Samurai Swords in the Kitchen

Reflections on not being cool.

Photo by Marten Bjork

There’s this knife in our silverware drawer. It’s my housemate’s. I think it’s stainless steel or part aluminum or something like that. It has a couple of holes in the blade, maybe a hollow handle too.

Whatever its metallic properties, the knife rings when I pull it out of the silverware drawer — like a fantastic schwiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnng sound that hangs in the air with a frequency that makes my teeth feel brittle. I usually make sure to scrape the knife against some other silverware to get as much schwiiiiiiiiiinnnnng out of it as possible.

A samurai sword. It feels like I’m unsheathing a samurai sword and about to go all Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon on some supernaturally agile and badass Asian foe in a swinging forest of stylized bamboo.

Is pulling that knife out of the drawer sometimes the highlight of my day? Yes, yes it is on occasion. Have I pulled it out of the drawer and put it back in the drawer and then pulled it back out with a flourish 4 times in succession before cutting open my frozen bag of pesto pasta to eat dinner alone? Yes, I have done that (as I think any human with half an imagination and a flair for the dramatic would).

The thing that worries me though is that when I ask myself if pulling a sonorous kitchen knife out of a drawer is the coolest thing that I do all day, the answer is often also “yes.”

I ride motorcycles. I snowboard big mountains in the American west. I moved to Central America by myself and explored it solo for a year. Now I live in Manhattan. But am I actually that cool? No, not really.

As a kid, I always envisioned myself ending up doing something really cool and crazy and impressive with my life — like sailing big catamarans around the world or leading disaster relief efforts in some village lost under the ash cloud of a ruptured volcano.

Being spectacular sort of felt like my destiny. My granddad had been highly decorated as a WWII marine in the steamy jungles of Guadalcanal. My Uncle Park was a bush pilot in northern Alaska. My dad had been a college track star who built an athletic training program for kids in the slums of Guayaquil, Ecuador. He and my mom had ridden a motorcycle halfway around the world together for two years back in the ’70s.

My dad and Uncle Park riding 441 BSA Victors through Costa Rica.

I spent my boyhood catching salamanders in the dirt and whacking dead branches off tree trunks with a baseball bat. I didn’t really have any vision as a kid, but I just knew I was bound for greatness. “When I grow up…” — the thought was a great big rosy mountain of unknown. I kind of liked it better that way — not exactly knowing where or what left the grandeur of it all wide-open and uncapped. It was just good to know that whatever it was, I’d be awesome.

Two decades later. Yeah, I’m not that cool. My eight-year-old self would be mostly disappointed.

A number of my college friends have gotten married and settled into careers. Some of them bought homes in the suburbs and already have kids. It’s weird because in school, we used talk about doing big, wild things — about taking epic adventures and how we were never going to become accountants or insurance salesmen. Starting families though, seems to have curiously freed some of my friends from the need to be cool and the desire to do the cool things that we talked about. It’s liberated them from a lot the pressures of trailblazing and achievement that I still feel. They seem to be happily anchored within what is perhaps a healthy set of limits. Their priority, their magnum opus is now relationship and provision — for their spouses and little ones. Part of me envies them. Part of me doesn’t want to be them.

I walk around at night sometimes thinking about it. What is it about being cool? Why do I still feel the pressure?

Some of it is just a plain immaturity, a vain desire for approval that’s being conditioned into us more deeply now than ever. We live in self-conscious haze of near-perpetual comparison, on a hamster wheel of performance for recognition.

There’s another side of being cool though — at least in my mind.

My parents’ motorcycle trip around the world is one of the all-time greatest, coolest stories I’ve ever heard. I grew up in that story’s shadow actually. They got a feature deal for the trip with a local Wilmington, Delaware newspaper before taking off. It paid them a monthly stipend to write up their global adventures. My dad leaned on his journalism background to detail their colorful escapades while my mom, an artist, illustrated each piece with clever cartoons. They had press pass access everywhere they went in Mexico, South America, and Africa. They slept out on top of Machu Picchu before there was ever a tourist center up there. They almost died 16 times.

My parents somewhere in Colorado circa 1974

It’s funny though. It’s almost hard to get my parents to talk about their world travels — oh, sure, they can get going on the stories of when the bike got stuck in a frozen train tunnel or when they were nearly hauled off to a Guatemalan jail, but even when they do start reliving the trip excitedly, you get the sense that the story isn’t about them. There’s an exuberance about Argentina’s grassy pampas and Lake Atitlan’s frigid blue — not about them being awesome, daring cross-continental adventurers whose fantastic tale one-ups everyone else’s around the campfire.

There’s one picture of my parents on the bike straddling the equator in Ecuador’s blazing sun. My dad is curly-haired, his sleeves are rolled up over thick, tanned forearms. My mom smiles out from under her dark braids like a bashful Cherokee girl in bell-bottoms. They’re young, beautiful, and crazy. The picture was never posted to Instagram with 12 hashtags. It’s not framed in their house anywhere — I can’t even find it anymore.

My parents didn’t undertake their global adventure so that they could become social media influencers. They didn’t do it for publicity in the Wilmington newspaper even though they had a contract. They didn’t sleep in a backpacker tent for two years and ride some 10,000 miles around the globe to try to be cool. And that’s why they’re so cool in my mind.

I think that’s what I’m still hung up on — being cool like that.

I still want to undertake daring, physical challenges and stray far from track run by the majority because it resonates in my soul. I want to accomplish unique, impressive things and be immersed in adventures up to my eyes because the attempt itself makes me feel more alive. I long to flout conventions with maverick thinking and risk-taking because none of us were meant to pull our lives out of copy machines under fluorescent office lights.

I think this perspective is okay. It can be healthy — if we separate it from the modern sickness of needing to prove ourselves to ourselves, to our circles of friends, to the perfect strangers who happen upon our Instagram posts.

I sometimes wonder if the truth is we’ve never heard of the coolest people in the world, and we never will — like the Alex Honnold content to free solo forever in obscurity, the muralist who paints a masterpiece on the bridge at midnight and never tells anyone it was him, the moms and dads who let their otherworldly talents gather dust in order to be there to tuck their kids into bed night after night.

I want to go heli-snowboarding in British Columbia next year. It’s my plan to float down the watery wilds of Vietnam’s Mekong River sometime soon. I think when I do, I won’t post any pictures of it on Instagram.