Monday, 22 October 2007

The Importance Of Being Cool

Anyone who has teenagers will tell you how important coolness is for them. Being cool is almost a raison d'etre for your average pre-teen or teen, and kids who are not cool might as well be in teenaged hell. I watch my two teenagers and ache for them as they grapple with the issue of coolness, because here is the sad truth:

I am not, and I have never been, cool.

This is the sort of thing I can write about quite casually now, but when I was their age, my terminal lack of coolness was no laughing matter. I spent hours of every day pondering coolness and how I might manage to get some for myself. I watched others who were undisputably cool and studied their moves, their fashion sense, their way of talking and their musical preferences. And I ached and yearned, but even as I made my feeble efforts towards coolness, I knew that it was not to be.

Often, I would try to analyze coolness, to figure out what it was made up of. Here are some of the elements that I isolated, and yet none of them in itself made a person cool:

1) Owning a motorcycle

2) Wearing a beard (for men)

3) Having long, straight, thin (as in not bushy) hair, or an Afro (for women)

4) Listening to the right music

5) Wearing cool clothes

6) Having cool parents

7) Studying or being involved in something cool

8) Being a Democrat rather than a Republican

9) Being a minority, preferably dark-skinned

10) Being from a foreign country, or speaking a foreign language

A co-worker once told me that he could spot people who had been cool as teenagers right away -- and those who had not. He claimed that the lack of confidence one acquired as an uncool teenager stuck like barnacles on a ship; that you could try to lose this, but you never really did. My first reaction to this was to run and hide, but when he commented that I must have been one of the cool kids, I knew his powers of perception were limited.

Once I left high school, my life picked up wonderfully. I was still not cool, but I had other things to think about, like making a living and graduating from college. Liberated from the awfulness of having to conform, I suddenly found a freedom I had never enjoyed as a teenager. I made friends with cool and uncool people alike, and quite often mixed them up. Somewhere along the way, the importance of being cool became one of those stupid things you remember about your adolescence, like bellbottom trousers or sideburns.

Now I watch my kids grapple with this issue and I feel helpless. I cannot help them with fashion sense, as I lack this. I cannot help them with music, as I merely play what I like and not what I think I should like. I am hopelessly nerdy, untrendy, and honestly, 95% of the time I don't give a sh*t.

So imagine my utter amazement when the other day, my youngest kid told me that her friends had voted me 'coolest parent.' I'm not kidding: almost a dozen of the kids in her class unanimously agreed that I was cool. I've made it, folks. I want to run right back to my high school and find all those people who used to diss me so I can rub this in their faces. Kids think I'm cool. Never mind that I'm not cool; people think I am, and that's all that matters.

So help me God, if I could put it on my C.V., I would. Actually, I'm thinking of doing it anyway.


Brave Astronaut said...

My son is soon to be three. For now, he thinks I'm pretty cool and that's good enough for me. As to you list:
1. My mother has forbidden me to ever have one. She's been gone a little over a year, now, and I still am not allowed to have one.
2. Tried that, didn't take. But his looks pretty good, doesn't it?
3. Don't mention "thin" hair to someone turning 40 . . .
4. Don't listen to my iPod, you are likely to hear Frank Sinatra, followed by Van Halen. I'm a little weird that way.
5. I think when I became a parent, I forfeitted my right to shop here. Way too cool for me.
6. This would be where my love of Frank Sinatra came from . . .
7. I read other people's mail for a living, not cool.
8. Definitely D, never R
9. Just a boring, getting to be old, white guy
10. Learned French, spoke French, went to France, but I do not have the qualities of Archie or Gomez.

Christy said...

Perhaps you can incorporate it into your email address. That would be the cool thing to do - to be all understated about your coolness.

The Anti-Wife said...

I too was uncool in school. It was a tough life then, but it seems so silly now, especially since many of the cool kids have had so many problems. Life is a great equalizer.

Kanani said...

I think it should go down on one's CV:

"2007" Voted most cool parents by unrelentingly bleak teenagers.

Kim Ayres said...

Coolness, like being attractive to the opposite sex, was something I had absolutely no idea how it was achieved when I was younger. It seemed to defy analysis.

However, now it's too late, I finally understand waht it's about when you're a teenager - confidence.

If you exude confidence, then everyone around believes it and desperately wants some of it to rub off on them so will want to be near you. It's what makes you attractive; it's what makes you cool.

What you wear, what you drive, what you listen to is completely irrelevant, so long as you do it with absolute confidence.

It may mean a great deal of fakery, but teenagers are too self obsessed to notice you're bullshitting. They can't quite believe that anyone who appears confident, isn't - so accept it at face value.

It's why your kids' friends think you're cool - you wear what you want, and act the way you want, and that means to their mind you are confident, and therefore cool.

I just wish I'd understood this when I was 13.

Brian said...

In the period 1941 to 1949 - that is, between my 12th and 21st years or thereabouts, I never came across the concept of coolness and am not even sure it existed then. Anyway, it did not intrude into my purlieu. I confess that may be the result of a personal arrogance on my part rather than the gentler term used eleswhere ofself-confidence,particularly since I have never been a conformist.

I do believe that that my non-conformism led to many of my late teen-age students during my lecturing years considering me to be cool, and though this may be regarded as a little flattering, in the end I did not really give two hoots in hell about it.

I am cool to that coolness which seems to be the product of a later generation than mine.


debra said...

My teenage daughters have also dubbed me "the cool mom". Who'd a thunk it back in the day of teen angst.... I was too tall, too smart and too fast a runner so I was told.
The older I get the less important coolness becomes.

Mary Witzl said...

I've never had a motorcycle. The coolest motorcycle thing I ever did was riding on the back of a friend's, from Fukuoka to Kagoshima. I'd love to have my own, but fear that my natural clumsiness and motorcycle ownership would not be a good combination. One of the great things about getting old is that I don't even have to pretend to want to shop in cool shops and can dress like a slob 85% of the time. Which is good because if I ever showed up in a shop like that one you posted, the mutual scorn would probably blow the windows out. I'm a D rather than an R now not because it's cool, but because I really am, and yes: Kim's beard is cool. But then Kim knows that cool=confidence, so not having a beard would be cool for him too...

Christy -- That's a really good idea. Plus I've also been thinking about having it printed on my business cards! Too bad I don't need business cards. But apart from the shameless bragging here, I'm very understated and blase about the whole thing.

Anti-wife -- The cool kids found that life after high school was largely a disappointment. We, the uncool, found that life after high school was life. We had a blast; they had a comedown. And which is sweeter, 3-4 years of coolness or a whole lifetime of 'Gee, this is great?' I just wish I'd known at the time that it was all going to get a lot better -- and pretty much stay that way.

Kanani -- I just can't figure out a way of putting it on my C.V. that doesn't make it look trivial. There ought to be a really sneaky way of including it, perhaps a phrase: "I am a full-time mother and sometime loco parentis and agony aunt to their friends" or something similar...

Kim -- What you write is so true, and it is what my mother always told me, so of course I never believed it.

I can still remember a cousin of mine telling me to try a trick: you put on your nicest clothes, then stand in front of a mirror and slump, putting on a hang-dog expression. Then you put on the outfit that makes you look your worst and try a confident smile. It's amazing that you really do look better in the awful outfit with the smile.

There is nothing worse than learning that all those stupid aphorisms parents used to spout, like 'The most important thing you can wear is a smile!' actually have large elements of truth in them.

Brian -- The concept of cool has been around a long time, easily as long as I have been. Unlike other words used to describe being socially stylish or aware, 'cool' has stuck with us. The idea, of course, has been around since human beings first began noticing the unique nature of personality.

By the way, on my teenage list of cool factors being Australian would have earned extra points.

And true non-conformism, rather than simply playing at it because one perceives that it is stylish, is exceedingly cool. So is not giving two hoots.

Debra -- You could run? FAST? I would have given my eyeteeth for that ability, and damn the coolness! I was tall too, but never saw that as an advantage. Years after high school I was astounded to learn that short women had felt that their height was a problem. I always saw shortness as the ideal.

Say, perhaps we could form a 'Cool Moms' Clique and scorn all the other mums! (Just kidding, of course.)

Carole said...

I always find myself wanting to compete with you. I can almost garantee I was less--way less--cool than you. And you got voted the most cool parent? Lucky you. John and I got voted the parents most likely to have sex the most often. When my oldest son told me this I was flabbergasted that kids actually talk about such things. Not to mention, why in the world did they think this.

There was the most cool, most beautiful girl one year ahead of me in school. She was a cheerleader, had long beautiful red hair, green eyes, tall, slender, kind, gracious. Everyone loved her. I was terribly envious. All the boys wanted to date her but she held herself rather aloof, above the fray. Twenty five years later I happened to meet her at an unrelated event in an unrelated town and failed to recognize her. She spotted me and came over to chat. I kid you not, she was chewing snoose, her teeth were yellowed and filled with little black specs, she had two small boys running around screaming and breaking things. Her hair was washed out, split ended and frizzy. She had that middle-aged spread and her once beautiful eyes were dull and listless. Her story wasn't a pretty one and all that coolness she exhibited as a teen, just covered up her deparate life of abuse. Not long after the day I got reaquainted with her, she was involved in a terrible accident and is in a nursing home in a coma. Her boys were raised by her sister and have turned into delightful well-mannered adults.

Carolie said...

I had no doubt you were cool, Mary. I wanna be just like you!

Sorry for the long silence...laptop is fried (AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH!!) and the old desktop is beyond temperamental. Hoping to get back online properly ASAP. Actually have most of a new blog entry written, just unable to post. Phooey!

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- On this one I win, Carole. Trust me: no one was nerdier. I've got photographs, and I've got witnesses, too.

I am so envious of what you got voted! I would offer to trade, but I'm pretty excited about being cool. And yours sounds like a title you'd almost have to do something about, whereas mine is very much a 'Just keep doing nothing' title.

What a sad story, though, and the fact that this girl was so kind and nice make it all the sadder. It would still be sad if she had been vain and nasty -- and those girls go through their own private hells too, as they grow older -- but that she put up a veneer to keep people from getting close and finding out her secret is just heartbreaking.

So often my kids point out a child they loathe and while they see a brat from hell, I see a bullied, defensive, frightened kid. Sure, quite often bullies are just kids who like being mean, but there is almost always some reason behind it. Not that it makes them any easier to deal with, sadly.

Carolie -- I've been worrying about what might have happened to you! I was beginning to fear I'd put you off by landing you with that great long manuscript to read. Get rid of it if it is too much -- honest!

I am really not cool. But I am amused that now, at a time when I could hardly care less, I've suddenly made the grade. It seems so ironic.

My husband sympathizes with you about your computer. His is fried too, and he is just miserable over it, as this has happened before. I'm not saying anything about the one I use. The computer gods might be listening.

A Paperback Writer said...

I understand! I, too, achieved coolness late in life.
As a teen, I was always just on the outskirts of cool -- I knew all the right people and had the right confidence, but I never got asked to the social gatherings or dates with the truly cool. But now that I am a teacher, I am cool. With my students, it has to do with the fact that I'm funny and never let a kid get the best of me (ah, sarcasm). Somehow, it's okay for me not to wear cool clothes (by their standards, which is good, because I'd never wear the stuff they do).

Ello said...

Hi Mary, I've seen your name at all my favorite blogs so I thought I should follow you over. Cool post - pun intended ! :o)

Interesting - I was a bad kid, always in trouble, very wild, I don't consider myself younger as cool merely troubled. Nowadays my young kids think I'm the fun mom. And that makes me happy. ANd I hope and pray that they won't be like me!

Ello said...

thanks for coming by my blog too! It is very nice to meet you this way. I had to come back and comment again because I noticed that you have are also writing a novel similar to mine. I am writing a novel on World War II in the pacific theater and half of the novel is placed in Japan during the war. I was excited to see that you were writing something similar! ANd very interesting to note that you lived in Japan for so long. It must be a huge help to you when writing since you are so familiar about the culture. I'm glad to have found your blog!

Mary Witzl said...

APW -- I still reign supreme in the Uncoolness department: dates with the truly cool didn't even enter the equation as I never had ANY. I knew none of the right people, and I had absolutely no confidence whatsoever.

The one good thing about high school is that nothing since has been anywhere near as awful. After I graduated, I was always amazed when people wanted to be my friend. I almost felt that I should warn them that I was a nerd and hence unworthy of friendship.

Ello -- Thank you for commenting on my blog!

One of my good friends was wild in high school, and you would never be able to guess. I was the meekest teenager possible, but enjoyed a brief semi-wild period once I'd left home. I still have fond memories of that time, but I know how you feel about not wanting your children to copy you.

I am interested in the Pacific War too, so I will be e-mailing you about this.

Sam, Problem-Child-Bride said...

When I was young, I was known, at least among my brother's year as Francis' sister. I had no identity of my own, I simply existed to be my brother's sister. Huddles of young girls would whisper and giggle when I went by "It's his sister! It's his sister!"

The boys all loved him too. He was just cool. He was a boy called Francis in the Western Isles, for Chrissakes, but he was still cool. He was definitely his own man. He got into guitars first but played bass not lead. He went his own way and stuck up for people other's thought nerds. He never had any problem telling any of the other cool people if they'd done something mean or "uncool" but they never resented him for speaking up because he'd usually take them to the side to do it. He was never a suck-up to teachers but didn't get in too much trouble. He never got the highest grades in the class but he did fine in everything. He drank underage with all the other kids but still did uncool things like go to piano lessons and nobody minded - in fact a few took up keyboard.

All the older kids - my friends even - wanted to hang out with him He became a male nurse despite this being a desperately uncool thing for an island man to do. But he's still the coolest guy around adn when he goes home to the island the phone rings off the hook with people wanting to go out for a jar with him, or go fishing or hiking or whatever.

Since i've left school I've heard stacks about how cool my brother was. To me he was always my snotty nosed wee bruv - siblinghood is the last bastion of not seeing coolness - but as an adult I see what his friends all saw. He is one of the coolest people i know and I am enormously proud to be his sister.
It's cool.

Sam, Problem-Child-Bride said...

Understated but firm, and irreverent is what he is. And never, never a grand-stander.

Mary Witzl said...

WOW: I want to have a jar with your brother and I've never had a jar in my life! (The odd beer or two, yes, but never a jar.)

In my opinion, the coolest thing about your brother was the fact that he was prepared to go his own way and stand up to bullies. That has always rated as my number 1 coolness criterion, even higher than beards and motorcycles.

Though having a cool sibling rates pretty high, too: reflected glory and the probability of it being an inherited trait. When they whispered 'It's her sister!' about me, sadly it was no more a compliment than it was when they whispered this about either of my sisters.

Danette Haworth said...

Thanks, Mary! Now I can say I know a cool kid.

Mary Witzl said...

Thank you, Danette. Picture me posing as 'cool kid,' in reaction to your compliment. Uh-oh: I'll have to go learn how to do that...