- coolness the cool of the evening
- Slang calmness; composure (esp in the phrases keep or lose one’s cool)
- Slang unruffled elegance or sophistication
Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003
A Little Background
I’m not cool. I never was, and I doubt I ever will be.
As a kid, I was fat, unpopular, and a book worm. Studious to the point that I never received anything less than a 12 (comparable to an A+ in the US) in any of my courses, except for once, when I received an 11 (an A), and almost broke down crying. Saddest. Day. E.v.e.r.
While most kids were leading normal lives, I was stuck under a desk lamp reading the encyclopedia Britannica. While at dinner, I would recite to my parents the new things I learned during the day. These discoveries were usually scientific or technical in nature, like when I learned why we have bellybuttons, or how an electric current is based on the flow of electrons through atoms.
I was consistently amazed by my surroundings, and my favorite questions would usually start with “how” or “what.” How does a light bulb produce light? What is light? And so on. My parents quickly took notice of my inherent curiosity, and my holiday or birthday presents usually consisted of books, science kits, do-it-yourself-whatevers, Legos, etc. At home, I was king: happy, revered by my parents and immediate family, and felt safe. At school, my world was a little different.
I didn’t really play with toy cars (or even Barbies, if we must talk sexuality), which made me an outcast at school. Although I tried, my excessive weight and lack of connection with the other kids made me feel highly uncomfortable when playing team sports or games. I was a complete loser, don’t remember having any close friends, and dreaded going to school. My one solidified memory of school is: it was always gray and rainy, and I got called “fat ass” (or some variation of that term) at least once every day.
Being a nerd and getting perfect grades didn’t help my popularity, either. I’m not boasting. I was a sad human being. I was a know-it-all. I was highly competitive, and would argue a point to death if I knew I was right. I thought I was superior to my peers, and believed everyone around me failed to see that “fact.” The truth is that I was not superior—I was deeply insecure.
Teachers adored me, and I was once appointed by one teacher as his “secretary.” This meant I would sit next to his desk at school (facing the classroom) and got to decide what grade the students would receive on certain activities, like reading out-loud. Someone would stand up and read a designated text. Once they were done, they would nervously clutch the book with both hands and anxiously await for a grade. The teacher would then look at me and comment something along the lines of “what do we give him? A 6 or a 7?” I would usually choose the lower grade while smirking, clearly displaying an ecstatic, bitter rush. Sad, eh? It was a complete power trip—while I was teased at the playground, no one messed with me in the classroom.
One thing I haven’t yet mentioned—I was nine. Nine. Years. Old.
Learning the Idea of “Coolness” | Teen Years
Because I was the tallest and heaviest kid in the grade, other kids would rarely get physically aggressive with me. Their words, however, were like piercing knives hitting me from any and every direction. Fat. Fat ass. Fag. Nerd. Knives.
I was powerless. Responding “well, you might be the soccer star, but you have no idea what an atom is,” was not a very effective comeback.
By the time I was seven, my computer had become my best friend. Her (yes, a she) and I got along very well on many different levels. She didn’t argue with me or call me names, yet she provided me with unlimited entertainment and information.
Then came video games. I was not interested in FPS, rather, I had an incredible attraction to city-building games. My favorite was Caesar III . There were problems to solve and ideas to discuss that were far greater than the next soccer match. Just thinking about this era of my life gives me goose bumps, as if it was lived by a different human being—an alternate life in an alternate reality.
When I turned ten, my father (who worked at IBM at the time) was offered a promotion and we had to relocate to the United States. We settled in Tarrytown, NY for two years.
School in America was very different. For starters, I was no longer the fattest kid in my class, and the school we attended had an emphasis on academia and not so much on sports, which was excellent for me. I was still teased, but it didn’t get to me as much. By 11, I had grown a few inches in a very short period of time, which immediately made me look leaner and more attractive.
I had some friends. I had excellent grades. I was rarely called fat. But I was still not cool.
As the years went on, my appearance improved, I started jogging daily and eating well. By the time I was about 15 or 16, I had lost most of my baby fat, some girls chased after me, and I had a couple of girlfriends. The boost in self-confidence was aggressive, and I started taking school less seriously, and spending more time “hanging out” with friends. I learned to “talk stupid” with some girls, dove into popular music, went to the cool clubs, drank alcohol, etc. I even made fun of some of the nerdier, less attractive students. I was in—I still had my “smart” group of friends, but I was no longer an outcast. I had learned how to pretend to be cool.
The Cool Crowd
I quickly recognized that “cool crowds” around the world had similar patterns. I realized there is a “cool crowd” in real life, not just in school. It is very apparent in New York, and it’s a great place to study the concept of coolness. I tried desperately to be a part of it when I first moved to NYC. It was exhausting. I rarely felt I was being genuine, and I constantly felt out-of-place, as if I was playing a part, and I was pretty bad at it. Here is, so far, my understanding of NYC’s “cool crowd”:
You will very rarely meet a cool person who is fat.
You will very rarely meet a cool person who is poor.
If they really are poor, they are supermodel gorgeous.
When you approach a cool crowd and introduce yourself, they will surely glare at you, not smile, cigarettes in hand, and perhaps shake your hand or say “hey,” immediately judge every article of clothing on your body, your attractiveness, and your last name.
If you later decide to share a cigarette, you will notice the “cool crowd” immediately ask you about what you do and how you know so-and-so. You will realize they are highly knowledgeable (and up-to-date) on fashion trends, the who’s-who of NYC, who or what they “obsessed” with or what new boots they absolutely “love.” If you spend a night with them, you will most likely have a fun time, engulfed in your mindless chatter about Kim Kardashian’s divorce. Doesn’t that sound cool?
However, rarely anything that glitters is gold.
You are also very likely to meet a cool person who is rude.
You are very likely to meet a cool person who is dumb.
When you are going through a hardship, the cool crowd will not necessarily be there for you. They will rarely be sincere.
They will usually treat waiters as second-class citizens.
You are very likely to meet a cool person who says “like” and “you know?” rather too often.
You will realize the “cool crowd” actually can’t talk about much more than Kim’s divorce. Your cool “friends” will have very opinionated stances on fat people, or how trashy or sophisticated something or someone is.
Anything Hermés makes will always be fabulous, and their job will always be “so stressful” and “draining,” but they “love what they do.” They will also always be “so busy,” as they post pictures of them sipping a drink by the Soho House pool.
Now, doesn’t that sound cool?
I thought so. It’s because it’s not. Does it ring a bell? Do we see these examples of “coolness” anywhere else? I can draw many parallels with my elementary school experience. The sports jocks are the hot models, unintelligent, but studs. Having serious interests outside the banal is similar to being a nerd in school. Knowing everything about the Kardashian’s life means you’ll fit in, but discussing anything that is slightly more substantial will be quickly dismissed, and you will be dismissed right along with it.
Where Else Do We See This?
Reality TV (Plastic Wives, anyone?). Fashion. Celebrities. Movies. Life. We are bombarded with ideas of superficiality on a daily basis. We are taught to admire celebrities, even though the cult of celebrity has turned people without accomplishments or any sincere value into social icons. We hold insignificant things or beings on very high pedestals.
Being cool is, unfortunately, fundamentally rooted in the idea that as long as you look fucking fantastic on the outside, it doesn’t matter what the hell, if anything, is going on on the inside.
Sorry friends, but that, to me, is just not cool. If I greet a group of googlers at Google, I will likely be met with a courteous or somewhat quirky handshake and a smile, some questions about why I’m there or what interests me. We could talk for hours going off on tangents, discuss the Google Art Project and its impact, or chat about the detection of Van der Waals forces and why they are significant. They will probably not really care about what I’m wearing, considering they might not be very good with style themselves. Attractiveness wouldn’t really be an issue. World events, research, critical thinking, and ideas would be the leading topics, with necessary (yes, I said necessary) dips of superficial chatter.
However, if I greet a group of people who managed to get into Boom Boom Room (Top of the Standard), I will likely be met with strange gazes for smiling too much, or wearing something that looks cheap (I still don’t know how to dress well). Perhaps, in conversation, I would immediately come off as too “goofy,” or, if they mentioned Rachel Zoe and I said “who?” I would be met with a very serious “are you serious?” I actually find myself constantly apologizing for not knowing who so-and-so is, who Nene from a housewives show married, or for conversing a bit too much with waiters.
At first glance, the definition of cool that I drew from the dictionary (above) seems to agree with the idea of the “cool crowd.” “Unruffled elegance or sophistication.” Elegance. Sophistication. Cool.
When I graduated from NYU, one of the graduation speakers said her father defined sophistication as “speaking with grace, knowledge, and intelligence–when a sophisticated person speaks, everyone listens,” she said. “However,” she continued—and this is the key part—”a sophisticated person is also the best listener, understanding that their ideas can be shifted by new knowledge—that they are not superior.” This closer inspection disagrees with the idea of the “cool crowd.”
Elegance? Sophistication? Not Cool.
A “Sort of” Conclusion
Being rude to your taxi driver is not cool, its just rude. Talking about Kate Moss’s cocaine use is not cool, it doesn’t make you a contemporary of sorts, or up-to-date on world news. Judging someone harshly by their appearance is not cool, it’s superficial. Not reading books doesn’t make you cool, it just makes you look stupid. You don’t become “obsessed” with Beyoncé, you just lack a vocabulary that helps you express how feel about her. You don’t “love” shoes, you love your parents. Getting into a trendy spot is not an accomplishment, it is a merely anecdotal, grain-of-sand event in the history of the universe.
So, by all means, I urge you to be uncool most of the time. Don’t get me wrong, feel free to distract yourself with insignificant talks from time to time, but I urge you to be honest, intelligent, mindful, thoughtful, caring, kind, interesting, interested, hard-working, humble, non-judgmental, open, sweet, warm. I urge you to read more, to ask more questions, to listen more, to speak more, to be creative and idea-oriented. I urge you to determine someone’s worth by their kindness, love, their experiences, their friendship, their thought-provoking questions, their past research, their knowledge, and not by their Rolex, style, or looks. Whatever you do, don’t try to be cool—it’s lame.
Don’t try to be like me as a kid. It is just as bad, but simply on the other end of the spectrum. Thinking that by having more knowledge on a topic made me superior is just as ridiculous as “loving” Paris Hilton. The only positive thing I gained from being a dick as a kid is my critical thinking—a constant desire to question what I am taught.
Eleanor Roosevelt said “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”
What are you discussing?