist Holden Caulfield.  I read it again when I was his age, and then again when I visited New York City for the first time, and again when I moved to New York City, and after I moved out of New York City, and now again when I am probably older than Holden’s father.  Each time I’ve experienced it from different perspective and a different appreciation of what J.D. Salinger was trying to say.

Here are my takeaways from my most recent reading:

December 17-19, 1949.  This is the first time I’ve fully understood the particularity of the story because it’s the first time I’ve read the book with an iPad at my side; it turns out that “Catcher” is as firmly rooted in a specific place and time as “Ulysses” is rooted in Dublin.  And just as James Joyce fans celebrated “Bloomsday” on June 6, so too should Salinger fans celebrate December 17-19 as “Holden’s Weekend.”  We know that the events occurred in 1949 because Holden and Sally go to see the Lunts (i.e., Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne) in I Know My Love which ran on Broadway from November 2, 1949 to June 3, 1950.  A quick look at the calendar for 1949 shows that Saturday December 17 is almost certainly the night Holden leaves Pencey, given that the previous Saturday (the 9th) would have been too soon for the semester to be drawing to a close.

Alfred_Lunt_Lynn_Fontanne_1950

(This is Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne)

In other words, we just missed a chance to celebrate the 65th anniversary of Holden’s weekend.  But more important for understanding the story, 1949 was only four years after the end of World War II, and the after effects of the War were still being felt.  With Europe in ruins, the New York of 1949 would have been by far the richest and most glamorous city in the world, but one full of veterans.  Holden’s brother, D.B., who had been in Europe for the whole American campaign, would have been one of those veterans, and after having seen what he would have seen, who could blame him for prostituting himself and moving to Hollywood? (Incidentally, here’s the place to remember that J.D. Salinger himself landed at Utah Beach on D-Day, experienced the Battle of the Bulge and helped to liberate a concentration camp.  No American writer other than Stephen Crane had as much war experience and it’s not really a surprise that he had a minor nervous breakdown in when the war was over.)

The Elasticity of Time.  I hate to be overly literal about the events in a novel, but when I reread Catcher this week, I realized that the time sequence as laid out in “Catcher” is a little iffy.  I can’t tell now whether the New York City of 1949 truly was the City That Never Sleeps, but consider this:  Holden leaves Pencey after his roommate Stradleter falls asleep (11:00 p.m. at the earliest) and takes a train to NYC.  It must be 1:00 a.m. at least when he checks into the Edmont hotel.  He then meets the three girls from Seattle in the Lavendar Room and then takes a cab to Greenwich Village to Ernie’s, and when he gets back to the hotel arranges to have a prostitute sent to his room.  By the time he declines her services and gets punched out by her pimp, it must be 6:00 a.m.

The same thing happens the next night.  Holden wanders around New York, and at 10:00 p.m. meets his friend Carl Luce at the Wicker bar at the Seaton Hotel (btw, this is a real place, which now looks like this).  He then hangs around Central Park in the middle of the night, visits Phoebe at his parents’ apartment and then shows up at the Antolinis’ at God-knows-what-time. Without ever sleeping, it’s early dawn when he flees the Antolinis’

All of which makes me realize that the breakdown that Holden has at the end of the novel is caused by sleep deprivation.  By my reckoning, he gets at most three hours of sleep Saturday night and two hours on Sunday night.  No wonder he passes out at the museum and breaks down crying while Phoebe’s on the carrousel.

The Role of the City. Perhaps no work of art – no TV show or movie – was more important than “Catcher in the Rye” in convincing me that New York City was the most thrilling and exciting place in the world.  All those night clubs, highballs, cab rides and cultural touchstones made me yearn for the sophistication of the City. And not only was it glamorous, it was safe; Holden walks the empty streets and visits Central Park in the middle of the night without worrying about getting robbed, stabbed, or worse.

To a 21st Century consumer, what’s most striking about the New York of 1949 was how affordable it was.  Consider what Holden does with his stash of money: he stays at a midtown hotel, visits and buys drinks at three nightclubs, buys two tickets to a Broadway show, sees the Rockettes perform at Radio City Music Hall, skates at Rockefeller Center, pays for a prostitute (granted, it’s only a “throw,” but still) and takes five or six cabs.  Today a weekend like that at Christmas would cost well over a thousand bucks.   For me the telling detail that demonstrates the difference between then and now is when he gets to the American Museum of Natural History and buys an admission just to satisfy his nostalgia. Admission prices at the museum are now $22 for adults and $17 for students.  I know he’s a rich kid but today’s pricing makes the museum something you do as a special event, rather than something you do to kill time.

It’s hard now to know whether Salinger was playing as fast and loose with Holden’s spending capabilities as he is with his late-night timeline, but we have to assume that his readers didn’t scoff at Holden’s activities and find them out of the realm of possibility.  To his readers in the 1950s, it didn’t seem outlandish that an upper-middle-class teenager could afford to spend a weekend in New York but today, even adults would have to think twice about the expense.

Holden’s Loneliness.  It’s a truism that when you read a book multiple times you discover something you hadn’t noticed before, and for me the aspect of Holden’s personality that I never picked up on before was his extreme loneliness.  He has no friends at his prep school and the reason he’s wandering around New York and staying in hotels is that he has no friends in the city to stay with either.  The only people he likes are his younger sister and a girl (Jane Gallagher) that he knew from the previous summer but hasn’t kept in touch with.  He doesn’t particularly like his quasi-girlfriend Sally Hayes (and who can blame him) or his old dorm resident adviser Carl Luce (ditto).

At one point he pleads with Luce to stay for another drink, admitting “I’m lonesome as hell.” He also invites his various cab drivers to have drinks with him, tries to get some little kids to socialize over hot chocolate, flirts with and pays for the drinks of the three Seattle tourists and tries unsuccessfully to make connections everywhere.

I think we are supposed to think that Allie’s death from leukemia three years earlier is a precipitating factor in his depression (if that’s what it is) and alienation, but I think the real problem is loneliness and an inability to make friends. (And it’s worth mentioning that Salinger himself ended up as a hermit in a New Hampshire cabin, so he knew whereof he spoke when he described Holden’s social isolation.)

Holden’s worldliness.  As a 13-year-old, I assumed that by the time I was Holden’s age I’d be just as sophisticated and worldly, able to navigate my way through nightclubs with aplomb.  As a 16-year-old, I realized: forget it.  To be honest, I didn’t really have Holden’s confidence in getting around New York until about five years ago.  And now that I’m the father of a former 16-year-old, I am struck more forcefully than ever how outlandish the whole escapade seems.  There’s no way that I or my son would ever have been able to survive overnight in NYC if we’d been plopped down there as teenagers.  Now, is Salinger exaggerating the sophistication of a typical Manhattan teen from the 1940s?  He’s ordering drinks, finding his own hotel rooms, and bossing cab drivers around.  I do remember that when I went to college, the kids who’d gone to NYC private schools were considerably more worldly than I was, so maybe it’s not so far-fetched.  I think it’s fair to say, though, that unlike today, when adults want to act like teenagers, the youth of the post-War era yearned to act and be treated like adults, so we shouldn’t be too surprised that he puts on adult trappings.

One area where Holden is NOT worldly, though, is in his understanding of himself or human nature.  He can’t even begin to articulate his alienation.  In fact, he can’t really articulate much at all.  It’s to Salinger’s credit that Holden really does sound like a 16-year old when he’s talking to adults.  He’s a random piece of dialogue – his response when his history teacher asks him whether he has any concern about his future: “Oh, I have some concern for my future, all right. Sure I do.  But not too much, I guess.  Not too much I guess.”  Yeah, that’s how teens talk even today.

Mr. Antolini.  As a younger reader I took Holden’s characterization of Mr. Antolini as a decent caring teacher at face value, but as an adult I can see that he’s a bit of a pompous jerk.  He’s a capable and inspirational former prep school teacher who has married an older rich woman and now teaches part time at NYU.  He’s basically a kept man in a fabulous apartment on swanky Sutton Place (he sounds like a pedagogical Cole Porter).  He’s probably gay (or a “flit” as Holden contemptuously calls him). Not that there’s anything the matter with that, but he certainly did Holden no favors by scaring him out of the apartment with his creepy head-patting when he desperately needed sleep.

But the worst thing about him is that he’s such a blowhard!  Boy he sounds like a typical 1950’s intellectual windbag.  He’s lecturing at Holder when he he’s practically asleep on his feet and surprised that Holden can’t understand what he’s saying.  I finally acknowledged to myself that I can’t understand him either and it’s not my fault.

A couple of small points I noticed this time around:

  • Holden’s visit to NYC is actually his second time in the city on December 17.  He’d been there earlier in the day with the fencing team, when he lost the foils on the subway.  I also note that Holden never takes the subway in the book.
  • The living in NYC was a lot easier then.  If he and Sally want to go skating at Rockefeller Center they just walk up and do it – no 90-minute wait.  Same with the tickets to the Broadway show; they don’t have to buy them weeks in advance.  And he’s able to stash his luggage at the lockers at Grand Central Station – completely impossible now because of terrorism fears.
  • Holden has good literary tastes.  He likes “The Great Gatsby,” Ring Larder and Emily Dickinson.  He doesn’t like “A Farewell to Arms.” Interesting that he singles out “The Great Gatsby,” which had been a dud when published 25 years earlier, and was not yet considered the great American classic in 1949. As for “Farewell to Arms,” I’m sure Salinger was reacting against Hemingway himself, not the novel.  If there’s anyone Salinger would have considered a phony it would have been Earnest Hemingway.
  • The night that Holden visits Phoebe, Holden’s parents are in Norwalk, CT, which is about two miles from where I live now.  Huh.  If the book had been written today they would definitely not be visiting that city; it would be Westport, New Canaan, or Greenwich.  Also, it’s a little unlikely that they’d be out until 3:00 a.m. on a Sunday night, given that Holden’s father needed to go to work the next day as a corporate lawyer.
  • What we don’t see is Holden’s actual breakdown.  By the end of the book, he’s a mess for sure, but not in bad enough shape to be sent to a mental hospital, which is where he is when he’s telling his story.   All he says is that he got “sick” later —  I wonder what THAT was like?

* * * * * * * *

 I think I’ve probably read “Catcher in the Rye” for the last time.  My book, bought for 75 cents in 1968, is literally falling apart now, and although it still amuses me tremendously, Holden’s adolescent angst is beginning to seem self-indulgent.  I always found his denunciations of “phonies” bracing, but not so much the last several times I read the book.  I realize now that we’re all a little phony from time to time.  We try to act more confident than we are, or nicer, or more successful.   It’s time to cut the human race a little slack.  So adieu Holden.  Hope you find what you’re looking for.  Be real.

Elvis and Faulner

William Faulkner and Elvis Presley, two sons of the South born 15 miles apart in Mississippi, were mama’s boys, barely high school graduates, champion substance abusers and of course artists at the pinnacle of their fields. They were also property owners, each purchasing large estates as soon as they could scrape the money together.

Several years ago I visited both Graceland, in the Memphis suburbs and Faulkner’s lesser-known home, Rowan Oak, about 90-minutes south in Oxford, Mississippi. It was impossible to approach these places – especially Graceland – with an open mind, but that turned out for the best, because the contrast between what I was expecting and what I actually saw intensified the experience.

First consider the fact that they even have names.  You would expect a nouveau riche rock-and-roll star to give his new home a fancy title, but you wouldn’t really think that the greatest American novelist – a true artistic soul – would be so pretentious.  In fact it’s worse; Graceland is named after Grace Toof, the aunt of the original owner, so Elvis had no part in choosing that metaphorically apt name.  In contrast, Faulkner himself came up with “Rowan Oak,” which is also the name of magical tree in Celtic mythology.   Faulkner gets points for originality and romanticism, but still, it’s the kind of affectation you’d expect from the plantation owners in Gone With The Wind, not a Nobel Prize-winning writer.

graceland_front_3

Graceland (Above) and Rowan Oak (Below)

rowan-oak-front-view

What I did not expect was that Graceland and Rowan Oak would be about the same size.  Graceland is really not that big.  A classic Colonial built in 1941, it’s a comfortable home, but it’s smaller than about a dozen houses within a ten-minute walk of where I live.  Probably considered a mansion in its day, by today’s standards it’s only a lower-upper-class home.  The rooms are nicely proportioned, but there aren’t that many of them.  And the kitchen?  Well, let’s just say that this would be the first thing to go in any HGTV makeover.

Rowan Oak, a Greek Revival home built in the 1840’s, is almost as big as Graceland, with large spacious rooms and a gentile atmosphere. (To be fair, Graceland is definitely larger if you count the subterranean space – it has a huge cellar with numerous game and trophy rooms).  Faulkner bought the property in 1930, when he was only 32 and barely supporting himself with his writing; he struggled for years to pay for the upkeep and repairs, at one point even taking a job as a maintenance man at the local power plant.

In other words, he wanted to be true to his Muse, writing novels that were barely comprehensible to a popular audience; but he also wanted to live the life of a country squire even if that meant diverting time from those novels to churn out semi-trashy short stories for popular magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and spending years writing Hollywood screenplays.

What’s most striking and unexpected about Graceland and Rowan Oak is their handsome grounds.  Both are 15- to 20- acre estates set in average middle class neighborhoods where the other houses sit on half- and quarter-acre lots.  They have beautiful sweeping lawns with paddocks and riding areas.  They are both fantasies of how landed gentry would live.  One of them even has a “meditation garden” – and it’s not Rowan Oak. What makes them different is their overall ambiance and how they reflect on their owners.

Each is decorated to appear as they did when Elvis and Faulkner lived there and this has not been a benefit to Elvis’ overall image. As a poor boy who suddenly found himself rich, he spurned antiques and other classic decor as “old,” insisting instead that all his furnishings be new.  Unfortunately, he had the bad luck to die in the 1970s, a decade that now appears to be a bad joke all the way around.  I doubt that many of us would emerge with enhanced reputations if our 70’s interior decorating were exposed to the rest of the world.

To be fair to Elvis, though, much of the house, especially the living room and dining room, is actually quite tasteful (although I bet that, as in many homes of that period, these formal rooms were rarely used).  The famous Jungle Room is certainly over the top, but kind of fun and the TV and game rooms in the cellar are not that different from the game rooms of my youth. In contrast to Graceland, which is frozen at the moment of Elvis’s death, Rowan Oak hearkens back to a period before Faulkner was famous.

Graceland_living_room_1

The Graceland living room

Faulkner died in 1962 but it is clear that no fifties or sixties decorators ever set foot there.  I wonder if this is really the furniture that was left there in 1962 or if an attempt was made to recreate the years (in the 30’s and 40’s) when Faulkner was writing his masterpieces?  The furnishings aren’t the high-end antiques that Elvis scorned; these are just old tables, chairs and couches that were probably in the family for generations.  The house does have a lived-in feeling (lived in by the Waltons maybe) but there’s nothing to suggest anyone lived there after World War II.

rowan-oak-interior-l

Faulkner’s sacred typewriter

The most revered item in the house is Faulkner’s Underwood manual typewriter, which could have come off the set of The Front Page.  The two concessions to modernity are a radio from the last 1940s in his daughter’s room and an air conditioning unit installed in his wife’s room the day after his funeral.

Elvis gets a bad rap for tastelessness and trying to rise above his station – kind of like the Beverly Hillbillies – but I think people should cut him a break.  Graceland is a little garish but not as bizarre as I’d heard;  what critics really object to is the 70’s itself and the refusal of Elvis’ fans to treat it as a joke.

Maybe some of that cynicism should be directed Faulkner’s way.  He too aspired to rise above his station but he worked harder than Elvis did at creating his own myth.  Or maybe we ask too much of our artists.  In the end they are human too, with the usual delusions, dreams and ambitions.  It’s one of the reasons we go to see where they live: to remind ourselves not just that they are people, but to hope that a little bit of the immortality they created will rub off on us.

Review-Diary-of-a-Company-Man-II120627-x-large

For several months when I was in high school my favorite book was “The Strawberry Statement,” a first-hand account of the 1968 Columbia University uprisings by the 19-year-old James Simon Kunen.  Of course, even as a 14-year-old, I found those student protests slightly absurd, self-indulgent and somewhat akin to a temper tantrum, but I admired “The Strawberry Statement” itself because of Kunen’s breezy writing style, his you-are-there reporting and his disinclination to go in whole hog with the radicals.

More important, “The Strawberry Statement” realistically depicted what it might be like to head off to college at the very time I was beginning to get anxious about that upcoming experience. I read it as a guide to my future, a future that seemed exciting and important even if I didn’t plan to occupy the Dean’s office.

For my whole life, I’ve toted that book around with me as a talisman of the kid I used to be.  I’ve moved a dozen times and culled hundreds of books, but it always made the cut and still stands on my bookshelf.

Fast forward thirty years and I’m working for a corporate PR agency and one of my biggest clients is AOL Time Warner.  I’m invited to the lunch by one of their writers handling employee communications. As we make small talk sharing our life stories, he casually tells me that when he was in college he wrote a book called “The Strawberry Statement.”  Holy Toledo! This guy Jim Kunen who asked me out to lunch is actually James Simon Kunen, the author of the previously mentioned talisman of my youth.  This is almost like meeting Jerry Salinger and finding yourself with J.D. Salinger.

Of course I fall all over myself in a fairly embarrassing way telling him how much I liked the book etc, etc.  But in the back of my mind there’s this disquieting thought – why is James Simon Kunen, former revolutionary idealist, working as a company hack for one of the most corporatey, shark-infested companies in the world?

Now, it’s one thing for me to work in corporate communications.  As a right-wing Republican, I am ideologically inclined to be an apologist for The Man.  I don’t necessarily think corporate bigwigs are good people, although some of them are, I just believe, per Adam Smith, that a company that does everything it can to legally maximize profits will ultimately provide the most social benefit.  And I have no illusions about human nature, having absorbed the lessons of that other book from my teen years, “The Lord of the Flies.”  I don’t think there are more saints in government, the University or even the church than there are in the corporate world.   And you gotta work somewhere, so why not as a PR guy?

James Simon Kunen, though, is a different story; what’s he doing in a corporate headquarters?  And in employee communications, no less, which is the most propagandist wing in the communications field.  Even I wouldn’t have the stomach to write those feel-good newsletters, company magazines, and rah-rah videos  for very long.

I mention all this now because Jim Kunen has written a very good book on how he reordered his life when that job ended. Diary of a Company Man: Losing a Job, Finding a Life tells the story of how he got downsized (i.e., fired along with 500 other corporate employees when the AOL/Time Warner merger didn’t quite work out as planned.)

The story that emerges from “Company Man” is that of a typical idealistic Baby Boomer, someone who wanted to do good, but who also wanted to live a modest but comfortable life and send his kids to college.  Kunen started as a public defender, then became a journalist and somehow got talked into doing serious long-form articles for People Magazine.  Of course that couldn’t last at a magazine that takes the Kardashians seriously, so he wrote a heart-felt letter about the parent company’s mission to Time Warner CEO Jerry Levin, which resulted in his being brought to corporate headquarters to write the company’s “Vision and Values” statement. Ugh.  My heart sank when I learned this because I’d worked on similar projects for other clients and the end product is always the same: a bunch of words that sound like every other vision statement and end up forgotten almost as soon as they’re committed to paper.

But Kunen is a believer and not a cynic, so instead of rolling his eyes like I would have done, he plunged in and when that project was done he ended up writing and editing employee communications materials, apparently believing that the company did have a mission other than making money. Turns out he was smarter as a 19-year-old.

The first third of “Diary of a Company Man” describes Kunen’s ultimate disillusion with his corporate experience, which culminates in him being “let go” after eight years at headquarters.  It’s not a happy ending – when you’re dismissed in one of these massive lay-offs the company usually confiscates your badge and declares you persona non grata on the spot.  Kunen felt particularly aggrieved about going from a trusted team member to a potentially dangerous outsider in less than 24 hours and this part of the book is a cautionary tale for anyone who’s thinking about working at the highest level of a corporation.

The rest of “Company Man” is actually more important and profound.  Because what do you do when you’re an aging Boomer and you’ve lost your job?  Your chances of getting another job like the one you just had taken away are slim, assuming you even want that life back.

Kunen knew he was through with the corporate world and found his niche as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher for adult immigrants. His tale of how he arrived at this place is compelling, but even more heart-warming are the stories of his students, who still believe in the promise of America.   Many of them were trained in their native countries as professionals, but are working in the U.S. as housecleaners and other entry level jobs (for more on this see this promotional video). Their  slow mastery of English will help them rise in America.  So Kunen is an actual hero, and although he didn’t change the system as much as he might have once dreamed as a Columbia revolutionary, he has made a significant contribution to many people’s lives.

Obviously Kunen’s path is not for everyone.  Whatever fleeting thoughts I might have once had about teaching ESL evaporated as I read this book and realized I wouldn’t have the temperament to inspire students.  The sub-theme of “Company Man” is that career satisfaction requires you to match your essential nature with the right job.  A tragedy of our time is that so many of our most ambitious college graduates want to go into whatever is the most remunerative and high-status career at the time: medicine two generations ago; corporate law a generation ago; management consulting a decade ago; and now Wall Street.

And yet it’s a fantasy to think everyone can be matched to a job that suits his hidden talents.  As Megan Draper’s mother recently pointed out on “Mad Men,”  “Not every little girl can do what they want. The world cannot support that many ballerinas.” Or that many novelists, video game developers or professional basketball players.

Nor is it true that everyone who takes a do-good social service job is happy with his career choice.  Kunen himself started his career unhappily as a public defender and the schools are full of people who decided to teach because it seemed like a safe career choice and have come to loathe their students (and their students’ parents).

And here’s the other hard truth.  The job that you might be best suited for doesn’t necessarily pay enough to support you in the style to which you have become accustomed.  The house, the car, the two-week beach vacation, the occasional night out, the cable and internet service and all the other accouterments of middle-class life add up pretty fast.  I don’t know anything about the finances of the Kunen family, but my guess is that the decades  he and his wife (a former radio news reporter) spent at high-paying jobs laid the financial groundwork for this new career as an ESL teacher.

Thoreau was right when he said that most people live lives of quiet desperation and of course it was fine for him, unmarried and childless, to live a couple of years in Walden woods.  But what about the rest of us?  I think it’s clear the pursuing a career for salary alone is the path to a mid-life crisis.  Assuming it even lasts to mid-life, because that gravy train can end pretty fast, as thousands of investment bankers and traders have learned in the past five years.  It’s also clear that you shouldn’t just drift into a job that offers the path of least resistance, because to be bored by your job and not get paid well is no bargain either.  If you can’t find your dream job, the trick is to make smart compromises and find something that’s interesting and moderately fulfilling, while being careful not to conflate your job with your real life.

“Diary of a Company Man” won’t capture the imagination of the youth market like “The Strawberry Statement” did, which is a shame, because it’s a more valuable guide to real life.  It really should be required reading for every college student, even if it does lead to that uncomfortable conversation you need to have with yourself about what truly makes you happy.  But trust me, it’s better to have that conversation with yourself when you’re 21 than when you’re 41 (or, God forbid, 61).