Is the Atlantic Magazine Making Its Readers More Stupid?
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On the other end of the reportorial spectrum from Bolick and Rosin are Caitlin Flanagan and Sandra Tsing Loh. I will say that as soon as The Atlantic arrives in my mailbox (I have been a subscriber for many years), I immediately look to see if Flanagan or Loh has a column inside. I will likely read the Flanagan first, because I need to know how much she’s going to piss me off (or, with equal likelihood, make me nod in startled, guilty, agreement) and because her prose style goes down just a bit more easily, like a smooth vodka. Her choice of topics, or at least her treatment of them, has grown narrower lately ( Alec Baldwin rather than oral sex; Joan Didion rather than relations between working women and their nannies), but she is never dull.
Once I’ve dispatched Flanagan (and more on her in a moment), it’s Loh who delivers the goods. This woman is so out there — so honestly emotionally messy, so wonderfully observant about what it’s like to be a wife, mother, and daughter today. From her March 2012 article on being responsible for her increasingly aged and enduringly ornery father:
Recently a colleague at my radio station asked me, in the most cursory way, as we were waiting for the coffee to finish brewing, how I was. To my surprise, in a motion as automatic as the reflex of a mussel being poked, my body bent double and I heard myself screaming:
“I WAAAAAAAANT MY FATHERRRRRR TO DIEEEEE!!!”
Startled, and subtly stepping back to put a bit more distance between us, my co-worker asked what I meant.
“What I mean, Rob, is that even if, while howling like a banshee, I tore my 91-year-old father limb from limb with my own hands in the town square, I believe no jury of my peers would convict me. Indeed, if they knew all the facts, I believe any group of sensible, sane individuals would actually roll up their shirtsleeves and pitch in.
What, er, balls! My parents are in their seventies and quite healthy, knock wood, but reading Loh’s piece, I feel that when sickness and deep old age finally visit them, and I fail in ways large and small to be the Ur-Nurturer of my ideals, I have in effect been pre-forgiven. Loh was there before me, screaming in the coffee nook.
More somber, and even more naked, was Loh’s July/August 2009 column on the contradictions of contemporary marriage, “ Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”:
Sadly, and to my horror, I am divorcing. This was a 20-year partnership. My husband is a good man, though he did travel 20 weeks a year for work. I am a 47-year-old woman whose commitment to monogamy, at the very end, came unglued. This turn of events was a surprise. I don’t generally even enjoy men; I had an entirely manageable life and planned to go to my grave taking with me, as I do most nights to my bed, a glass of merlot and a good book. Cataclysmically changed, I disclosed everything.
Loh often discusses books related to her column topics, and sometimes she tosses in a reference to a study or two, but research isn’t really what she’s about. Rather, God bless her, she writes straight out of her own quirky intelligence and heart, and makes no pretension to doing otherwise. The subtext of her pieces is: This is what it looks like to me, and maybe some of my friends. If you relate, welcome to the club. If you don’t — hey, turn the page.