Humorist/memoirist will appear at UCSB Campbell on Thursday, May 8
By Leslie Dinaberg
Chatting with Sandra Tsing Loh—whose new book, The Madwoman in the Volvo, focuses on what she calls Generation Triple M (Middle-Aged Moms in Menopause)—is a lot like reading one of her essays. Her level of frankness is engaging, enlightening and charming, kind of like catching up with long-lost friend. It’s also a little bit disarming, like looking in one of those magnifying mirrors and seeing your pores for the first time.
She calls it like she sees it, and her countless fans wouldn’t have it any other way. Count me among them. Here’s a brief snippet of our conversation last week.
Leslie Dinaberg: I’m excited about your new book, The Madwoman in the Volvo. Will your discussion at UCSB be a reading from the book or the one-woman show that’s themed around the book?
Sandra Tsing Loh: The show is still being developed, so it will be a bit of a combo. It will be a bit of a reading from it and then discussion, so reading, chat, conversation, that sort of thing. The one-woman show I’m still developing it, and I’m going to be workshopping it in New York later in May. That’s still in development, but there’s going to be some overlap.
Did writing about menopause and researching it and sort of immersing yourself in it make you feel better or worse about actually going through menopause?
Well, at first it made me feel worse and that’s partly why I wrote the book. … For me it was the huge depression spikes, just out of proportion to anything I’d ever felt. It kind of felt like my chemistry was changing and somebody said, “Have you been counting your periods? You could be in this.”
So, of course, it was a huge relief to go maybe I’m not just going nuts but something is happening to me that is biological and label-able. But then when I started getting into the menopause books, I found most of them were totally unhelpful! All of the advice was like, “just cut out alcohol, sugar and caffeine, drink eight glasses of water day, eat more kale, have walks, do yoga stretches before bed and you’ll be fine. Don’t take any Ambien or antidepressants.”
So all the advice is just to lead a more healthy life and eat many smaller meals—which a meal is like two unsalted almonds. (Laughs). So at a time when things are really crazy, the advice is like kale and water will solve it. It was just really unhelpful. I think that’s kind of like the health advice for women … calm down, listen to soothing music, clean out your sock drawer. I mean the advice is just really not helpful at all.
…As I was writing the book I sort of thought I knew where it started and ended, but during the process of writing it [menopause] was still continuing. So there was new material that came into the book—me just really hitting rock bottom.
It was one Sunday morning waking up and I’ve been trying to exercise and eat healthy and do all of these things that are keeping me balanced and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was just at my wits end, really depressed with my girls at home. It’s also a moment described in the article where you go, “how can I raise these children, I can’t even like look at them anymore and their voices just are too high-pitched. I can’t even face going down and making breakfast for them. I just feel too old to be doing any of this and I just want to be alone and just stay in bed.”
You obviously came out of that. Your doctor helped.
I finally got to the gynecologist … she gave this great speech … where she says, “there are the Chinet girls and paper plate girls. Chinet girls can put a lot on them and they won’t break, and paper plate girls, you just put one carrot on and they shatter.”
And she says, “I think you’re at heart a Chinet girl but right now you’re having a psychological reaction to physiological phenomenon, so take a break. If you want to take antidepressants you can, if you want to take some hormones you can, if you don’t want to take anything just be aware of when these huge waves of depression and emotion and hot flashes wash over you that it’s temporary, you can do that. And it’s up to you.”
It was great speech. It was actually very helpful. Because usually the advice is God forbid you tell your husband or a man about it, who will try to solve it immediately, rather than just saying either you’re going through a lot but you’re also pretty strong and you can have all of these options are fine. That was just really useful.
Do you feel like you’re still immersed in menopause because you’ve written the book and now you’re almost reliving it because you’re starting to talk about it again?
No I think I’m actually over the worst of it. Probably tomorrow something else will happen, but I think I am. And I have heard a lot of women have said, “You know what it will get better. I remember that time, but it will get better.”
I know that it will. Also, I remember my sister described turning 50 and then everything suddenly evening out, like you’d gone through all of this turbulence and then you’re in the smooth air and it’s oh so much better and I think I feel that way now at 52. I can get up and the sun is shining and the birds are singing and I’m having a normal response, which is to say, oh the sun feels good. This is a nice day. As opposed to a time where I everything seemed too hard to do and too terrifying. Like when you go oh my God, there’s the laundry basket, it’s unsorted, I have to go back to bed. (Laughs.) Where you can’t cope with stuff that’s on your plate.
… I ended up in that book actually going back to the gynecologist speech and she says, “now there are two things we are going to do. One is to take stuff off your plate and the second is to strengthen the plate.”
I think with women it’s a pretty good metaphor in terms of all the stuff we’re trying to juggle right now, especially at this age. This used to be an age where in tribes the women would go to a cave to be a crone and now we have these kids. We have like my father who is 93 and just keeps living on and on. We have tons of stuff on our plates right now, on top of working and writing and making money and paying bills and then also we are supposed to do Pilates and really be slim now too. It’s just a little bit beyond my abilities. (Laughs.) We have to do ten roles while doing this that are somewhat incompatible.
That’s a very honest and reassuring message.
It’s a lot. I certainly like Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook COO and author of Lean In), I respect her and am totally happy with all these books coming out but it’s like oh my God! I must also look fantastic in a suit and be a best selling author and have really good work ethics!
I think there are some super human role models that are out there and that’s fine, but it’s hard to compare ourselves to that too. I mean I know I’m going off, but I love that Oprah can be really successful and still her weight goes up and down and she can wear these awesome pantsuits—that sounds good to me! Maybe I’m just on this today because I feel so bloated, but go ahead.
You may not be superwoman but you are certainly a busy lady. I had no idea about your science essays [Loh hosts the Loh Down on Science, a daily radio show] until I started doing some research. Let’s talk a little bit about the arts and sciences. I would guess that not a lot of people who go to Caltech [she has a degree in physics] end up going into the arts. Have you ever felt like you needed to fight getting pigeonholed?
I’m the daughter of an Asian father, a Chinese father, so given my family background there was huge pressure to go into science because that was the only place where you could get a job was his real belief. And to a certain extent I still think about with my kids, like study computer engineering, don’t go into the arts. So I started that way, but since I went to Caltech, which is a very intense experience, the beauty of that was that it showed me that I was really not geared for a life in science in the long term. So I think of that as a blessing. But over the years it’s come back because I did finish my degree and it’s not that I’m uninterested in science. I think sort of a left brain and right brain combination is really useful to have.
I think, for instance, when you’re writing books sort of a left brain approach to art can really help you, because you structure things and sort of taking care of business and looking at things objectively. And the right brain is the free associative roaming thing.
Just this semester I started teaching two courses at UC Irvine: one was communicating science, which is kind of like the right brain side, and one was art and aesthetics to undergraduates, so that’s kind of left brain approach to art. It was a really fun combination. I’m really into combining the two wherever possible. Instead of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) they have these STEAM programs (science, technology, engineering, art and math) or art and design in the middle, and I think that’s a really useful way. I’m happy to combine both hemispheres. … The science show is sort of a perfect combination of the two. We try to make science really understandable in 90 seconds and that itself is quite an art. I work with a really good staff to do it.
Given that much of what you write about comes from your own life and your own personal experiences, do you feel like that part of your mind that writes stories is always turned on? Do you ever feel like you’re not working or this is not going to be something I write about?
I’m lucky, at the Atlantic I have an editor, Ben Schwartz, who really kept a firm hand on the tiller in that he would assign things and he would encourage one to go off on riffs for long periods of time. He was great on the phone you could call him up and … he would help you frame it … Even though my job is to kind of speak from my own life, it’s really kind of structured and molded a certain way so that it has a context.
I think with this particular book, because I rewrote it like five times … if anything she had me put more stuff in which was personal. The core of what happened in this section of my life was that I had an extra-marital affair and blew up my marriage and my boyfriend’s marriage and it was a really cataclysmic time. That’s sort of the core of the story that triggers all of this stuff, which I think is very much part of the journey I was going through in my forties.
The first time I wrote the book, I think I don’t even mention—and I’m living with my partner—I don’t even mention how I got there until like the last paragraph (Laughs). Because I wanted to write about it from the point of view of I’m just your average next-door neighbor, suburban mom, this is totally relatable. We all have menopausal symptoms, high five here are a few jokes. This is fun. But then if you really start admitting some of the things that you did and your failings, your mistakes, you open yourself up to a lot of criticism.
But in the end, the book didn’t make sense unless I actually said what happened and my choices and the damage that it caused.
If you’re a humorist like I am, there’s very much an urge to just stay on the surface and just have it be funny. I had a lot of jokes that she cut. … But really my urge as a writer is to entertain and be funny and be likeable. That’s my urge as a writer. It is not to just spill everything, it really isn’t. But in this book I sort of had to because it didn’t make sense otherwise. And in my one-woman show that I’m developing at the Sundance Theater Lab, it’s even more personal.
How do your kids feel when you write about personal stuff?
My daughters are now 12 and 13 and … they’re pretty durable, but they’ve gone through a lot of changes ever since they were babies and that’s also a little bit described in the book. … They were being carried around in baby car seats through airports because both their dad who is a musician, would be on tour, and I would be doing theatre and often my sister was the glue that would watch them. … Then when they were about one and three my brother, his wife, collapsed of a cardiac arrest at 38, it was very traumatic. So the girls and I moved in with him for about two years when they were little.
They’re sort of used to a transient life and not just two families but a big tribe of people that are there, so they’ve adjusted. I would say they’ve adjusted pretty well … Of course the mother is the last to know, not until they write their own memoir, but it seems like it is a fairly stable situation at this point.
Not a lot of moms with daughters that age would say that, no matter what the external circumstances.
Yeah and I could go off on theories about that. That’s a whole other thing about when kids go back and forth; as long as there isn’t rancor between the parents there are sort of some pluses when they get two houses. Especially in this age going to one parent with a secret that the other doesn’t know—even though we all know.
What’s something most people would be surprised to learn about you? Since we feel like we know a lot. Is there anything that people would be surprised to hear?
I would say I make a really excellent quesadilla (Laughs). My cooking is pretty bad but I’m praised for that … I just got a Prius, used, my Volvo died. … I guess maybe the surprise would be that I write about my own life and pretty much it seems fairly hysterical most of the time, but I think I’m a good and sensible friend and I think I’m actually a very good listener. … People seek me out because I’m happy to listen for two or three hours. And that’s probably where I get some of my material.
Now you’ve done the book tour circuit a few times, is it fun? Is it work or is it a little bit of both?
I think it’s both. It’s fantastic for writers who sort of live alone in their cave to go out, and it’s always amazing to see if anyone has ever read any of your stuff at all. And when they show up it’s amazing to meet anyone who has read your book or will read it! That’s really always a shock every time. … Typically when you have a book it’s a little bit fraught because you’re going out, your publisher is saying … how many people came to your reading or something like that. But overall I think it’s a happy time and I feel really privileged anytime I get to be out there and connect with people. It’s a pretty great thing to do and one is lucky to be in this position and the older I get the more I really appreciate it.
… As soon as you hear anybody else’s story it sort of validates why you wrote it in the beginning. And usually that’s what happens. All the people start telling me what they’ve been going through and I love that part.
I would imagine with what you write people, tell you all kinds of stuff.
Oh God, yes, totally. Yeah. I’ve had people on the plane … one time I was traveling and a lady was going to celebrate her 40th birthday and I said I was finishing a book. … I told her the core of it, and suddenly she turns to me and said, “I have never told anyone this before.”
And she had been telling me about her great husband and her perfect children and they were giving her a weekend off and how awesome and amazing her life was. And then as soon as I told her [about me] she said, “I’ve never told anyone this before, but I had an affair last month and I don’t know what to do. I’m thinking about this guy all the time.”
Suddenly the mask flew off. People do start to tell you, there are some messy lives that people lead and they have desires or thoughts and emotions that don’t really fit into what their life looks like from the outside. And that’s interesting.
Indeed it is.
Sandra Tsing Loh will be in Santa Barbara on Thursday, May 8 at 8 p.m. at Campbell Hall in a UCSB Arts & Lectures presentation. For more information and tickets click here.
Originally published in Santa Barbara SEASONS on May 6, 2014.