BOOK

The Elderberry Statement

by Paul Hond
Diary of a Company Man: Losing a Job, Finding a Life
By James S. Kunen
Lyons Press, 245 pages, $24.95
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“‘Have a productive day,’ I replied, in the grip of some sort of madness. Thank you would have sufficed.

“‘I’ll do my best,’ he said sourly, looking distinctly unamused.”

Kunen, shaken at having overstepped his bounds, likens his reply to “slapping the queen on the back.”

Funny stuff, but the laughs come easier because we know up front that the story will not play out as tragedy, that we will not see Kunen, his soul finally depleted, making a self-mocking speech at his no-frills retirement party. Nor is there any dramatic “take this job and shove it” moment; Kunen isn’t a nut. Instead, in February 2008, AOL Time Warner, in another round of cost cutting, axes Kunen, or, to extend the whale metaphor, vomits him up Jonah-style. Kunen is honest enough to express anger and hurt at his impersonal treatment at the hands of an entity he compares to “The Blob” and from which he could not have honestly expected better. Jobless at sixty, Kunen is “Too Young to Retire and Too Old to Hire,” and here, a third of the way through, the book’s focus shifts: Kunen must now find meaningful work or drown in a sense of worthlessness.

He decides he wants to tutor immigrants, something that had given him satisfaction in the past. He volunteers to teach ESL at the International Rescue Committee and applies to tutoring agencies and language schools. No one seems interested. Meanwhile, wanting to write about “work and the loss of work,” he travels to interview a retired autoworker named Ed Booth (who gives a beautiful and memorable monologue about assembly-line life) and a woman named Esther Keeney, who nearly committed suicide and later found peace as a volunteer parish nurse. He reads Man’s Search for Meaning, by the psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, whom he quotes: “I could show that this neurosis [the feeling of meaninglessness] really originated in a twofold erroneous identification: being jobless was equated with being useless, and being useless was equated with having a meaningless life.”

Jobs eventually come through for Kunen. We sit in on lessons, meet the students, and hear their stories, which Kunen gathers like a field collector. There’s the Muslim Iraqi couple Muhie and Suad (Muhie was a chemistry professor in Baghdad); a doorman named Reggi who taught history in Kosovo; and the courageous Sachiko, who when asked to use the word “hardly” in a sentence, says, “I have hardly any hope that my physical problems will get better.” All the while, Kunen struggles to stay afloat emotionally; he identifies with the immigrants who have left behind high-status occupations and must start over. He picks up another job teaching wealthy international students (though he’d rather teach poor refugees) and finds his class biases challenged by, among other things, a Japanese heiress’s painful inferiority complex. (“Lesson for me: Affluent people are people, too. They can need help, and sometimes you can help them. You take your meaning where you find it, not necessarily where you expect it.”)

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