Monkey moms

I don’t remember much from college. I bounced around—three universities, multiple majors, spotty grades—but I do remember the rhesus monkeys. In one of my psychology classes we read about a bonding experiment in which baby monkeys were given the choice of two surrogate “mothers.” One was made of wire but had a bottle of food attached to “her” front. The other was made from soft terry cloth material, but no food. The monkey would curl almost exclusively on the terry “mother,” only resorting to the feeding “mother” when he was driven there by hunger. It appears from this study that baby monkeys prefer comfort as much as nourishment. 

I was impressed with this story, especially since I was feeling out of place most of the time. I began to wonder where terry cloth fell on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, how belonging fit between eating pasta and wanting to be Madeline Albright?

This past week I have been on a long work trip, seven days straight, twelve days traveling in an eighteen-day period. I suppose for some this is routine, but for me it is an extended stretch relying on the wire “mother.” Isolated from all the stuff that I cling to–my family, my bookshelves, my roses, my car, my pillow, my dishes, my fabric–I find myself acting differently. With no stuff or people to give me psychic shape, I fear that the edges of my identity might blur in the void. It isn’t rational, but in reaction I become more exaggerated than the home version, perhaps more than protocol recommends. 

I wear a pair of converse sneakers with peace signs patterned all over the canvas. Inevitably someone comments on them. “Nice/ great/ interesting/ love your shoes.” Other people glare. Most just flick their eyes from the grey streaked hair to the high top shoes and probably think, “Good God, woman, give those back to your twelve-year-old and buy some Easy Spirits.” I like them because they are slipper comfortable, because they never come untied, because they deliver their message in an instant–a message, incidentally, that conflicts with many of the yellow ribbon beliefs of the natives.

Wearing these shoes I walk up to a group of coworkers having a casual meeting outside around a patio table. I need to touch base with their discussion leader about some logistical detail. I lean over a chair and jokingly ask them to “chat among yourselves for a minute,” then, without thinking, wave an imaginary wand and say, “Muffliado!” This random Harry Potter reference is recognized by two people, but the others look blank. I grin but don’t explain.

I sit in a hotel room wearing sweats. DVDs and CDs of music and recorded books litter the bed, along with a shopping bag of new T-shirts, papers filled with scribbled notes, and cross word books. On a desk as prominent as an altar, the lap top is open. I am surfing the net at midnight, trying to reassemble, but slightly out of sync, the random pieces not quite matching the soundtrack. I think, I just need to be myself, but I act without a press secretary. In lieu of context, I am driven to create my own setting, amp up the quirky signals, and reach out with cavalier abandon, padding my terry “mother.”

At last, I sit in a bar and with a loquaciousness fueled by excellent crab cakes and red wine, swap life stories with a simpatico but relative stranger. We would become friends anyway, but this week, I accelerate the process, sharing more time and information than I might in another circumstance. The next day we speak a new language to one another, a verbal abbreviation that indicates we have quickly moved from the banality of acquaintance to a risky and compulsive familiarity. The authenticity of the connection is heady, a rush of definition.

In spite of my clear memory of the poor little monkey and his foster “mothers,” real rhesus moms and their babies are equally facinating. I love to watch them groom, always petting and combing, finding an occasional insect and nibbling it away, both relieving the host of a pest and providing a snack for the parent. Neither the wire feeding “mom” nor the terry comfort “mom” can provide this behavior so characteristic of simian kinship. Only the flesh and blood mom can find what lies beneath and respond with practical intimacy. 

I wear my fun shoes, quote obscure lines to entertain myself, and carry far more diversions than necessary, but in the end they are all just place-holders for the real thing. I forget, and then remember, that it is the humans that keep us recognizable to ourselves. The grooming of words and touch and habits in the day-to-day point out and temper our eccentricities. I am more dependent on this than I expect, longing to leave the sensation of wire and cloth, back to my usual skin.      

4 responses to “Monkey moms”

  1. bryan says:

    this is implicitly your point, i take it, but i was struck immediately when i started reading this that the experiment itself is so reductive in its understanding of what a parent provides. simply sustenance? simply softness? as if wrapping up in terry cloth is a substitute for parental comfort? (hmm … american culture in the 70s is starting to make more sense to me.)

    your bit about the monkey moms getting nourishment from the little bugs even while they do their children the service of grooming them was a nice antidote to the coldness of the original experiment.

    so does your new friend count as human or as terry cloth?

  2. MF says:

    I logged onto TGW this morning (afternoon for me since I’m in London) to read your post; to find some of the comfort of a good friend while I’m away. Imagine my pleasure and surprise to find your post to be about just that!

    I’ve been here in London 24 of the past 30 days on a project for work. Just like you, I brought a set of comforts: loose tea, knitting bag, ipod and running shoes. But, just like you, they don’t fill the gap completely. Only a little as it happens. And I wonder which are the ways I act differently while I’m away. I’m not sure. I’ll have to think about that.

    I have traveled for extended periods a lot in my life. I have a relatively easy time of compartmentalizing and enjoying my time away without getting terribly lonely. Except for the times that I don’t, which is now. I was supposed to be here for an extended period, but I just got notice that another client in New York has requested me and so it looks like I’ll be there for a while. I had just started to make the kind of friends that you mentioned, surrogates to the friends and family I have back home, but it looks like I’ll get to come back to the real ones. Yeah!

  3. bryan says:

    wait — and what does “mufflio” mean? to shut up? or to started talking all at once?

  4. pb says:

    Bryan, Muffliado is a spell Harry uses so that no one else can hear him, it “stuffs” the ears of listeners. And my new friend is so very human, a spark of real amid the terry.

    MF–I am so happy to hear from you!!! I agree that loneliness isn’t always quite the issue. It is part of it, but for me it is the being known piece.

    On my way home today, I am sure lots and lots of bugs to pick.