Sandra Tsing Loh takes on menopause — and laughs about it

Photo by Ben Gibbs / The Broad Stage Sandra Tsing Loh hams it up about a difficult time in her life. Photo by Ben Gibbs courtesy of The Broad Stage.

Photo by Ben Gibbs / The Broad Stage
Sandra Tsing Loh hams it up about a difficult time in her life. Photo by Ben Gibbs courtesy of The Broad Stage.

A bold, brazen and whip-smart chronicler of 21st-century life, Sandra Tsing Loh is perhaps best known in Los Angeles for her radio work — a two-minute daily segment on scientific news titled “The Loh Down on Science” and a syndicated weekly commentary called “The Loh Life.”

Loh launched her radio career at KCRW 89.9 FM in Santa Monica and gained national notoriety when she was fired from the station in 2004 after letting an F-bomb air during the broadcast of a recorded segment. Loh, a graduate of Santa Monica High School and Caltech, said she had intended for the word to be censored and that her sound engineer had simply forgotten to do so. Loh was later picked up by crosstown public radio rival KPCC, where she continues to produce her programs.

An experienced performance artist, author of numerous books and a mom, Loh is also a contributing editor for The Atlantic. In a 2009 Atlantic article she confessed to having an affair and wrote about deciding to end her 20-year marriage. In 2011 she wrote for the magazine about her journey through menopause.

Loh’s new stage show “The B**** is Back: An All-Too Intimate Evening” (that’s the title; we didn’t censor it), opening tonight in Santa Monica, builds on her Atlantic article of the same name and her related 2014 memoir “Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones,” one of The New York Times’ Top 100 Notable Books last year.

Loh performs her show at The Edye, the intimate 43’-by-43’ blackbox theater within The Broad Stage complex, which she’s had outfitted with cabaret-style tables and adult beverages. She spoke with The Argonaut about her show, rejecting kale and Eckhart Tolle, rediscovering the spirit of feminism and weathering the “heroic journey” of menopause.

— Jenny Lower

Where are you currently on the menopause roller coaster?

I’m through it. I’m 53. It was most traumatic at the second half of my 40s. As soon as I hit 50, everything started calming down. You kind of hit that smooth cruising altitude. It’s really quite fantastic.

What is going on in your body while you’re going through those changes?

What’s interesting is that in menopause, a woman’s hormone levels return to what they were when she was a preteen girl. So you’re given your old hormonal package back. Menopausal women have a little more free testosterone — woohoo!

That also provokes this big idea that menopause was thought to be ‘The Change’: You’re a lovely, useful person, and then you were changed into a monster, and now you’re a dried-out husk and you’re no longer useful and we can all throw you away! In 1900 the average life- span of a U.S. citizen was 48 years. Now, women live into their 80s, 90s and beyond. Since we’re only fertile that middle third of our lives, we’re not in the egg-making business. That doesn’t define us.

How do you want your show to change the conversation about menopause?

It’s a good time to change that conversation now, just because the statistics are so huge. One in two American women is menopausal or beyond. Over 50% of American females are 45 or older. When you get a bunch of women in the room, you admit how hard it can be just to get through the day. Women do that really well as a tribe. They can bond, they can lift each other up, and it’s a really fantastic experience. I always thought that I a little bit missed the fun and fire of women’s liberation or feminism. But in doing this particular show, I started to feel some of that spirit.

The good thing about pausing and stepping back is you can ask, “Are we women crazy, or is the world around us kind of crazy?” Many women report at 50 going, “There’s a whole bunch of crap I don’t need to do anymore. I’m not going to be the PTA mom; I’m not going to make those cupcakes.” There’s sometimes the notion that if the mother doesn’t cook from scratch a family dinner that everyone sits down to eat at the same time, you’re contributing to the breakup of the family or Type 2 diabetes. Some days it’s just like, “Mom’s going to bed, you can all find food. There’s Kettle Chips. You’ll be fine.”

What was the most surprising symptom you went through in menopause?

The most surprising thing was these out-of-whack moods that felt like nothing I’d ever felt before. I felt like I was either having a nervous breakdown or turning into another human being. I would take a yellow legal pad and do hash marks — 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock, like a number line — and I’d shade in the hours as they went just to chart my progress through the horror of the day. Not everybody goes through that. I did, and it could have been addressed much earlier with a low-level antidepressant.

Did you have a sense of humor or self-awareness about it at the time?

Not until later. I’ve talked before about this moment on the freeway, where my mood really plunged and I had to pull off to the side of the road. Every time I tell this, we’re laughing through the whole thing, which is not accurate to what it was. But then when you pull apart what you were really upset about — “My United air miles might expire!” — sometimes we can get really upset over things that are trivial. If I’d had some perspective that would have helped, but I didn’t then.

What was the worst advice you received during menopause?  

There are many classes of bad advice. There are some people who just do the St. John’s wort and the black cohosh tea. That just did not work. I think, unfortunately, men give pretty bad advice. They mean their very best, but they have no idea what it is to live inside our bodies. “Here’s an Eckhart Tolle CD. It’s because you have a monkey brain. You should sit down in a quiet room for an hour or two and meditate.” I already have a suffocating feeling just thinking about that.

Famously, menopause doctors will all say, “To even out your symptoms just cut out alcohol, sugar and caffeine.” That’s all that gets some of us through the day. Now, I will put my head in the oven at cocktail hour.

I was reading all these menopause books, and I was noticing the health advice to menopausal women: Do yoga, drink eight glasses of water, take walks, eat kale. They’re always talking us down, when sometimes what you need is a big disruption. Maybe not like having an extramarital affair — but maybe. Maybe some really kinky, disgusting sex is what will eliminate your lower back pain.

Do you see that as condescending, like women’s health concerns are not taken seriously?

I think it is patronizing, because women are these creatures that experience a huge bandwidth of stuff. We have these big, epic lives of what we feel. What you go through with menopause and the changes, it’s like a vampire tale or a pirate tale. There’s big stuff that goes on. It’s like a heroic journey, and [the advice is] all just “eat some kale and put on a lavender mask and try to be very, very quiet.” I don’t know why that is. Maybe they’re afraid of when women act out, what they’re going to do.

We kind of depend on women to stay in their place so everyone else’s lives can function.

Oh yeah. When women start hurling the leg of lamb out the plate glass window, they’re finally coming into their own — and recognizing and coming back to themselves when they were younger, before this estrogen cloud came down and they started serving all these people.

And it’s true that sometimes we take it on because we have the inclination to help out or multitask, or we do things better than other people. But women have a lot on their plates now. People can pitch in, or lower their standards. Like laundry. Why do we fold socks? Really? There’s a lot of stuff we can skip.

The show is billed for mature audiences, and some people may know your name from the kerfuffle with KCRW. Does that give you freedom to be a little more candid?

The irony is that when I said that word, it was meant to be bleeped out. I was not trying to make a point about anything.

But in a way, it’s fun to return to that sort of idea for this show, because when you’re 50 or older, you care less and less. The title originally came from the Atlantic Monthly piece. It was something they came up with, and it literally means, yeah — that Mother Teresa came to visit for 30 years, and now I’m bitchy and self-centered like everyone else on the planet, and I want my meals brought to me. Everyone’s natural inclination is to kind of do your own thing and not really tend to or nurture all these other people. That’s where you start, and that’s where you return, and it’s fine.

[The show is] not X-rated or R-rated. My daughters will come, and they’re 13 and 14. There is part of the spirit that’s like, we’re going to be badass and kick down some doors and be fun.

What do you hope people take away from your show?

I want audiences to feel uplifted — like they’ve bonded and shared and been in a room where we all understood each other and we all acknowledged it — and come out really hopeful and excited and going, “We’re actually living in a pretty interesting time of life. It’s a pretty cool time to be alive.”

It’s wonderful. It’s surprising. It’s awesome. It’s funny. It’s good. My menopause journey definitely started in the toilet, but by the end it was a whole new perspective and appreciation of life.

“The B**** is Back: An All-Too Intimate Evening” opens at 8 p.m. Thursday and continues Thursdays through Sundays through Aug. 2 in The Edye at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica.
Tickets are $30 to $65. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.com.

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