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“Ultimate Gray” and “Illuminating”

It is mid-December and that means that it is time for Pantone to announce the color of the year for 2021 (on the outside chance that the longed-for new year ever actually arrives).  Through some sort of dark chromomancy, the Pantone high counsel of color wizards usually manages to correctly predict the trends of the coming year with their selections (for 2020 they presciently selected depression-colored blue).  After this epic disaster of a year (when the world was ravaged by a plague and the nation came an electoral inch from re-electing an evil fascist criminal) it is frightening to see what hue the oracles have chosen to represent our shared destiny.

Andddd…to be honest, the outlook does not look so great.  As in 2016, Pantone has cast a vote for transition, change, and uncertainty by naming two colors of the year. However, whereas the colors of 2016 (baby blue and pink) were at least pretty, for 2021 they have chosen the leaden hue of wet concrete and the vivid yellow of “checks cashed” & “liquor” signs.  It looks like driving through South Chicago in 1993! The colors’ proper trade names are “Illuminating” for the bright yellow and “Ultimate Gray” for the dark cold gray.

Good times…

Pantone chooses dull, ugly, neutral colors when they project a downturn and bright, splashy colors when they are predicting boom times.  By choosing both they are throwing up their hands in bafflement (which makes perfect sense, since the world’s economic sages are likewise shrugging and anxiously pulling their collars). The blathering spokespeople who have to spin this stuff into sales copy are talking about “light at the end of the tunnel” and “uplifting, smiley face yellow”, but I think the residents of East Flatbush can recognize down-and-out colors from shared urban experience.

The Colors of the Year for 2020 & 2021…and 2002 there on the letters, I guess

From Ferrebeekeeper’s perspective, there is indeed a hint of better times in these colors.  Bright yellow and wet concrete are not just the colors of the inner city shopping district, they are colors for building!  When you look at a new highway or a new airport, it is all “Illuminating” and “Ultimate Gray”!  Caterpillar paints its bulldozers, backhoes, road-graders, and cement mixers high-vis yellow for safety reasons (speaking of which, a season of safety would be nothing to sneeze at).  Brand new concrete is…the color of wet concrete.  Perhaps the color oracles are indicating that America and the world can indeed move forward, but only if we stop bickering, denying, and doting on cowardly con-artists and start building.

In fact I am writing sarcastically, as fits this publicity stunt non-event, but bright yellow really truly is a beautiful color on a yellow tang, a golden oriole, an autumn cherry tree, Oshun’s dress, or even a good number 2 pencil. All of which is to say: the 2021 color of the year is more of a choose-your-own affair than usual (and we are already talking about colors, any of which take on the meaning you ascribe to them).  Can we work together and dream and plan and rebuild?  Or are we going to spend the year blaming those other people for our problems as we walk down the gray boulevard of broken dreams to cash our sad tiny check before heading into the Dollar General?

Hey! Has anyone checked the Pantone people’s bank accounts to see if they just received a suspiciously large number of crumpled dollar bills?


Back during the sixties, a pair of psychologists (Seligman and Maier) at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a sadistic animal study in order to learn more about depression. And they did find out a great deal about depression…and about learning, conditioning, the nature of will, and many other important things. Their experiments were troubling on all sorts of levels. Yet even though thinking about this is painful, we need to do so, because what they learned by torturing dogs into near-catatonic apathy applies very directly to us as well.

OK, here is the basis of the experiment: groups of dogs were placed in restraint harnesses with access to a lever which they could activate with their paws. Group 1 dogs were put in the harness and then nothing happened and they were released…they were the control group I suppose. Group 2 dogs were put in the restraints and given a painful electric shock—which they could stop by pushing the lever. Group 3 dogs were put in restraints and shocked seemingly at random. Group 3 dogs were helpless to escape their predicament: the lever did nothing.


After sufficient conditioning (I imagine an agent of Hydra saying that phrase in a faux German accent), the dogs were removed from the harnesses and put in a box apparatus with an electric floor. The floor would start shocking the dogs, but they could escape by leaping over a low threshold or finding a hidden panel or what-have-you. Innocent Group 1 dogs were appalled at human perfidy, but quickly found a way out of the electrified box apparatus! Group 2 dogs knew they could change their fate and they too quickly found a way to escape the painful box. They bounded around until they got out. Group 3 dogs, however, had been taught that their actions were meaningless and so their response was heartbreakingly sad: they just lay down on the dreadful electrified floor to take their shocks and whine in misery.


The researchers discovered that the group 3 dogs were fundamentally broken. They could not be threatened or cajoled to jump over the barrier. Only by literally moving the dog’s limbs in the correct motions and holding the creature upright could the animals be taught to escape the electrified floor (it should be obvious that these dogs were thoroughly conditioned till they were effectively destroyed, and, of course the animals used in this study—and its subsequent iterations—were destroyed after being so relentlessly abused). These studies worked the same way on other animals and in other iterations which you can look up on your own if you so like.

So what did we learn from all this? People (or other similar organisms) who have been subject to abuse and neglect have been taught not to seek a way out of their predicament—even when the way is so obvious as to be self-evident. Frustratingly it seems like those infuriating optimists who are always going around saying “you make your own luck” and “always look on the bright side” and suchlike twaddle are right…sort of. A person’s way of explaining the world to himself matters greatly in how he then tries to deal with that world. What truly matters seems to be perceived control over the situation—or perceived lack of control. Neurophysiologists even discovered the biological circuitry of learned helplessness—mood and learning affect each other in discernible chemical patterns in the brain. The wrong feedback loop can lead to crippling anxiety-related emotional disorders—as seen in the group 3 dogs (interestingly, physical exercise can help break this feedback loop, so if you end up in prison camp, or being tortured by the Viet Cong, or trapped in a hall of evil mirrors, you had better quickly start getting fit!).


Plus, if you get buff enough, you could just physically bust free

Plus, if you get buff enough, you could just physically bust free

Of course a philosopher would correctly point out that none of the dogs in any of the three groups ever truly had any control—it was always an illusion fostered by godlike experimenters. In our world of powerful machines, giant corporations, ineluctable plate tectonics, false democracy, and billions upon billions of hungry greedy antagonistic humans, control is likewise an illusion, but a very important one! Maybe I should not even have included this paragraph, so that we can all can pretend we have some modicum of agency in the actual world.


Speaking of the true nature of the world, the real lesson of the dog study is short and hard. Life is a series of shocking boxes box and we need to keep bounding around banging on the walls all the time to get anywhere. Maybe the way forward is there and maybe not, but you had better believe with all your heart that it is…and that your actions have meaning. Otherwise you might as well just lie down on the floor and die.

In previous posts I have written about the great German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich who came to prominence and fame at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  Unfortunately for Friedrich, art is fickle.  As he approached his middle years, the melancholy and dramatic realism which was his specialty fell out of fashion.  His patrons abandoned him and his art became even more bleak and pessimistic (which did nothing to help his sales). Although fashion abandoned Friedrich, his genius did not desert him: his works became more somber and metaphysical, but their lonely beauty and solemn majesty also became more pronounced.

The Oaktree in the Snow (Caspar David Friedrich, 1829, oil on canvas)

The Oaktree in the Snow (Caspar David Friedrich, 1829, oil on canvas)

Here is a picture from 1829 of a denuded oak tree standing alone in the snow.  Although leafless and broken the tree is still magnificent.  The artist has painted the dark tree looming up into an indifferent sky above the viewer.  The desolate winter landscape accentuates the bare branches and gnarled trunk of the tree which seems to strive against the cold grasp of winter–and even against time itself.   There is a paradox to this work: the very emptiness and plainness of the composition awakens an imagined spring within the heart of anyone looking at the picture.  Sadly, for Friedrich, spring was never to come again: his work did not regain its popularity in his life (and a stroke in 1835 robbed him of his ability to paint with oils). Yet The Oaktree in the Snow is a triumph—a fully realized painting of existential complexity in the simplest and boldest of compositions.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

February 2021