Are You A Baboon Or A Bonobo?

competitive parents, parenting one upmanship

I’m waiting in a movie theater line behind two women who are clearly friends. And rivals.

“Max won front line seats to this weekend’s game. It’s the first month the school is offering prizes for the highest overall score and Max is their first winner. Already we can see the advantages of this new school.”

“That’s so nice for him. Jeffrey really prefers playing football to just sitting there watching it. The coach keeps telling us that Jeffrey is a natural and sure to get a Big Ten scholarship.”

“Don’t you worry about him tackling when he’s so young? I heard that high school football players can get brain damage and Jeffrey is only 14, probably smaller than the other players. It’s such a risk.”

“That’s so sweet of you to be concerned. But Jeffrey isn’t taking a risk. He’s learning to look out for himself. That makes a difference in the real world. I’m more concerned for Max, insulated by that private school from experiences that could toughen him up. He’s such a nice guy, I’m worried for him.”

Barbed remarks just kept coming from their smiling mouths.

Yes, I’m a biased observer. I prefer what’s gentle, inclusive, and nature-based. This generally works for me. I say “generally” because I’m hampered when communicating with certain people—those who one-up each over with how perfect their lives are or, conversely, spar about who has it worse. I’m well aware that it’s best to listen with empathy but sometimes I can’t help myself. I just want to get out of the way. That’s because these conversations remind me of angry primates flinging poo.

Turns out there’s something to that image. Biological anthropologist Gwen Dewar noted that the “verbal sniping, snobbery, one-ups-manship, and cruelty” of mean moms has a striking parallel in the animal kingdom. Yup, she’s talking about monkeys and apes.

Females in certain monkey societies live in dominance hierarchies. There are perks for those at the top of the social ladder such as better food and first choice of sleeping places. In bad times, higher ranking females and their offspring are more likely to survive. Social rankings don’t budge. Top monkey moms make sure their daughters share their status. Low-ranking monkey moms can’t do anything to help their daughters move from up from the bottom. And middle-ranking moms can only ensure that their daughters stay in that relatively comfortable spot.

This stratification happens because monkey mothers are pushy. Top monkey moms enlist their powerful relatives in an ongoing campaign to make low-ranking monkeys defer to their daughters. As Dewar puts it, “These girls learn to be snobs. To form social cliques. To harass their social inferiors and toady to their social betters.” At a young age, monkeys know who pushes and who gets pushed. They work hard to assert their own status in order to pass that status (and the survival benefits) along to their daughters.

peaceful versus pushy parents,

The analogy isn’t perfect. Humans are pushy for reasons more complex than access to food and better choices of sleeping spots. Plus, we have even more reasons not to be pushy.

But even primates are hard to categorize. Only certain species, like baboons, live in groups with the female dominance hierarchies that Dewar likened to “mean moms.” Other species are wonderfully egalitarian, with strong female alliances, like the bonobos.

Bonobos live in matriarchal peace-loving groups. One of the many ways they get along is by frequently offering each other casual sexual stimulation, which rules out suggesting bonobo style friendship to moms waiting in line at the movie theater.

Putting that particular bonobo feel-good formula aside, what primate-like politics do you observe in your fellow humans? How about you? Baboon or bonobo?

Healing Power of a Good Snort

end despair now, silly cure for bad mood, cure depression,

"Nimm dich selbst bei der Nase" ("take yourself by your nose")

 No one is upbeat all the time. Well, there are a few people but clearly they are NOT paying much attention to what’s going on around them. And admit it, none of us like their ridiculously peppy good cheer. I realize I have a lot to say about  listeningappreciating the dark stuff, the influence of our perceptions, the curative power of smiling, and dealing with life’s crap. But even the most dedicated optimist falls into a pit of despair occasionally. I’m assuming this is normal. After all, the human experience is all about contrast. Joy/pain. Elation/dread. Hope/trepidation. And we don’t come equipped with mood jumper cables to recharge us.

Or do we? Because I’ve discovered a cure for this common malaise. 

Don’t get me wrong. I know a positive attitude takes work. But sometimes all the saintly effort in the world can’t ease melancholy. And just past melancholy lurks despair. I don’t know about you, but I fall into that dreaded Pit of Futility on occasion. My efforts seem useless, my energy sapped, the meaning of life comes up for serious questioning.  I was there recently.  This was not a chuckhole of depression.  This was a pit. Until I was cured in an instant. Let me explain.

I was sliding down a precipice without the resolve to help myself.  I went on for days wearing a fake smile and false enthusiasm to cover my wretchedness.  I was so weary that I accomplished little.  I longed for a dark cave to crawl into, but found myself dragging the cave along as I went through the day’s tasks.

Then it happened.

I was out to do errands on a Tuesday in my usual hurry. The streets near our home were clogged with workers spreading that toxic stench known as asphalt. While waiting for the flagman to wave me on I developed an asphalt-related headache. I dragged through my stops without my usual energy, mentally lashing myself for not being more efficient. To top it off I forgot something on the way home and had to stop at one of those Waystations of Overpayment, the convenience store. Another confirmation that I couldn’t get my sh*t together. Great. At the convenience store I grabbed what I needed. Yes, it was toilet paper. Of course I’d forgot to order from the co-op, forcing me to buy the evil non-recycled version in a multi-pack appropriately giant sized to deal with our large household.

After my purchase was completed I began to walk out of the door. I was carrying my overstuffed purse plus the large bag with my purchase. As I stepped to cross the threshold an older gentleman hustled up in a hurry to do a kindness. He stopped directly in the doorway, awkwardly attempting to hold the door open for me from within the entranceway. That left his body in the way of my body which was already encumbered by aforementioned purse and large shopping bag.

Stepping past him involved a bit of reconfiguring. Instead of the normal space between strangers, this doorway maneuver placed our faces a few short inches apart from one another. I composed a grateful expression and prepared to deliver my depressed person’s falsely perky “thank you” when he said something.

It was a sentence, but I didn’t catch a word of it. Maybe it was garbled, maybe accented, maybe my hearing was addled by a crinkling 12 pack of toilet paper.

So I overcompensated.

I nodded and tried to look grateful while adding a cheery but short laugh to my intended “thank you.” (That cheery laugh was supposed to indicate comprehension.) I was also simultaneously turning sideways to accommodate him, my bag, my purse and myself in the door.

Somehow this was all too complicated in my low ebb state. I was performing too many exhale efforts without inhaling at the right moment. My words and my laugh got tangled. Saliva threatened to roll out. I made an effort to keep from drooling while smiling, still attempting to toss that “thank you” out.

While my facial and verbal contortions were getting mixed up, my body insisted on breathing. That inhale was unexpectedly violent.

Inches away from this elderly man’s kindly face I SNORTED. Not a delicate snort. It was a huge unintended nasal vibration with the typical horse-y sort of snort-related facial expression. It was so loud it seemed everything around me shuddered. If there were a Richter scale for vocalizations, this sound was at least a 6.9 in the scale of damage potential.

Shocked, I skittered away to my car without seeing his reaction to my nose-related doorway thuggery. I barely got the car door closed before I let loose with hysterical laughter. Tears burst out and sprung over my smile-stretched cheeks. I imagined snort echoes still reverberating in the small store. I pictured the cashier shaking her head in consternation. I practically heard this gentleman return home saying, “Mavis, the strangest thing happened…”

Urged by my imperiled continence I started the car and headed home.  I drove past the construction site braying with laughter.  The flagman waved me on with a curious look at my wide-mouthed glee.

Strangely, I felt great. The weight of angst had completely lifted. Everyone I told the story of my depression-curing snort felt great too, probably out of relief that they weren’t along on that fateful Tuesday.

It’s absurd.   Sure we grow in strength and character from our crises, but sometimes we have to shed our pretensions of strength and act like a character.  I’m telling you, there are untapped healing powers in a finely tuned snort.

The Trouble With Principles

what should a poet do, living up to one's ethics, sticking to principles,

Image courtesy of

I’m struggling with a decision that should be easily made. It isn’t a heady question of global importance. Nope. It’s much more mundane.

It’s a question of principle.


I’ve spent some time (and even more time ) writing about how the Teach & Test approach to education screws up our species’ wonderful inborn drive to seek out learning and retain that learning.

I’ve also spent a bit of time writing poetry. I authored a collaborative chapbook (long since out of print) back when I wrote poetry in partnership with nursing home residents. My poems are published here and there for the six people who read tiny literary journals and the three people who buy small press poetry anthologies. And a collection of my poetry, Tending,  has been published.

The engine fueling a non-fiction writer’s work is entirely different than the inspiration that sparks a poet’s poems into being. The non-fiction writer wants to get ideas across. The poet wants her words felt.

These two motivations probably shouldn’t tussle.

Today they are. That’s because this poet was asked something that made this non-fiction writer snort. A poem of mine, published last year in the Christian Science Monitor, has been selected for use in tens of thousands of high school assessment tests.

Yes, those same tests I rail against.

I don’t for a moment assume that my poem was selected on its merits. The piece happens to be riddled with imagery and metaphor, well suited to torture teenagers with questions designed to make them further detest poetry.

But I didn’t turn down the request right away. I’m not sure why (except that I’m a weak weak person to whom they’re offering $350 for the rights). The very concept violates my principles.

I also have the desire to let that poem stay alive. Poems live only while they’re read or when their lines are remembered. Most poems have a lifespan comparable to that of a mayfly. And yes, I have a ridiculous hope that one teen in the midst of a test might feel the poem.

I’ll probably send the official multipage form back with permission denied written where my signature should be. But I haven’t done it yet.

What would you do?

(And if you’re curious, here’s the poem.)


                        Why the Window Washer Reads Poetry   

for Michael, who carried poems in his work shirt pocket


He lowers himself

on a seat they call a cradle, rocking

in harnesses strung long-armed

from the roof.


Swiping windows clean

he spends his day

outside looking in.


Mirrors refract light into his eyes

telescopes point down

photographs face away,

layers of dust

unifying everything.


Tethered and counterbalanced

these sky janitors hang,

names stitched on blue shirts

for birds to read.

Squeegees in hand they

arc lightly back and forth across

the building’s eyes

descend a floor, dance again.


While the crew catches up

he pauses, takes a slim volume from his pocket

and balancing there,

36 stories above the street,

reads a poem or two

in which the reader is invariably placed


looking out.


Laura Grace Weldon

Imaginary Motherhood

Belakane und Feirefil by Margret Hofheinz-Döring

I’m a much better mother in my imagination than in reality.

That imaginary mother has casual grace and unflappable calm. She doesn’t speak in funny accents or talk to inanimate objects. She also has the confidence to wear a bathing suit. In public. Without scuttling around using a small hut as a beach wrap. But I digress.

In my imagination I sparkle with enthusiasm for trigonometry and better yet, can explain it. I drive everywhere for everyone without grumbling about contributing to global warming. In fact, I am the mother my teens long for. I tell them I’ve secretly been saving up for one son’s trip to New Zealand to study spiders and another son’s year long trek along the Pan-American trail. As they leave I wave goodbye cheerfully.

The real me doesn’t sparkle unless craft supplies get loose.

I’m guilty of excusing myself to hide in the bathroom when my offspring go into lengthy monologues about topics I’ll never fathom. I ply my family with goodies in a not-so-subtle way of getting them to watch the documentaries I want to watch, even though it is entirely necessity after that endless German film about Mongolian salt miners. The stories retold with great hilarity by my kids usually feature my tendency to trip over invisible objects and my exaggerated startle reflex.

In my imagination I cook using recipes instead of improvising. When my children ask, “What are we having for dinner?” I’m able to answer with the names of actual dishes. This reassures them that someone, somewhere has taste-tested the food before them. This also spares me the daily trauma of watching my offspring tolerate meals made with home grown vegetables, dark scary grains, spontaneously seasoned sauces, and no names for anything.

“Why,” my son once asked, “can’t we try the kind of macaroni and cheese that comes in a box? It’s really bright yellow!” He regretted the question instantly, because unlike that imaginary mother who laughs sweetly at such questions, the real mother explains things. Or according to the daughter in the family, she rants.

In my imagination I am never preoccupied, never busy. When sought out I’m fully attentive. When my children look up from their pursuits they find my adoring eyes, but not often enough that they think I’m creepy and plot to institutionalize me. My wonderfully creative life inspires my children to live their own dreams (while still getting their omega-3 fatty acids and sufficient rest).

The real me falls terribly short.

I kvetch. I get tears in my eyes easily, even from poignant long distance ads. I juggle obligations badly while tossing out sarcastic asides like a performing seal. I plot giant world-saving accomplishments while forgetting to water the plants. I fuss and grumble and speaking of short, I’m also shorter than everyone in the house. That can’t be right. In my imagination I am tall.

In my imagination our family spends every evening together as we used to when the kids were small, back when we snuggled on the couch reading books, making puppets out of our socks, and making up games out of nothing. Although now we wouldn’t all fit on the same couch and the kids would suffer withdrawal symptoms away from glowing screens and friends.

But still, the vision of togetherness keeps the imaginary mother in me happy. She is able to hold on to every moment of the kids’ earliest years. She builds precise memories of each squabble and laugh and each child’s way of drifting slowly toward his or her larger self because she knows the actual mother, me, never could have imagined how fast time would go by. For real.

bittersweet motherhood, children nearly grown, being a better mom,

Nachtgespräch by Margret Hofheinz-Döring