Mellow Yellow Fellow
In the early days of acid-dropping in the ’60s, Timothy Leary and Harvard in the foreground, Huxley’s Doors of Perception a secondary source suggesting even more academic rigor, the ethos was, this wasn’t just for fun. This was serious spiritual stuff, stairway to enlightenment, heaven, nirvana, mindful transcendence; this was a trip that at the very least you’d return from with some wisdom if not with your life profoundly changed. Which might entail jumping out a window with your newly sprouted wings, but not if you approached it scientifically, like, for instance, having a guide—something like an air traffic controller, but a really hip one.
It was my first trip and I was pretty up for it. Done all my reading. In fact, embarrassed to say, about a year or two before, I had written to Leary at the Millbrook estate offering my services and asking to join up with the experiments. Like Ginsberg. Allen got in. I didn’t, thank God; I was married with one child.
So it was out on my office mate’s farm in rural Iowa, three of us—John, his good buddy, and me, with John’s wife staying earth-side, possibly as our guide, or more likely for their own two kids. (Hey, some of us were responsible back then.)
But John and his buddy were great friends, probably from childhood, I forget, and they went off to become even greater friends: they completely disappeared. I was abandoned.
Now I’d grown up an only child, with untold adventures all by my lonesome—in steamy tropical hammocks of southern Florida, or across the watery environs of Miami’s massive Biscayne Bay, or out on the ocean alone even . . . I’d gotten myself out of a lot of scrapes and had faith in a quick wit and my own presumed entitlement of immortality, but this venture had me worried. There was just no control. Things were warping into capricious jello, in amazing colors, and my face kept turning into an Egyptian mummy’s (that mythic ancestry thing, but talk about dry skin!), and there was a Big Bang Iowa-type storm brewing out over those cornfields, and John’s wife was irate about something or other. . . I felt somewhat overwhelmed and chose the better part of adventuresomeness and went to bed. Better to ride it out, under the covers.
Good luck with that. No covers, and there simply was nowhere to hide from this stuff. My room had the stereo in it, fortunately, because the storm was beginning to nudge the house around, really about to crush us, so to equalize the outside pressure from inside, I just turned up the music, something loud and classical—John’s wife was a violinist—and crawled back to bed.
But the volume slipped. After just a couple of runs through pharaonic Egypt, I noticed the blasting concerto had subsided. Probably the thunder was vibrating the knob just enough. I crawled my way back over to the console and turned it back up. This kept happening: turn it up all the way (and save John’s family from massive implosion), crawl back to my couch, hallucinate a little, and then the volume would drop. Up, crawl, hallucinate, and drop, three times at least. This hi-fi was pinked all about with little green and orange lights, like Los Angeles across a canyon from me, and then I caught the rough chimera red-handed—its lion’s body with head-of-woman, writhing in silhouette before that twinkling city like it was giving birth: John’s wife turning down the hi-fi. She’d been sneaking in to turn it down in between my hands-and-knees odysseys over to crank it back up.
Maybe I slept. Maybe I toured the Underworld. Then I had to take a leak. Certainly the bathroom was out of the question; it would take me till morning just to find it. I felt along the walls for different portals and eventually found my way outside.
Oh, my god! Looking up from my relief . . . the sky! It was all yellows. You know how in earlier computers, maybe still but I haven’t noticed it lately, they would boast of 10,024 different colors to choose from. These yellows were way ahead of that time, and they didn’t even run the whole gamut. There weren’t any earth tones, just bright and blinding and splendidly succulent yellows, all distinctly different, gigantic swaths and currents of yellows wringing themselves around each other, braiding and unraveling, spasming, squirting off exactly as if the sky had exploded a cherry tomato (a yellow one) between its back teeth. Swallowing the canary moon and spitting it back out, rinsing it from cumulus cheek to cheek.
Have you ever seen William Gass’ tour de force On Being Blue (1976), which begins:
Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold… afflictions of the spirit—dumps, mopes, Mondays—all that’s dismal, low-down gloomy music . . .
. . . and goes on this way for eight or ten pages before it even begins to let itself breathe with any ancillary bluing. Shouldn’t we attempt an opposing run here, my bright-eyed, oh, my firey and fellow sunflowers? In Fibonacci yellow. Yellow bumble-bee stripes, yellow center lines, yellow spines and livers, the language of halitosis but also a cello lightly snoring. . . yellow pages and yellow journalism, the taunting yellow of back-breaking dandelions, the yellow that makes some people angry, others afraid (xanophobia). And one micron shift from xano- to xeno- —the Yellow Peril! Blue movies . . . in China they’re yellow. In Japan, yellow is the color of courage, not cowardice. The transcendental (if a bit vulgarized) Hare Krishna mantra: Krishna and Rama are names for incarnations of the god; the Hare is his supreme energy. Sanskrit hari means yellow.
Antinomies: the yellow ribbon of anxious waiting love, on trees and doorknobs; the yellow Star of David on the Juden’s breast (and on the back—those thorough Nazis). The yellow rust on wheat, or plastered on my garage floor when I finally get rid of some damn thing. Yellow stars in stellar classification (our sun being G2V, “a 'yellow' two tenths towards 'orange' main-sequence star”). Who would have thought? The yellowcake of uranium ore, or the soccer ref’s yellow card, whether erroneous or belated or blatant, but, alas, never perceived as a 100% pure by half the spectators.
34 Down: ‘It’s sold yellow.’ __ N __ __ __ L L, last Sunday’s crossword, New York Times. (Hint: think of billiards.)
Organic: yellow bone marrow, the yellow bile of the four humors, in excess causing a cranky personality. Yellow adipose tissue, the fat globules that look when you see them I the raw like a trove of gelatinous bug eggs—a turn-off yellow to be sure; it’s a slimy milky glassy yellow, the fat of a lamb chop, but yellow. And if you really wanted to get down on it, cholera—named for the greenish-yellow diarrhea.
That horrid jaundice of the whole Simpson family (save Marge’s hair), which Groening chose because he wanted it “…to look like something was wrong with your TV.”
The brush of lurid highlights on a greeny-gray corpse [L. luridis, pale yellow], its rictus smile as in response to tangy rind of citron [Gk. κιτρινοσ, pale yellow]. This meager wavelength of energy can be clandestine, my friends, leering at you from within language as well as things, yet never showing its true color. A quick run through an etymological dictionary: gall (bile), and galling, gold, gilt, gilded, gelt, Guilders (the gold coin); even yolk, plus the jaundice of the French jaune family—all for their rooted yellowness, all through Old English geolu, yellow.
This shy stealth is perhaps because it has an inferiority complex: yellow is such a tiny stretch on the spectrum of visible light, squeezed in there between orange and green, really a grandiose red on its way to the cool blues. And remember, what’s yellow to us, is everything but yellow to itself. The rest of the light is absorbed by the object, the yellow wavelength rejected, reflecting back at us. Existentially backwards.
Yellow where you’d least suspect it. The vast yellow fields of rapeseed (tinged with lime), all the way to the horizon, that took my breath away in southern England: rape gives us mayonnaise and canola oil, and is becoming major candidate for bio-fuels. But you wonder where the yellow went.
The yellow of London fog, the Paris Yellow of artists’ oils. If you’re going to be green with envy, in French, on va en faire une jaunisse—a yellowness. Rimbaud in his famous synaesthetic sonnet “Voyelles,” where i is red and u is green and so on, actually leaves out yellow! That’s our stealthy yellow fellow for you; even poets can miss it. And consider the miniscule yellow dots now being encoded via laser printers on all documents. The serial number, every inch or so, among the lines and in the margins. Too small, need a blue light to see them. “It’s a trail back to you, like a license plate,” says the chap I called at Xerox.
Yellow paranoia then? In fact, Yellow Wallpaper Disorder, after the Charlotte Perkins Gilman story, is an actual schizo-typical condition, “…giving incorrect properties to a sensation, often crossing sense modalities,” the poor girl crawling around her room in pursuit of a curious smell: “The only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper. A yellow smell.”
When I asked my brother-in-law pianist, who hears synaesthetically, what note was yellow, he said immediately: “A-Major! A pale but pretty yellow, an HGTV House & Garden yellow,” and attempted the whole chord in his perfect pitch.
Do it yourself (I insist, it’s everywhere, bleeding through even where you can’t see it, like a buttercup under your chin): the yellow __________, the yellow of ____________s, the y_____w of a contusion, the intensity of which lets a physician know how old the bruise is, or, in avoidance of such bruises, what of that glaring cautionary yellow of the traffic light, flanked between greeny go and insistent whoa. The dusty yellow of school buses and traffic signs; and taxi cabs, the color chosen because studies showed yellow is easiest to spot at a distance. This is certainly true of kayaks!
The high yaller of Emily West, whose dalliance with General Santa Anna of an afternoon left him totally surprised by Houston’s attack and so cost him the battle of San Jacinto, and ultimately the war, and crowned Emily as the Yellow Rose of Texas. Or more to my initial ergot inducement, the mellow yellow of banana skins that Donovan smoked in the ‘60s; comes then the eponymous citrus soda of the ‘70s, that borrowed the song and ripped off Squirt of the ‘50s, goosing it with caffeine and virtually copying the package. (Squirt was named for how a grapefruit squirts into your mouth, or your eye if using a spoon.)
Or what about Molly Bloom’s ass on page 719 in the first American edition of Joyce’s Ulysses:
He kissed the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her
rump on each plump melonous hemisphere, in their mellow
yellow furrow, with obscure prolonged provocative melon-
Or back to Donovan’s e-lec-tric-kle banana—a delivery system for ingestible potassium or just an ergonomic dildo?
Or, auscultate [thump thump] the somewhat darker yellow of the rest of this story—a kind of brown really, keeping in mind that brown is actually a dark yellow.
I didn’t stay with my writhing yellow sky—which flashes dimly back every time I hear the word—partly for propriety’s sake: it’s one thing to surprise a goddess bathing, quite another to gawk.
I modestly lowered my gaze from this brazen yellow sky that I had caught in flagrante delecto [L. flagrare, to blaze, burst into flame, presumably red and yellow], and noticed a lumbering movement in semi-silhouette—an extraordinarily large brown bug, maybe a cow (I hoped, but maybe a camel at sujud prayer)—about ten or fifteen yards off.
Definitely not a cow, though this bug was chewing its cud: I could see its mandibles working, and it was indisputably a bug because of the crystalline fractal eyes and the elbowed legs and the spindly antennae, which, slowly as I watched, tested the air and swung to beam directly at me. Oh oh . . .
What kind of bug had we here—venomous or fritillary, or outright assassin? One’s life flashes before one’s eyes when drowning, supposedly (not always—but that’s another story), and all my biology and sci-fi movies and playground bullies and healthy paranoia and mortal consolations and despairs, were clamoring for attention at once, a welter of background music of My Moment, at the mercy of, I supposed, what could only be My Un-maker.
But then under that moon roiling around like a yoke in a low-speed blender, I flashed on those early1950s movies, probably The Day the Earth Stood Still, and I thought, wait, this insecta gargantua doesn’t have to be carnivorous, or, even if it is, then you and it have something in common, something more than just stardust. Just don’t startle it, and don’t panic. In fact, let’s assume it’s friendly. So, lacking a hamburger, I pulled up some wet grass and slowly approached, reminding myself to keep my thumb flush like when you offer a horse an apple.
And that is my moment. That is the life-changer, the lesson I learned and brought back, if not to the tribe, then at least to myself. I was discovering a reserve at the edge of my personality, that I’ve actually drawn strength from since, articulated that night under that convulsing yellow sky, with that one friendly good-faith gesture.
You know of course it wasn’t a bug, but I didn’t. Even after I’d begun to examine my friend’s Porsche, sleek in its weather carapace of taught brown leather—how its headlights even up close still seemed rather compound, how its one antenna could have moved to the front and doubled itself, its wheel hoods seem squat and tensed to spring, whether in flight or fight.
I remember being disappointed. Bug gone, and me there reasoning, first signs of coming down a little. I rode out the rest of my trip with a kind of superior ennui. I’d been to my bug, and love, or something like it, good will say, conquered all. Or most things. Or a lot. As I said, it’s a moment I inadvertently return to when I need to draw on that kind of—was it strength born under that shower of glistering yellow sky? It’s not courage. Some might say it’s that other yellow, the pale cast of yellow-bellied cowardice. Not me to the universe asserting: Sir, I exist! But me obeisant: Thanks, universe. Anything I can do to help? Acquiescence, the sunny side of valor. It’s awe, really, down on one knee, in the face of this on-going solid-state miracle we call life. Corny, I admit (we’re in Iowa, after all, color intended).
But I don’t apologize. There’s an ancient Gnostic belief that we are all living post-Resurrection. That is, we have all already died, and been resurrected and this, my friends, is it—we just don’t know it. No memory of the before and no realization that we’re in the hereafter (leaving aside for the moment what a mess we’re making of it). But as for the bonhommie, some of us savages do get it, O brave new world with such people and things and life and folly and beauty and horror in it—all nouns and verbs are holy and are the promise delivered—and if you’ll just grant that appreciation to others and then if you’re the curious sort maybe probe around to see if they get it, often as not even better than you do. . . then I guess the question does become what do those of us in the know do about it?
Why should this ubiquitous yet so often subliminal heaven have to attenuate down to an ailing planet trampled under by magical thinking suffused with ego, pride, greed and the rest of the stupidities? Well, if the snake in the garden had yellow markings, so did the sword. We just have to see its sheen, point to it, revere it properly. Hari hari.
We won’t, not enough of us, and the life of our dear yellow dwarf is about half over anyway, scheduled for a violent oblivion [Latin ob + livere, to become black].
Meanwhile, I’m just mad about Saffron, and I’m of a bonny enough disposition to think she’s mad about me; and the chap who called me a prince of a fellow once, besides probably manipulating me, was wrong. I’m really just a shy extrovert—cautious but cheerful, opinionated but rather readily accommodating; I take the long view, take humiliations in stride, genuinely attend other people’s dreams, inner lives . . . am truly blessed, I think, with a small but significant titrant of ichor running through my veins.
Ichor? The blood of the Olympian gods. It’s yellow, you know. Golden.
First published in Yellow Pages: the Heavenly Tome, 2030
Follow-up conversation with wife, who said, speaking of Mellow Yellow:
—You’re including that?
—Yeah, why not. It’s an essential part of me. The jolly chatter.
—. . . the mad hatter.
—Why don’t you like to chat?
—Because I’m a quiet person.
—But you miss so much.
[mumbles] [stares at me]
—Don’t you think you miss a lot? Remember those guys in London, at the pub?
—I do. They couldn’t believe you!
—It was a nice dinner . . .
—Yeah, who paid.
—Just drinks. They liked you. That one guy thought you were terrific, as I recall.
—Because I’m a quiet person.