In this magic land, where the golden hills of pine and eucalyptus prickle the nose like sticks of incense, where lazy, wilting palms shade $300,000 bungalows and nary a backyard is sans hot tub, everyone is striving to be "mellow."
Indeed, there appears to be a grand prix of self-seekers trying so hard to find happiness along the way, rather than at the end of the road, that they frequently run into a ditch.Bookshelves are lined with five-step recipes for ecstasy and Michelin Guides to the soul. Even supermarkets merchandise an exotic herbal harem - ginseng root, crushed passion flower, ground peach bark - in the same sexy racks usually reserved for panty-hose.
Mellow-seekers rarely run when they can walk, and dance to such tunes as "Never wait for permission; ask straight away for what you want."
"Anything Jung," as one resident put it, draws mobs to the Jewish Community Center for Adult Education Night. Ask a stranger, any stranger, and chances are he has been Rolfed, rebirthed, bioenergized, actualized, ested, reintegrated or sucked dry of all angst in the endless circle of groups and regroups. And still they moan about how tough it is to achieve mellow.
Others simply choose to soak away the fretful side of life in their swirling hot tubs, or search hard until they have found a friend with one.
Sunny California has spawned a tyranny of mellow.
Everywhere, the upwardly hip are competing to see who can be the most laid back, the clearest of mind, the lithest of body, the most upfront, least uptight, the tannest - the most mellow. There is even a propensity to compare one's mellow quotient to another's:
"I fasted 10 days."
"Well, I fasted 20 days."
"So, Jesus wandered 40 days and 40 nights."
"Well, I gave up sugar . . . "
"Yeah, but I'm weaning myself from dairy products . . . "
Celibates from sucrose, meat and dairy products score points. Daily practitioners of yoga or meditation rate high on the scale of mellow. Any number of therapies are deemed excellent paths thereto. And long distance runners, whose hearts barely beat at all, are practically patron saints of the mass movement.
WHAT PRECISELY, is mellow? A state of mind, well short of enlightenment, but far easier to obtain. Consider it simply a respectable stopping place, a well-marked ramp off the Cosmic Freeway, an achievable goal in the Era of Disappointments.
Which brings one to the ultimate dilemma: What to do when the mellow become so mellow as to be on the verge of turning into Jello? "Cocaine," says a doctor. "Everyone who is mellow carries it. Not that it's mellow drug, but it wakes them up, it keeps the mellow propped up enough so they can function."
The truly mellow - humble actors careening about the stage of life - are able to laugh at themselves, shrugging off criticism with a "What, Me Worry?" But suddenly this summer, here across San Francisco Bay, it has become clear that few actually measure up to such high standards.
Almost two months have passed since a TV documentary portrayed Marin County as a "golden ghetto" of wealthy, self-indulgent psycho-babblers. The NBC report, "I Want It All Now," served up a smorgasbord of mommies and daddies who wouldn't hesitate an om to slough off children and each other for a good slop at the trough of enlightenment. Two months now - and the self-proclaimed mellow are still pouting about the "hatchet job" over veggie burgers splashing about self-denials ("We're really not like THAT!") in their hot tubs and threatening to get even.
One disgruntled viewer, apparently unable to draw upon a reserve of mellow, phoned the local NBC affiliate and threatened to blow up the place.
The symbols of success may change from coast to coast, but the process appears to remain the same. Ambitious souls all want a piece of the rock. Every culture has its uniform, and the Land of Mellow is no different: raggedy jeans by day, natty jeans by night.
Still, even in California, there are divergent community standards for judging what is mellow and what is not. Upper middle class Mill Valley residents, for example, consider hot tub chic tres mellow. But over a few hills, Berkeley ex-radicals who have shaved their beards, parked used Volvo station wagons besides their three-bedroom ramblers and settled into the middle class ranks they once deplored sniff at such sybarites as conservative and bourgeois.
Meanwhile, Northern Californians generally look down their noses at Los Angeles as one giant taco stand, hardly a mellow hangout. On the other hand, the laid-back of LA regard San Franciscans as stiff and overly intellectual - too cerebral to be mellow.
And yet, there is one point everyone seems to agree on if they're being upfront about being mellow. Which is: It's not mellow to be poor.
Now, it's still cool if you're into broken-down VW Bugs rather than Alfas. But it's eminently cooler if you can afford to be into whatever you want.
"If all you had to do was worry about your paycheck, or where your next meal was coming from, you wouldn't have time to ask questions like, 'Who am I?' or 'What is?' You wouldn't have time to experience," effused one cosmic lady. "So we're not coming from survival. But we have what we want: To be able to experiment . . . to be free with other people."
In other words, as one businessman cheerily put it, "Money IS mellow!"
Still, in all matters of visible consumption, it's advisable to affect modesty.
Visitors beware. Prepare to be eyed with contempt, say, if you should wear a spot-free jacket and creased slacks into the Mill Valley Book Depot to peruse the herb catalogues. Nowhere is nattiness mellow. Nor are musings on the falling dollar, a subject that will likely incur a scolding: "Hey, man, you're too into your head, ya know."
The overly verbal, the Pucci-attired, all owners of Detroit model cars and those who balk at disrobing tout de suite to romp with strangers in a swirling hot tub are deemed neither fun nor to be trusted - which usually excludes most anyone from east of the Rockies.
THE EAST may well be as the West views it from afar: hung-up, competitive, dog-bite-dog, funless, orchestrated by men in three-piece suits and politicians who still maintain that big is beautiful. But what the West has overlooked is its very own mounting pressure - to be mellow.
"The other evening," says a GS16 who transferred from Washington to a federal government job in San Francisco, "my date offered me a choice of three activities: a full body massage at his place, a trip to a nude beach or a hot tub party. I told him none of the above thrilled me. He sneered. I haven't heard from him since."
"It's true," says a Beverly Hills dentist who makes frequent trips to Washington, "there's a lot of peer pressure to be mellow. No one here does anything else. And as a result, a lot of people end up doing nothing."
"Last week, I was driving around Newport Beach with a girlfriend," says a White House aide who returned home to Los Angeles for a vacation, "and I saw a guy I used to know driving the other way in his Porsche. In dental school, he was a straight-A student, handsome, on the way to making a bundle, a real Mr. Wonderful. So I asked my girlfriend, 'Is that the same guy?' And she said, 'That's him. He dropped out of school to wait on tables. But he's got a great tan and he sure is mellow.'"
East Coast pursuits of happiness - money, a big house, a fast car, running over one's grandmother to get ahead - are just fine, as long as one remains mellow. Some even regard the Proposition 13 anti-tax revolt as a sort of "mellow backlash" of property owners who figure they could use a few more bucks to spend on, say, a hot tub a hammock and a lid of Columbian to facilitate the process of "mellowing out."
In fact, it's become de rigeur to "use mellow to get ahead," as a "Doonesbury" character named "Dr. Dan Asher" explained in a recent strip. That may seem somewhat paradoxical, but, "Mellow teaches us that it's okay to flash on a power trip as long as you're upfront about it."
THEN THERE are the moral masochists, who ache with guilt every time they pass up a granola bar for a Hershey's. Often, such anxieties are visited upon the heads of the children, who reach for Sesame Yum Yums and Guru Chews, rather than - yuk - masticate unmellow Milky Ways. Any transgression means two more miles of jogging tomorrow, or 10 extra minutes in the lotus position. All, of course, in the pursuit of mellow.
Parents who are into mellow living frequently lead their children to the altar of mellow medicine. One such Mill Valley mother told her daughter's pediatrician where to stick his hypodermic when he suggested an allergy shot. She was waiting for a homeopath to match the child's personality up with a proper herbal cure. But, as the child wheezed and coughed and breathing became ever more labored, she grudgingly relented. "We were prepared to make her suffer a little longer."
Many children are also subjected to relaxed schools and laid-back teachers. "Kids are totally uninhibited about their bodies, but they're barely literate," says San Francisco TV executive Enid Goldstein. "And I've met PhDs in English literature who didn't known who Lillian Hellman was until the movie, 'Julia.'"
All this striving to get mellow frequently leaves people weary of the chase. And, like Cynthia, a Mill Valley writer who left a Columbus, Ohio, marriage and two teenage sons for California to plant, as she puts it, "a 37-year-old taproot into fertile ground," they must constantly remind themselves of their right to fail.
"I'm a '50s woman who slept through the '60s and woke up in the '70s," she says. "The game is different now."
Perhaps it's like the Duchess of Windsor is reported to have said: "A woman can never be too rich or too thin."
Or too mellow.