Zombies and the Hitchhiker
(context produces possibility)
I have two stories to share here, seemingly unrelated at first glance; they form their own duet. Together they illustrate almost everything I hold true. They are theory in action; they are what happens when there is another way of looking at the world that allows for the back-swirl of contingencies to be authorized. When the script we have hard-wired inside us is upended in favor of a wider affection for life, something else happens. The context produces possibility. Unforeseen options emerge. It takes courage to meet the hard moments in this spirit. I know I am mostly misunderstood in my attempts at making a case for this approach. Stories help. I offer you zombies and the hitchhiker.
Dignity Vanquishes Zombies
For me, this story is about mutual learning between generations; it is also about how to make change in a stuck system. It is about the blinders of western culture. It is about how acute situations make complexity difficult to advocate for. This story is about the disaster of the education system, and a young man trying to survive it. This story is about my love for that young man (my own son), and the unexpected treasure we found together, which helped get him through the maze of hypocrisy that middle school epitomizes. This is a story about zombies, actors, and the openings to realms of communication between parents and children that are often missed. There are paths through our culture that have been worn in so completely that it is nearly impossible to see past the prescribed, pre-scripted versions of how to navigate them. This is one example where we, my son and I, found a trapdoor that led to a systemic shift for both of us. My son Trevor has given me permission to put it in this book; it’s our story, and this is my version of it.
Trevor was about 12 years old. On a typical suburban evening, in our atypical home, we were unloading the dishwasher. With a sly eye he removed the food-processor blade, showed it to me and said, “Mom, if there is ever a zombie invasion, you could, like, totally use this.”
What? Trevor is a funny guy, and I was amused by this fantastical observation. I did notice though that Trevor had been talking about zombies quite a bit that autumn. At that time teenagers were just finishing a trendy vampire craze. I assumed that perhaps zombies were the next fixation. Trevor’s comments were not yet registering as particularly relevant. We carried on without notice of the zombies.
Meanwhile, the emails from school started coming in. In this era, in contrast to the one I grew up in, parents receive emails whenever there is an issue at school. I suppose the practice is well intentioned, but receiving those emails is irritating. My parents never got emails. But I sure did. Emails from teachers, counselors, and administrators began to pop into my inbox. They each arrived with a tone of both blame and concern. “Trevor is being disruptive.” “Trevor is being disrespectful.” “Trevor is not listening.” “Trevor is horsing around in class and causing distraction.” And then, after a few weeks, “We would like to meet with you about Trevor’s behavior.” “Trevor will be scheduled to see a school counselor.” “The principal would like to discuss a plan for what do to about Trevor’s behavior with you and Trevor’s teachers.” “Have you considered that Trevor may have ADHD, and may require medication?” And so on.
The underlying message I was being given through these emails was that my kid needed more discipline, and that if discipline was not ‘effective,’ perhaps it would be necessary to consider medication. While I cannot speak for other parents and their children, I knew in my bones that neither discipline nor medication were going to be ‘effective’ remedies in Trevor’s case.
Something was going on with him, and I had no idea what. I also had no idea how to deal with it. I knew there had to be another layer of information that I was not seeing. And, more importantly, my boy was dimming down his effervescence.
For several more weeks this continued. Trevor had to go to detention, and he began to wear the reputation of a ‘bad-boy’ at school. He even began to believe he was a ‘bad-boy’. The subtle and not-so-subtle body language of his teachers underscored their view of him and in time Trevor was willing to identify himself as they did. He carried this new identity heavily. Both physically and emotionally I could see the change in him. His focus was on the floor; his ire was on a hair-trigger. He had always been a beaming bright boy who had gradually become cloudy over the course of only a few months. It is hard not to panic seeing a child carry such shadows. Of course I wanted to do everything I could to help him.
As a parent there were paths before me that I was expected to follow. The school had identified Trevor as a behavior project, and had suggested what they considered to be ‘normal’ procedures to deal with such students. Ahead of us lay the paths of counseling, increasing discipline at home, and possible diagnosis and/or treatment for attention disorders. These are the options. But, are they the only options?
Meanwhile, Trevor kept talking about zombies. Not in a gruesome way, but in jest, and in his metaphors. Guys his age often say things that are vivid with the images of their fantasy world. I thought nothing of it. Until, finally one night Trevor came into my room at four in the morning in tears; he had had a nightmare. It was still dark, I was very asleep, and for some unknown reason in my half-awake state I accidently produced what was perhaps my best possible moment of parenting. I cannot claim that I had a plan, or a doctrine that I was abiding by. I was just sleepy.
I asked Trevor what the nightmare was about. Of course he said, “Zombies.”
The great teleprompter of our culture that delivers the script for mommies says that at that moment the appropriate line is: “Don’t worry honey, there is no such thing as Zombies. I am here, everything is ok.” The programming to deliver these lines is strong.
But I did not say any of those things. Instead I took his hand, gave it a kiss and told him we would talk about it in the morning.
Why did I do that? To this day I do not know. I can only say that something gave me pause. The simple platitude of reassurance felt disrespectful to Trevor’s struggle. I did not know what to say or do, so I postponed the conversation until morning.
As a mom, I find that setting my internal alarms to go off when these pre-scripted moments surface is a good idea. In my experience these are precious opportunities for substantive evolutionary communication change between the generations. The way in which culture directs our parenting is almost invisible, and profoundly pernicious. Cultural scripts are tricky, they sneak up on you. Suddenly I notice that I have said one of those things that parents say, “Clean up your room—I don’t know how you live like this.” Or “Don’t talk to me with that tone of voice.” I like to tag those tiny micro moments and expand them. I usually find there is something more there, and that had I gone along with the script I would have set another course of interaction into play. Avoid parental autopilot, that is my motto.
I woke the next day wondering what sort of zombies were haunting my kid. My zombies are inane; they’re the ones from the Michael Jackson ‘Thriller’ music video: gory and groovy. Or, sometimes my zombies are like the ones from ‘The Night Of the Living Dead’ which attack and eat people’s brains. They are impressive in their costumes and spooky music, but do not shake life’s foundations.
I know my son, and neither of those types of zombies would frighten him in the way that he was clearly frightened when he came to my room that night. He was scared—deep down.
I became curious to find out more about his zombies. The following morning I asked him, “Trevor what is a zombie for you, because I have a feeling that the zombies in your head are not the same as the ones in my head?”
I will never forget his answer. Trevor at age 12 said:
“Zombies are people who cannot think for themselves, they want you to be like them. …And, if you do what they say, your dignity flies out the window.”
I have never heard a more succinct description of the cultural stranglehold of western civilization. In that moment I realized with tears in my eyes that there were thousands of Trevors out there derailing classroom activities with disrespect, disruption, not listening, and—in their own way—they were fighting the zombies. These kids are engaged in perhaps the noblest battle there is: the battle to protect one’s dignity. They are willing to risk everything for this cause. They get in trouble, they lose privileges, they are labeled ‘bad-boys’ and ‘bad-girls’, they spend hours with counselors, they are given medication, they sabotage their college entry, they even lose the proud love of their parents. But, they will not submit to the zombies. I have to respect that.
“Yes,” I said to Trevor, “We live in a full tilt zombie invasion. I live in it too. I struggle every day. What shall we do?”
I went on to explain that, of course, his teachers meant no harm. No one meant any real disrespect, but to keep the class organized and on task they felt they had to control the kids. Trevor was not accustomed to being controlled.
In truth when Trevor delivered his description of his zombies I knew immediately that he was going to be fine. He had touched upon one of the great challenges that anyone inclined toward critical thinking slams into. He was asking the right question. He was taking the right risk. I knew I did not have to worry about Trevor losing himself. But, I still needed to help him get through the 5th grade without burning his future bridges to university and a successful life. Honestly, being a parent is a demanding job.
Trevor and I were now off script. The counselors and the diagnoses were no longer on the table as remotely relevant. Now an entirely unwritten conversation lay in front of us. Clearly he needed to do something to reclaim his dignity. Changing schools was one option. But there were sure to be zombies at the next school too. So it was my turn; I took a risk and made a deal with Trevor.
Trevor is an actor, and he was already studying performance at that time. So I offered him his first paid acting job. I promised him 100 dollars to play the part of the Straight-A student until the end of the school year, (it was already February). If he could play that part the zombies would be fooled into thinking that they could stop trying to control him. Hopefully he would have some peace. But, I had one caveat; that he never, ever, ever believe that he actually was that Straight-A student the world wanted him to be. I said, “Play the part, but I want my Trevor for a son, not a zombie.”
I wanted him to know that he had an advocate. It was important to me for him to see that there are times in life when we do not have a prefabricated answer or solution. And that I would be there to experiment with him until we found a way through, together. I wanted him to know that even parents do not know how to deal with people trying to control them. Besides that, I only wanted him to know that his fear was real and beautifully articulated.
The school administrators would never have discovered that particular medicine for my son. I do not blame them. But I do want to shatter the accepted normalcy of their response. To ‘fix’ a child’s expression of anger or fear is a horrible thing to do. They are not broken; they are navigating cultural, physical, emotional, and intellectual terrains that are overpopulated with false authority and hypocrisy. We adults are tour guides of these realms, bestowed with the highest possible trust by the coming generations. Let them see us learn. Complexity is surprising, multi-causal, ruled by overtones, and not systemize-able. The only tactics I can advise are respectful patience, affection, and playfulness.
For his 17th birthday I had his iPod engraved with the words: “Dignity Vanquishes Zombies.”
Trevor is a good actor, and a very good student. At university he made the dean’s list several times. He wrote to tell me: “I made a 3.9 grade point average this term, but don’t worry Mom, I am not a zombie.”
Representation is something to be careful with. Mutual respect requires careful jurisdiction on the habit of portraying another person’s experience. I do not lightly offer this story.
After reading my version Trevor added a couple of paragraphs:
I can recall a time in my life when no matter what I did, I felt as though I had to appeal to an authority outside of my own. Whether that was teachers, parents, peers, or even just the preset social standards did not matter. Failing to please meant some form of punishment. I knew then that educational institutions have no vigor for those of us who question them. Can they not see that emails home, alienation, and categorization are not solutions to ‘behavioral issues’ but rather triggers that drive small boys to draw penises on desks? If you put a twelve-year-old student under constant surveillance, and write home about his progress or lack thereof, do you think he will feel at peace? Or alienated? If the schools suggest medication and control tactics they presume that will improve the students’ relationship with school. Will it? No. For those of us who see the zombie world it will just hasten the realization that the educational system is a front for a large-scale colonization project, ridding us of our right to personal perspective.
Yes, I am Trevor, and to this day I can see the zombies, walk with the zombies, talk with the zombies, but I know in my bones that I believe none of it. My mother, a very gracious, nurturing, and unorthodox mother, taught me everything I know. She helped me access my potential, and never gave me a fabricated answer. When I went to my mom that night in tears, having just dreamed of a classroom in which everyone was just mindlessly performing their tasks, no individuality, no talking, no freedom, I thought “Oh no, my mom’s going to just tell me to go back to bed and that it’s nothing.” But, of course, my mom is a Bateson, so she said, “Let’s talk about this in the morning.” We eventually understood that both our lives are filled with conformity, but our minds have to remain free. My mother implored me to find my way to find peace in both, by giving me my first job, in which I would get a real introduction to the process of living in two worlds at the same time. One where authority is defined as mutual respect, and the other where it is merely deference. The latter just requires a smile, a nod, and an answer, but never, ever an opinion.
Someone asked me once if I had ever seen my father in an emergency situation, and if I might describe how he dealt with it. At the time I replied that I had never witnessed him in any danger, or in an emergency. But later I remembered that I had. The fact of my not recalling the emergency is significant.
We were in the car. Driving to my riding lesson. At that time we lived in Big Sur, California. If you have ever had the pleasure or terror of driving the Big Sur coastline on Highway One, you will know that the two-lane road is characterized by majestic mountains on one side and steep, death-defying cliffs that plummet down to the Pacific Ocean on the other. We had an old dirty white Volkswagen Van. It was the ’70s, we were a hippy family and I was a long-legged, scraggly, mountain child, about 10 years old. I was in the backseat, free to roam around as there were no seat belts back then. My father was driving, and while it is not part of this story let me just say he was one of the worst drivers ever. He was always busy looking at the whales in the sea, or spotting hawks. Terrible.
As we drove up the coast, we passed a hitchhiker on the side of the road who had his thumb out. He was a young man with a big backpack. A traveler. My father, ever the anthropologist, was interested in travelers, and in people in general. He liked to pick up hitchhikers. He liked to have conversations with strangers. So we picked up this fellow.
A few minutes later as we were driving along the man suddenly had a knife in my father’s side. He was demanding money; he was pumping with adrenaline.
I think this qualifies as an emergency. A two-lane road with nowhere to pull over. A kid in the back seat, and it would be another 30 years before the invention of the mobile telephone.
But I never noticed. I did not see the emergency because my father’s response was to cheerfully look down at the knife and then into the eyes of the hitchhiker and say in his most droll Englishness, “Well hello, what have we here?”
He was authentically calm and amused. His interest in the desperate young man had actually increased several fold by this communication, (i.e. a knife and monetary demands). My father began to ask him questions. How had he come to be in Big Sur? How had he found himself in such a muddle? Through these questions and, more importantly, the tone of the questions, my father was listening and learning about how someone can get in such a twist. He was not applying a psychological trick or a technique. This was not a manipulation. He was not ‘trying’ to calm the guy down. He was just interested, one human being to another. His curiosity in the young man was piqued, and his inquiry reflected that. He did not see a knife… he saw a person with a story.
How would most people react? Would they fight, would they try to get the money to him right away? Would they try to trick him? What are the scenarios that immediately play out? For most of us, a knife in our side would be a moment of panic. This was an emergency. But somehow it was not. As a passenger in the back seat of the van I watched their interaction and never for one second felt fear in the car. There was no spike in the drama, no flutter of breath, no indication of danger at all. I still do not think of that afternoon as being life-threatening, though surely it was.
After driving another half an hour we came to a place where we would have to drop off our hitchhiker and deliver me to my horseback-riding lesson. When we pulled off the road my father opened his wallet and gave the young man a $20 bill. He wrote our home phone number on a scrap piece of paper from the floor of the car and gave the guy a hug. My father suggested that the man call if he found himself in trouble. These were not idle generosities to suggest good will. He was not faking it. The warmth and the care he felt for the traveler was genuine. I could feel that, and so, apparently, could the hitchhiker. All three of us learned a great deal from that half an hour in the VW van.
As I look back now at that situation I can only say that I hope one day to be able to see context as well as my father did. He was not young when this story took place. He was maybe 74 years along in his practice of seeing more than just the tip of the knife. I suppose it takes time to be able to respond to an acute situation with love that stems from complexity… or is it the other way around: complexity that stems from love?
Perhaps there is no beginning to that loop. I will start by noticing my reactions, and searching for wider, deeper edges to the complexity I am reacting to, responding to—and shift that into mutual learning.
The solution expected, the way predicted, is so far removed from the options that surface when viewed from a wider angle, that they are entirely unplannable. I have spent long hours defending the possibility that attempting to solve a problem by going at it directly is only occasionally effective. I usually receive lost looks of bewilderment and a plea for a map, a method, and a technique. But, so often we make more of a mess than we ever imagined possible by seeking direct solutions. The problems we see are nested in contexts with particular alchemies that produce the ‘issue’ we want to solve. Identifying and strategizing our way through becomes short-circuiting which is often destructive. The consequences go spiraling off into further confusion, more issues, and more problems. Sometimes the way through is at an entirely unseen angle.
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