Which of us would YOU rather face in a dark, back eddy? The one on the left is an angry bull sea lion. The one on the right is, alarmingly, me . . . drawn from a photo in which I made my most angry face. Paul knows which one he’d choose since he’s experienced being pointedly threatened by both in the past. Yep. He’d choose the lobo del mar (wolf of the sea), pinnipeds-down, every time. Let’s start with that simpler scary-story first. We’ve got to back up about 15 years to when Paul and I were just becoming a couple. Don’t worry . . . Truck Nuts™ will eventually come in swingin’.
We were on our second trip from Tucson to San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico. It was early summer and this time we brought along my then 12-year-old son so the two top fellas in my life could begin to tend and befriend each other . . . good old male bonding. Zane was pupating and Paul is Paul so sure as nose hair, I tolerated many a fart joke and more. (SpellCheck just informed me that you might find that language offensive. Clearly my computer does not know us.) Paul and I were already avid snorkelers and free divers at the time but regarding a lot of marine life we still possessed quite a bit of naiveté. Since neither of us were big into cute-and-furry, easy-to-love mammals we were especially ignorant about the behavior of California Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus) (Yes, forever-adolescent fellas, there’s an anus at the end.) And that lack of knowledge was about to become a massive problem out at Isla San Pedro Nolasco where the very helpful and informed folks at El Mar Dive Center took us to snorkel while others dove. (Yeah, yeah, “dived” is more proper, but it just doesn’t sound right to my ears and “went diving” would be a cop-out.)
After the divers submerged by the dive boat, and my kid elected to stay on the boat (when he discovered that he was allowed to jump off the upper deck), we two snorkelers were advised to swim around the eastern cliff of the rocky island. We swam over to that suggested edge and found nothing but a sheer wall. We checked out the not-mentioned, western edge and found it to be boulder strewn and rich in surface area, harboring all the diminutive, creepy-crawly lifeforms we enjoyed investigating. Being iconoclasts by nature (we’re both the youngest of siblings) we gave little thought to snorkeling that other way. After enjoying ourselves in that direction for quite a while, and with the boat out of sight around the corner, we decided to turn back. Neither one of us heard the quintessential “Arp! Arp! Arp!” of the sea lion colony that was hauled out, basking on those smooth, sunny boulders where we 180’d.
So, there we were, feeling a bit sheepish for staying out so long but swimming briskly on the surface of the big blue water to return to the boat. Paul was swimming on my left when suddenly I felt a nudge on my right (!!!???!!!) hip and there was a full grown, 800 lb, dome-headed, bull sea lion and he was hair-standing-up pissed! (Go away, SpellCheck.) How do I know? That drawing above was actually just a barking face. I couldn’t find a photo of a really angry bull sea lion because, and this is just my guess, if you’re seeing THAT then the last thing you’re thinking about is taking a photo op and if it isn’t then, well, it should’ve been because now you need a new camera and some medical care unless you’re already dead of cardiac arrest. Paul must’ve seen the bull as well because in a rapid heartbeat he was next to me and I had my arm through his, usher-me-down-the-isle-style, and we were kicking our fins like we were castigatingly late for some serious underwater wedding ceremony. Suddenly the bull slinko (our preferred name) charged right into our face masks, bared his canines, and roared . . . which, holy mole, who knew they could do that so effectively underwater!? And when I say effective, I mean we were swimming with all our might away from what was clearly and with no argument, HIS territory. That, however, was not satisfying the beast. He continued to charge right into our frightened faces, to the point I was sure he was going to start biting. Thanks to an autonomic rush of adrenaline and glucocorticoids we were in no-need-to-think-about-it flight mode!
It’s amazing how in moments of highly charged alarm, verging on panic, one can have remarkable, investigative cognition. I recall at one point, in between raging, face-to-face threats, imagining myself in the bull sea lion’s position (let’s call him BaSiL) and realized that not only did 6’2” Paul, in his black dive suit with puffy hood and full face of pre-married-to-me-and-boat, still-dark mustache and beard resemble another bull sea lion, but petite 5’3” me, in my black dive suit and little cap resembled a darn cute, novel, cow sea lion ripe for stealing! Sure, perhaps I was flattering myself with this line of bestial thought, but I’d be lying if I said that it did not cross my mind to separate myself from Paul who was clearly more of a threat to BaSiL’s status as king of the colony. However, I realized that if my hypothesis was tested and proved true then Paul’s problem might be solved but I’d have a new, next-level one that, let’s just say, I was not equipped to handle! So, I just closed my eyes, held on, and kept kicking. Big-boy BaSiL chased us all the way back around the corner and to the dive boat where things got even more “interesting” for those divers.
We could see them below us as we scrambled for the ladder. They were taking photos of cute little nudibranchs and seahorses until . . . ZOOM! . . . there appeared BaSiL snapping at and harassing them to the point they had to end their dive. (Like a properly raised Catholic, I still feel guilty about that.) My rambunctious kiddo, of course, was still leaping with abandon off the top deck of the boat and landing with raucous cannonballs, clueless that a maddened mammal was dashing underneath him. I still remember Zane’s last splash-bomb and Paul yelling at him to get on the boat and grabbing him off the ladder as BaSiL made one last threatening lunge near his legs. Surely, my choice of mate in Paul grew that day as a protector of me and my sole offspring.
So, what was going on with BaSiL? Simple. Unbeknownst to us at the time, summer is mating season for California Sea Lions. The biggest and baddest dudes get flooded with testosterone and begin to battle for a harem of females where the winner takes all. He then spends the summer highly stressed, mating and protecting his paternal territory from any and all potential threats, especially other bull sea lions who dare to enter, clearly thinking their big and bad enough to challenge him. As soon as he spotted us swimming-mammals-of-similar-sizes (SMOSSes?)* in his harem’s vicinity, he had no choice but to follow his biology and cultural teachings and scare the dive fins off of us.
Do you see that big domed head that male sea lions possess? (Paul's Photos above: female, male bull, and male bull skull) Initially, that dome a byproduct of having supremely well-developed jaw muscles because a pronounced, bony crest develops on the top of the skull where those muscles attach. A big bump equals a seriously strong bite force. That bump then becomes a secondary signal for potential male challengers. It allows males of these species to assess from a distance whether or not to challenge each other. Sort of like us modern humans showing off our nuclear capacities, it actually helps keep peace since less dominant males typically avoid the territory of another one with a bigger forehead, knowing that they’d likely get injured and lose the chance to pass on their genes anyway. Interestingly, males of many animal species without mid-sagittal, bite-force crests have actually evolved decorative crests or just larger heads as a signal of physical prowess for potential challengers and potential, choosey mates. (Use the > slider for Paul's pic's of: cassowary, forest dragon, gambal's quail, parrot fish, collared lizard, chicken)
What about Truck Nuts™, you say? First, I need to tell you the scarier story. The one featuring an even more frightening and enigmatic animal: me. In the spring of 2021, just a few months after Paul’s dad died of Covid (a fact that will be important in this story), we were anchored with Triplefin near La Paz. Boat-life-wise, it had been a fairly typical day: Wake up to stars, kayak to the beach and run the dog, do yoga, paddle back, chop veggies, load the solar oven, remove rust from something, deal with e-mails, fix something, chomp veggie tacos, kayak back to shore, walk the dog, paddle back, and snuggle under the stars. It was typical up to the snuggle part. That’s when I hacked up the nastiest, most disgusting hairball imaginable. I’m talking Godzilla-trainwreck-super-butt-U-G-L-Y**.
To understand my feline metaphor (yes, not a literal ball of hair did I expectorate), let’s back up to my mid-day veggie chop. Since we had internet, I was listening to a podcast while working my sharpest Japanese SHUN™ blade (a gift from Paul’s recently deceased dad), flaying onions and cauliflower into skin-thin pieces. Someone was being interviewed who had just lost their elderly father to Covid and she was in tears about how her kids, his beloved grandchildren, were going to graduate college that spring without him there in the stands. OK. Now, try not to judge me here. You know how you have thoughts that you know are so unacceptable that you just swallow them down and try to forget them? You just get busy with something else, not wanting to recognize something so intolerable in yourself. Well, that’s what I did at that moment. But I’ll tell you here what those automatic, reactionary, internal thoughts were and please accept my apologies: Eye-rolling “JEEZ, gimme a break! Your kids actually got to not only KNOW your parents but made it all the way to college before they lost them?! And you’re whining about THAT? MY child never even got to be held by his grandparents who died when I had just graduated college. I wasn’t even allowed to nurse my newborn in my dead parents’ rocking chair. The one with the two carved swans I was transfixed by as a toddler . . . imagining them as my parents in cherrywood bird form.” Yep. I swallowed that icky self-pity down hard as I hacked a cabbage head cleanly in two. Clearly, I needed something to wash down that hot ball of emotional tar.
Fast forward several hours to our evening walk on the beach. We had an especially lovely night. At my unusually spontaneous suggestion, we treated ourselves to margaritas at a remote beach bar and made fun of ourselves regarding some recent sailing fiasco. Back aboard, as we settled in for the night I unexpectedly found myself opening my mouth to share my swallowed indignance towards that poor, grieving woman from the podcast. The tequila, like a shot of testosterone***, must’ve kicked in because all I can recall is suddenly bursting forth with a nasty barrage of I-don’t-even-know-what; self-centered resentment for people like Paul who dare mourn the loss of parents they were lucky to have well into adulthood? I mean, WTF, Jo?! I actually felt like I had just hacked up a hairball of historical proportions and was standing there in pantomime, cupping what I visualized as an icky, phlegm-smothered, hairy tar wad and holding it up in revulsion to my poor, still-grieving husband who was now staring at me in shock and hurt. I heard myself saying as I held out my cupped hand, “Oh, my god . . . Look at this! I was carrying this around inside me without even knowing it. YUCK!”
As you can imagine, my regurgitated relief was instantly eclipsed by my shame for having mis-directed such vile spite towards my beloved still in mourning. After begging for forgiveness, we spent the better part of the night trying to make sense of what happened. If you’re a materialist, then I’d say we got steeped in oxytocin that night and that helped us trust each other and increased our bond. A romantic? Then clearly it was our deep love for one another. A pluralist like me? It was both, together. Understanding my hairball from Hades isn’t as straightforward as our encounter with the enraged, territorial, bull sea lion and it’ll require a sea full of compassion from you, but here goes.
I made a couple mistakes in my drawing of my angry self. I forgot to leave some white of my eye showing but left it since it added to the demonic look I naturally had. I also added some hair over my forehead for vanity’s sake as I thought I looked a bit too MalePatternBaldness-masculine without it. Realistically, however, more forehead does show in us humans. But Homo sapiens’ big foreheads are not due to overdeveloped jaw muscles.
Instead, they’re the result of our over developed, mushy brains and the need to protect them (Yes, I do mean OVER developed considering how many of us still die in childbirth and how we seem to use them to think our way into more problems than out). Our big pre-frontal cortex gives us, as social, communicative creatures way more rational choices than just our amygdala-generated reactions of fight or flight or even tend and befriend. But we must know our own minds to be able to put that rationality to good use. And to know them we must peer into them.
Like the mad BaSiL whose biology and culture gave him no choice but to chase us back to the dive boat and began to harass the other divers, I had a hairball formed from my biology and culture and it was stuck to me, spreading its tar-baby-ickiness without me even realizing it. I had no free will associated with the hairball and its deleterious effects on me because before I hacked it up I didn’t even know it was in me. I’ve just untangled more of the hairball while creating this post, actually. I now see how the pain of the early loss of my parents, and all the hairy mess of family tangles that came wrapped up with it, and especially the gravity of their black-hole absence in my son’s life grew fractal-like tendrils of estrangement that I’m still experiencing today. It tugged me to take flight to the other side of the continent to raise my son since it was easier to reject than to feel rejected. It kept me “safe” by skipping out on the death of one of my sisters (pancreatic cancer at age 44) and funeral that happened just after I moved away. (Yeah, I know. We Bowmans were like the Kennedys there for a spell.) It meant that my son not only missed out on his grandparents but had minimal communion with his remaining aunts, cousins, olden-golden friendships, the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River. (Jeez…this starting to sound like a John Denver song.) It means my motherless nieces’ kids barely know me as some weird, aunt-like person who lives far away on a sailboat at sea and looks creepily like wrinkled versions of their moms when she does visit.
Lest this turn into a maudlin country song I’ll end it by saying that I think it’s a good idea to draw (or at least gaze long and soft at a photo) of your hairball-angry self. The process helped me see more objectively through my anger to recognize deep hurt and fear. I now try to remember, when experiencing someone else’s rage, that way down in there they’ve also been unknowingly swallowing and growing a hairball of fear-generating pain. Like how understanding sea lion behavior can keep us safer in the water, using our dome-headed, prefrontal cortex can keep us safer in life. Understanding ourselves by facing and giving compassion to our ugly bits protects us from internalizing pain and fighting or fleeing when neither serves us or the world well. I’m so relieved that I managed to not only cough up that hairball of hurt but that I have a forgiving partner who, instead of fleeing from me that night, helped me untangle it with patient understanding. Since Hairball Night I’ve known several friends who’ve just lost their elderly parents and I am clean now. I feel nothing of that old, secret, gooey resentment . . . just pure empathy and compassion. And I’m so grateful that I have family and friends down those old, dusty, country roads who still welcome misfit me with open arms. And, finally . . .
Homo sapiens seems to also be one of those species who likes to signal dominance via ornamentation. As you'll see, not all signaling is done high up on the head. Here’s my version of The Decent (ahem) of Man. Be sure to use the >slider to see all 5 drawings:
Well, so much for teleological thinking regarding evolution; the incorrect notion that it leads to more “highly evolved=intelligent” forms. And get this non-coincidence: There were two testosterone-controlled dudes who battled long and hard over the claim of being the original creator of TruckNuts™ (David Ham of YourNutz.com and John D. Sallers of BullsBalls.com)! I don’t know about you, but for me, I think displaying TruckNutz™ as a come-hither-ladies signal is unlikely to help get mates. Then again, perhaps they signal a desire for a specific type of mate. Haters need not apply? Hmm.
*A spin on a Princess Bride reference
**I may have just referenced Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper there but I’m not sure.
*** Not to imply that testosterone simply makes us aggressive. It is a context-dependent hormone. It enhances the mood/behavioral tendencies that already exist in us. So, yeah, a lot like alcohol except testosterone typically helps us rise to whatever challenge appears as opposed to alcohol just making us think we can! For more on testosterone, glucocorticoids, oxytocin, the amygdala, and our pre-frontal cortex, check out the impeccably researched and entertainingly well-written book, BEHAVE – The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky