In these changing times I do not recall a phrase or cliché that has withstood the test of time better than the word cool. I would really be curious to know the roots of this simple word and how it found its way into our lives and very culture and how it has seemed to survive the generational changes and is still an acceptable term to use regardless of age, gender or cultural differences. It is pretty amazing if you stop and consider other words or phrases that have not survived our ever changing culture. For example. The words, Keen, Golly, Gee wiz, and lets not forget Swell have all but slipped from our vocabulary and been put on the shelf of obscurity along with other time honored idioms as far out and I’m Hip. (I used to use both of those which will show you my age) but I digress. The word “Cool” is for the most part not just a word, although it is often used as such, but rather an expression or even an opinion. It can express approval or amazement but can also be sought after as an attitude.
When I was a boy it seemed that I was always trying to achieve an optimum state of “coolness”. I think most of us fall into the same category but for me it was a mission. Even as far back as I can remember I wanted to be cool. When I was about 4 I can remember how much I admired my father’s keys and how cool I thought it was to have my own set of keys. Maybe it was just the idea of control. After all if you have a key you have control of a lock or what ever other devise which requires someone to physically control its function. The key gives you that control. Now I am certain that at 4 I did not have such deeps thoughts or desires about controlling the world but rather I just thought they were “cool”. So one day my father passed along to me some keys. They were some old ones he found lying around which did not really open anything but nevertheless they were now my keys. I spent countless hours searching my own little world to see what my special keys would open. But alas nothing worked. I did get excited when the key would go into a lock but my joy was vanquished when I discovered the key would not turn in the lock. Undaunted I continued my quest until I found the one thing that my special key would fit into and give me results. Unfortunately the one thing I found that my key would slip into easily was that small slot on the way that my parents would plug the wall lamp into. It suffices to say the results I achieved were, to say the least shocking. Darn near ripped my lips off. A man is a unique creature in that after learning this small lesson you would think he would realize that the quest for coolness is a dead end street with at times pretty dramatic consequences. Did I give up the quest? No I was just getting started.
Several years later we had moved into an old three story Victorian home. In those years our cultural influences would not only come from our parents or peers but from a relatively new phenomenon called the prime time entertainment line up. I was drawn to such coolness as The Rifleman or the man from uncle and of course the grand wizard of coolness, Bond, James Bond. The way he would use his gadgets and special spy tools to thwart the plans of the enemy was ultra cool. I remember one day watching with amazement how he would use a rope to scale the tallest cliff with seemingly effortless agility and so wanted to emulate this practice. So with determination I set out to acquire the proper material to make myself a “spy” rope in which to repel out of my second story window during the night and perform reconnaissance around the neighborhood. I searched to attic and basement and finally found some old rope in the garage that I would use to facilitate my clandestine mission. I carefully tied knots in the rope about every 12 inches as the rope was a bit narrow and I wanted to make sure that I would not loose my grip. So I waited till after dark when everyone was in bed and pulled my special rope out from its hiding place within my closet. I secured one end of the rope to my bed post and while holding the old hinged window screen open, tossed the other end out the window. Slowly I slid my legs out the second story window holding firm to the sill. Taking one final deep breath for courage I grabbed the rope and let go of the sill. Big mistake. You see the only rope I was able to find was some old used nylon clothes line. In other words one very big rubber band. Before I could realize my error I found myself sitting on the ground two stories below wondering how in to world I was going to get back up. I don’t know who exactly invented “Bungee Jumping” but I would like to think that I just may have been one of the early pioneers. As it happens my father heard the impact of my back side onto the side walk and came out to investigate. While he was looking around the house I was able to make my return to my bedroom undiscovered sparing myself a long explanation as to what the heck was I thinking. All in the quest for the ultimate state of coolness.
But coolness was not going to elude me. I would just change my focus from the ultra spy kind of coolness to the suave ladies man kind of coolness. After all what could go wrong? I was studying under the guidance of the coolest of the cool, Bond, James Bond. I studied his moves, his expressions, his posture, his confidence. I studied and planned and practiced in the mirror until I was confident that I could be as cool as the king of cool, Bond, James Bond. So at the age of thirteen I had the opportunity to try out my new found coolness when a church sponsored youth coffee house was opened up across the street in the basement of the first Presbyterian Church. Some of the youth in the church had formed a band and had convinced the elders at the church to allow them to open a coffee house to raise money for the youth group. The atmosphere was ideal for the period. Old empty wire spools were used as the tables. Burlap sacks stuffed with newspapers were used as pillows. We collected old wine and pop bottles as candle holders taking care to get the right amount of candle wax dripped down the neck of the bottle to achieve the correct look. Now at the age of thirteen I was most certainly not old enough to date. And in those days I do not know of a father who would remotely entertain the idea of his daughter going out with a boy at that age. So it suffices to say that it took some planning but we were able to arrange a rendezvous that evening at the coffee house. As the evening approached I could barely control my excitement at the opportunity to try out my new found coolness skills. Careful preparation was made before the event. I had saved up some money from some odd jobs I had done, Lawn work car washes, that kind of thing, to afford a new ultra cool outfit. Red paisley bell bottom low cut pants, yes I had the white belt along with the platform shoes and a brown double knit zipper front shirt strategically unzipped to display the two hairs that I had on my chest at the time. Thinking back I am very thankful that there were no pictures taken of me at the time. Must have been quite a sight. The time was set. All the arrangements have been made. I had the outfit and what I was sure were the skills to pull off an impressive demonstration of coolness. The evening came and the young lady and I met up at the coffee house as arranged. All was going well. As we lounged on the burlap pillows way off in the corner lit only by the candle light, I felt that I was truly in my element. And as the band made its attempt at performing their versions of Crosby Stills and Nash or Grand funk railroad, I felt the time approaching to make my move. We had spent the evening to this point in innocent conversation filled with nervous adolescent giggles while commenting how great the band sounded. As if we were actually paying attention. Then the moment had arrived. The time was growing shot and soon our curfew would be here and my opportunity would be past. It was now or never. So with a deep breath for courage I leaned over to her. Looking into her eyes longingly just the way he did it. You know Bond, James Bond. I gently raised my right had caress her cheek, and with one very smooth and practiced motion I somehow managed to insert my right index finger straight up her left nostril. Right up to the first knuckle. Later in life I learned that this would be referred to as a mood breaker. And it was. She was shocked to say the least and I was more than a little bit embarrassed. I removed my digit from her nostril and to the best of my ability expressed my sincere apologies for the accidental misdirection of my now moist index finger. I have to say she was cool about the whole thing and later we had a good laugh about the whole situation. She however did not seem to want to hold my hand as I walked her home nor did we ever make any attempt to rekindle the romance.
Many years later I learned she went into the medical field and is working with poor children in some third world region. Of all my attempts to achieve the ultimate state of “coolness”, I do not believe that there is anything I can do to compare with the coolness she has achieved by her desire, ability and willingness to help others. Now that is cool.
I have from that time on still not given up the quest for coolness. I have had many other failed attempts and I have to admit a few successes that I will share at some later date. But if I have learned anything in this life it is this. Coolness is much more than an expression or an attitude. It is a willingness to reach out and touch someone in a way that lifts them up and brightens their day. It is an ability to put at ease some of the stresses we all face today and to instill a sense of hope and anticipation of what life has for us down the road. To express a level of innocence and wonder at what is, what was and what may yet be.