I would like to address an association that I have with the color purple. Not the Pulitzer prize winning book that spawned the Tony award winning play. Rather, an association that was triggered for me by the color purple – little "c" and little "p". In the spirit of our blog, I want to decipher what it is that gnaws at me and challenge you to consider whether a similar phenomenon exists for you.
In August of 1974, as I was about to start high school, my mother and I went shopping on Coney Island Avenue at Joel''s, a store that specialized in what was known then as "men''s slacks." Looking through the racks, I selected three pair.
Before taking them into the fitting room, I showed the pants to mom. There was a brown corduroy pair, a snazzy striped number, and some purple, ultra-70s bell bottoms. By purple, I refer to the skin pigmentation of Barney the dinosaur. By bell bottoms, I mean "flares." I knew those bell bottoms were "out there" and might not pass maternal scrutiny.
Indeed, mom signaled thumbs up for my first two choices but rejected the purple bell bottoms. I figured she thought they were just too loud, but then cryptically, she announced, "Find something else. It''s a medical thing."
Despite genuine effort, I couldn''t deduce reason for medical contraindication to purple bell-bottoms, but it was evident that my mother did not want to elaborate. I quickly decided to let go of both the pants and my curiosity.
Fast forward to April of 1982, second semester of my first med-school year. Once each month, I return home to New York from Boston on the Eastern Airlines Shuttle. Traveling so frequently and intimately familiar with my airborne surroundings, I notice that Eastern has re-upholstered the seats of their plane. The color of the fabric is violet; first cousin to Barney-purple. Fatigued from tedious med-school memorization, my brain wanders back to Joel’s on Coney Island Avenue. As part of the "medical" establishment now, I surely must be entitled to know the secret of mom''s medically oriented ban on purple bell bottoms. I resolve, immediately after the obligatory hugging, to ask her.
To my surprise, my mom is willing to talk. More than willing. It feels as if she’s been waiting for eight years to talk. In fact, as it turns out, it’s been eleven years.
Flash back to 1971. Mom and dad return to the office of dad’s urologist, to learn the results of "The Biopsy." They spend an inordinate amount of time in the waiting room before being called to the doctor''s inner sanctum to receive the life-altering news. Dad has metastatic prostate cancer. As mom and dad leave, one other patient occupies the waiting room. Mom remembers only one detail: the man is wearing purple pants.
Leaning back on my usual chair at mom’s kitchen table, I envision a headless-horseman figure. Not even much of a torso -- just enough to hold up his purple pants. I feel my mother''s pain and fear. I am now initiated into the gloomy ranks of those who attribute irrational negativity to the color purple.
It’s now summer of 2000. A swanky, Manhattan conference room. I am president of a biotechnology company called Keryx. We are planning our NASDAQ IPO, an exhilarating process. Our board informs the graphic designer that our logo must convey our drug platform’s ability to manipulate DNA. The designer inserts the famous "double helix" into our new corporate icon. Excitement mounts. The chairman moves that we approve the design.
And we would, unanimously, if not for a lone dissenter. When they inquire as to why I appear so viscerally opposed, I mutter something about color. The designer had added the DNA strands in purple. When I can’t rationally explain my opposition, the board adopts the logo as-is. Then they inform me of their expectation that, in future decision making, I will be coherent.
Fast forward again, to last week. I arrive early to work. Monday morning. In the waiting room, I see only one person. He’s not sure, he says, that he’s in the right place. I’m hurrying, rushing to the fourth floor to meet with surgeons. The guy deserves attention. But, uh-oh, he’s wearing purple pants. A voice inside me is prepared to deflect his neediness by reassuring him that the nurse will arrive soon. Luckily, that voice is overcome by a stronger internal force which urges me to realize that the time has come to change. I sit down next to the man in the waiting room who is innocently wearing the purple pants. Suddenly, it is clear that there is only one response, "how can I help you?"
Throughout our lives, we are beset by a spectrum of emotions and associations that we just don''t understand. Perhaps we are green with envy. Maybe we have the blues. And, of course, there are many feelings that are not at all metaphorically colored. I am not a psychiatrist but it seems to me that it is worth investing the time, by ourselves or with professional guidance, to decipher the meaning that underlies such thoughts. In my case, empathy for a mother''s ache will always be linked to the color purple. Hopefully though, I am finding the strength to compartmentalize that sentiment.
More importantly, there is a need to understand the source of my emotions and to maintain an awareness of the moment. What underlies my feelings? How can I separate things out so that I don''t penalize the next patient in purple pants or appear mysteriously distracted when a well-intentioned graphic artist presents something that shouldn''t be evocative?
I realize I have been wordy this week, but I wanted to invite you to carry out a parallel process with me as I contended with the problem of "association." I believe that this is a healthy task which allows us to identify our true colors.
Until next Monday, Shalom.
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