Sarah and I have been reading Sandra Tsing Loh’s Mother on Fire: A True Motherf%#$@ Story About Parenting!— sort of stealing it back and forth from one another. It’s actually laugh out loud funny (and it takes a lot to make this grumpy old man laugh OL as opposed to just doing a sort of Cheney lip-curl of mild amusement). Sandra Loh is an NPR commentator and comic/performance artist (she does one-woman-shows); the book is partly a memoir about how she became a public-school parental activist in L.A. It’s really smart and biting about parenting and especially the insanities of parental competitiveness, gifted-children mania, and private school admissions craziness.
The “motherf%#$@” in the subtitle is less gratuitous than it may seem in that part of the plot of the memoir involves her getting fired from her gig at the L.A. NPR station for the inadvertent use of an obscenity, which ends up temporarily turning her into a cause celebre. (Coincidentally, this happened to me too — I was suspended from my college radio station for one week in a crackdown when I read something from the back of a New Jersey punk band’s record cover that contained a curse. Unaccountably, though, I did not become a first amendment hero on campus for this brave act.)
One moment I love occurs when she is bitterly regretting the quasi-bohemian life she and her husband Mike have lived in L.A. with no attention paid to property values and school districts:
And look at this house we bought. What were we thinking? It seemed so charming, this thirteen-hundred-square-foot 1926 Spanish-style bungalow. We were the sort of wide-eyed, barefoot, idealistic, Joni Mitchell-style bohemians who were so amazed we could buy a structure that we bought it without FIRST VETTING THE NEIGHBORHOOD. Our method of buying a house? Look at that sunshine! Look at that cactus! So pretty! Pretty cactus! Pretty, pretty cactus! Idiots!… We paid little attention as to whether we were doing the smart thing — moving to a good school district, next to lawyers or bankers or periodontal surgeons. Idiots, we would have insisted on NOT living next to such bourgeois sellouts! Oh, how we laughed and partied on this sagging deck, with its Chinese paper lanterns and Miles Davis records and Two Buck Chuck from Trader Joe’s.
Another hilarious recurring theme has to do with her dismayed realization that while certain friends’ children were preparing for private school exams with Baby Einstein and “kinderjazzbastics,” her own kids were engaged in random activities with no educational value:
I notice that there is quite a bit of pointless dancing around in underwear in this house, to wild keenings of jazz. There is much fussy making of messy blanket nests in discarded cardboard boxes. There is much random shampooing of bears.
Sarah and I keep chucking about the shampooing of bears. So true!
In the end the book is also inspiring in its call for upper-middle-class parents to rethink their reflexive phobia of urban public schools. Here’s an interesting interview with Loh in Salon.com.