Cool. That's cool. Be cool. Stay cool. We all use the word, but what does it mean?
The editor turned to me because I'm as far from cool as you can get without falling off the edge of the square earth.
In high school we learned that cool is another way of saying "not warm." Cool kids knocked the books out of your hand, teepeed your house, and drove so fast that you finally paid them ten dollars to stop and let you out. Was that out loud?
After graduation, cool morphs into something altogether different. I took to the street to find out "what it is."
From all accounts, tattoos are still in. And they are getting bigger and badder. Anyone can ink their rear end, but facial tattoos require the kind of commitment you only find in state penitentiaries.
I spoke to Steve, a local tattoo artist. He said that body art is so trendy, he fears that it will go away.
"I mean, at some point it has to become cool to not have a tattoo, right?"
Ah, yes. Like Dr. Seuss's Sneetches, who got so many stars on their bellies that Sylvester McMonkey McBean had to bring in his Star-Off Machine.
Kids agree that music is cool, so long as it's loud and obnoxious.
I met with Wretch, a band that specializes in loud and obnoxious. Lead singer Angelo Miles is the one your mother warned you about, all the way down to the porcelain rings that were implanted, by scalpel, into his ear lobes.
Angelo said, "Cool is not caring about what the masses think of you."
"Then why all the tattoos?" I asked. "Isn't that a type of caring?"
Angelo chuckled, and I moved to the next question. Quickly.
Wretch gave me their CD, which is growing on me. Like a cyst. It's the kind of music that is loud even when you don't turn it up. My wife caught me listening the other day and gave me a face.
"If anger could masturbate," she said.
Inside a clothing store I found a girl who "doesn't talk to reporters." Her blue hair suggested that she is not from this planet, so perhaps she was guarding her identity. A customer, Kyle, did talk. Kyle was recently released from prison -- er, high school -- and had this to say:
"Uncool is when people talk bad about you. That's jacked up."
Consulting my Dictionary for Hopeless Geeks, I saw that "jacked up" describes something that is "not quite right."
When I was growing up, the Fonz represented cool. I asked Kyle if that was still true, and he said, "The Fronds?" So it goes.
The blue-haired girl was too cool for me, yet Angelo was happy to talk and could easily outscream her. I was so confused.
I turned to a famous philosopher, Homer. Homer Simpson.
"I used to be with it," said Homer, "but then they changed what 'it' was. Now, what I'm with isn't it, and what's it seems weird and scary."
Michael is a bouncer at a local bar. His job is to maintain order and occasionally get shot. No kidding. He showed me the wounds. Michael has been shot, stabbed, bitten, spat on, and trampled. He only keeps bouncing because "it's a cool job."
"Nobody knows what cool is," said Michael. "You just try not to be the guy who is trying too hard."
A man wearing a cow's worth of leather strutted by, shot us a look, and hopped onto his Harley, which began flashing and sounding till he finally found the keys and revved the engine so loud that you could almost hear his soul cry.
You just try not to be that guy.
I brought our dilemma to a ritzy nightclub, where cool is the same as anywhere else, only with more zeroes at the end. There I found Dann Alari, AKA Dann the Mann. According to Dann, cool is best defined by The Tao of Steve, a movie whose central point is this: If you ever doubt what is cool, ask yourself, "What would Steve McQueen do in this situation?"
The Jose Cuervo girl passed by and Dann paid scholarly attention to her step. Once she was out of smelling distance, he regained consciousness.
"So, yeah," he said. "Be like Steve McQueen and don't give your power away. Also, clean your room."
We seem to be getting somewhere. I fear it may be the beginning.
I approached Kelly Bear, because she looked the most like Barbie. Surely she could shed some light.
"I have no idea," she said. "I don't even want to be cool."
Kelly consulted her friend, Christina, and they made a lot of festive, high-pitched noises. I thought they were on to something.
Christina said, "Cool isn't even a good word for cool. Tight is better."
Christina seemed to understood my confusion. Others had climbed the mountain to ask her these same questions.
"Everybody cares what people think," she said. "It's a matter of degree."
I scribbled in my notes.
"Are you going to print that?" she asked.
"Why?" I said. "Do you care?"
Cool is harder to come by as you age. Anyone who has ever been called "mister" is instantly disqualified. Cool fades subtly over time until, after not paying attention for a while, you wake up one morning and poof, you're wearing tube socks with Bermuda shorts.
A kid at my health club thinks it's cool to burp when he enters the room. It proves that he is free from societal understandings regarding bodily gas.
Steve the tattoo dude said that people compete to appear crazy. Some go so far as to scar themselves with glass-tipped soldering irons. They'll show you the wounds.
By these guidelines, though, wouldn't Charlie Manson be the coolest of them all? He is clinically insane, he plays a guitar, and he's got a tattoo in the middle of his forehead.
Dr. Barton, a psychotherapist, said, "There is a dark side of cool that prevents you from admitting your emotions, and that's not healthy."
Only a small percentage of people are certifiably, Johnny Depp cool. They share what Dr. Barton called the It Factor, a grace to which others are attracted. The cool don't think much about it.
In other words, if you think you're all that, you're probably not even a bag of chips.
"The ones who were cool in high school," said Barton, "don't really cut it in the real world."
You can test his theory yourself. The next time you drive by those orange-vested trash collectors on the side of the freeway, look more closely: It's all the cool kids from high school.
From what I can gather, cool cannot -- must not -- be defined. It is a power so awesome that words turn back frightened as they approach its ultimate reality. Science can only wonder at the promise of harnessing cool. We might use it to propel ourselves to distant galaxies, where it's cool to have four eyes but where creatures with glasses are referred to as eight-eyed freaks.
"What is cool?" may even be a question that has no answer, like, "Why is Anna Nicole Smith on TV?"
If we can agree on anything, it's that when people say "be cool," they are reminding us about the road back to ourselves. They are telling us to keep it real.
That's the best I can figure it, and if you disagree with me, you can sit on it.