Loh has left him feeling jilted

For years, I've enjoyed Sandra Tsing Loh's public radio riffs and her witty-pithy (she might call them "withy") essays on the struggles of juggling work, kids and marriage.

She could be that smart friend who had you snorting with laughter on the commute home, exposing the absurdities of modern life. It was a seamless blending of art and life, animated with an unflagging honesty.

That changed for me in recent days with the publication of "The Case Against Marriage," which left me feeling oddly defensive on behalf of her husband, deflated on behalf of identity-challenged men and less than sanguine with the notion that the personal necessarily must become political.

Loh admits she had an affair and that she and her husband are divorcing after some two decades together, in the lengthy disquisition featured in the July-August edition of the Atlantic.

What's more, she urges the rest of us to "avoid marriage -- or you too may suffer the emotional pain, the humiliation, and the logistical difficulty, not to mention the expense, of breaking up a long-term union at midlife for something as demonstrably fleeting as love."

I suspect I will not be the only Loh fan dismayed by a piece of work that simultaneously goes too far -- letting the "flaming jet fuselage" of her own wrecked relationship cloud all marriage -- and not far enough -- failing to address any of the specific details that sent her partnership into a tailspin.

The result is a piece that's thoroughly provocative and strangely bloodless, the anti-marriage burden of proof foisted on a few didactic authors and the anonymous tales of a pair of Loh's unhappy, sex-starved friends.

Loh doubtless experienced the "regret, suffering and bent over double weeping" she described in an accompanying video. I'm sure she spared us many of the details in an attempt to cushion the blow for her family, particularly her husband. But you can't help but wonder if she does as much damage letting the general speak for the specific.

The essay and Loh's take on marriage will no doubt provoke much discussion, particularly in Los Angeles, the setting for most of her long run of books (most recently "Mother on Fire"), solo shows and regular radio bon mots, currently featured on KPCC-FM (89.3) in "The Loh Down on Science" and "The Loh Life."

In an interview Tuesday, the 47-year-old Loh said her breakup has already triggered both empathy and disdain. Supporters include women who "do a lot of secret self-examination, but are afraid to utter aloud" their misgivings about marriage.

Detractors accuse her of harming, or leaving, her children -- daughters, 7 and 9 -- to which she responds: "I'm not leaving my children. I see them every day."

Some, like Nate, a commenter on the Belief Net blog, just want a little more straight talk about what went wrong with her husband, a professional musician who plays with Bette Midler's band and whom she described as being on the road 20 weeks a year.

"Why not address her own story first," Nate argued. "She is not the first nor likely to be the last to [cheat] while married."

Loh said Tuesday that she's single now, departed from the Valley home she shared with her husband and daughters. The affair lasted "not very long," but she declines to elaborate about her "fellow transgressor."

She had felt "the gradual, continental sinking of the self," combined with the frustrations of feeling like a "virtual single parent" because of her husband's extended time on the road.

An epiphany came last year when she camped out in Sacramento to protest school budget cuts and realized how much she enjoyed being in the company of other women. "It was one of the high points of my life," she told me. "I felt I was on to something." (In the essay, she writes: "I don't generally even enjoy men.")

Her husband learned of the affair and earlier this year asked for a divorce. He then packed up all of Loh's possessions in neatly labeled boxes, covered them with a tarp and left them stacked in the driveway.

He must have long since grown accustomed to having his family life sliced, diced and reprocessed on multiple Loh media platforms. Still, I couldn't help but feel the pain the latest production must have provoked.

How many times can you be labeled a "great artist and loving father" and a "worthy man" before you feel like an emasculated chump?

The other men in Loh's essay take more direct hits. They are her friends' husbands (though their identities are hidden by pseudonyms) but are disdained by their wives as less than real men.

These 21st century pantywaists follow all the new rules -- providing incomes, helping with parenting, sharing chores and cooking elaborate meals -- and in the process become domesticated, sexless drones. (Loh assures me her husband didn't fit in this category.)

The saddest commentary on the current state of love and passion, she writes, is that "the best foreplay is the empty dishwasher." It's no surprise to her, then, that one magazine found that some Northern European women seek out Muslim men because of the way they embrace traditional roles.

She hesitated to tackle such fraught terrain, Loh told me, particularly intimate even by her standards. "But I really wanted to write about this," she said, "because once I plummeted in flames from this jet in the sky I became a lighthouse for people coming to me with their secret marriage stories, stuff they wouldn't and hadn't told anyone before."

She felt justified, in part, because "I always come off looking the worst and most hysterical." As to the effect on her children, on all children really, Loh cites Andrew J. Cherlin's book "The Marriage-Go-Round" and argues that the greatest danger to kids comes not from divorce but from parents rushing in and out of serial relationships, forcing children to "bond, or compete for attention, with ever new actors."

Loh suggests in her essay that her girls have come out unscathed. "Their most ardent daily fixations continue to be amassing more Pokemon cards and getting a dog named Noodles," she writes.

In our talk she was more hesitant, acknowledging "this is not an ideal situation" while continuing to argue that the stress of "dragging them around as a virtual single mother" left her angry and less than effective.

Maybe Loh lost more than she knew when she failed to find a home a few years back in South Pasadena, another episode documented in her commentaries. The little city where I live might not be perfect, but it seems to me that most of the couples we know enjoy much better than the joyless "companionate marriages" Loh dreads.

She described to me the "ghoulish compromise and a deep well of unhappiness" she sees in the vast majority of marriages. "Of married parents with children, especially small children, 10%, or less, are happy," she said.

Loh, on the other hand, feels "great" to be free of her wedding ring and sure she has made the right decision. She plans to pursue an "elegant singlehood that is more than a collapse." Yet she's sure she will be marked with "a scarlet A. . . . There's so much judgment. It's going to be horrible."

I can feel another essay, or one-woman show, or book, already taking form.

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On the Media also appears Fridays on Page A2.

james.rainey@latimes.com

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