How to Annoy a Zebra – Alex Mitchell [Unanswerable Questions]

How to Annoy a Zebra – Alex Mitchell [Unanswerable Questions]

How to Annoy a Zebra




There’s a Shel Silverstein poem called “Zebra Question” [1] that I’ve always loved (Silverstein, p. 125). A boy goes up to a zebra and asks:

“Are you black with white stripes?
Or white with black stripes?”

For an answer he is barraged with a slew of questions by an apparently ticked off zebra:

“Are you good with bad habits?
Or are you bad with good habits?

Are you noisy with quiet times?
Or are you quiet with noisy times?

Are you neat with some sloppy ways?
Or are you sloppy with some neat ways?”

This poem is lots of fun to read out loud. You can feel its rhythm speeding up with each new question the zebra asks. The unanswered questions just keep piling up. Not surprisingly, the boy says in the end:

“I’ll never ask a zebra about stripes again.”



Alex Mitchell [©2010 Alex Mitchell]


Unanswerable Questions

I have my own mountain of unanswerable zebra questions:

Am I sociable with some reclusive ways?
Or am I solitary with some companionable ways?

Do I have blurry vision with moments of clarity?
Or do I have clear vision with moments of blurriness?

Am I focused with some absentmindedness?
Or am I scatterbrained with some attentiveness?

I’ll be damned if I can give myself a straight answer. It always feels like the more I ask, the less I know. Maybe it’s better to look for answers in a more indirect manner via drawing.



There’s a drawing exercise I learned about that can reveal your opposing facets of personality. In his enlightening book “Creativity for Life,” Eric Maisel suggests drawing two animals on one piece of paper and then observing the differences between them (Maisel, p. 44).

My little friend Isabella loves to draw, so I thought to try this exercise with her. I gave her a blank sheet of paper and a pencil and asked her to draw an animal for me. Ten seconds later she handed me her drawing. Then I gave her another sheet and asked her to draw a new animal.



Isabella, age 6



I couldn’t have been more delighted! First a monkey, then a snake. Isabella’s monkey swings with powerful arms from a tree branch and her snake slithers on its belly. Her monkey is probably making quite the ruckus, whereas her mouthless snake moves in silence.

Are you a monkey-snake?
Or a snake-monkey?


The Monster Question

Here’s my favorite unanswerable zebra question, one I’ve been painting about for years:

Am I a person with some monster days?
Or am I a monster with some person days?



©2009 Alex Mitchell, WHY ME, Painting, Photography by Oronoz, Madrid



©2009 Alex Mitchell, GIVE ME, Painting, Photography by Oronoz, Madrid



©2009 Alex Mitchell, ME ME ME, Painting, Photography by Oronoz, Madrid



Some insight came my way recently when I volunteered to host an arts project at the JCA (Jewish Community Alliance) in Jacksonville, Florida. The gracious staff and lovely kids at the JCA Youth Services Department supported my endeavor to tackle my monster-person dilemma.

As with Isabella, I asked the JCA kids to quickly draw two animals (real or imaginary). They produced some delightful examples of creatures with opposing traits:



Becca, age 8

Lily, age 12

Jonas, age 10

Leiya, age 10

Keylie, age 8



After this drawing warm-up, the kids went on to create paintings of their inner monsters. But not before doing a little monster contemplation:

Are you a person with some monster days?
Or a monster with some person days?

One by one, I asked the kids to reply. Some of them rolled their eyes as they stated with upmost certainty, that of course they were persons with monster days. But others, with sparks in their eyes, replied with gusto and total normality that they were indeed monsters with person days.



Dec. 2016, «The Monster Inside Me» arts project, JCA Youth Services Department, Jacksonville, Florida



Mirror Mirror

The kids got me to thinking about the concept of being a mirror for others.

It was as if the “monster” kids were holding up mirrors to show the other kids their own monster-ness. And the “person” kids were holding up mirrors to show the “monster” kids their inherent person-ness.

Do we ever learn to see ourselves in the reflection of other people? Do we recognize ourselves in the mirror they hold up for us?


Hug Your Evil Twin

In Deepak Chopra’s book “The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire,” there’s a surprising writing exercise about embracing duality that I like to do every now and again (Chopra, pp. 193-195).

The first step is to think of someone you find very attractive and to list on a sheet of paper at least ten qualities you find desirable in this person. Next, you think of someone who irritates or aggravates you, and list at least ten qualities you find offensive.

The second step is to go back to thinking about your attractive person and come up with three unattractive traits. Then go back to your offensive person and come up with three appealing traits.

The third step is to think about yourself while reviewing all the traits you’ve written down. Circle those that you feel describe your own nature. Then put a check mark next to those that you feel definitely do NOT apply to you.

The final step is to look at the circled traits and choose the top three that you feel describe you best. Then look at the traits you checked and choose the top three that without a doubt describe you least.

Congratulations. You have just created a short but complete list of your six main character traits.

Give yourself a hug. Now do it again so you can give your evil twin a hug, too.





I’m still trying to figure out how I possibly could be “loud, ignorant, and disrespectful.” But those were my top three checked traits. The ones I said that in no way on God’s green earth applied to me. Ouch.



©2009 Alex Mitchell, BE LIKE ME, Photography by Oronoz, Madrid



©2009 Alex Mitchell, LISTEN TO ME, Photography by Oronoz, Madrid



It’s okay. If anything, it’s a relief to accept having pretty AND pretty ugly qualities. It frees up energy otherwise used for maintaining a perfect outward image of myself. It also makes me think twice before getting all righteous about someone else being irritating. Mirror mirror.

So, I’m back to the idea of how we’re all mirrors for others, and it’s pretty obvious how uncomfortable it is when we recognize some undesirable trait in ourselves. But what about when others see themselves in the mirror we’re holding up?

What do they see in our mirror?

Could it be possible to reflect their inherent beauty back to them?

If we can feel complete with both our person-ness and our monster-ness, if we can feel that there’s nothing missing, nothing broken, nothing to be ashamed of, then maybe so. Maybe it’s as easy as showing your evil twin some love.





Just think, what if reflecting beauty is a kind of hidden superpower we all possess? Are you ready to save the world?

Go get ‘em, baby!

Superhero activate!
Turn on Mirror Power!


Alex Mitchell



Texto extraído de

  1. Shel Silverstein. A Light in the Attic. HarperCollins, New York, 2005. ISBN – 13: 978-0060256739.