Monkeys and Unicorns

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Matthew 22: 34-40

When my youngest son Joshua was much younger, we used to play this game.  Joshua, like his two other brothers, was diagnosed to be on the autism spectrum. Like the word spectrum suggests, how they are affected by it varies greatly.

Joshua’s autism affects his ability to get social cues, particularly jokes, puns, and other wordplays.  Our conversation game usually went something like this:

  • Joshua:  Dad, can I have a bowl of ice cream?
  • Me: Can I have a bowl of Ice Cream?
  • J: Are you copying me?
  • M: Are you COPYING me?
  • J: I’m a stupid dork!
  • Me: I’m a Stupid Dork!
  • At this point, Joshua would start laughing.  I would then pretend to realize what I just said aloud and slap my palm against my forehead.
  • J:  I can’t believe you fell for it!
  • M: I didn’t FALL!
  • J: It’s an expression!
  • M: Like “x+2=12”?
  • J: No, It’s an IDIOM!
  • M (pretending to get mad) WHAT DID YOU CALL ME?
  • J: No, an Idiom is a common phrase that means something else. Falling for something means I tricked you.

Joshua, like most of the students that I teach, tend to take things very literally.  The other day in class a student asked me a complicated question about our solar system, particularly about why Pluto is just Mickey Mouse dog instead of a planet.  When I replied, “Well that’s a real head-scratcher”, he looked puzzled for a moment and then reluctantly scratched his head as if that action would give him an answer.

Teaching the meaning of common expressions is part of a special education teacher’s job.  I often use the following paragraph for reading comprehension.

“The teacher walked into the class happy as a clam. The morning drive was as easy as catching fish in a barrel and now he was just over the moon.  Yesterday, it was raining cats and dogs and his boss was continuing to beat a dead horse about yada, yada, yada.  The custodian and the lunch lady were like two peas in a pod when it came to answering emails,”  

Without understanding the idioms in the paragraph above, the reader obviously has no idea of the meaning. And Idioms change over time as well.  People used to say “The Cat’s Pajamas” when describing a person who is a leader in their field.  Now, we use the term GOAT (Greatest Of All Time).

Some idioms are also just personal code between two friends.  Lately, a fellow teacher and I have developed a shorthand way of describing a meeting that we were forced to attend.

No matter what kind of meeting, we are attending, eventually the conversation will always turn to MONKEYS and UNICORNS.

Now, most people are familiar with the classic article in 1974 called Management Time: Who’s Got the MONKEY? A MONKEY is a problem that someone else has decided you should handle.  An example is when your boss comes over to you with a problem in the company that he wants you to take care of immediately.  This is on top of the other to-do items that you must complete.  The article is a time management piece that famously sums it up by saying “MONKEYS need to be fed or shot!”  Feeding the MONKEY is when you solve the problem and get back to your job.  Shooting the MONKEY is when you do not accept the problem in the first place.  The article further states that MONKEYS who are not fed or shot will grow and screech until they are dealt with effectively.

MONKEY – A problem given to you to solve (Feed) or to pass on to someone else (Shoot)

Being a remote worker who teaches in a virtual setting, more MONKEYS are being sent to me by email and mandated in virtual meetings.  As such, it is really challenging to shoot these MONKEYS, since that can only be done by returning the problem to the original owner.  Now, I don’t mind being given a MONKEY, as long as I have the proper amount of time to dispose of the body. 

The problem is, especially in a virtual/ remote setting, some people are working longer hours than ever before.  I can deal with a MONKEY sent to me at one in the afternoon but I refuse to deal with one that comes at me at 9:30 at night.  That MONKEY will just have to screech until I can get to it later on the next day.  The same goes for those that arrive on the weekend.  I refuse to be on call 24/7.  

Over the years, I have become a quite proficient MONKEY hunter but I am reaching my limit!

The other animal that is creeping up in my life is the UNICORN!  These occur in meetings at first, but can swiftly turn into MONKEYS if not careful.  In addition, UNICORNS have a habit of coming at you unexpectedly, especially in meetings.

What is a UNICORN?  The easiest answer is a mythical HORSE, a creature resembling one in our real world but different enough to know that we will never encounter one in our daily lives.  In this case, a UNICORN resembles a HORSE, a common farm animal that most people on the planet are aware of their existence.

But a HORSE can also be an idiom, but not a common one.  In the confines of business, a HORSE is usually a straightforward solution to a common problem.  This breaks down to identifying a problem and the best practice solution to fix said problem.  I have been teaching virtually now since August 2020 and we have been bombarded by new HORSES. For example, let’s go with attendance.  Best Practices have stated that a student will be marked present if they attend the class you are teaching.  Straightforward definition, right?  Marking a student present if they attend class is a HORSE, a solution that addresses 99% of the situations.

HORSE – A standard response to a typical problem

But, a colleague will inevitably point out, what about the ZEBRA?  A ZEBRA is a special, rare HORSE that might pop up once in a while.  Normally, they are not around us, but we may see them occasionally.  In this case, the ZEBRA is about what to do if the student doesn’t attend class, but still completes their assignment before it is due?  Yes, this sometimes happens in a virtual setting, and, after much debate, it has been decided that situation will also count as attendance.  This ZEBRA has now created another MONKEY for me.  Now, I have to monitor my virtual classrooms until 3:30 pm (the end of the school day) in order to see if any students I initially marked absent have completed the assignment.  If so, I now must go back into the attendance program and change their status to present

ZEBRA – A response to a rare problem that occurs infrequently

Unfortunately, the discussion will not stop there.  Another colleague will introduce another ZEBRA or another scenario that may happen.  The correct course of action for this ZEBRA is also determined.  ZEBRAS can be added indefinitely until we have an entire herd of them, each creating their own MONKEY with their special instructions for care and feeding.

During most of my career, at least half of the meetings I have attended deal with the care and feeding of ZEBRAS.  But lately, another creature has begun to pop up in the stable as well – The UNICORN.


I don’t have time to hunt unicorns!

Palzewism # 107

Usually, most start as ZEBRAS, a slight variation of the problem.  But a UNICORN is a variation of a problem so bizarre and specific that it turns heads.  Take our attendance problem.  We had decided that “Present” either means they have attended class in person (HORSE) or have completed the assignment by the end of the day (ZEBRA).  A hand then shoots up and asks the following question.

“I have a student that only has access to the internet on the weekends when they go to their Grandma’s house.  So, they have been doing their work on Saturday and notifying me when they are completed.  I know that they usually will complete any assignment I give them within two weeks.  Should I mark this student absent or present?”

Having been a teacher for over twenty years, UNICORN scenarios have always been brought up, but whoever was in charge of the meeting would simply end the discussion of a UNICORN with “See Me Later”, “Let’s talk” etc.  Now?  The UNICORN has been set free and my fellow educators need to determine how this should be dealt with as well as the HORSES and the ZEBRAS.  After much debate on how the UNICORN should be handled, those in charge attempt to solve the problem by delivering – Another MONKEY!  Teachers are now asked to monitor their virtual classroom and if any missing work comes in, we should go into attendance and mark the student present on the day that the assignment was given.  

As a teacher, I understand the desire for clarification of certain procedures to determine that all students get a “fair shake” (idiom).  HORSES are a necessary part of any organization, rules, and procedures designed to maximize productivity and efficiency.  ZEBRAS occur from time to time and need to be handled on a case by case basis.  UNICORNS, unfortunately, slow down productivity, creativity, and morale.  

Rules and procedures are important but not to the point of overwhelming.  There must be freedom to pursue individualism while maintaining the organization’s goals and mission statement.  Too loose, chaos will reign.  Too tight, morale will suffer.

UNICORN – A crafted response to a scenario that will probably never happen!

When Jesus came to earth in ancient Israel, it had been almost two thousand years since Moses had died.  Moses on Mt. Sinai was given the ten commandments by God after He had rescued the Israelites from Egyptian Slavery.  Those Commandments were HORSES, direct instructions from God himself on how his people should behave in all situations.  They covered two relationships by telling the Israelites how they should treat God and how to treat other people.  That’s it, Ten commandments that would dictate how people should live their best lives.

Years rolled by and the Temple Priests and Council started adding ZEBRAS to the HORSES.  Take Worship.  The third commandment tells us to keep the Sabbath, one day a week set aside to thank God for all he has done for you.  Eventually, it was decided what activities were allowable on the Sabbath (what constitutes work?)  Many ZEBRAs were added to clarify what the sabbath should mean to a Hebrew.  By the time Jesus had arrived, there were many UNICORNS about the Sabbath that put him at odds with the temple.  Healing was forbidden (Luke 14, John 5), as well as picking a few kernels of grain for consumption while traveling (Matthew 12)

Worship had been corrupted as well as demonstrated by Jesus’s anger in the temple courtyard.  He clashed with authority often, trying to explain to them that they should not get hung up on the UNICORNS and ZEBRAS, but instead, just keep your eyes on the HORSES!

Jesus knew that HORSES come with the least amount of MONKEYS, which allow people the freedom to breathe and not get hung up by rules that they need to follow on a daily basis.  When Jesus died and rose again, he actually went one step further.  He declared “It is finished”.  With his death and resurrection, Jesus gave us the opportunity to rid ourselves from all of the HORSES and the MONKEYS that follow him.  He condensed all the HORSES, ZEBRAS, UNICORNS, and MONKEYS into one animal, a LAMB!  Yes, there are a few things that must be done to care for a LAMB.  But this LAMB is self sufficient.  It requires nothing from you but simply wants you to do two things.  First, the LAMB would like you to show him love!  Second, the LAMB wants you to share him with everyone around you! He will be patient for you, treating you with kindness, grace and mercy even when you ignore him completely.

If your not aware of the LAMB, consider the following from John 1:28-30:

28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing. 29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’

John 1:28-30:

Jesus is the LAMB who takes way the sin of the world.  He is also the best MONKEY hunter and HORSE whisperer I will ever know.

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

Prayer: Dear Jesus, thank you for being my LAMB.  Help me to focus on your words and avoid the MONKEYS and UNICORNS that others try to impose on me.  Let the LAMB be the only animal I care for. Amen.  


I thank you for reading my blog and look forward to any comments or criticism of what I have discussed.

If these words have impacted you, please feel free to share them by email or any social media platform.

You Turned My Mourning Into Dancing!”, my book, is available for purchase here.

1 thought on “Monkeys and Unicorns

  1. Thank you for the lesson on animals and the Lamb we should all acquaint ourselves with.

    Liked by 1 person

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