Both writers depict a country where pragmatic anxieties — think of the children! think of the mortgage! — are forever trumping romance and dulling the libido. Theirs is a nation of nesters who have clipped their own wings.
So which is the real America? Is it Tsing Loh's dystopia, where everyone "works" grimly on their relationships, and post-feminist husbands happily cook saffron-infused porcini risotto but rarely practice seduction on their wives? Or is it tabloid country: The land of Jon minus Kate, and governors who vanish to "hike the Appalachian Trail" — not to mention gossip-column fixtures like Britney Spears (rumored last week to be contemplating her third marriage in six years) and the mistress-parading Mel Gibson?
One possible answer is that our stars and politicians are a species apart — more impulsive and incautious than the average Dick and Jane, and more libidinous as well.
But the evidence suggests the opposite. The high-wire love lives of a Jon Gosselin or a Mark Sanford — or a Spears, or even a Lindsey Lohan — are remarkably true to the America that watches their shows, buys their CDs, and votes them into office. It's the highly-educated, highly risk-averse milieu lamented by Nehring and Tsing Loh that's a world unto itself.
Their complaints about this world's romance deficit are substantially overstated, obviously — and shot through with a dash of self-justification. (Tsing Loh had an affair; Nehring recently became an unwed mother.) But both do put their finger on a post-sexual revolution paradox — namely, that the same overclass that was once most invested in erotic experimentation ended up building the sturdiest walls against the passions it unleashed.
As Nehring observes, our hyper-educated, socially-liberal elite is considerably more romantically conservative than its blasé attitude toward pornography or premarital sex would lead you to expect. The difficult scramble up the meritocratic ladder tends to discourage wild passions and death-defying flings. For bright young overachievers, there's often a definite tameness to the way that collegiate "safe sex" segues into the upwardly-mobile security of "companionate marriages" — or, if you're feeling more cynical, "consumption partnerships."
This tameness has beneficial social consequences: When it comes to divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births, Americans with graduate degrees are still living in the 1950s. It's the rest of the country that marries impulsively, divorces frequently, and bears a rising percentage of its children outside marriage. Indeed, if you're looking for modern-day Percy Shelleys or Mary Wollstonecrafts (to pluck a pair of Nehring's romantic risk-takers), you're more likely to find them in Middle America than among the environmental lawyers and documentary filmmakers who populate Tsing Loh's depressing social world.
Better, perhaps, if this dynamic were reversed. Our meritocrats could stand to leaven their careerism with a little more romantic excess. (Though such excess is more appropriate in the young, it should be emphasized, than in middle-aged essayists and parents.) But most Americans, particularly those of modest means, would benefit from greater caution and stability in their romantic entanglements.
Maybe this reversal could start with some creative matchmaking across lines of class and politics. The dutiful, somewhat-boring husbands from Sandra Tsing Loh's Los Angeles, for instance, sound like ideal soulmates for Kate Gosselin, the soon-to-be-single mother of eight.
And as for Cristina Nehring, who can't live without being "derailed by love, hospitalized by love, flung around five continents, shaken, overjoyed, inspired and unsettled by love" — well, maybe someone should introduce her to Mark Sanford.