Then it happened. Suddenly I realized, I'm trying to be cool.
At that moment, I understood that cool doesn't reside in objects or people; it is a tool that can be wielded. Furthermore, I understood that this was an incredible and possibly dangerous secret to power and influence. More thought was needed, so I wiped the smirk off my face and let Herr Roth finish. It worked. He calmed down within seconds of feeling that he was being listened to.
It was as if scales had fallen out of my eyes. The entire world felt different. I could manipulate people with something as simple as body language—and I could just as easily be manipulated. On that day cool became a subject of my curiosity.
I've had my eyes wide open since that moment with Herr Roth. I have learned that cool is far more powerful than we realize, and that like the ring of power in J. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, most of us don't have the mental strength to wield it. More often, cool wields us.
Cool is not innocent. Cool is the sunglasses we wear so people don't see that we're lonely, frightened or ashamed. It can alienate us from community, family and God. We're so attuned to cool that we can hardly imagine life without it.
To define is to limit
But what is cool anyway? For a passion so prominent in our hearts, we barely notice it, or think about it. We watch our tempers, we control our appetites, and we surrender our jealousies to God, but cool flies below our radar. Where did it come from? How does it affect our community? What does cool want? Is it merely a hangover from adolescence? Or is it something bigger?
One of the difficulties in defining cool is the word's near omnipresence in contemporary American English. We say "cool" as a generic term of approval. It can mean spontaneous, clever, slick, fashionable, high-tech, successful or original. Cool is a compliment; "That's cool," in fact, was the most common response people had when I told them I was writing this book.
In their book Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude, Dick Pountain and David Robins supply a definition of cool: an attitude of permanent, private rebellion. I think this needs to he taken further. I define cool as the private performance of rebellion for rebellion's sake.
First of all, cool is private. It is individualistic from beginning to end, even when small groups of in-the-know insiders are involved; even in tight-knit cliques, membership is less about faithful friendship and looking out for each other, and more about excluding outsiders.
Second, cool is a performance. Cool exists to show off to an uncool audience. And since performance is always immediate, cool does not care about yesterday or tomorrow, only about right now.
Third, cool is about rebellion. Cool communicates categorical disrespect for authority. Cool accepts no limits on behavior and no limits on identity insisting instead on an individual authority to define oneself, and to know others without being known. That's why sunglasses are cool. They allow the wearers to look at the world without revealing who they are.
Finally cool's rebellion is for its own sake. There are many reasons that people rebel, from injustice to petty disagreements, but normal rebellion ends when the conflict is resolved. Not so with cool: cool shows universal contempt for authority extending across all space and time. Cool is never done being cool. Since this contempt for authority applies to traditional and current affairs alike, we can say that cool exists outside of time.