Pigments of Our Imagination
What’s your favorite color? What hues make you feel energized, tranquil, optimistic, or elegant? Have you ever pored over chips at the local paint store and wondered who dreams up names like Cozy Cover, Copper Beach, Taffy Crunch, Swiss Coffee, and how much they get paid for doing this? Is there any doubt in your mind that at a traditional wedding, the bride wears white, and you should not show up in black? What color is your neighbor’s envy as he watches you leave for a tour of Tuscany, waving arrivederci from the ladder while painting the exterior of his house Stonegate taupe in the August sun? Is there a color for your mood at the end of a week of Maui surf and sunsets as you fly home to face a pile of bills and the morning roll call at the office? Would you wear your green pants and red sweater to a party after the month of December has passed? What color were your “gills” on the fishing boat in the rocky bay? And when you realized what the dog did to your fine Italian leather shoes, what color did you “see”?
A single color (pink vs. blue on a baby announcement) or color combo (orange and black in the fall) communicates unmistakable meaning via our culture and conditioning. Color is a form of language. It evokes reaction, creates mood, and expresses experience. This is true all over the world, but what is evoked or expressed by the color yellow to a German might seem as foreign to us Americans as their word for the color itself: gelb. While most countries in the West (the United States, Canada, and Western Europe) associate yellow with optimism, warmth, and good cheer (as well as cowardice), Italians, Germans, and French are turning yellow with envy alongside our American green. In Egypt and Burma, yellow is a color of mourning, and for the Cherokee Nation, yellow is a symbol of conflict and strife.
In Western countries, white is the color of purity, peace, safety, and health, and let’s not forget that good guys used to wear white ten-gallon hats and ride white horses—“Hi-ho Silver, away!” (Heroes of the twenty-first century mostly prefer the power and intimidation of black.) Food is perceived to taste better and be fresher and healthier if served on a white plate. The bride’s dress and flowers are white and so is the frosting on the wedding cake. But as we go East, while white will still suggest peace and purity, it begins to speak a very different language of sadness and mourning. In China, Japan, Korea, and other Eastern countries, white is the color of death and funerals. In India, it is traditionally the only color a widow is allowed to wear.
Red is a bold color that can suggest excitement, passion, danger, love, anger, and “Stop!” Studies show that sports teams wearing red gain a competitive advantage and that the color actually makes people stronger during competition. Western countries have red-light districts of prostitution and sex paraphernalia shops. However, if we “paint the town red,” we might wake up hung over but probably just had a night of good, clean fun. In the East, red denotes good fortune, prosperity, and festivity. It’s the color worn by brides in China and India, but in South Africa, it’s the color of mourning. Superstition compels Spanish bullfighters to shun yellow, green, and purple, but to wear hot-pink stockings for good luck. As for the matador’s red cape, all cattle are color-blind, and the bull will charge anything that’s waved in his face.
America has exported “the blues” worldwide, and while the color can stand for depression and sadness, it also communicates calm, trust, and authority. American financial institutions inspire trust, suggest strength, and promise success with logos of blue. In the West, it’s a masculine color (and most men’s favorite); in China, it’s a feminine color. And on the subject of color and the sexes, although it’s almost impossible to imagine anything but pale pink for little girls and powder blue for baby boys, it was just the opposite in Belgium until recent decades.
In many countries, blue is the color for pornography, as in the now-outdated American reference to “blue movies.” (In Italy, those racy movies are red.) Another bygone American expression, “to turn the air blue,” meant to swear up a storm. What people used to call “blue jokes,” we now just call “off-color” or “dirty.” But in Spanish, it’s the color green that suggests risqué behavior, so a “dirty old man” is a viejo verde. In Australia, if the couple next door is “having a blue,” they’re having a fight; and “he made a blue” means he made a mistake.
The bright red of Coca Cola’s signature and Target’s bull’s eye suggests excitement, youth, and energy. In America, orange is a cautionary color (think road hazards) as well as one of good cheer, confidence, and approachability (Nickelodeon, Gulf Oil, and Hooters). Orange doesn’t give a “hooter” about trying to be subtle or sophisticated. It’s the preferred color for fast food joints and discount retailers (McDonald’s, Burger King, and Payless anything). Just as McD’s customizes its menu to offer McLobster rolls in New England, McZpacho chilled tomato soup in Spain, and McKastsu sandwiches in Japan, the megaretailer also adjusts its website and color strategy for specific areas of its worldwide market. While staying heavy on the red/orange/yellow color scheme, there’s a celestial blue background for most of the Middle East (virtue and protection) and a green one for Europe (luck, health, and environmental awareness).
In The Netherlands, orange is the color of the royal family (House of Orange), and whenever the Dutch are vying for the World Cup, the entire country drapes its farmhouses and gabled buildings in bright-orange fabric. There will even be an occasional sighting of orange cows. When the big, fluffy marigolds bloom in Mexico, orange speaks of death as people celebrate el Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) in early November.
While Americans go green with envy, the French are green with fear. With hair standing on end, an Italian might be blue with fear, but green with rage. In US print and publishing, the color yellow alerts one to sensationalist journalism rife with scandal and exaggeration. In Italian publishing, a “yellow”, un giallo, is a detective thriller. A “white night” is a sleepless one in French, Italian, Spanish, and other Romance languages.
In high school sewing class, Sister Mary Harrold rhapsodized about the existence of five hundred different shades of black. We were unimpressed because that, along with white, was the only color she ever got to wear, and we were just kids in uniforms dying to sport anything but the requisite forest-green plaid skirts and crisp, white blouses. The possible shades of blue and green could be infinite. Only fifty shades of gray? How unimaginatively dull in a world full of colors and the foreign languages they speak.
Make Love, Not War
Looking back at my childhood in America of the 1950s and 1960s, specific words come to mind with the emotions and confusions they evoked then, along with the impact of history they provoke now: Sputnik, Cold War, atomic bomb, Iron Curtain, USSR, Communism, space race, JFK, Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, hippies, Vietnam. Each term is loaded with metaphoric meaning for an era, a way of life, and for how we’ve grown up to be who we are today.
I will add to this list the term sonic boom, even though most folks weren’t nearly blown off their feet in their own backyards twice a day unless they lived near an air force base. It’s been decades since I’ve heard a sonic boom, but living in Bakersfield just eighty-three miles from Edwards Air Force Base, we got used to frequent deep-shattering booms! as just part of the landscape (or, more precisely, the skyscape). Visitors to the area would either be paralyzed with shock, run for cover, scream hysterically, or do all three at the same time.
I was a happy kid in a great home in a friendly town. I believed in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and knew my guardian angel was watching over me and that my parents would always protect me. But there were two inescapable fears weighing heavily on my scrawny shoulders: fear of eternal damnation in hell and fear of nuclear annihilation. By early Saturday afternoons, I was already nervous about the weekly trip to church at 5:00 p.m. to confess my sins and pray for my penance, this being the only protection from spending Eternity burning in hell, except for ceasing to sin altogether. As an aspiring saint, I tried that route but quickly gave up on perfect angelic behavior as an unrealistic option. There were just too many opportunities to be “unkind to my brother and sisters” and “disobedient to my parents.” Saturday afternoons in the confessional were dreaded but essential purges to hold on to at least a reasonable shot at gaining a place in heaven.
On those Saturday afternoons before my weekly confession of “Bless me Father, for I have sinned …” the neighborhood gang would gather in our front yard to play the new game we’d invented called Sputnik. The Soviets had launched the first satellite of that name on October 4, 1957, and by the time my sister Margie turned five twelve days later, it was a household word even to us kids. The game was simply all of us in a circle taking turns to see who could throw the basketball straightest and highest while the rest of us yelled at the top of our lungs, “Sputniiiiik!” We’d inducted the term into our lexicon of play and into our mental bank of fears that dangerous things could destroy us from the skies. We were just regular kids playing games, going to school, riding bikes, and blasting up and down cracked sidewalks on metal skates without a care in the world—except for the threat of nuclear war.
My dad was spending his Saturday afternoons sandbagging the basement of the house on V Street and then stocking it with nonperishables in the event we’d have to take shelter below ground from bombs falling nearby, or more likely, their fallout from afar. I stood in the doorway of that basement one sunny afternoon when I was not much taller than the doorknob and asked him—just to make sure—if our dog, Spotty, would get to come, too. When he said no, that we couldn’t bring the dog into the bomb shelter, I was overcome with anticipated loss and feelings of dread. A few months later, we’d had a happy family vacation camping in Yosemite. I was sitting in the back of the station wagon watching the park recede from view, feeling a hopeless conviction that nuclear bombs would destroy everything, and I’d never see Yosemite again.
At school, we had regular atomic bomb drills, and when the alarm bell sounded with a certain pattern, we knew to slide off our little benches and crouch on the floor under our desks with our arms over our heads (as if!). My friend, Susan, remembers doing the same drill at her grade school in San Francisco and worrying desperately about how to get home to her mother when the attack came. When, not if. I know it sounds contradictory, but we were happy-go-lucky children living with a sense of impending doom. I was too young during the Cuban Missile Crisis to understand the circumstances and the potential consequences, but I clearly remember seeing the look on Dad’s face and knowing this was dire.
When I was in high school, the side yard of our big corner lot was excavated, and a sixteen-foot, cylindrical metal tank with air filters and a spiral stairway was buried alongside the house. We were the first family in America to have this model of bomb shelter because my father had designed and built it at the steel company he worked for. The local TV news team showed up to photograph the event and interview my dad. By then, the Cold War was such a given in the fabric of life that I was more interested in how my flip hairdo looked for the pictures than in the threat of nuclear annihilation.
When President Kennedy was shot on November 22, 1963, the nuns led us in prayer that he would recover. I had grown up on TV hospital dramas like Doctor Kildare and Ben Casey MD and I was sure he would be saved. Besides that, the president was Catholic, and I still believed that God favored us as the true chosen ones. In the early afternoon, the teachers told us he had died, and we were stunned. I remember watching the reactions of some of the upper-class students and feeling confusion and wordless anguish. All I remember after that is being at home in the late afternoon while Mom was cooking dinner and Dad had locked himself in the hall bathroom because he couldn’t stop crying. Maybe we hadn’t really believed in Camelot but, on that day, another part of our optimism and innocence was irrevocably blown away.
The Vietnam War came with a whole new vocabulary list: Vietcong, Da Nang, Ho Chi Minh, Gulf of Tonkin, hawks and doves, My Lai Massacre, napalm, Agent Orange. If these words still evoke horror in me, what must they create in the minds of those who were there? As I went away to college at UC Davis, my parents said they would cut off my funds if I demonstrated against the war. At first, I complied with the letter of that law, but at the end of my first year away, even that became impossible.
On April 30, 1970, President Nixon announced the need for 150,000 more troops to expand the war and invade Cambodia. There were protests on campuses nationwide. Four days later, on May 4, 1970, National Guardsmen fired into a peaceful antiwar demonstration at Kent State University in Ohio, killing four students and wounding nine. Outrage was the emotion, and protest was the call to action. Universities were shut down for several days and we (most students and many professors) devoted ourselves full-time to marches in Sacramento and antiwar rallies on campus.
I remember deep anger and frustration and an awakening awareness of how easy it would be to resort to violence. But we didn’t. Instead, my friends and I joined an antiwar information group; we educated ourselves and then went into the residential streets of nearby towns to knock on people’s doors, hear their views, and speak ours against the war.
The year 1970 was an amazing one of triumph and tragedy, with the women’s lib movement roaring like an avalanche in the background of it all. On April 17, the Apollo 13 crew safely landed in the South Pacific after an aborted mission to the moon. A week before President Nixon’s announcement to escalate the war in Vietnam, the very first Earth Day was held on April 22, and twenty million Americans of all walks and persuasions celebrated and rallied for a clean, sustainable environment. The Beatles had already announced their breakup a month before, but their last album, Let It Be, was officially released on May 8, four days after the Kent State massacre. Jimmy Hendrix died of an overdose on September 18 right before I went back to college for my senior year.
The ‘50s and ‘60s were over, although the Cold War would last through the next two decades. 1970 was a watershed year of endings and new beginnings. It’s trite to say the world would never be the same again, but it wouldn’t, and it wasn’t, and it never will be. Even so, for those of us who came of age in that era—and aren’t we all always “coming of age”?—the words and images live on in deep visceral memory. The world within us remains forever vividly alive.