Chapter 18: The Birth of Uncool

All my life I wanted to be cool. Of course, the wanting to be cool is where it all goes wrong. It is the wanting.

I don’t know where the desire came from or when it first made its presence known, but I remember it as vividly as I remember all the sparkling, this-will-last-forever-won’t-it feelings of falling in love time and again. The want of what I was not was always there, lurking below all my other feelings. It was not so much a want as a need, a neediness to be transformed from the outside in. Sometimes I understood even that falling in love was related to that deeper yearning: If you love me, I will be different. If you are mine, I will have whatever it is I see in you that I do not see in myself.

Where did I look for everything I thought I wasn’t? In the idols and icons I saw from afar, but just as much in whatever was just out of reach. The junior high girls at the sleepover who would not talk to me. The high school deathrock kids who let me hang out with them even as I drunkenly blurted “I’m one of you now!” The vintage queens and their lanky disaffected kings. The pretty girls and the rough-edged boys. The artists and muses. The photographers and musicians. The writers, the writers, the writers.

I wanted to be all of them. I wanted too much.

The fine crafting of a public image is not a new invention. It is simply more present, more relentless and aggressive, and more accessible to both image creator and image viewer. You can as easily mistake someone’s happiness in a series of images as you can mistake someone’s sense of self in a parade of perfect outfits on successive Friday nights, only now you can do it alone in the cover of darkness, with only your loneliness to accompany you on the way down. You can quietly drown yourself in your own deep well of want.

I would be ashamed to admit how much I once lusted for cool were all of us not ever more obsessed with it. Adulthood should free us from this tyranny but still we chase it, debate endlessly what cool even is. Is it the hiding out of reach what others cannot help but show? Is it the appearance of being perfectly unavailable? Is it beauty, thinness, style, glamour, wealth? Is it being uncomplicated, unemotional? Is it in the act of not wanting and not caring? Maybe it is the ability to care just enough, but not so deeply that it ever cracks your surface. The same image, never faltering, never giving anything away.

One day I sat alone on a bluff high above the Pacific Ocean. The fog skimmed the surface of the water and lazed above the hill behind me, softening the light of the setting sun, enveloping me and the rocks and the wild irises. I wore old pink running shoes, a pair of jeans, a cheap plaid shirt over a t-shirt with a fresh coffee stain, a too-big scarf, and a backpack with a special sleeve inside to protect a laptop. In the distance I could see one or two houses, and on the road high above an occasional car passed by, but otherwise I saw no one, save the hawk that bobbed lazily overhead.

I looked down below at the waves and thought about what I had given away in the months before that moment. Everything, I thought sadly, I gave everything. I always did. I cared too much, wanted so deeply I cracked my own surface over and over.

Then, at the edge of the world, cradled in a tiny crook of California grass, I heard it, as if the wind were whispering to me. Everyone wants. Your mistake has been in wanting the things you had all along.