Over the years, with my kneejerk rebellion in full jerk, I’ve resisted adopting any overarching philosophy of life. I don’t think the Golden Rule applies in every situation, I don’t twelve-step my way towards anything and I don’t believe that the world is divided into two kinds of people. I don’t make lemonade out of life’s lemons, I don’t stop to smell the flowers and I don’t hang in there, baby. In fact, I’ve found just about any advice on how to live one’s life usually turns out to be crap. Playing hard to get doesn’t work, and neither does taking it one day at a time. I’ve been faking it until I make it for decades, and not only did I never make it, but felt like a phony in the process. Looking back, I find there’s really only one methodology that I’ve been able to effectively apply to life’s many hassles, and that is to Be Cool.
I don’t know about you, but Be Cool was the foundation of my upbringing. It was the primary life lesson I brought into adulthood. As a child, when tempted to run at the mouth about Batman for an hour, hack at the linoleum with a claw hammer, or set fire to the garage, my parents reminded me that Coolness was the preferable state of being. All children are taught some variation of the Be Cool philosophy. “Stop crying,” “Share your toys,” “Stop slouching,” “Don’t talk with your mouth full,” “Don’t pee your pants” and practically any other parental corrections are all part of the same admonishment: “Do not embarrass yourself or your tribe.” Be Cool. There are times when a child engages in sugar-fueled spasmastics that don’t really have a name, like rubbing Legos in her hair while bouncing on one foot and yelling, “Snoopy Poop!” over and over. A parent faced with this kind of stupidity on aisle seven doesn’t have time to diagnosis a bad behavior and suggest a more pleasant alternative. Mom just wants you to cut the shit. Be Cool, ferchristsake.
Ironically, young people who learn to stifle such outrageous emotional displays will sometimes embrace Coolness to cartoonish extremes. After all, achieving the passionless disconnect of Optimum Cool is a waste of time if no one notices. American popular culture reflects the ridiculous stereotypes of Cool that result from this desperation; Brando in The Wild One, Henry Winkler on Happy Days, and my personal favorite, Stallone in Cobra (an eight-year old boy’s idea of a “cool guy” if there ever was one). The connection between these profiles in Cool is obvious, but inexplicable: leather jackets. As a young teen looking for a shortcut to Coolville, this iconography wasn’t lost on me. The one and only time in my life that shopping for clothes seemed exciting was when my father agreed to purchase a leather jacket for me. And let me tell you, the mystique of the leather jacket may have no logical explanation, but it works. I went from friendless nerd to intriguing rock star overnight with the simple application of black leather (I didn’t even need a rhinestone skull or airbrushed Iron Maiden logo on the back). Mind you, girls still avoided me, but now it was out of genuine fear rather than simple revulsion. And being feared is always cooler than being popular.
Ultimately, though the right fashions can be a signifier that Cool is in session, they are not Coolness itself. In The Wild One, Brando’s biker gang, the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, are all festooned with the obligatory emblems of Cool – leather jackets, jeans, biker boots, leather gloves – but they are not Cool. In fact, horsing around as they do with their cornball hijinks, they seem about as menacing as Abbott and Costello. Brando is the only one who seems Cool, simply by virtue of his comparatively tight-lipped brooding. (He seems to be the only one of the bunch who understands that wooing the opposite sex requires mannerisms more subtle than hair-pulling.) And this gets to the heart of the matter: Be Cool means, in essence, shut the hell up. Keep your idiotic yammering to a minimum and for god’s sake, stop trying to be so damned funny.
Funny people are almost never Cool. And if they are, they’re probably not very funny. Cool is about calm. Calm like Jesus or Gandhi or Sugar Bear. Comedy generally involves flailing and emoting, with pants around the ankles and Slim Whitman impressions. Your Cool Count plunges the instant you decide a random object might make a funny hat. Dweebs like me have developed comical personas as something to fall back on when our attempts at Cool invariably fail. This is how humorists are made. Gallagher is not Christ-like. And as we all know, the jokes Jesus included in the Sermon on the Mount totally bomb to this day. When Funny fails, Cool will likely never be regained. Your Chewbacca dance may not be worth it. And whatever you do, never play the spoons.
Be Cool, as should be obvious to anyone who has ever been Cool, is one of those ideologies best defined by what it is not. To Be Cool is to remain aloof, to tiptoe through potential minefields of embarrassment as gracefully as possible. It means keeping a lid on your giddy exuberance, your anxious jabbering, your urge to kill the greeter at Wal-Mart. It means avoiding panic, of course, when faced with fire, flood, or fractured pelvis. But beyond that, Being Cool means, whenever given reasonable license, you should refrain from giving a shit. Because, let’s face it, we don’t really give a shit about most of the shit we pretend to give a shit about. And giving a shit about the wrong shit can ruin your life forever.
Americans have particular difficulty in understanding Cool because Being Cool requires being unimpressed. And while the French, for example, remain unimpressed to the point of narcolepsy, Americans get excited about anything that seems somewhat larger than normal. “Shooey! Them fighter jets is LOUD!” and so on. Being continuously impressed means we spend most of our time in a state of manic desire, desperately chasing fashion trends, diet plans, lotto payoffs and careers in reality television. When it comes to popular culture, we relate best to cathartic meltdowns - screaming fits with thrown punches, personal grudges carried out in mud wrestling, or “this time it’s personal” motorcycle chases on exploding aircraft carriers. We’re tense and we’re addicted to tension.*
And so, forgetting what our parents taught us, we embarrass ourselves. Our high- octane culture has us in a Red Bull tizzy, desperate for distraction from the ugly truth that we have become the Uncool. The Uncool, who are downloading Farmville apps, supersizing their Value Meals, and listening to Barenaked Ladies on Spotify. The Uncool, who are parading in public in their Crocs and jammie pants with “Phat Girl” embroidered on the ass, their hair neatly gelled into fauxhawks, or those piled-high hairdos that look like Big Bird has a brain tumor. The Uncool, who are shouting Family Guy quotes into our cell phones, gunning our SUVs, and screeching at our widescreen plasma televisions when the Packers fumble. We’ve strayed far from the path of Cool, and now we’re lost in the desert with a head full of aspartame.
Corrective action is required. But a nation that doesn’t know what it means to Be Cool must embark on a reeducation program. We will first do what Americans do best: we will make purchases, acquiring the talismans of Cool. We will buy the leather jackets. We will buy Miles Davis CDs. We will take up smoking, or if that doesn’t work, heroin. We will lean against brick walls, staring into the infinite void and looking sleepy. We will do what it takes to reacquaint ourselves with what it means to Be Cool.
After all, I’ve always believed you got to fake it ‘til you make it.
* Consider that the classic American Western, rambunctious with its whooping Indian attacks and stunt-ridden bar fights, featured no genuine Coolness until the Italians adopted the genre (and showed us the proper application of a steely-eyed Eastwood). And have you actually watched a James Dean film? America’s preeminent icon of Cool was actually a weeping, bellowing basket case who spent most of his time crumpled in a manic depressive heap. Meanwhile, Italian cinema had Marcello Mastroianni, who was authentically Cool. And this is why Americans will always hate Europeans.