Wednesday, March 11, 2015

On being cool

At the risk of repeating myself, yet again, I've been thinking about being cool. I wrote about it several years ago in a post called "Way Past Cool." And I made it pretty clear that I don't think it is possible to be cool by design. But I have always wanted to be cool.

I grew up in Idaho in a lower-income, working-class family. Neither of my parents had gone to college. We lived in a small rambler build in the early 1950s. I had two brothers. Although I wasn't aware of it at the time, there wasn't a great deal of discretionary income. My father worked in a  hardware company warehouse and my mother juggled a variety of jobs over the years (school lunch cook, house cleaner, convenience store clerk and several years working at a company that produced plywood panels for mobile homes).

My mother grew up poor. She came from a family of 13 kids. They lived in a small shack with dirt floors and no frills. Her father was a farm hand who rarely worked and died in his early 40s. My mother didn't shed a tear.

So my mother grew up with the baggage of being poor and feeling inferior. She checked some of that baggage with me. I was instilled that there were neighborhoods we didn't belong in. Restaurants we weren't welcome in (not that we could afford them) and luxuries we couldn't afford or didn't deserve.

When I went to school, my clothes were clean and I always had a lunch. But I had one pair of dress shoes and one pair of tennis shoes a year. And much of my clothing was passed down from my older brothers.

It wasn't until I started school and got to an age when I realized I didn't have the latest styles in clothing, hadn't seen the latest movies or owned the latest hot toy that I became self-conscious. I wasn't cool. And then I realized, I wanted to be cool.

One of the obstacles to me being cool was that I was academically smart. Most subjects came easy to me and I did well on tests. This made me a target to the kids who didn't do well in the classroom but excelled in physical activity. It was then that I began to realize that being athletic was much cooler than getting good grades. Because getting straight A's was trumped every time by kids who could run fast, hit a baseball, high jump and shoot baskets.

Being an introvert didn't help me much either. I'd sit in class listening and rarely talking unless called upon by the teacher. I also read a lot which did nothing to enhance my cool factor. Top that off with being in band and I'd pretty much etched my uncoolness in stone. If I'd been a drummer I could have regained some coolness, but I played the clarinet.

The Beatles were riding their rocket to fame about the time I was geeking my way through grade school. The first album I bought was Revolver.  And although my brothers and I had made fun of the Beatle's "long" hair when we first saw them on Ed Sullivan, I began letting my hair grow longer and longer despite teasing from my aunt about looking like a cute little girl. Because I'd seen all of the news reports about girls all over the world going crazy over the Beatles and I hoped by having long hair, some of their coolness would rub off on me.

I also tried desperately to increase my coolness factor by trying to wear clothes I thought were cutting edge. But thoughout my life, my fashion barometer has been on the fritz. I convinced my mom to buy me western style scarves I saw on mannequins at this country fashion store next to the Warehouse Market foods my parents shopped in. I also picked up some dickies and flared pants. I realize in retrospect that the scarves and dickies were bad choices on many levels. The flared pants were kind of cool. Before those, I'd only worn peg leg Levi's.

By Junior High, it was the early 70s and there really wasn't any style that characterized our era. My hair was distinctly longer. Although I hadn't evolved athletically, I still tried. I went out for wrestling, basketball and eventually tennis. I didn't excel at any of them. I was still in band, but now I played bass and contra alto clarinets (still way not cool).

I was still on the higher end academically which continued to brand me as a dweeb. I also exacerbated the situation by joining the Junior Varsity Quiz Team, becoming president of the chess club and running unopposed for 9th grade president. I won by a narrow margin.

I was still not cool.

I entered high school accepting my uncoolness and went through my teen age self-pity stage of embracing my outsider nature. Though I stayed in band and expanded my uncoolness by being active in the marching band. I became drum major. I also was a member of the student senate. And I was part of the National Honor Society.

Although I had had a crush on various girls from Kindergarten on, I had never really had the courage to talk to any much let alone date. In Junior High, I did become acquainted with several popular girls primarily because I was willing to do their homework. This gave them more time to date the stars of the football and varsity basketball teams.

At the end of my Sophomore year in high school I finally overcame my fear of girls and somehow got a girlfriend. But I didn't date several girls first before I had a girlfriend. I was so grateful that this person had agreed to go out with me that I immediately jumped right to being boyfriend and girlfriend. She was also in band. But she came from a cooler group of people than I did and knew how to ski (which was considered cool in Idaho). I had never been a skier prior to dating her, primarily due to the cost of both skies and trendy ski clothing, not to mention lift tickets. I also didn't really like the cold or the thought of breaking my leg.

In addition to not skiing together, my high school girlfriend and I didn't go to parties or dances (she didn't like to dance so I never went to prom). We basically went to lots of movies and stayed home watching Saturday Night Live on weekends.

Throughout high school, I didn't drink, smoke or openly rebel. I continued to get good grades. I did stop going to church.

That helped. But I still wasn't cool.

I gave in to a few fads that popped up in the mid to late 70s. I owned a couple of pair of designer jeans and began wearing Nike shoes, not tennis shoes. I got contact lenses. I avoided wearing plaid (at least I had some fashion instincts).

I began working at the public library shelving books. Way not cool.

I acquired a car. It was a 1965 Olds Cutless F-85, white with a red roof and bucket seats. Kind of cool, but I had an 8-track player. I listened to Styx, Pink Floyd and Paul McCartney and Wings. Though I secretly really liked Jesus Christ Superstar.

I kept working at the library when I started college. I stayed in Idaho for four years changing my major several times. I got a part time job as a computer operator on weekends in addition to working at the library. I moved out of my parents house. I traded my Olds for a Toyota Celica.  I bought a leather jacket like John Travolta wore in Saturday Night Fever.

After working 64 hours a week for a couple of years, I had saved enough money to finally get out of Idaho (a place I never thought would contribute to much search for coolness). I broke up with my girlfriend, packed up my Toyota, threw in my John Travolta jacket and transferred to a college in Seattle listening to Styx Grand Illusion on the 8-track player on the drive over. I moved into a dorm with a bitchin' view of downtown Seattle. That was kind of cool.

I changed my major to Journalism and began writing for the college paper. I had my own humor column. I became the Arts & Entertainment editor. I started to feel kind of cool (in print). I had a work study job at the college library. But I was a student supervisor and I worked in periodicals. So I got to read magazines instead of shelf books.

I grew a beard. Or at least I grew a semblance of a beard. I had a few Polo shirts (which were considered kind of cool in a preppy way during the early 80s). I hated disco. Somewhere along the line I had ditched my bass clarinet and acquired a 12-string guitar.

I started going to concerts at Key Arena and the Paramount Theater. I saw the Moody Blues, Eric Clapton, Cheap Trick, Little River Band, and Harry Chapin. That was cool. But I also saw Air Supply, Barry Manilow and Donny and Marie Osmond. Very uncool.

I graduated from college (with honors mind you, because I could never shake being a good student) with a Journalism Degree. I never actually worked for a newspaper other than the college one. After graduation, I was unemployed briefly before landing a writing job at a public transit agency.

Other than in the movie Singles, working in public transit has never been cool. But in the 80s and 90s, After wearing a suit for the first year or too, I did my best to try a be the coolest person working in public transit. I had my ears pierced. I wore sports jackets with jeans. I had a 80s spiky kind of haircut for awhile with a tail. Despite what people will tell you, it wasn't a mullet.

I wore Japanese baseball shirts. I grew my hair long and wore a pony tail. I tried my hand (or my face) at facial hair again. I wore crystals. I became a Buddhist. I wore black cowboy boots all of the time. I collected Kitsch. I was the first person to work on a personal computer at the agency I worked at.

I bought a house. I gave home improvement a good ol' college try before I resigned myself to living with holes in the wall.

 I traded the old Celica for a Honda Prelude and eventually swapped it for a brand new Nissan Pulsar with T-tops! I upgraded from 8-tracks to cassettes to CDs.

I think my cool factor peaked at around 39. I spent my 40th birthday at a Red Robin in downtown Seattle with an Elvis impersonator singing me happy birthday.

I cut my hair (though I am happy to say, the pony tail didn't last long anyway). I kept facial hair. But it started turning gray along with most of the hair on my head. I had Lasik surgery but eventually needed reading glasses and bifocals anyway.

I started wearing sensible clothes and shoes. But I did get a tattoo when I turned 45.

I met my wife and go married, sold my house I lived alone in for 18 years and bought a brand new house. I left behind all of my Kitsch. Eventually children entered the picture. My outfits began including Daddy Dude diaper bags. I stopped listening to Pink Floyd and Tom Petty and began listening to the Wiggles and Raffi.

I taught myself how to knit. I re-introduced myself to games like Candyland, Chutes and Ladders, and Hungry Hippos. I read books like the Hungry Caterpillar and Green Eggs and Ham. I began spending my weekends at soccer, rugby and baseball practice. More and more I found myself dressing like a dad (and not a cool one). At one point I found myself wearing Captain American pajama pants and a "Best Dad Ever" t-shirt simply because they were presents from my kids.

I topped 50 several years back and am trudging slow toward 60. At work I am surrounded by Millennial's and other young people who have never heard of the Beatles or, gasp, Elvis. I wear clothes that my wife puts out for me and accessorize them with a lanyard with my security ID around my neck. I pass through the cool streets of Seattle unseen and decidedly uncool. Because coolness is not a term used much to describe middle aged men.

Though Sean Connery stayed cool into his twilight years. Richard Gere hung on for awhile. Harrison Ford though is starting to look like one of those dehydrated carved apple dolls. And Robert Redford should have worn sunscreen when he was younger.

George Clooney and Brad Pitt seem to be defying age and clinging to coolness. Though I secretly am hoping someone finds their Dorian Gray portraits and exposes them so that they start looking as bad as the rest of us.

I know it is uncool to ramble on this long about being cool or trying to be cool. But at this point in life, I am way past being cool.

I am cool with that.


The random ramblings of a magpie mind said...

I shall never be cool... So have decided being slightly eccentric in my dress, and eclectic in my tastes is probably the best thing to be 😊

Time said...

Well first Alex, I think it is cool that you are the only one who commented on this post. And if it is any consolation, I think eccentric and eclectic are cool, too!