I have these friends – smart, accomplished, reasonably self-aware grownups – who a great many people would consider cool, very cool. And yet, these friends are earnestly obsessed with others’ coolness and want “cool” people in their orbits so perhaps that coolness will rub off. Which of course is not cool.
What is it about coolness? People are cool (Bowie, Prince, Benicio del Toro, and Charlotte Rampling seem to top a number of lists I looked at.) Things are cool: as of this instant, vinyl, cannabis, koji, local grains, Cuba. And ideas, too: philosophy, localism, and populism (Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump).
As a word, “cool” has ebbed and flowed in terms of its own innate “coolness” but the attraction remains. Cool is “hunted”, and its absence sneered at, dismissed. We all kind of know what “cool” means: something slightly beyond reach, mysterious, something that doesn’t try hard (sweat is not cool), something that just is, and most importantly – doesn’t care that it is. Self-consciousness is the essence of uncool.
More than anything else, cool is anything that you are not. If you are old, then cool is young. If you are young, then Jagger is looking pretty damned cool. (And we’re all younger than Sir Mick.) And geographically speaking, as Luke Leitch points out in 1843 Magazine, Cool is where you’re not.
This out-of-reach-ness is essential to coolness. In fact, the “hunting” is the key to the desirability of cool, our perpetual search for novelty and status.
According to Mike Vuolo, writing on the Birth of Cool for Slate, cool is “an alluring mix of style, hipness, poise, and who knows what else.” The same article notes that a psychologist named Ilan Dar-Nimrod sums up coolness research (yes there is such a thing) as linking behavioral traits to coolness, including sexual appetite, risk-taking, masculinity, and muted emotion. (Think Don Draper.)
But is coolness necessarily a good – a desirable – thing? Yes, but, only if you split out what IS cool from what’s associated with that state.
The very word is neither here nor there but kind of a middling state (what really is the difference between lukewarm and cool anyway?) I don’t particularly like cool food or drink: I want it to be fully hot, or fully cold. Cool is a temperature I put up with but not happily. From a physical perspective, “cool” is only desirable on a very hot day.
In people, there’s something off-putting about coolness. Being cool is about keeping others at bay, about observing, about being so self-possessed that you just don’t need others. There is a crisp rationality, heartlessness, and a lack of empathy, generosity, and caring. You don’t get the sense that they are enjoying life, or indulging in any of its pleasures.
The coolness of “over there” means disconnection from what’s happening “here”. You notice less, Of course we’ve all been in the situation where when we get “over there”, things feel smaller, more quotidian than we had imagined. Not that we admit it, of course.
I want to be surrounded by people who do care, who are passionate, who connect and are connected, give me something with grit, and sweat. And yes, some of them may BE cool, but they don’t behave cool. I want experiences that have that same character. I want great food from passionate farmers, sellers, chefs and even servers. And, essentialist that I am, I want things the things that surround me to be made by people who have that hot passion for what they’re doing.
The irony is that the paragons of “cool” are actually only cool because they connect – deeply – to something they care about and had the guts to go with their hearts and it made them turn away from the mainstream. And they’re all a little older, which also says something about the state of mind that it takes to really BE cool. For the most part, they were / are passionate, contrarian, engaged, just maybe not with everyone. Those who actually behave cool generally comes off as a twit, or just an asshole.
Love, connectedness, caring are at the heart of cool. Just not at the heart of the hunting for it.