On the nature of “cool”

So what is cool?

If you’ve ever met me (or, for that matter, know anything about me) it’s probably pretty obvious that I was not one of the cool kids growing up. For the most part this is something I’ve come to terms with and I go about my life doing the things I enjoy without too much worry about whether or not I’m a giant dork. But it’s hard to completely shake the childhood feelings of isolation, the worrying about fitting in. And some days I still find myself feeling totally awkward, lame, and just hopelessly uncool. I had one of those days last week. The feeling mostly passed, but it left me thinking about what cool even is, and wondering exactly how I want to relate to the idea.

This weekend I’ll be seeing a bunch of my classmates from high school for our class reunion. I’m pretty happy with where I am in life, but there’s still something intimidating about the notion of seeing people I haven’t seen in fifteen years. And I keep finding myself thinking that the awesome aspects of my life just don’t translate well (the problem of translation is one that actually goes both ways, and I may yet write an entirely separate post about that). Sure, it shouldn’t really matter whether other people value the things that I value, as long as I’m happy (and not hurting anyone else). Still, there’s part of me that wants to be the girl with the life everyone else wants. It’s not rational. And I can’t even quite explain it in a coherent way. But there’s a part of me that still, even after all these years, wants to be cool just for the sake of being cool. And, more to the point, still believes I’m not. Then last week I happened to have a conversation that revealed to me exactly how ridiculous this notion of cool and the way it works in my head actually is.

I happened to discover that someone at work I don’t really know also goes to Burning Man. This shouldn’t surprise me. It’s not like it’s some underground thing that nobody’s heard of. Or even like it’s been that kind of underground thing anytime in the last ten years. But I work in an academic research environment and don’t necessarily get the sense that many of the faculty are the kinds of interesting people I might want to hang out with outside of the office. I’ll admit there’s probably an element of projection there. Since I was pretty sure that doing what I needed to do to have a successful academic career would have been all-consuming for me, and would have largely prevented interesting hobbies, I have a tendency to assume that’s true for everyone else. Realistically I know it isn’t. But I was still a bit surprised a couple of weeks ago when I realized that the phone conversation I was overhearing (from someone who seems to have managed the succesful academic career quite handily) was about burning man plans.

So I outed myself as a fellow burner, which lead to a conversation–with someone I had, until this point in my two and a half years at this job, exchanged maybe a dozen words with–about where we’re camping, etc. I entered into this conversation thinking I was definitely on solid ground in terms of cool. Indeed, I’ll admit that I sort of entered into the conversation with a vaguely smug sense of cool superiority. That quickly melted when, after exchanging info about our respective camps and locations, he went from describing how interactive their camp is to reeling off the locations of the various big sound camps. I suppose if I had been a bit more committed to winning the conversation I would have smeared myself with the cool of association. Perhaps I could have said something like “well, our camp is quieter and a bit more insular but that’s because we house so many people who work the event.” Instead, I got a bit flustered by the realization that I really wasn’t up to the task of conveying how awesome my friends are and sort of flailed a bit instead. After he left my office, I turned to eating my lunch and thought “Wow. I’m not sure how, but that conversation left me feeling like a total poser.”

Ok, let’s step back for a moment here and analyze a couple of threads of this.

First of all, we’re two people talking about an event we both attend, an event that is still, despite selling out (in perhaps more than one sense) somewhat “cooler” than the mainstream, at least by some accounting. And we’re having this conversation in an office where we’re probably two of a fairly small group of people who have even heard of the event. So there’s cool points for both of us and no particular reason why the conversation needs to be any sort of competition. I certainly don’t think he meant for it to be. Indeed I didn’t even mean for it to be. But still, halfway through, I found myself grasping, trying to figure out how to convey that yes, I actually do belong to the club. Even though almost my entire social circle exists in its current form in large part due to the connections people have made at that thing in the desert, I still found myself feeling like somehow because my experience there is different that I have to somehow prove that different doesn’t mean inferior.

The second thing to note here is that I camp with people who’ve been doing this for a long, long time. I know lots of people who started going before there even were piles of famous DJs and scores of stages to choose from. For some of these people, the shift toward week-long rave in the desert is not a good thing. My first year was 2007, so I’m not in any position to be casting any stones. But I definitely know plenty of people who would look down their nose at anyone so quick to rattle off the locations of the big DJ camps in the vicinity. Personally, I figure there’s enough desert out there for everyone to do what makes them happy. I understand why some old-timers aren’t thrilled by huge growth in event size but since I don’t have much to compare it to, it’s hard for me to be bitter about the contribution of the party culture to that. So I don’t think of this new acquaintance as being less cool for having that focus. But yet, somehow, I found myself convinced that he’d think me less cool for not having it.

So there I was, sitting at my desk, eating my lunch, and wondering how I had managed to just allow myself to feel out-cooled while talking about burning man in an academic office. Seriously, could I get any more ridiculous in my insecurities? (well, yes, actually I probably could, but work with me here) Then I started to get a little pissed. Not at anyone in particular, just sort of generally. I mean, come on, my life is awesome. I have a job I like. And I hang out with some really spectacularly cool people. And I don’t mean that in the sense that I hang around with them because I want to be cool or am hoping someone will look at me and think I’m one of them. I spend time with people whose company I enjoy (and people who seem to enjoy mine) and they’re awesome. Whether I’m cool or not is sort of irrelevant because my life is cool and it makes me happy. Well, mostly it makes me happy. Apparently occasionally it temporarily fails to distract me from my insecurities long enough to leave me wondering if I should maybe be someone else, or pretend to be someone else. And then I find myself feeling awkward and shy and a bit miserable. But I get over it.

So forget cool. Saturday I’ll go to my high school reunion and I’ll talk to people I haven’t seen in ages. Either they’ll get that I’m happy, and why, or they won’t. But that’s not a reflection on my worth. Then I’ll work a job I like for a couple of weeks before stuffing an insane quantity of stuff into my car (I may not be cool but I rock at car tetris) and driving out to the desert. Then I’ll eat bacon, hang out with cool people, see interesting stuff and drink a lot of gatorade. It’ll be awesome.

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