The ‘Woo Woo!’ Wild Adventure of a Forty-something Mother: An interview with NPR commentator Sandra Tsing Loh
Read our interview with Sandra Tsing Loh, author of “Mother on Fire: A True Story About Parenting” where she discusses the challenges of living a creative life.
Commitment: As a creative woman who has written many books and performed in one-woman shows, what is the hardest part of pursuing your creativity? How are you able to manifest your talent, when so many women never find a way to bring their creative voice into the public realm?
Sandra Tsing Loh: My favorite card in the Tarot deck is the '0' card--it shows The Fool, whistling cheerfully, about to step off a cliff. I don’t know that I particularly have more talent than the next person, but I become obsessed with tinkering with things (writing, performance, etc.) and for some reason I have a pretty hearty constitution. I hate rejection (and my book covers, for instance, the touchy subject of some INCREDIBLY BAD REVIEWS I’ve gotten!) and while those things sting and make me feel awful, by the second day I’m somehow ready to get up out of bed again because I really like the aroma of roasting coffee.
More and more, I’ve come to think it ís just a lucky accident that I sort of have the constitution of a junkyard dog (perhaps got it from my eccentric Chinese father, who pours together the dregs of other people’s Starbucks coffee and dumpster dives for moldy food and who never gets sick!). I’ve also been blessed with people around me who don’t tolerate much creative neurosis (like my musician husband: ‘You feel bad about rejection? I’ll show you MY rejection list-a mile long!’)
I’ve also developed a very practical sense about what art is. I started bankrolling and investing in my own shows about 10 years ago, when the theatre business started changing. . . I’ve learned to write my work not just for the ideal audience but for the audience who, in reality, have the time to show up. Yes, this may be your elderly grand aunt Verna! Not that I write everything for Verna. But I’ve moved from a more abstract theoretical college-based theory about what art is to a more nuts-and-bolts philosophy. Not that art can’t transform--it can! But first you have to get people into the building!
Commitment: Tell us about writing this book. How long did it take you to write this book? What were the challenges in writing it? Do you have any advice for mothers who dream of writing about their mothering experiences?
Sandra: I first wrote Mother on Fire as a one-woman show that ran in LA for seven months, the profits of which I donated to my local Van Nuys public schools. I then transformed some of the show material into the book. . . The caveat is while a theatre piece essentially depends on the passage of time--the audience is very aware of a ticking clock--a book is more of a journey through space (hence, for instance, you have the luxury of more scene description, characters, sub-plots).
I’ve been hacking away at the craft of writing for 20 years, so I have very definite beliefs about what each piece in each genre needs to accomplish. The writing of the book happened over a year: I noodled for nine months, and then panicked and set it all down in a burst.
The biggest challenge for writers is simply to tell a tale in the order it occurred! I also had a couple of different ‘frames’ for this book, different sets of ‘Chinese boxes’ I wanted to open.
One of the school story, but around that there is the frame of a journey of female discovery (the desire to have an adventure!), that very much explores the theme of discovering new passion and new invigoration in midlife. Around THAT piece I wanted to make a statement about the general fearfulness built in to the extreme commercialization of our culture (and of feminism!). That’s a lot I know! But I wanted it to read seamlessly, and hope it does (the use of a therapy scene can always be extremely handy to weave together a lot of rants, that I admit!)
Commitment: You have done MANY one-woman shows, including "Aliens in America" "Bad Sex with Bud Kemp" and "Mother on Fire." How did you get the courage to go before an audience alone and embark on a one-woman show? And what gives you the strength to put yourself out there and endure both the positive reviews and the negative reviews, and the criticism that comes from putting yourself before an audience who now can judge your work?
Sandra: I realized that no one rushes to the theatre to see somehow be shy. The more you put it out there and are intimate with audiences, revealing more and more of your self, the more bold they become to appreciate you and, afterwards, to reveal even more private things about themselves! I feel in telling ‘my’ story, I’m really telling ‘our’ story, and I’m helping to create a better, brighter, warmer space where we can all be human together.
And I actually no longer read my reviews. I used to. But now I’ve learned that the bad ones make you feel horrible and even the good ones make you insecure (what did THAT line mean?). Actually, that ís not quite true. If someone tells me there ís a great one (I did get a great New York Times review for my book, which is a fabulous career ‘gift’), I’ll scan it. What helps me is that, as I actually write about books for the Atlantic (and have myself reviewed books in other places), I know no critics are fallible, its just opinion, and in the end readers will like what they like, and its not always what CRITICS like!
I’ve done shows where I could FEEL the audience laughing and laughing, and then read a review that said my work was not that funny. So what keeps me going is: 1) The fun of doing something I can FEEL that I do well 2) Surrounding myself by a team of smart people who appreciate my expertise as much I appreciate theirs. That would mean, in theatre, directors! (In my case, I’ve had great ones, most memorably David Schweizer and Bart De Lorenzo--great directors do help insulate you, and keep your eye focused on the ball!)
Commitment: Your speech to your students about being thrown off track of your artistic career was hilarious, and yet hit the mark. Why are so many women thrown off the artistic track and is it necessarily something negative or are there hidden positives?
Sandra: I believe ‘artists’ need to experience life or they’ll have nothing to write about. In Melville’s day, novelists went out to sea as sailors for several years to collect life experience before they could write, say, a Moby Dick.
Today, we have this very modern idea that artists go to liberal arts school, then get grants from a foundation, then hide in a cabin for many years while having their meals brought to them while they ‘write.’ I used to enjoy the luxury of ‘writer’s block’’ . . then I had children, and now I’m never blocked--who has the time? I write in the laundry room, on the bed. . . While driving my kids, if I get an idea, I’ll scribble it on a Post-It and stick it to the minivan dash board. . . And if I finally get 20 minutes to write, I’ll use them--no hesitation, no neurosis--and I have a huge amount of passion for what I want to say, so I never run out of ideas.
I think motherhood is a vast, fascinating and powerful subject. . . Mothers can ultimately be such all-encompassing, potent (and sometimes scary!) creatures I believe no male writer has ever gotten it right! Lots of room for women to come in and right the record! And God knows we can multitask.
Commitment: Why did you title this book, Mother On Fire? How was this the year you "exploded into flames"?
Sandra: When I became a mother, it seemed every fiber in my body--brain, nerve, aortas, heartstrings--burst into flame, and began to hum and vibrate. This is partly because motherhood is physically and emotionally transformative, but also partly because we live in a world which is geared to make parents--and particularly mothers--unusually fearful.
My ‘exploding into flames’ year was the year I plunged into my own School Fear Vortex--trying to find a kindergarten for my four year old in Los Angeles, any kindergarten! It was so surprisingly traumatic, I felt it was a story that needed to be told--because no one had told me! There seemed to be a Secret Club of Parents who had been traumatized by their own battles of getting their kids into ‘good schools’ (starting from preschool!), and they had never fessed up. It was time.
Commitment: You write a lot about being forty-something, how "come the forties, though, cracks begin to appear" and as you put it, "the wheels come off." What did you figure out about yourself and your life after 40 that surprised you and led you to a new understanding of who you are and where you are going?
Sandra: Well, to give a picture of my journey up until 40 I’d have to refer readers to my previous book, A YEAR IN VAN NUYS (available in paperback). That was about the trauma’ of turning 36--aka: of being officially over 35 in Los Angeles, which is akin to being dead! Or so I thought.
When I was in my twenties and thirties I was more anxious about my age, and over the insecurity that I was becoming increasingly less young and pretty soon I would not be young, and would not be privy to what young people had, even though when being actually young I didn’t have anything except. . . youth. See how circular the argument is?
In my forties, both the lows were lower (when I was fired for obscenity from public radio, at an age when I thought I would just be, as a writer, triumphantly semi-retired, being flown around the country to accept awards, sort of like Amy Tan!) and the highs were higher, and of a surprising nature. I found what I really enjoyed was not so much trekking my way up the career ladder (which is full of pitfalls and disappointments no matter how far you are along it--the suffering and the insecurity is never ‘done’) but taking naps in the afternoon with my children and tending and befriending other mothers.
An outgrowth of the book has been a new personal activism, of going around the country meeting other parents on the Underground Public School Railroad, which I really love. It’s very rewarding. Growing up, I was taught that art is rewarding, and it is--somewhat--but I’ve found it ís not the end-all and be-all of my whole life.
Commitment: What advice do you have for other women entering their 40s who want it to be a great decade, but are a bit nervous and not sure what to expect?
Sandra: I think it’s freeing to be no longer in your ‘ingénue’ years, whatever those are, and to start thinking, dressing, and acting whatever way you feel like. I remember shrugging on some odd retro pea coat thing I found in my closet (that in my careful younger years I would have been anxious about wearing) and telling a friend, I’m 43 now! These are the eccentric years! I may wear a beret, and a cockatiel on my shoulder!
I have to admit (as I did with some elaboration in my book, A YEAR IN VAN NUYS) that at 36 I had my saggy eye bags lazed out (no regrets!) and I realized flaps of skin are just flaps of skin, not referendums on your whole person, and easily removable if you want to, whenever you want to, so why worry?
Essentially, the 40s are a great decade for leaving all the old ‘shoulds’ of who you are supposed to be behind. . . Until the age of 40, you worry about what people are thinking about you and then you realize they are not thinking about you at all! They’re worrying about what YOU are thinking about THEM!!!
So I think its a great time of life to enjoy what you want--whether its knitting, cat care, pole-dancing, scrap booking, surfing, bunco (a suburban dice game--very fun!), disco revival or old re-runs of LA Law. No one ís looking except you. . . Although anecdotally, among my friends, I have to report that freed-up women of a certain age are getting lots of action, oddly more than their young, nervous, more responsible and anxious counterparts (although, admittedly, many of those younger women do still have their baby clocks going, which adds another set of complexities).
Commitment: You write about teaching your literature class Anna Karenina. What do you think is the message in this book that women today can learn something from?
Sandra: Well, as I say in my book, unlike Anna Karenina, one no longer has to hurl oneself under a train upon turning 40, there is medication for that! I believe we live in times where women have many more options than they had in the past, and itís a good thing, it really is.
Commitment: What challenges do you think mothers today face that are unique to our generation of women? You wrote that motherhood today is "unbelievably complicated and has never been more scary." How is motherhood today complicated and scary, and what can we do to remove some of that fear? What have you done in your own personal life to make it all less complicated and scary?
Sandra: In my mother’s era, the 1950's and 1960's, pregnant women could smoke cigarettes, drink martinis, and to keep their weight gain down to the requisite 12 pounds, some doctors prescribed amphetamines! (And then during labor, the moms were knocked out and the babies were pulled out with forceps.) Not that that’s good. But today, the pendulum has swung back so far the opposite way. Pregnant women can’t smoke (well, neither can unpregnant women), can’t drink, can’t eat sushi, can’t eat cold cuts. . . One pregnant mom said her doctor forbade her to eat smoked fish (Due to, ‘as her husband quipped,’ the second-hand smoke.)
I think what has happened in the last few decades, as our culture has become more affluent, is that a Military Parent Corporate Fear Complex has arisen where a society of ‘experts’ has been become very rich keeping parents feeling helpless and fearful. A short list of those benefitting: pediatricians, child psychologists, gifted experts, realtors (in the ‘good’ school districts), bankers (who handed out the impossible-to-fiscally-justify mortgages), the makers of organic applesauce, the makers of expensive educational toys, etc.
What I always remember is: ‘Fearful Parents Make Experts Rich.’ Our health is better and we live longer than ever before than practically any other society that ever lived. Only one out of 10 colleges in America has competitive admissions. My kids (and yours) will be fine. If you are reading this in English, you--the parents--are already advantaged. Chill!
Commitment: Much of your book is about your quest to find a private kindergarten for your daughter, rather than send her to a school in Los Angeles, where many of the children received free lunch or as you wrote, "the kind of public school that incites parental nightmares." What was the hardest part of trying to find a suitable private school for your daughter? What surprises did you encounter along the way?
Sandra: Well, that’s easy. First, in Los Angeles, as is increasingly the case with many large urban centers, tuition can be as much as $20,000 a year FOR KINDERGARTEN, and that does not include fundraising. Still, some anxious middle-class families may scrape that together for one child, but as we have two children, that was never going to happen.
The second problem is even those wildly over-priced spots are difficult to land. . . Your four year old needs to come in and be tested which is itself a frightening and inhumane process, and also the parents need to come in to be interviewed.
While many of these private schools parade values of respect, honor, citizenship, respect for the individual, building a more progressive society, etc., there is nothing progressive about only guaranteeing the children of the rich and the connected a quality education (with a few brilliant minority scholarship kids thrown in for ‘color,’ and to make those fleeing society feel better about themselves).
Both the burden--and yet the miracle--of modern U.S. public school is that no child is denied entry, all who cross the threshold are taken. That’s a deeply powerful idea, almost a spiritual idea, that’s worth fighting for. And in letting go of my own paranoid fears about what others are like (those browner than myself, and poorer!), more often than not it had led me to a better, stronger, more confident place. It’s been an educational experience, and exciting. (Why journey to a Third World when you can meet families from almost every nation right in your own hometown?)
Commitment: Your book ends on a dynamically positive note: your daughter attends the public school you once feared and you end up loving the school you tried to escape. Your optimism and genuine love for the school and the women who worked to help the children was moving. When you entered that school, instead of fear, you found a community of love. What did this school give you that you didn't expect? What did it teach you? How did becoming involved in this school empower you?
Sandra: When I actually WALKED IN to my corner public elementary, the one newspaper headlines had (vaguely) screamed at me to fear, I found that, invisibly knitting communities together, day by day, minute by minute, bandaid by bandaid, are women. . . Teachers, mothers, aides, nurses, etc. who tirelessly do the work of bonding, and whom are rarely if ever celebrated in the media.
In the newspaper, you’re always reading about politicians and legislators and con men and criminals and lawsuits, never about the people--particularly the women--who simply show up, every day, in our communities, they open the doors, turn on the lights, wipe the noses, cut up the fruit, etc. Once I glimpsed that Charlotte’s Web--that spider web--of women, I started to see these tireless, helpful (sometimes smiling, sometimes admittedly worried-looking) women everywhere in my world. I found it inspiring, and I found I enjoyed being that in my school community as well.
I think of my own volunteer work at my school as a kind of cheerful tithing I send out to my community as thanks for the fact that, as a female, I WAS lucky enough to be born into an age where I have had many many opportunities for self-determination. That said, to be candid, my flavor of volunteerism is that I am helpful but I am also just a little bit (a lot?) bossy.
Commitment: In your book, you write that for the past decade or so you were asleep, and you went from being a "napping, well-creamed girl" to a "pioneer woman." What woke you up and brought you back to your own strength?
Sandra: Well, it was this horrible moment when I was sitting in the middle of a roomful of professional parents at a tour for a very very lovely private elementary. A parent asked if any of the graduating students went on to public middle schools, and the wonderful compassionate (former lawyer, now headmaster) director said simply, ‘No one goes to public school--you can’t any more.’ And I realized if that were true in America (a First World country!), our problems were a lot bigger than the simple question of where our one relatively privileged child was going to go to kindergarten. If that was really true, things were so desperate we should burst from the building and start picketing in the streets!
And in that horrible moment, I thought, ‘Oh no. . . That uncomfortable new stabbing feeling in my stomach. . . That appears to be--oh no!--my. . . Conscience! Oh no--THIS is bad news! I have a conscience! Do we have to be the first family we know to go to. . . public school?’ It was an entirely unwelcome development, as I’m a sloppy irresponsible person with very few inspiring values who enjoys flopping back on the couch with a cosmopolitan. As my life (and books) have indicated up until this point, I am very much NOT a freedom fighter. Isnít Nelson Mandela available to lead this fight? I’m tired! But no.
Commitment: You were fired from your job as a literary commentator on a public radio station in Los Angeles for obscenity, and you became a celebrity for free speech in the process. How did this experience change your life?
Sandra: Until 42, when I was fired and had 15 minutes of media fame, I had written four books, five one person shows, two that ran off-Broadway, I had been in magazines and radio for over 10 years. . . But it wasn’t until I said that one word--the f-word--that I suddenly got this huge spate of national fame. I realized, in a way, how relatively little the media had valued all of my previous 100,000,000 words! But in fact, I had had enough relative celebrity (I’d been in People Magazine at the age of 25 for being a performance artist) to know it doesn’t last forever, use it while you can, perhaps to open the window for some good beyond yourself, and even though perhaps it ís not what YOU would pick to go on your tombstone, accept that it is part of your ‘myth,’ and be glad you have a ‘myth’ at all!
Commitment: Your dinner with your therapist Sandre was hilarious. Did you really say to her, "Don't f----medicate me with chamomile herbal tea packets....and FEAR!!!!!" What change came over you that you felt she didn't fully understand?
Sandra: As my husband is sometimes fond of saying, ‘There IS such a thing as too LITTLE stress.’ Well, I took a few liberties with that passage (I never officially fired my therapist, who is a very nice lady). But some of contemporary therapy assumes such fragility on the part of the patients. . . When in fact those patients probably just need to get their asses kicked, reminded that they are incredibly LUCKY PRIVILEGED people, and that maybe if they just volunteered their time and helped those less fortunate, they would have a sense of GRATITUDE instead of a misplaced sense of VICTIMIZATION.
I really do feel the women’s movement has become commodified in our magazines, instead ‘I think therefore I am,’ it has become ‘I feel therefore I buy.’ Its actually fun to make a plan to help and do good in your community--its creative, its fascinating, its empowering. . . Much more so than going to therapy and complaining that one has no focus.
Commitment: I love when you wrote, "optimism is the only worldview our family can afford." Can you explain that?
Sandra: In times of the apocalypse, when banks are collapsing around us, we finally realize that ‘dog eat dog’ competition DOES NOT WORK.
I think we are coming off a few decades where more affluent and privileged (and educated!) families simply swiped the VISA to solve their problems as they moved farther and farther out of their communities and their town squares (either physically or emotionally). The result is a kind of cultural strip-mining, where our public institutions (places like our public libraries, our public parks and our public schools) are denuded. They need help.
I call MY generation (I’m born in 1962--making me either a young boomer or a very old Gen X'er) not Soccer Moms but ‘Soccer Apocalypse Moms’--our kids will play soccer if we hand stitch the soccer ball, dig the field and hammer in the goalposts. . . OURSELVES! Our kids will have a ‘middle-class life’ only if we rejoin our public institutions and learn to partner with others in our community. No man (or woman) is an island. Not any more. We can’t afford. We have to believe democracy, our country (and Jefferson’s ideal of quality public education!) can work.
Commitment: You wrote about the unexpected joy of motherhood, and how fame didn't always bring you the magic protection you imagined. What do you find you most enjoy about your children that you didn't expect, and how was fame different than you imagined?
Sandra: I was a person who never particularly liked children, was attracted to them, or understood them. I used to joke that at Halloween I would fling the candy out the security hatch, in terror. I was the youngest child in my family, and was never around younger children. When that first baby came out, though (having children was my husband’s idea--he promised he would take care of them, he ís very nurturing, so I said okay!), the hormones took over.
As soon as I held that baby and started nursing her and she latched right on, as though I knew what I was doing--that was it. While I still consider myself an unconventional, even C+ mother, definitely not in the Martha Stewart mold (my kids pop open their own Chef Boyardee and watch cartoons, my minivan is ankle-high in old MacDonaldís wrappers) I love my kids and really enjoy them as the small quirky people they are. And ultimately, I would rather talk to any kid at a party than a stuffy boring adult.
Fame I thought was this magical golden cape that would make me instantly lovable in every room I entered. . . In fact, it creates a new set of responsibilities--of people constantly asking you for things (to host a free benefit, for example)--as well as, sometimes, new kinds of resentments from people because they perceive, not always correctly, that you are wearing this cape of eternal ease and invincibility. That said, I feel extremely lucky that I have gotten to create work I’ve been passionate about.
While we are not incredibly wealthy people, we’re paid enough so we can continue to have the freedom (well, some!) to continue doing the work we’re passionate about while spending lots of time with our children. Sometimes (she said, facing a three week long Christmas break!) it feels like too much time. But its time I’ll never regret.
Sandra Tsing Loh is an NPR commentator, an Atlantic Monthly contributor, and a successful performance artist. She is the author of four previous books.
To Purchase Mother On Fire click here.