Thou Shalt Be Cool
This enduring American slang leaves plenty out in the cold.
Groovy. Ouch. Awesome. So 1980s. Phat. Who you trying to fool, fly boy? The approbations of popular culture have a limited half-life, and the wrong word can mark you as a fossil of some blessedly forgotten decade.
But there is one word in the English language that has defied the rise and fall of fashion. Cool endures.
Like James Dean, cool enshrines the American longing for perpetual adolescence.
Part of my job involves attending numerous conferences on ministry. Incidentally, I’ve started to classify these events by dress code and the amount of hair gel used by the men in attendance. Khakis and sweaters and the natural look? Must be a megachurch training event. Brilliantly polished leather shoes and close shaves? T. D. Jakes is sure to be on the roster.
Anyway, at a recent distressed-jeans, multiple-piercings forum, I’m talking with a 25-year-old pastor who appears to drive up the average hairstyling bill in the room by several dollars. “Yeah,” he says, “we’re starting a church for cool people.”
“Yeah, you know, people like us.” (He doesn’t mean himself and me; he means himself and his friendsall of whom do indeed exude a level of coolness that I could only dream about.) I fleetingly envision spot checks at the doorOld Navy allowed only on probation, white sneakers politely referred to the contemporary service down the streetbut decide that coolness is probably self-enforcing.
Later in the weekend, after one of my presentations, he admiringly saysI swear this is an accurate quote“You know, dude, you may not have cool hair, but you have some serious clue.” (What a reliefthe cool kids like me!)
Now, I promise that 15 years from now, my interlocutor will neither sport his current hairstyle nor use the phrase “serious clue” with a straight face.
But I’ll bet that heand Iwill still say “cool.” From the most elderly Baby Boomer to 15-year-old snowboarding sensation Shaun White (whose favorite word, according to USA Today, is “cool”), there’s something about cool that won’t go away.
Why has cool persisted? For a (serious) clue, compare it to okay, another perennial of American casual speech, and to brilliant, its closest recent equivalent in British English. They are bright wordsokay conjuring up American confidence, brilliant evoking a ray of sunlight through a foggy afternoon. Cool is blue, detached, slow to anger and slower to embrace. Okay is Leave It to Beaver; brilliant is a goal by Manchester United. Cool is James Dean, sunglasses, and jazz, where cool began.
Indeed, like James Dean, cool enshrines the American longing for perpetual adolescence. Cool is vaguely irresponsible, decidedly noncommittal. Living together is cool. Being married is notunless you count the dismissive intonation of the word that makes it a synonym for whatever and serves to indicate the speaker’s, rather than the hearer’s, coolness.
It is impossible to be cool and be a parent, especially of multiple children. (Those with deep reservoirs of coolnesssay, Steve Jobs, Madonna, or your average movie starare allowed an exemption.)
As every teenager knows, it is definitely impossible to be cool and have a parent, at least a visible one. Dependence is the very annihilation of coolness. So SUVs are coolminivans are not. No one has ever designed a cool diaper bag, and no one ever will.
Being thin is cool, but working out is generally not cool, unless you have the kind of body that looks like you don’t need to work outa kind of cool Catch-22. Coffee is cool, espresso is cooler. Smoking is coolest of all, though cancer is definitely not coolit leads to doctors and hospitals and loss of control, and cool is, after all, a shorter version of control. Therefore, quitting smoking is cool. Who said cool had to be consistent?
The more I think about my conversation with that leader of the church for cool people, the more I worry that he was missing something. Cool is the temperature of the morgue. It is the absence of blood, of heat, of breath. Cool is not the word to describe a man in agony in a garden, his sweat like drops of blood on the ground. It is not the word for a son’s free submission to his father’s will, nor for his lonely cry to that father, nor for nakedness and passion and forgiveness. And it is not the word for a breakfast of fish on a beach, for speaking a woman’s name, for life.
To be sure, everyone needs a church, even cool people. I just hope they find out that another became cool so we wouldn’t have to.