Scraping By When History Repeats Itself

As shocking as this may be to some of us students, there was more to the eighties than The Breakfast Club, spandex pants with baggy sweaters and everybody’s favorite band Tears for Fears. Natalia Rachel Singer examines the not-so-pop side of eighties culture in her new book, Scraping by in the Big Eighties. Last week, Singer came to Colgate to read from her memoir, which is arguably also a political and social commentary on the policies of the Reagan administration and the “big eighties.” Pertinent is a term that can not even begin to describe the relevance of her latest book to the times in which we are currently living, especially for those of us in our twenties. One never knows what kind of an experience to expect when entering the Ho Lecture Room on an afternoon when a visiting author is here, but Singer’s reading proved not only interesting, but informative as well. Her voice brought to life the pages of her book in which she is the main character. She added a new dimension to the story by accompanying passages from her memoir with asides which further explained the social phenomena of the times (for those of us who were still working on potty training and not yet up to digesting the New York Times in the early 1980’s). Her presentation was mainly directed at the seniors in the room, many of whom are shortly going to be unleashed into a world not so dissimilar to the one Singer entered after her four years at Northwestern. This Wednesday afternoon reading turned into an opportunity for Colgate seniors to use Singer’s view of the 1980’s, as well as her personal history, to begin thinking about the stories that they would eventually like to create for themselves. Singer told her audience in Lawrence Hall that she had planned to move out West, “get laid off, go on unemployment and become laid back,” after she finished college in 1979. Not the typical answer to the infamous, “what are your plans for next year” question, Singer’s response was in stark contrast to many of her classmates’ replies, who were dreaming of Wall Street and would later be deemed, and so willingly ready to define the “yuppie generation.” Singer wanted to write and she wanted to live. How to do both these things simultaneously, and well, was what she set out to accomplish. Hearing someone speak so candidly about their own personality, including character flaws, is not something that happens at every lecture or reading. Singer acknowledged that she had always been a “type A” personality, driven, hardworking to the core woman. Becoming laid back, her new ambition after college, was going to have to be completely transformative. So many seniors have currently reached the point where they need to find a new ambition for themselves. The dean’s list and the admiration of parents sporting a Colgate sticker on their car are no longer going to be able to fulfill all of our hopes and aspirations. Coming out into the world, a world uncannily the same as the one Singer entered, is the next big challenge. Reading Singer’s book is the story of how one woman attacked this challenge. However, it is also the story of a country and the underlying politics and workings of this country that are unnoticed by many, but felt by all. Scraping by in the Big Eighties is a memoir; it’s a book of essays; it’s an indictment of a government that cannot hear the screams of those below the poverty level because it is too busy padding the bank account of wealthy Americans. Whichever way one chooses to read this work, it becomes apparent that Singer weaves together her personal voice with that of a larger, more political one. She combines her very intriguing life story of growing up and living with a paranoid, schizophrenic mother and the policies in place, or rather, not in place, that allowed both these women’s lives to be in danger. While the chapters that form Singer’s memoir do resemble a “typical” narrative story at times, they are distinctive because they share a story that many Americans can also call their own. As Singer states, in reference to a quote on the historical context of the 1986 World Series riot on the UMass campus, “what happened in my family did not occur in a vacuum either. And it too, had something to do with politics.” It is this insight that makes Scraping by in the Big Eighties worth reading and worth using to comparatively analyze what is occurring today on the political stage. As we find ourselves in an election year, one of the largest voting groups in the nation should do something to acknowledge that there is more out there in the world than what exists on the idyllic Colgate University campus. Regardless of one’s political leanings, Singer makes a point in her work that cannot be overlooked: politics affect us all. History is never quite over with. As she states, “my book is dedicated to everyone who lived through the eighties convinced that the whole world had gone crazy and who are feeling a very uncomfortable d?ej? vu now.” In fact, when reading this book, one might actually get confused as to which Bush Singer is referring.The uncomforting feeling that Singer expresses in her dedication comes across throughout her memoir as well. At times, the reader is berated with a message; Singer’s passion is loud – and it is clear. Don’t expect a flowing narrative painting a pretty picture. The work is filled to the brim (for a creative non fiction piece) with statistics and reputable facts that one might wish were fabricated. In fact, during her reading, Singer informed the audience that the final version of her memoir is without many of the statistics she had originally planned to add to her story. We may have come a long way from frizzy perms and bad clothes, but as Singer points out, history is never necessarily dead and done. Reading Scraping by in the big Eighties or listening to Singer’s reading sets up one woman’s struggle, but it also has the effect of making one reflect on his own life. Living in a time when it can be argued that conformity is a huge part of our culture, Singer shows that there is more than one way of doing things. And perhaps more importantly, more than one type of person to get them done.