Letter 3: On Being Cool

7 Jun

Dear me at 17:

Okay. I’m going to give it to you straight: You look like you’re trying really, really hard to look like you’re not trying.

Let’s take this back a few steps: Sometime between puberty and grade 8, you came to the conclusion that you would never “fit in”. You had been trying unsuccessfully for many years, but no dice.

At first, you kept at it. You bought the roots track pants. You learned the Macarena. You listened to Our Lady Peace. You convinced your parents to let you ride the subway downtown and back. You experimented with using the phrase “sweet”. But unfortunately, your stocks never rose. No matter how hard you tried, you still couldn’t penetrate the circle of cool at Windfields Junior High. In fact, the only thing that your trying proved was how desperately you wanted to fit in. And everybody knows that nothing is less cool than desperation.

Then, like the glow of headlights cutting through a thick fog, you heard a song by a band called Goldfinger. And in a moment of clarity, your life changed. It was the late nineties and you had discovered ska music. They had spiky hair and frosty highlights. They wore jewelry in strange places on their face. They looked nothing like the popular kids at your school. And yet, they were still cool. Not cool in the conventional, “MuchMusic says” sense. Cool in the “I really don’t care what MuchMusic says” sense. And you knew you had found your niche.

Your hair got shorter. Your pants got baggier. Your face got pierced (and pierced and pierced). You met new friends who knew nothing about your status as the resident loser in your regular social circle. You had been given the opportunity to reinvent yourself! Best of all, to the popular crowd, you no longer looked like you were trying to fit in- they really didn’t know what to make of you. In a way, you finally felt cooler than them, because you knew about a whole scene, a whole lifestyle, that they didn’t even know the word for. In fact it’s two words: You fancy yourself very, very punk rock.

This is an excellent time in your life. But even though you feel infinitely cooler than you did before, you still feel like you don’t quite hit the mark. You feel like maybe the next piercing, maybe the next concert, maybe the next hair cut will bring you there. But the truth is, it won’t. You may have quit trying to fit into the mainstream, but you’re still trying to fit into the sidelines. You no longer desire to be accepted by the Many, but you’re still desperate for the acceptance of the Few. Here’s the biggest lesson of all: You’ll never be cool until the only acceptance you need is that of yourself.

The fact is, you will never be “cool” in the conventional sense. You will always be a little socially awkward, your hair will never quite do what you want it to, and you will always leave parties replaying in your mind all the silly things that you said. The good news is that there is something super cool about being uncool: It’s earnest. It’s honest. It’s not pretending to be something else. It’s about knowing exactly who you are (awkward, silly, gullible, whatever) and accepting that person anyway.

This lesson will take you a few more years to learn. In University you will read voraciously in an attempt to be accepted. After a tireless effort you will feel “well-read” but still lacking status as a genuine, card-carrying “intellectual”. You will never read Chaucer without falling asleep, you will never see the genius in Anne Marie MacDonald, Nietzsche will always confuse you and the concept of Postmodernism will always escape you.

But here is the thing: you don’t need to be an intellectual. You don’t need to be a punk rocker. You don’t need to be the hippest kid at Windfields Junior high. The only thing you need to be is yourself. And that, my dear, is enough.

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12 Responses to “Letter 3: On Being Cool”

  1. 刘慧娉 June 21, 2010 at 2:17 am #

    Even though life is bigger than middle/high school, it is undeniable that high school defines our being / character in later life (to a certain extent). It took me a little longer to develop my own identitiy . . . it’s a debt I owe to my PhD training. My graduate school classmates and professors have helped me develop professionally and personally.

    • thehindsightletters July 4, 2010 at 7:22 pm #

      It’s true- we try so hard during adolescence to decide who we are- but often it isn’t until much later that we figure it out. Thanks for checking us out!

      • 刘慧娉 July 5, 2010 at 1:31 am #

        some ppl develop early, those ppl usually become the popular kids in school .. . just some of my unassuming thoughts . ..

  2. maiagonzales November 27, 2010 at 4:34 am #

    I love this:

    “But here is the thing: you don’t need to be an intellectual. You don’t need to be a punk rocker. You don’t need to be the hippest kid at Windfields Junior high. The only thing you need to be is yourself. And that, my dear, is enough.”

    ~This is such an inspiring post. Any reader would realize how important being “oneself” is, no need to prove others anything, just be who they really are.

    • thehindsightletters November 27, 2010 at 9:41 am #

      Thanks so much- so nice to hear that you liked the post! I think it’s a lesson that I continue to learn as I get older 🙂 Thanks for reading!

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