Finding balance in the second half of life

Zombie Christmas

In Family on December 20, 2010 at 4:02 pm

“Not a good place to be in a zombie invasion.”

The year was 2004. The holidays were looming. I had just moved most of my family (three sons, two cats, one golden retriever) from a large house on a wooded lot overlooking a marshy bayou  to a small house on a busy city street with a backyard view that came to a screeching halt at the unpainted backs of neighbors’ garages.

My oldest son, then 17, was assessing our prospects for survival.

The urban location was bad. The undead always flock to the cities because — duh — people live there, and people are what zombies eat. Sort of.

Having a second floor with two bathrooms was good. We could barricade the stairs and fill both tubs. Plus, Emerson had a mini-fridge in his bedroom. But once we ran out of drinking water and Dr. Pepper, we had no hope of getting to the nearest Walmart to restock. Our car, in a small detached garage at the end of a narrow drive bordered by the house on one side and a concrete wall on the other, was unreachable. No way could we get to it without some major weapons. Which, of course, we didn’t own.

*

Last week, Google Labs released a new tool, N-Gram Viewer, that may pose a worse threat to my continued survival as a free-will exercising human than a zombie invasion ever could. Having now scanned over ten percent of all books published since Gutenberg, Google’s new toy lets you use this vast data base to graph the occurrence of words and phrases that have appeared in print from 1400 through the present day.

This is, apparently, something I have wanted to do for so many years without knowing it, that now that I have the capability to compare, say, the rising usage of the word “zombie” with the declining usage of the phrase “nuclear holocaust” over the 17 years of my son’s life from 1987 to 2004, I simply can’t stop.

As you can see, during the years between my son’s birth and our move to the small city where I still live, zombies are increasingly likely to be referenced, in books, while nuclear holocausts get fewer and fewer mentions.

I’m just saying.

*

As a newly divorced mother I couldn’t help wondering what the rising zombie threat symbolized and whether it was my fault. Or at least my generation’s fault. Or the fault of women of my generation who didn’t believe it was imperative to keep the marriage together for the sake of the children.

I noticed that my sons’ friends also discussed apocalyptic survival plans and enjoyed mowing down the undead in popular video games like Resident Evil. The mother of one of Emerson’s buddies told me how, in the backseat of a car making its way from church to cemetery, she overheard her older son ask his brother whether he had his knife on him. When it became clear that both her boys were packing protection, she turned around in the driver’s seat to confront them. Why, why had they brought hunting knives to their grandfather’s funeral?

“They looked at me as if they couldn’t believe I was asking such an inane question,” she told me. “Then they both said — at the same moment — Zombies, Mom.”

So, was it the divorce thing? Had I met the undead and discovered that they were us? Goodness knows I stumbled through that first Christmas season apart from the boys’ dad with a numbed-out lack of grace that might have looked familiar to fans of Night of the Living Dead.

I tried the idea out in a sonnet.

Zombie Love

Saturday morning dads return to pick
up sons and take them bowling, out to lunch,
a game. Ex-wives watch slantwise, shoulders hunched
in bathrobes by back doors. The boys are quick
to pull on coats and let their mothers flick
the hair out of their eyes before too much
can happen. Sliding in the car, they scrunch
against the dash, ride shot-gun. Seat belts click
like triggers. Undead stalk the stark terrains
of animated strategical games
the sons direct with twitching thumbs all day.
The zombies look like people, but the way
they come at you with eyes like burnt-out fire,
you know there’s nothing there except desire.

Ultimately, though, the metaphor wouldn’t hold. My ex and I and our divorced friends were, if anything, more present in our children’s lives now that we spent time with them separately, without the distractions of unhappy coupledom. My small house on the busy street happened to be quite close to the boys’ school, and it quickly became the hang-out place of choice. With no other adult tastes to please or friends my own age to entertain, I cooked up large vats of kid-pleasing foods and let the TV room be overrun by sleeping-bag toting, chocolate milk consuming hordes of zombie-killing boys.

*

Why zombies? Why now? Greater minds than mine have been pondering the mystery.

Daniel W. Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School and author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies insists that “the zombie boom” should be taken seriously, and wonders if it “might represent an indirect attempt to get a cognitive grip on what former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once referred to as the ‘unknown unknowns’ in international security.”

Over at The Daily Beast, Venetia Thompson argues that zombies are “the perfect metaphor for our rotting age.”

“Theirs is a condition that is far closer to that of the human being than we would like to admit, and it is perhaps for this reason that zombies will always have resonance in times of social and economic upheaval: We start losing our jobs and homes, and before long we’re all completely lost, left to shamble around mindlessly until someone takes pity on us and shoots us in the head.”

In a piece in The New York Times, Chuck Klosterman posits the undead phenomenon as an allegory for daily existence. “A lot of modern life,” he says, “is exactly like slaughtering zombies.”

“Zombie killing is philosophically similar to reading and deleting 400 work e-mails on a Monday morning or filling out paperwork that only generates more paperwork, or following Twitter gossip out of obligation, or performing tedious tasks in which the only true risk is being consumed by the avalanche. The principal downside to any zombie attack is that the zombies will never stop coming; the principal downside to life is that you will be never be finished with whatever it is you do.”

*

Tonight — actually, early tomorrow morning — a full lunar eclipse will decorate the turning of the year, the Winter Solstice, the day the sun begins its journey back toward the little house on the busy street where my family hopes to survive yet another Christmas season. If the weather is clear, my youngest son, My Loving Partner, our golden retriever, and maybe a cat or two will gather in an urban backyard that has a perfect view of the sky to sip hot chocolate and watch it happen.

When you’re dealing with the undead, it’s good to have a plan.

–Debra Wierenga

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  1. I love the zombie analogy!

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