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Sandra Tsing Loh, the sanest madwoman in quarantine

Sandra Tsing Loh, author of "The Madwoman and the Roomba" at home in Pasadena.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Sandra Tsing Loh is a textbook model of the cross-platform artist. She’s mined her family history growing up in Malibu for radio commentaries and books — one of which, her 2014 menopause chronicle “The Madwoman in the Volvo,” has become a play. She’s parlayed a bachelor’s degree in physics from Caltech into a sideline as the host of “The Loh Down on Science,” the “radio science minute” she’s hosted since 2005, which in turn has sparked additional podcasts, including a “Special Pandemic Edition” that’s been running since April 22.

But at the opening of her new memoir, “The Madwoman and the Roomba,” she is feeling scattered. “My 55th year was more like living a disorganized 25-year-old’s life in a malfunctioning 85-year-old’s body,” she writes. Outwardly she’s doing fine: She lives in Pasadena in a bespoke 1906 Craftsman home and keeps busy with writing, teaching and radio projects. But a tax audit approaches. Her daughters’ high school GPAs haunt her. (“Is there a UC below Merced?”) And her taste in creature comforts has become déclassé, from the spa-grade massage chair she installs in her living room to her newly beloved harem pants. (“I look at the tag and see those four magical words: ‘One Size Fits All.’”)

Though the coronavirus has scotched Loh’s plans for a book tour, it’s made her weird-homebody vibes a little more relatable. “I might do curbside pickup for autographed books,” she says. “I’ll add a free pair of harem pants.” Loh spoke via Zoom from her home.

What’s your routine like now?

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I’ve realized that my week was glued together by going to the gym. I needed to spin and sweat and do the steam room to structure my week. It’s been this kind of slow-motion peeling away of the layers to see parts of your ordinary daily life that you took for granted. Suddenly, going to the grocery store has become a huge expedition, like going to Magic Mountain. The colors of the peppers! It’s so exciting now. All we can do is buy food and make it into more and more things and gain weight.

Is the massage chair providing any comfort?

Do you want to see it? [Walks computer to the next room.] Isn’t it large? [Presses buttons demonstrating its various functions.] It’s like a clamshell that encases you in its labial folds. We use it all the time. I can turn on the chair and put on spa music.

You created the Pandemic Edition in April. What inspired the shift?

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I was thinking about the K-12 kids stuck at home. If you are the next generation of engineers, virologists, urban planners, computer designers, etc., maybe you can devise a way to get us all out of here and back to life. I thought this edition should be the history and science of pandemics, and one lesson is that pandemics end. The human race thus far has always won.

Sandra Tsing Loh's "The Madwoman and the Roomba."
(W. W. Norton & Co.)

The show is planned for eight weeks. Will you extend it?

We could, but I’m managing a volunteer squad right now. Scientists are perfectionistic and driven, and if I’ve learned anything over the 16 years, it’s that I have to pay attention that people don’t burn out.

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You started the year with an additional podcast, “Sleepless in Los Angeles.”

Before the pandemic, I’d wanted to do a series that would be a year in the life, kind of like a magazine, or how “Roomba” and “A Year in Van Nuys” was a year in my life. January is resolutions, February is relationships, March is house cleaning, April is taxes. I’d recorded my friend Alexandra Jacobs about her Elaine Stritch biography. We’d thrown an Elaine Stritch party at my house, complete with caftans and finger sandwiches and vodka stingers. We recorded all this stuff, but to launch it during the quarantine? I’ve had to figure out what to do instead. Hopefully in the second half of the year I’ll be able to relaunch it.

It’s been six years since your last book, “The Madwoman and the Volvo.” What motivated you to write this one?

In “Volvo,” I was 46, going through menopause, going to Burning Man, having an affair, blowing up my marriage — it was a midlife-breakdown kind of book. Here, I was just thinking about the insanity of our daily lives. A lot of it is first-world guilt. I’m buying Lamb’s-ear or kohlrabi and then it goes rotten in my refrigerator and I feel guilty.

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And household help: Barbara Ehrenreich said never to do that because you’re oppressing someone. Then your house gets really filthy and your neighbors say, “Please hire Luce because she needs more work. She’s from Guatemala, she’s terrific.” And then you do that and then you feel guilty. It’s such a series of agonizing decisions that often women are wrestling with more than men.

You write about shepherding your two daughters through high school and into college. Do you talk with them about how much you share?

I think this is the last book that I will write for a while with my kids in it. Once they tipped into teendom I talked about some things with them. To a certain extent, my kids know that mom is “making donuts” about them — we call it “making donuts” — but they don’t read my books.

About 10 years ago, you wrote an essay about one of my favorite books, Paul Fussell’s “Class.” So much of “Roomba” is concerned with the class anxiety he wrote about — your house, your possessions, where your children go to college.

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My last attempts at improving my class would have been trying to get my children into preschools; if my kids go to public school in Van Nuys, we’re not upper class. But we’re at best what Paul Fussell would call the X class, people who want to be kind of unpredictable. I’ve landed into this very large Craftsman home, which is the home of upper-class people, but it’s not a great school district. The Northridge earthquake enabled us to buy our first small bungalow in Van Nuys, and that enabled me to get a home here. We have a wine refrigerator, but we put Trader Joe’s two-buck chuck in it. The notions of class are all over the place now.

Sandra Tsing Loh stands outside her home this week
Sandra Tsing Loh, outside her home this week, is a textbook model of the cross-platform artist.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

You don’t mind visiting Arianna Huffington’s house, but you don’t aspire to owning it.

The class thing is really interesting there: She has the luxury of time to discover something called “sleep” and tell us how to do “sleep.”

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At the end of the book you write about your father’s death at 97. Was that difficult, in a humor book?

Humor collections are kind of tricky to put together because if it’s always funny, there’s the same tonality to every essay. In my father’s case, it was always a mix of stuff. He would hitchhike in Malibu on the Pacific Coast Highway when I was 14 to take me to the dentist. We had a car, but my father preferred to hitchhike because it was more fun and more cheap. Some mom would slow down her woodie station wagon and go, “Sandra, are you OK?” And then my dad would leap out and go, “Two for the price of one!” That’s sort of a funny story now, but it was awful. It was so painful and awful.

When I finally got the call, I almost couldn’t believe it. It’s like he’s finally matriculated. He’d had Parkinson’s for 10 years. When he died, part of me thought, “Well, that’s great. That’s the end of the book.” The seasons of life.

Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”


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