would like to open with a quick plug for a remarkable new book, Arguments for Stillness, by Omaha native Erik Campbell. I’ve known Erik for years, and in fact we have been neighbors in Lincoln, Washington, DC, and Chiang Mai, Thailand. I am convinced he is following me around the globe, although he would protest that assertion. Regardless, he has–at the ripe age of 33–achieved what few mortals do: the publication of a collection of his poems. He has long been my favorite poet on the planet, and soon he will be yours, too. Check him out.
Last night at a reading from his book at a local used bookstore, Erik noted that it was strangely fun being a kid during the Cold War. We didn’t exist in a state of panic, but rather one of vague nervousness. "The Russians are our friends. The Russians are our enemies. The Russians eat babies. Ha ha ha." Life back then was nothing compared to the present, when those we are fighting appear before us on CNN each day, a constant reminder–regardless of our politics–of the mess our country has made.
This brings me to Natalia Rachel Singer, author of the memoir Scraping by in the Big Eighties, from UN Press’s Americans Lives Series, edited by Tobias Wolff. In 1980, in possession of an ambitious plan for slacking (move to Seattle, get a job, get laid off, live on $330 a month in unemployment,) Singer was the anti-Reaganite. She writes,
"It was March of 1980, and even as a Republican presidential candidate named Ronald Reagan was plotting revenge on all the able-bodied lazies living off big government, I was scheming to become one of them. I was twenty-two, a little young to be contemplating a sabbatical, but back then when our world seemed poised for nuclear war, contributing nothing to a flourescent-lit, acronym-ridden, anesthetizing, military-industrial complex seemed like the most subversive but productive thing I could do."
And so she did. After writing her boss at a Systems Development job a memo explaining that, really, her position was redundant, Singer "retired" to a life of writing and travel that took her from a monastery in the Catskills to a beach hut in Mexico. In this book, she blends an ably realized memoir–not only of her travels but also of her childhood living with her mentally ill mother–and an astute criticism of 1980s military and economic policies. Singer does not look fondly upon our nation’s leaders and their cronies. To wit:
"As the former California governor, a multimillionaire, assembled his cabinet of fellow multimillionaires, he kept talking about getting ‘government off our backs.’ I pictured these men in their California ranches riding horses named Buck or Champ all morning, then playing golf together all afternoon, their wives assembled under Tiffany lamps to gossip about so-and-so’s weight gain or someone’s trouble with her maid. That chummy personal pronoun ‘our’ did not include me."
But Singer is equally insightful about herself, and the characters she meets as she searches for spiritual fulfillment and creative inspiration. The result is edgy and sharp and, frankly, keenly resonant today.