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.

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