Jewish World Review March 6, 2001 / 11 Adar, 5761
Our lasting legacy will turn out to
be a four-letter word
IN a restaurant in Kansas City I was reading the
newspaper and half-eavesdropping on the
people at the next table -- I couldn't help it, these
tables were as close together as tables can be --
and I noticed that three of the four diners were
wearing their cell phones holster-style, like Old
Ah, business as war -- mergers and acquisitions at 20 paces. But what struck
me -- as it does every time I hear it -- is what one of the diners said when the
waiter mentioned that the soup of the day was clam chowder.
What the diner said was:
That's going to be the only lasting remnant, the only legacy of value, of our
time on Earth. All of us -- everyone in this country, for the last 60 or 70 years
-- and that's going to be the one thing that is left behind, the one thing that
endures. That one word.
It's lost nothing -- that's what is so amazing. Everything else is a fad. Words?
Nifty, neat, keen, gee whiz -- all said straight-faced at one time in our
not-so-distant history, all on the scrap heap of smirkdom now. Products?
Hula Hoops and Slinkys and Davy Crockett lunch boxes -- all arch and
winked at, all warmly archaic but definitely part of yesterday or the day
before. Diversions? "The Brady Bunch" and the Sex Pistols, "Miami Vice"
and Troy Donahue: disposable. Disposed.
And imagine what has lasted:
It was new, once upon a time; some say it began in jazz clubs, others say it
ascended with the first person inextricably linked to it, James Dean, the
original cool guy. The ultimate accolade: to be a cool guy. The ultimate
adjective, about anything: cool. The ultimate admonition: Cool it.
The surprising thing is not that it first came to visit; lots of words do that.
"Groovy" was once said without a sardonic grin; "far out" was briefly taken at
face value. Just about any phrase has the opportunity to enter the language.
They are never allowed to stay long. The next half-generation to come along
rejects them, embraces its own.
So how did "cool" stick? It's not only still here -- it regenerates itself
seemingly daily, it not only never weakens, it appears to grow stronger.
Maybe because it is by definition so muted -- so cool. Maybe because it is
the opposite of overstatement. Other words try so hard. Cool doesn't seem
to try at all. In fact, it is used to dissuade people from trying too hard. "Be
You hear it hourly, and no one who uses it -- old or young -- gives the
impression of reaching beyond invisible limits. You'll be over at 7? "That's
cool." The new merchandise has arrived on time? "Cool." You tell someone
you're getting nervous waiting for someone or something? "Just be cool."
Someone you care for has just achieved something he or she dreamed of?
"That's really cool." And the speaker means it: That really is cool.
Older people who use it don't sound as if they are trying to be young (or to
be hip or hep; if they said hip or hep instead of cool, a Gong Show buzzer
would go off somewhere). Younger people who use it don't seem to be
patronizing a word they mock because it has been around for so long; when
they think something is cool, the word they use to describe it is cool. Children
incorporate it into their language as if "cool" was as all-purpose as "is" or
"are." Not only is James Dean still a cool guy, but the word that best
describes him has changed by not one letter -- and the word describes cool
guys and cool girls who could be James Dean's cool grandchildren.
So how did it happen? Don't ask -- be cool. Just know that, years from now,
when the songs that are now wildly popular will make you think back to the
year 2001 and cringe at what you liked; when the movies you stand in line for
today feel as dated as "Urban Cowboy"; when you look in the back of your
closet and ask yourself what you could have been thinking, not to mention
what you could have been spending all that money on. . . .
When that happens, when everything that is cool to you today is long gone,
the good news is that those things will have been replaced by new things and
new people you can't yet imagine. But they'll be cool; that much is certain. If
they deserve it, that's how you will think of them and speak of them: as cool.
Usually writing a column like this is enough to kill something outright. Point it
out, and it's gone. Not this time. Can't kill cool. Can't be
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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