Selecting schools in L.A. is the seventh circle of hell. The process is so unnervingly difficult that even the most Zen of parents can be worked into frightened paranoiacs, usually around the time their kids are learning to put on their own underwear.
Should they send their spawn to private school or public? Pay the exorbitant tuition that will sequester them amongst the children of the monied and educated or pay nothing and throw them to the wolves with the kids of the working class?
So many decisions. All of them frustrating.
Sandra Tsing Loh has been there. She’s also been quite vocal about her experience. The public radio commentator, performance artist and writer has talked about it on the air. She’s performed it in a one-woman show. And she’s written about it. And written about it. And written about it, most recently -- and thoroughly -- in her new memoir, “Mother on Fire.”
Until 2004, Loh was a marginally famous humorist. Then she “exploded into flames,” as she writes on the book’s opening page, transforming herself into the foaming mouthpiece of dissent and outrage over the state of public education in the U.S. Loh was 42 at the time -- a working and married mother of two young girls who was on the prowl for a good kindergarten.
Ask any educated, middle-class parent in L.A. who happened to buy real estate in a neighborhood with low-scoring public schools: It ain’t easy. Loh lives in “the Nuys,” a.k.a. Van Nuys, but it could be almost anywhere in this sprawling megalopolis that 12 million of us call home. Loh’s local elementary school is populated with students who have yet to learn English. The lawn that rings the facility “isn’t emerald-green lush” but “hairy, weedy, leathery crabgrass that is much like Don King’s hair.”
Loh’s story is the classic comic tragedy of L.A. She’s famous but not famous enough for her children to be granted access to the most premium of schools. Even if her daughters had been waved through in a puff of magic fairy dust, she and her musician husband wouldn’t have been able to afford the $20,000-plus annual tuition per child per year -- and that’s just for kindergarten. That fee would likely double for high school.
So off Loh goes with her husband, braving the wilds of the woolly Los Angeles Unified School District -- a beast so foul it often inspires tears. In Loh’s comedically gifted hands, however, LAUSD is also hugely entertaining as Loh attaches herself to alpha mothers who are trying to game the system and does her own research into just how bad the system really is.
It’s really, really bad, of course, which makes it all the funnier. Reading “Mother on Fire,” you can almost hear Loh speaking the words out loud. The text shares the same cadence and comedic timing as her radio commentaries. Loh is a cunning linguist who’s honed her craft over 20 years, and it shows. Her language is imaginatively twisted and fearless in its presentation of inconvenient truths about life in sprawling, status-conscious L.A. -- whether it be schools, which is the main through line of the book, or her personal life.
“Yea, we can hold it together in our thirties with a raft of hair products . . . ,” writes Loh, who is now 46. “Come the forties, though, cracks begin to appear.”
A good amount of space in “Mother on Fire” explores those cracks, with Loh musing on her own midlife reassessment of who she is, where she is and what she values: wife, mother, friend, artist. Like most middle-aged women, Loh wears a lot of hats, and those hats have started to morph with the inevitable drift of pre-motherhood friendships, the auto-piloting of a long-lasting marriage, the emotional divides among friends caused by disparate incomes and the transformation of middle-aged bodies into barely recognizable incarnations of their former selves.
Chock-full of relatable moments -- many of them laugh-out-loud funny -- “Mother on Fire” is likely to resonate with fellow left-leaning, middle-class, stressed-out moms -- particularly those who live in L.A., which is its own special freak show. It’s also likely to resonate with fans of Loh’s radio and theater work or anyone who wants to know the lowdown on Loh, because there’s a good amount of autobiographical information.
Loh, whose ancestry is half-Chinese, half-German, was raised in Malibu. Her father is an eccentric, Dumpster-diving Chinese immigrant. Loh went to Caltech, where she earned an undergraduate degree in, of all things, physics. Although physics and humor don’t often go hand in hand, it was at Caltech that Loh began writing the comedic essays that would later jell into a career. (One of those essays is included in the book.)
Of particular interest is Loh’s side of the incident that brought her national attention in 2004.
After uttering an obscenity during a pre-recorded commentary on Santa Monica public radio station KCRW-FM, she was fired -- a situation that not only catapulted Loh to fame as a 1st Amendment poster child but had the perverse, and utterly L.A., effect of granting her access to one of L.A.'s most elite private schools for her elder daughter.
Throughout “Mother on Fire,” Loh does an excellent job of weaving back and forth between her professional and parenting lives with one exception.
To bridge the psychological divide between the “wheels-came-off” Loh at the beginning of the book and the optimistic note with which it concludes, she employs a cliche: that emotional progression is addressed with a long chapter that takes place in her therapist’s office, a device which is a little too trite for such an original voice and outside-the-box thinker.