“You’re just too cool.”
That’s what she said. In fact, those were her exact words, which proves one thing: she’s never met me.
No one has ever described me as cool, or any heat level, for that matter. If there were a television show called World’s Least Cool Human Being, I would be the permanent guest host. When I enter a room, even the goldfish pretend they’re asleep. In high school, I was voted “Most Likely to Be Forgotten, and Well Before the Five-Year Reunion.”
It was a great surprise, then, when a fellow blogger paid me a compliment by suggesting that I was too cool. At least I think it was a compliment. The word too snagged on my brain for a moment. I’ve been told I’m too sensitive, which is a polite way of saying, “Oh, grow some skin, will you please?” And others have said I think too much, which really means, “Please shut up now and at least try to be normal.”
So her comment did get me speculating about the general concept. Can a person be too cool, and if so, where exactly is the boundary? Is it possible to just brush up against the limit without stepping over it?
Before we can talk about coolness, we have to define it, and there’s part of the problem. It’s hard to analyze something that’s cool without warming it up to room temperature first. It’s like explaining a joke – you kill the humor in the process. Or pulling that goldfish out of the water in order to explain how it lives – as my ninth-grade biology teacher did. While she pointed out the gill structures, the thing was drowning in mid-air. We can’t say for sure what coolness is, but we know it when we see it. For anyone growing up in the early sixties, this guy was cool.
Like any other personality trait, coolness is also relative. The description requires comparison and context, in much the same way that height does. A man who’s six-foot-six and working at the bakery is tall; if the same guy were a professional basketball player, he’d be average. Seated in your dentist’s waiting room, an old magazine about soybeans might seem like the most boring thing you can imagine. But if you were floundering in solitary confinement in a Bulgarian prison and stumbled upon that same magazine buried in the dirt floor of your grimy cell, you’d read it cover to cover. Even the operating instructions for a toaster oven would seem cool.
In 1986, Huey Lewis told us that it’s actually hip to be square. I’ve been pondering this idea ever since. Is it true? It’s easy to be hip when you’re on stage in Las Vegas, with flashing lights and saxophone players and five thousand screaming fans in the audience. But could my squareness be hip?
I never thought so. Until about an hour ago, I believed the scale on which we measure a person’s coolness was graduated and straight, like a timeline or a thermometer. However, this does little to clear up the issue. What’s the opposite of Cool? Is it Lukewarm? Tepid, maybe? More complications: Beyond Cool would be Cold, which is a completely different thing. And at the other end, past Tepid, would be Hot, which also has its own meaning.
In a flash of insight that was as notable for its intensity as much as its rarity, I saw that the scale was not a straight line at all, but a circle. This is why, when you don’t even know – or care – how uncool you are, that very tendency is itself considered cool. It’s something like an honorary degree. When people drop out of college in their freshman year to pursue careers that have nothing to do with learning or knowledge, and go on to become incredibly wealthy and powerful, terrorizing their own employees along the way and demonstrating that our system of education is somewhat useless, universities reward them with a diploma and let them wear a cap and gown and give a speech to the real students. Naturally, this got me wondering about the recipients of those honorary degrees. They didn’t pass any courses or write any dissertations. Do they frame the piece of paper and hang it on the wall anyway? If not, what is it for? My uncle used to give me two-dollar bills on my birthday. Before I could even fold the cash and put it into my pocket, my father would tell me that I should never spend it.
“Two-dollar bills are rare,” he’d say. “Don’t go buying comic books with them.” But if I couldn’t spend it, I thought, it wasn’t really money. The worst part is, this was the only piece of financial advice anyone has ever given me.
In the 1970s, the cool handshake knocked me farther out of sync. This was the vertical-clasp, let’s-go-smoke-some-weed handshake. I never adopted that greeting, and it always led to a lot of awkward fumbling in the air, which preceded a maddening conversation that would usually begin with my saying, “Sorry, I don’t smoke weed. Do you have root beer?”
I didn’t say far out or groovy or dig this. I didn’t call my house a crib or refer to my car as wheels. The expression right on! was popular for a few years, and it seems to have made a comeback of late. I never even used it the first time around. I’ve said those words, but only when embedded in longer sentences:
“You can turn right on red here.”
“Keep right on kicking me in the leg, and see what happens.”
“You were right on Tuesday when you said that wall was going to fall down.”
I’ve never been on a motorcycle, or worn a leather jacket. I’ve never smoked a cigarette or gotten stoned or hitchhiked anywhere. I can’t tell you a single detail about any member of any rock band. And when I’m at the convenience store, I see magazine covers featuring pictures of famous people, and I have no idea who they are.
I’ve never said Bring it on to anyone, or the more recent shortened version, Bring it. When the expression gets reduced to just Bring, I probably won’t say that, either. I’ve also never asked What’s going down? or referred to sunglasses as shades or called anyone Bro or Dude. I’ve never said It’s all good or No worries, mostly because it isn’t all good, and I can think of a billion things to worry about.
On the other hand, lately I’ve been rolling up the sleeves of my tee shirts, the way teenagers did in the fifties. I’m not trying to re-create a trend, though — it’s just been kind of warm in the house. I’ve also taken to wetting my hair and slicking it back, but that’s only because it’s starting to grow in strange directions. Sometimes I resemble one of those nuclear physicists who hasn’t left the laboratory in six months. Other than that, I don’t really care what I look like or what anyone says. Even friendly fellow bloggers. And I guess you know what that makes me.
I invite you to listen to this song once, then spend the rest of the weekend trying to get it out of your head.