Sandra Tsing Loh Dishes on Menopause, Marriage and “The Madwoman in the Volvo”

Sandra Tsing Loh will appear on Thursday, May 8 at UCSB Campbell Hall

Sandra Tsing Loh will appear on Thursday, May 8 at UCSB Campbell Hall (courtesy photo)

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.

Sandra Tsing Loh's latest book, "The Madwoman in the Volvo," takes on menopause.

Sandra Tsing Loh’s latest book, “The Madwoman in the Volvo,” takes on menopause.

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.



Jungle Mom

Photo by Sura Nualpradid

Photo by Sura Nualpradid

I pity the first girl who stomps on my son’s heart.

I realized something about myself recently and it’s not very pretty. I may be an anti-violent, NPR-supporting, bleeding heart pacifist in theory, but when it comes right down to it-I would kill to prevent my son from suffering heartache.

I may not be a tiger mother, but I’m a jungle mom nonetheless. It stuns me how quickly I turn into Mama Bear when something threatens my cub.

When he was younger, I was mostly fixated on doing everything in my power to help my son avoid physical pain. Implanting a GPS tracking device and a boundary collar always sounded perfectly reasonable to me. It was only my husband’s mockery that prevented me from sending Koss out to play in full body armor. I would have wrapped him in Charmin from head to toe, like that kid in the old commercial who goes out to play football and practically tips over from all that cushiony padding.

I was always jealous of the mom in that commercial.

My imagination splinters into a million fearful little pieces whenever I think about anything bad happening to my son.

But now that Koss has successfully survived enough banged up knees and bruised elbows to keep the Band-Aid and Bactine business booming for years to come, it’s his emotional pain that keeps me up at night.

The fact is we’re still warming up to puberty, so at this point his hurt feelings dig much deeper into my overactive imagination than they do into his psyche. I will often still be reeling over some playground slight or hurt from weeks back when Koss wants to invite that very same kid I’ve been mentally murdering over to play.

Pesky old reality is no match for the mind of a mother.

Just thinking about the prospect of his many broken hearts to come is enough to make me growl.

I can’t help myself. Just thinking about that future girl who will someday make him cry drives me nuts. I want to kill her. I want to rip her to shreds. The mere thought of that girl transforms me into every single awful parent-of-an-only-child stereotype, though some might call me a murderous lunatic.

Gee, I hope his future girlfriends never read this column. That would be awful. Just awful.

Karma’s a bitch, and I certainly had my moments. As a former teenage girl, I know just how mean they can be.

Plus the fact that my genetic eggs are in this one and only one precious basket makes me guard it all the more zealously.

But here’s the rub. As a parent I’ve found that it’s almost impossible to try to comfort someone and develop their character at the time. With girlfriends and husbands, your job is just to listen and be supportive and hate whomever they hate at that moment. In those cases it’s easy to blame it on the other guy.

But when you’re comforting a child you sometimes have to fess up to the fact that it’s not always the other guy’s fault. Human relationships are complicated and they’re only just beginning.

Kind of makes me wish for the good old days when I would dream up tactical scenarios of how I would jump into the lion’s cage at the zoo to rescue my son.

When Leslie’s not busy cocooning her son in bubble wrap she can be reached at For more columns visit  Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on July 20, 2012.

Death to Chit Chat

Photo by stockimages,

Photo by stockimages,

“Small talk is one step down from no talk.”-Jason Love

I had a mid-life revelation this week. After a busy weekend standing around bonfires, barbecues and beaches talking about the weather (hot), sports (a good week at Appalachian State), and my child’s school’s spring break week, I realized something: I spend far too much of my time talking about things that don’t really matter-or even hold much interest-to me.

That’s it. I’m done. Terminado. Now that I’m in my “late” mid-forties, and I’m starting to think I don’t want to live to be 100, which makes me middle-aged like, uh, now, it’s high time for me to stop fooling around and take a stand. So here it is: From this day forward I am banishing the banter of small talk from my life.

It’s not that I’m not a talker, I LOVE to talk, especially late at night (just ask my grumpy husband). But time’s a wasting. I’m not getting any younger and I don’t have any more time to waste on idle chit chat when I could be talking about something, well, better.

From now on, no more small talk. Try asking me how I am. Last week I would have automatically answered “Fine. How’s it going?” or some other equally scintillating conversational nugget, but this week I’ll give you a real answer, like, “How did I get to be so old?”

See what I did there? That’s one of the secrets of great conversationalists. I answered a question with a question. OK, it was a rhetorical question, but give me a break. I’m new at this small talk banishment stuff.

But I think I’m onto something with this answering a question with a question thing. Everybody’s favorite thing to talk about is themselves. Plus, I’m a naturally nosy person (hence the journalism career), so this new anti-small talk strategy will work both ways. You get to talk about you-thus making you think I’m charming and witty and interesting to talk to-and I get to find out what I really want to know.

Here’s an example. You ask me about the weather, and I ignore your question and ask you about what you think would change if a woman were president.

Or you make an inane comment about sports, and I’ll ask you when the last time was that you had sex. “Do you really believe in God or do you just like going to church? Are you naturally skinny or anorexic? Has your husband always been a jerk, or is he just having a bad year?”

Isn’t this fun?

Admit it, with the rare exception of earth shattering headlines (“Pearl Harbor Bombed” and “Kennedy Shot” come to mind) these off limits topics are a thousand times more interesting than any current events.

“Did you catch the news today?” might be greeted with “Do you feed your kids healthier food in public than you do when they’re at home?”

“Thank God it’s Friday,” could garner a response from me like, “Have you ever Googled an ex-boyfriend?”

Hey, I didn’t say I was going to be speaking deep thoughts from here on in, I only promised that I’d stop talking about all the things I could care less about and start talking about the things I’m really interested in. So when was the last time you thought about that ex-girlfriend of yours? Were you having sex?

Asking better questions could actually change the world-or at least our social gatherings-if we all joined in and started asking people about the things that used to be considered rude.

Try one of these anti-small talk conversation starters at your next party:

* How do you feel when someone says you’re just like your mother?

* Have you ever been fired?

* If you had to choose to be stuck on a desert island with someone that you know-other than your spouse or significant other-who would you pick? (No, watching Angelina Jolie in a movie doesn’t count as knowing her.)

* If you could go back in time and change one thing about your childhood, what would it be?

* Have you ever gotten drunk and been told you did something you can’t remember doing?

* How much money do you make, and do you think you’re worth it?

* If I were to force you to sing karaoke right now, what song would you pick?

* What would you like to accomplish before you die?

And finally,

* Is 48 really late-middle-aged? (Make sure you ask a senior citizen this one.)

Email email to ask Leslie the burning question you’ve been too polite to ask until now. For more columns visit Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on February 17, 2012.

The Keeper of the Calendar

Image by digitalart,

Image by digitalart,

For as long as I can remember, my girlfriends have been an important part of my life. We’ve graduated from Kool-Aid and cookies to brie and Cabernet and have gone from dissecting Barbie’s hairstyles to debating whether “Blonded by the Light” or “Brazen Raisin” will better cover up our grays, but one thing remains true after all these years: without my girlfriends I’d probably never have made it this far.

My girlfriends are the ones that keep me (relatively) sane. They’re the only ones who really understand my drink order at Starbucks, or my irritation with the ten-items-or-less-line, or my love-hate relationship with Christmas.

This is why girls’ nights out are so important. They’re therapeutic, actually medicinal, and I’m not just talking about the vodka in our martinis. Men are great for a lot of things, and not just killing spiders (which my husband refuses to do) and reaching things on the highest shelves. But you can’t really talk to men about the importance of chocolate, the beauty of a new lipstick, or the ability of the perfect pair of black boots to update your whole wardrobe.

They just don’t get it.

My husband doesn’t really get it at all, but he doesn’t really complain about it either. I tell him I’m going out with my friends, and he looks up from the crossword puzzle, nods, grunts, and maybe, if I’m lucky, tells me to have a good time.

We’ve been together for 19 years and in all that time, he’s made social plans seven times, not including Mother’s Day and my birthday, where I have to remind him about what I want to do at least three times a day for a month beforehand, so I don’t think that really counts.

I’m the keeper of the social calendar and that’s okay, it’s worked for us all these years. At least until recently, when I told him I was leaving the house to meet my girlfriends. He looked up from the crossword puzzle, nodded, grunted, and said, “OK. I’m having boys’ night out on Thursday.”

Excuse me? Did I put that on the calendar? Since when are you scheduling your own “play dates,” honey?

I was sure I had misheard him. But no, come Thursday night he put on a jacket and actually left the house, all by himself. This has got to be a fluke, I thought.

Then it happened again the next week. Uh oh. Was my husband finally realizing how much fun it was to escape his family for a night on the town? This could be big trouble for me.

I thought I could nip the problem in the bud the night we both had plans. After all, a PTA meeting (followed by cocktails, but still, “It’s for the kids”) trumps an action movie, so he would just have to reschedule. I told him this, quite reasonably, I thought. But he just smiled, devilishly, and said, “It’s okay honey, your mom’s going to watch Koss so we can both go out.”

Oh dear. Couldn’t he at last have called his own mom?

The next thing I know he’ll be planning mancations and taking up fly fishing and snow boarding and how will I ever get away to the spa with MY friends if that happens?

I definitely need to stop this train wreck before it’s too late. He needs to tone his social life way down if I’m ever going to be able to keep up with mine.

“Honey,” I begin, in my sweetest most devious voice, “We need to talk.”

“Yeah, I’ve been forgetting to tell you something,” he says.

All right. I bet he’s going to tell me that he’s been spending too much time with his friends and realizes he would much rather be home spending time with his family, while I’m out with the girls.

I smile in anticipation.

“The guys and I are talking about a boy’s weekend. Let’s check the calendar.”

Uh oh, you mean my calendar?

Oh no. I’m doomed.

Share your tips for keeping your man at home with Leslie at email. For more columns visit Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on January 27, 2012.

F is for Frenemy

Photo by Stuart Miles,

Photo by Stuart Miles,

A friendship, too, is a kind of romance-complete with possessiveness, jealousy and mistrust. -Nick Laird

While sifting your friends from your foes should be straightforward, it’s not always obvious who’s got your back, and who’s getting ready to stab a knife in it.

Friends are supposed to bring out the best in you, even when you’re at your worst, which is why it’s so disturbing when someone you thought was your friend turns out to be a frenemy. Whether you’re dramatically dumped, or you simply discover that she’s just not that into you, you never forget your first frenemy.

“Sometimes people bring out the worst in each other,” I tried to explain to my young friend, who had recently been excluded from the cool kids group at lunch. The poor girl was in tears, and I certainly couldn’t blame her. All summer long she had played with Queen Bee, a neighbor, and returned to fifth grade thinking they were the best of buds. But as soon as school started, poor Wannabe was ostracized in favor of Queen Bee’s more popular minions.

“It’s like all of our summer fun never happened,” Wannabe wailed. “We hung out at the water park, the beach, went to the movies, had tons of sleepovers. I can’t believe she doesn’t want to sit with me at lunch!”

Hearing this sad story brought me right back to my own fourth grade summer and the back-to-school diss from my own generation’s Queen Bee. Quite frankly, I’m still devastated and I want my yellow ski jacket and my puka shell necklace back.

“Will it be any comfort for you to know that she’s going to end up divorced, raising three kids from three different fathers?” I offered.

Wannabe looked at me blankly. “She was mean to me yesterday at school, but then after school she came over to play like nothing had happened.”

Oh dear.

“Then today, she spread out her lunch box and said there was no room for me at their table,” sobbed Wannabe. “I can’t believe it.”

Unfortunately, I can. You just found yourself your first frenemy.

It’s hard enough for an adult to understand the wicked combination of arrogance and insecurity that creates cliques, let alone explain them to a child who has just had her heart broken.

Times may change but mean girls are eternal.

I took a deep breath.

How could I explain to Wannabe that even the best of friendships can be odd, complicated and messy? Every relationship has an ever-shifting balance of power. There are some people, like Queen Bee, who thrive on other people’s neediness or weaknesses. She bosses her little bees around and they’re too spineless to stand up to her.

Wannabe might have been sad, but she wasn’t spineless.

How could I help her understand that there’s this whole social convention when a romantic relationship breaks up, but there’s no parallel convention for friendships, even though the breakup of a friendship can be more shocking and more devastating?

“Does any of this make sense?” I asked, and again I got a blank stare from under her tears.

I took another stab. “If someone doesn’t treat you like a friend, all the time, no matter who else is around or who else is watching, then they’re probably not really your friend,” I explained.

Finally a flicker of recognition in her sad, sweet eyes.

“They are what we call a frenemy, someone who is both a friend and an enemy, which is no way to be a friend.”

“Like a bad friend,” said Wannabe. “A bend. Or a frad.”

I almost yelled at her that the word was frenemy, not bend, and that she should grow up already because my word was better than hers-seriously, bend? Frad? What are you, a ten-year-old?-but then that might not have been the friendliest thing to do.

“Exactly. Someone who will continue to bring you down and make you sad until you stick up for yourself, at which point you’ll probably have a fight and won’t be friends anymore anyway.”

“That doesn’t sound like someone I want to be friends with in the first place,” she said.

“That’s right,” I said. “It’ll get better, I promise. That’s your first lesson of the school year. You’ll have lots of good and true friends. Now give me your lunch money.”

When Leslie’s not offering sage advice to anyone who will listen, she can be reached at For more columns visit Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on November 11, 2011.

The guilt gene

Image by Stuart Miles,

Image by Stuart Miles,

G-U-I-L-T should really be a four-letter word.

Years ago, when I was in full-blown rebellious teenage daughter mode, I jotted this quote down from Katherine Lee: “If there’s anything that can match the heights of mother-love, it’s the depths of mother-guilt.”

Boy is that ever true.

I was raised on a diet of guilt. Sure, it was well seasoned with humor (which I must add, so I won’t feel too guilty when my mom reads this), but guilt is so deeply embedded into my DNA that I feel guilty not having mastered guilt yet.

I’ve spent most of my life making important decisions based on the avoidance of future guilt. If I don’t finish the laundry tonight then my son will have to wear dingy underwear tomorrow. What if he gets in a car accident because he has dingy underwear? Does the dentist really know if I skip one night of flossing? If I watch “The Next Food Network Star” tonight instead of “Desperate Housewives” will I be personally responsible for the end of scripted television? What if I skip that one school board meeting and they vote to cut out recess? It never seems to end.

Some days it feels like my whole life has been one, big, guilty, mental dress rehearsal for all of the bad things that might happen if I don’t do all the good things I’m supposed to.

Yet, despite so many years of good girl-dom, good wife-dom and good daughter-dom tangled with all the woulda coulda shoulda catastrophes in my head, I am still surprised by how entwined guilt is with being a mom.

It’s not even noon yet and already the ugly wheels of self- recrimination are grinding against each other in my head. When I dropped off Koss at school, I felt guilty for driving my big fat carbon footprint car (but I can’t afford a Leaf or a Volt, so I feel guilty for not working more to make more money). Then I felt guilty paying $4 for a latte when I had perfectly good coffee at home. But I hadn’t gotten up early enough to make the coffee, another thing that made me feel guilty.

Plus it was Beach Day so I made sure Koss had sunscreen, a towel and his own sandwich in case he didn’t like the ones the other mothers made, but I wasn’t driving on the field trip and wasn’t even going to come to the beach until after lunch because I had to finish writing a story first, which of course, I felt guilty about. Then there’s the fact that I didn’t sign up in time to bring the sandwiches he likes, not to mention all the baking I haven’t done for all the parties and events in these last four years of school.

It’s enough to make you drown in guilt.

Erma Bombeck once called guilt “the gift that keeps on giving.” She was so right. I used to blame it all on my mom, who has an amazing ability to shoot guilt darts with the slightest change in the tone of her voice. Of course I feel guilty about blaming her, especially now that I realize that she couldn’t help it.

I’d blame my husband, but he doesn’t care. Whoever said, “men feel guilty about nothing and women feel guilty about everything” clearly spent some time with him.

I finished the story but left dishes in the sink and beds unmade in order make it to the beach before the party was over.

The minute my son saw me he gave me a huge grin and a hug. All that rushing and hustling was worth it after all.

Then he hit me with the stinger: “Finally you’re here, mom. What took you so long?”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Don’t feel guilty if you don’t respond to But you should at least go read more columns at  Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on August 26, 2011.

Is happiness overrated

I Just Want My Kids to be Happy!“America’s youth are drowning in happiness,” says Aaron Cooper, Ph.D., a psychologist concerned about the rising rates of youth depression and anxiety.

“Millions of well-intentioned parents have made life harder for their children by shielding the kids from every kind of unhappiness,” according to Cooper, who co- authored a book on the dangers when parents make happiness the most important thing in their children’s lives. “These parents try to soften every edge in their children’s lives, and it’s crippling the kids emotionally.”

That’s a scary thought, but he might be right. “I Just Want My Kids To Be Happy!” has become the mantra of today’s parents. I hear people say that all of the time. I’m just as guilty as the next mom of sometimes valuing my son’s short-term happiness over the long-term lessons I could-and should-be teaching him.

I just read Cooper’s book called, I Just Want My Kids To Be Happy! Why you shouldn’t say it, why you shouldn’t think it, what you should embrace instead,” which he co-authored with Eric Keitel, M.Ed., and they explain why buying into the happiness mantra is a mistake.

“Without plenty of practice coping with ordinary sadness, upset, disappointment, and hurt, kids don’t develop resilience,” Cooper says. “And without resilience, they’re vulnerable to all kinds of problems.”

Of course everyone wants their kids to be happy, that’s human nature. But according to this book, “I just want them to be happy” is more than just a wish. It’s also expressing a belief that our kids’ happiness is the most important thing.

After reading it I began to think that happiness might actually be overrated.

Some of the negative consequences that result from just wanting children to be happy include:

Being captive to our children’s moods. I am so guilty of this one. From the time that Koss was a teeny tiny baby I have hated to see him be the least bit unhappy or god forbid, cry, and will do just about anything to make it stop.

Feeling unnecessary guilt and shame when our kids aren’t happy. I’m the poster child for this one. When Koss is upset I feel personally responsible. It’s all my fault. It’s always all my fault. Even if it’s his fault, I feel like it’s all my fault.

Overprotecting our children from adversity. Guilty again. I can’t help it. It’s so hard not to want protect your child from life’s pain. Every time I hear about another kid being mean to Koss, or even inadvertently hurting his feelings, the mama bear in me wants to swoop in and make everything all right again-even if it means permanently banishing the mean kid from the forest. I’m still holding grudges from kindergarten while Koss has long since moved on.

Abdicating parental authority rather than cause our kids unhappiness. Again, guilty as charged. Really guilty. I can’t tell you how often I abandon my plans to run errands after school and agree to let him have a friend over, or agree to five more minutes of playtime (which turns into ten or 15 minutes) because he looked at me with sadness in those big brown eyes. This one’s a double whammy because after I give in, then I feel guilty for not being strict enough with him.

It might even be a triple whammy because, as Cooper explains: “Kids know how much their parents want them to be happy, and so when they’re sad or upset for whatever reason, they feel guilty thinking they’re letting their parents down. Many hide their distress at home, which compounds the problem and they end up feeling worse.”

One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned as a parent-okay I’m still working on this one-is to allow Koss to be unhappy. My impulse is to want to wipe away his sadness like it was spilt milk. At the same time I know that I’m doing him a disservice by trying to “make it all better.”

When it comes to our children’s happiness, less may actually be more. So instead of focusing on happiness, what should parents emphasize? Cooper and Keitel reviewed decades of research and found eight ingredients in people’s lives that reliably predict who is happy and who is not, including a sense of gratitude, closeness to others, and an optimistic outlook.

I think I get it now. The next time Koss is sad I won’t try to make it all better, I’ll just give him a hug, tell him how much I love him, and hope for the best.

Are we overemphasizing our children’s happiness? Tell Leslie what you think by emailing For more columns visit Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on July 15. 2011.

Heating up to Fifty

Between a Rock and Hot Place, by Tracey Jackson

Between a Rock and Hot Place, by Tracey Jackson

Let me start out this column by saying that I am not 50 yet.

I am nowhere near 50 years old.

OK, the sum total of my journeys around the sun is not quite 50–yet–but I’m a heck of a lot closer to being 50 than I am to being 30.

The fact that I have difficulty wrapping my head around this oh-so-obvious reality was part of the inspiration for Tracey Jackson‘s humorous new book, Between a Rock and a Hot Place: Why Fifty is Not the New Thirty, a part memoir, part self-help, part rant and always entertaining look at what happens to women when they hit the big Five-O.

“The idea that just because we want to we can turn back the clock and pretend to be thirty is both amusing and insane,” laughed Jackson, speaking to me from the back room of a hair salon. This busy lady fit in our interview during a quick trip home to New York before flying off to D.C. to continue a book tour that includes visits with Kathie Lee and Hoda, Meredith Vierra on “The Today Show” and the Writing Mamas of Corte Madera County.

“Being on a book tour is tiring, but it’s a good kind of whirlwind,” said Jackson, who has had a lot of whirlwinds since her childhood in Santa Barbara, where her extended family still resides. A comedy screenwriter for 17 years–Confessions of a Shopholic and The Guru are some of her better known titles–Jackson writes frankly about being shocked when she got older and the writing jobs started drying up. Ironically, her last screenwriting job was adapting a book called “The Ivy Chronicles,” about a woman who loses her job and reinvents herself.

Jackson also reinvented herself, producing and starring with her daughter in a documentary film called Lucky Ducks, (about the complex relationship boomer parents have with their over-indulged teens), daily blogging and most recently, writing “Between a Rock and a Hot Place.”

All of the hot button middle age stuff is there, with her amusing takes on what could be depressing topics like menopause (“it’s not all in your head, it’s in your vagina”), money (“I didn’t mean to spend it all”), death (“ready or not, here death comes”) and my favorite, “Sex, Estrogen and Not So Much Rock and Roll.”

Of course I immediately turned to the chapter about sex, where Jackson describes in hilarious detail her attempt to spice up her marriage with a trip to a very posh sex store. The resulting misadventures involving Jackson, her husband, a shiny black bag of toys, and Lola Falana (their Chihuahua) made me laugh so hard that I woke up my husband.

With sex, face lifts, finances and sandwich generation challenges of aging parents and exhausting teenagers sitting side-by-side, the book casts a pretty wide net over the issues of “second adulthood.” Jackson said that was her plan from the start.

“When you’re writing a comedic book, which a lot of this is, and then you have to throw in things that aren’t funny, it’s hard. … When you’re writing about death, you’re writing about death so it’s trickier to make that buoyant and make that something that people don’t go ‘OK now I’ve read this really funny chapter about sex and now I’m reading about dying.’ How do you keep that light? … At the end of the day you kind of give in and say OK I’m writing about death, this is not a funny topic any way you cut it, so we just have to kind of go for it. ”

She still manages to get the comedy in– when she talks about death she includes the story of her husband’s spinning teacher dropping dead at the gym. In fact, no matter what the topic, the laughs and hard truths resonate throughout both the book and my conversation with Jackson.

“We aren’t old and we aren’t young; we are in kind of in-between states, passing through the transit lounge of life,” she writes. “No matter how much Botox you get, things will start falling apart: some marriages end, some kids are job, some jobs are terminated, most faces fall and all boobs do. No one bothered to fill us in on this.”

Luckily that’s where Jackson and “Between a Rock and Hot Place” come in.

Tracey Jackson blogs daily at Maybe Leslie will do that when she’s 50, but for now she writes weekly. Read her columns every Friday in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound or at Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on March 4, 2011.

Tackling the Season Like a Man

Portrait Of Beautiful Woman Wearing Santa Claus Hat by David Castillo Dominici,

Portrait Of Beautiful Woman Wearing Santa Claus Hat by David Castillo Dominici,

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from my friend Ramey: “If you don’t want to be the only one doing all the work then you have to let other people do stuff using their own standards–no matter how crappy or inferior they may be.”

She was talking about diaper rash and Desitin, but over time I’ve found that her advice applies almost everywhere from the schoolyard and the soccer field to the domestic front and delegating at work.

You can explain it by whatever nature versus nurture notion noogles your noggin, but the fact is that men are overwhelmingly better than women are at letting go of perfectionism. They don’t really notice–or if they do, they certainly don’t care about–that pile of laundry waiting to be folded on the couch. It’s simply an obstacle to sit upon or pushed aside in their quest to find a place to rest their fatigued fannies after a hard day’s work.

They aren’t the least bit disturbed if the dinner table lacks floral finery, or even utensils, as long as there’s an ice-cold beer at their fingertips. They may be masters of their domains, but most of them have absolutely no interest in anything resembling a throw pillow, quilt or home decor accessory (unless it comes in HD and surround sound).

And as for calendars, schedules and to-do lists? Forget about it. Somehow it’s more manly to store things “in your head,” despite the sometimes sieve-like filter associated with this system.

Let’s face it, there are a lot of things that men simply don’t care about and thus they don’t stress about. As hard as it is for me to admit it, I think they may be on to something, especially when it comes to the holidays.

Have you ever in your life met a man who felt guilty when a caring neighbor brought over a homemade dish of goodies and he didn’t have a lavish platter at the ready to gift them in return?

Have you ever heard of a man stalking the aisles of an all-night drug store after midnight because the five shades of curling ribbon he has at home are just not “quite the right red?”

You don’t see men stressing about losing weight to fit into a cute new outfit for the company’s holiday party or going to 17 different stores to find the perfect Secret Santa Gift for the receptionist in their office who won’t even know it’s from them.

Nope, men don’t take it as their seasonal call of duty to personally manufacture every bit of holiday magic that comes into their household. For the most part, whether the laundry is waiting to be folded or not, they sit on the couch, relax and enjoy the spirit–and spirits–of the season.

Which is why this year I’m going to try to take the holidays like a man by relaxing the perfectionism, kicking back and enjoying them.

I hope you’ll do the same.

When Leslie’s not obsessing about not obsessing about her holiday to-do list, she can reached at For more columns visit  Originally appeared in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on December 10, 2010.

Defending Facebook Friends

Screen shot 2014-07-11 at 7.17.28 PMWeak Ties Still Equal Strong Links

Marlene Dietrich once said, “It’s the friends you call at 4 a.m. that really matter.” Agreed. But the friends whose walls you post on at 4 a.m. matter too.

“Weak ties are your windows to the world,” wrote Stanford University sociologist Mark Granovetter back in 1973 in “The Strength of Weak Ties,” one of the earliest academic theories about the spread of information in social networks. Of course, he had no way of knowing back then how apropos his words would become in these days of social networking. “When you’re looking for new ideas and new connections, you don’t get them from family or close friends. It’s the weak ties that connect you to different circles and opportunities,” he wrote.

It’s also the weak ties that connect you to community.

Which is why I get so irked at all of the high falutin’ Luddites who diss communication technologies like Facebook on the grounds that they value “quality and not quantity in their friendships.”

Excuse me, but just because I enjoy connecting with people online doesn’t mean I’m holed up alone in some hovel wearing a dirty gray hoodie and mainlining Red Bull all night.

My pajamas are perfectly clean and I much prefer red wine to Red Bull, which you would know if you read my Facebook page.

Besides, people like that completely miss the point of Facebook and other social networking sites. Of course Facebook isn’t a substitute for close friends and I would have serious concerns for the psyche of anyone who chose to use it that way. For me social networking serves an entirely different function-it’s a community.

Much like going to my neighborhood coffee shop or hanging out with other parents as I wait for my son to finish soccer practice, I have a nodding “hey, how’s it going” kind of acquaintanceship with most of my Facebook friends. We share little bits and pieces of our lives-sometimes a bit too much, girl who posts endless cat pictures-but for the most part we save the nitty-gritty details for our real friends, who aren’t necessarily the ones we chat with on Facebook.

Still, I love getting these little glimpses of the day-to-day fabric of people’s lives. I like to know what’s going on in other people’s heads, even the mundane stuff. But these kind of peripheral friendships are very, very different from the deeper friendships I have.

Which isn’t to say that peripheral friendships aren’t important.

According to a 30-year long longitudinal study at Harvard, the state of our entire network (“our community”) impacts our well being. The study, of 12,000 people, found that your odds of being happy increase by 25 percent if a direct connection in your network is happy.

Got that. Happiness is contagious.

The study also found a similar effect for secondhand associations; if your friend’s friend is happy, the odds of your friend being happy increase by 15 percent-and the odds of you being happy increase by 10 percent.

So c’mon, let’s get happy.

That reminds me of a favorite Partridge Family song. I think I’ll look it up on YouTube and post it on my Facebook page.

When Leslie’s not wiling away hours on Facebook she can be reached at For more columns visit Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on November 5, 2010.