No one minds being referred to as cool, and I think everyone has some idea what it is. Of course that perception is always changing, and each decade, every culture and country, each individual has a different vision of who or what is cool.

When I was 14 and 15 years old during the 1970s, I dressed in oversized pants held up by suspenders, smoked handmade corncob pipes and hung a leather pouch of self-grown dried herbs off a belt loop.

Then there was my three-piece-suit phase, my purchases from Goodwill for pennies. This was during an era when very few people shopped at Goodwill, and the assortment of antique wool suits was remarkable, if a tad large and itchy for a scrawny teenager.

When my classmates began to imitate me, I’d switch outfits. I thought being unique was cool. I even wore berets in five different colors, or a bowler hat, had a long chain for a pocket watch, and my only saving grace, assessed in retrospect, was hating to be photographed. But with a shudder I still remember all too vividly how I must have looked.

At 16 I traded one of my paintings to a seamstress friend for a self-designed suit in pale yellow duck with pleated trousers and wooden buttons. It actually fit. This I loved and wore continually until it disintegrated into a patched ruin. No one could imitate that one.

Our particular vision of cool alters as we get older, but not always. I thought James Dean was pretty cool in “Rebel” the first time I saw it on a rainy summer afternoon as a teenager, and I still do. Being older I better understand the specifics that form the impression, but the raw feeling of fascination is the same. This also goes for Brando or Bogart or Steve McQueen or Marilyn, with her studied, caricatured sexiness, whom I prefer over Lauren Bacall, though I have to admit Bacall was cooler.

Men have historically insisted on women’s being fragile, passionate and gorgeous rather than cool. The recent female version of cool as shown in the media strikes me as too masculine, competitive and relentless. It’s the uncomplaining, hardworking, compassionate, generous women who retain their femaleness without bravado and remain more or less unnoticed who are the coolest these days. That’s probably always been true.

As a culture we are still affected by the concept of cool, but as I age I no longer concur as much with the direction. Computer nerds pretty much destroyed the relevance of the mumbling outlaw biker or the poor boy hot-rodder with understated movements and overstated hair. Maybe it was the nonexistent bank accounts and uncertain hygiene that ended the demand. But there’s something about being too wealthy that simply isn’t cool.

Two forces that determine the face of cool are the movies and the choices for attractiveness men and women make. If beautiful women prefer the awkward guy in the new Prius hauling in six figures at UltraTech, everybody pays attention. If it’s the black rapper with violent rhymes and his pants falling off, things change again. We imitate who we think is cool and who wildly attracts others.

There’s an American cool that stands alone as far as I’m concerned. For me it’s the true cool, the cool to aspire toward. It embraces individualism first. As Nicholas Cage said in the movie “Wild at Heart,” “This is a snakeskin jacket, and for me it’s a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom.” It was pretty cool when he said that. Of course he backed it up by knocking senseless the guy who had insulted his jacket.

Then there are the components of straightforwardness, honesty and fairness, the willingness to suffer without whining, the holding in of turbulent emotion, because one must feel to be cool. It’s never about being merely cold; a complete lack of emotion under the coolness is usually nothing but cruelty and arrogance.

There are patience and calm no matter what the situation; each calamity is met with level thinking and action. There’s the friendliness in an open but cautious and understated way, the occasional lightheartedness, the steadfastness and unwavering faithfulness to ideals, and a careless cheerfulness in the headwind of unconquerable odds.

American cool is tough, but without bragging or drawing attention to itself. It always avoids a fight but usually finishes it. Of course, there’s the handsomeness, the tender eyes and strong jaw, unruly hair and sideburns. In the female it’s a bright, easy smile, optimism, languid, assured walk, and again, the willingness to have ideals and not complain when these are challenged or threatened.

If you’re cool you don’t put on airs or condescend. American cool must be classless and loyal only to beliefs that, in the purest sense, are Christian. In a bizarre way it’s almost constitutional in its heart.

So where did American cool come from? From the English with their elaborate, adored class system? From the Redcoats who lined up in regimented rows with their correctness, strictness and servitude to King and Queen? I think not. Honorable and courageous, but not too cool. The Puritans with their witch-burning and meanness? Nay. The Spanish with their cruelty, slaves and greedy conquests? Nope. The Germans with their obsession for following rules and their focus on the end, regardless of the means? The Italians with their vendettas, dark suits and overly exuberant hands? The French?

I think we can accept that Euro-cool and American cool have been and continue to be very different, though the Irish probably come closest, if only they didn’t drink and sing so damn much. It’s likely American cool materialized here; immigrants didn’t import it.

Maybe Daniel Boone was the first white man with the new cool. Boone was an early legend, a forerunner of the cowboy archetype hero who has always been firmly rooted in the American style. But I think the cool might’ve been around already.

I’ve always figured it must’ve descended directly from Native Americans. If we compare a personality composite of natives from different tribes with the behavioral traits that I’ve listed above, I think they align dramatically, minus the Christian aspect. Instead, there was the belief that nature is God, certainly not a deterrent to cool. It’s obvious that the Native American is where the cowboy got much of his style, the cinematic Western a spread point through the rest of our culture.

The quintessential outfit of cool — Levis and a white T-shirt — was worn by miners, factory workers, farmers, jailbirds, cowboys and Native Americans way before Brando and Dean were born. It’s kind of a visual litmus test for cool. Face it: if you look exasperatingly dorky in faded jeans and a T-shirt, you’re probably not going to be perceived as cool.

This is all only a guess of course, a quick overview leaving out much. There’s the influence of black American cool that began with the stoicism of the slave through to blues and jazz artists and finally reaching the presidency. However, someone like Miles Davis, though extremely cool in his own way, came across as overly self-assured and unfriendly. American cool for me has its black epicenter in someone like Sydney Poitier or Jimi Hendrix, not the snarling, self-indulgent gangsta showoff.

Even the Japanese samurai culture certainly has many commendable traits and similarities, but again, lacks that initial key component of loner individuality. American underdog heroes don’t commit ritual seppuku just because they insulted an Emperor.

They say, “Sorry, bud, you musta taken that the wrong way.” Then they wink, mount a ride, and head off toward the horizon to get a cold beer in some remote barroom. Clint comes to mind here.

I’m going to leave you with an excerpt from my novel “Holed Up.” The 14-year-old Brandon has telephoned the book’s protagonist, Jimmy Hakken, who is in love with the boy’s mother. Jimmy fits somewhere into the mix of American anti-heros, and there’s no getting around the fact that anti-heroes are cooler than the celebrated and the ove-rprivileged.

“Who is this?”

“Jimmy, it’s Brandon Constantine. Sorry, my mom said it would be OK if I called you. Is this a bad time?”

“What’s up?”

“You sure this is a good time? I could call back later.”

“What’s on your mind?”

“It’s kind of stupid, so I thought it would be easier to say on the phone.”



“Tell me.”

“Oh. Right.” There was a long pause. “I was wondering if you might, like, be able to teach me how to be cool like you.”


“I know it sounds really dumb, but I thought, you know … you might give me some pointers. You probably realize I need them.” He made a sound that might have been a laugh.

Jesus, the poor kid. “I’m not sure I know that much about it.”

“Jimmy, come on — you’re totally cool.”

“For starters, you never admit to being cool. You show things, through actions, but not with words.”


“Yeah, that’s one thing. Like if you did something cool, which usually has risk, you don’t say nothing about it. See what I mean?”

“I think so.”

“Like if you made a great pool shot, don’t go: ‘Wow, did you see that shot? Wasn’t that something? Aren’t I the best?’ Instead you say nothing, like you can make them anytime you want. Then if some guy says something, just give a nod.”

“Hey, I think I get that. Like when you wave, you just give a little flick with your hand.”

“I do?”

“Yeah. It’s way cool. I’ve been practicing it, but I’ve been too nervous to try it.”

“Are you nervous a lot?”

“You can tell, huh?”

“Naw, not really.”

“I guess it shows bad. I’m always nervous people won’t like me, and I try to be extra nice, but it doesn’t help much.”

“And you can’t whine if you’re going to be cool.”

“Sorry, I probably do that a lot too.”

“And don’t ever apologize for being you. Screw ‘em if they don’t like you.”


“Yeah. Why not? What are they going to do about it?”

“But that’s you. I’m not so sure it would work the same for me.”

“This might help. If someone looks at you, like they’re trying to intimidate you or something, keep your eyes on theirs, but look bored, look right through them. Never try to look tough or mean.”


“If someone is trying to act tough, it means they’re posing like, and probably scared and trying to cover.”

“No way.”

“And if you want something and you’re getting a hassle, just keep repeating what you want real simply and quietly with the look. Works every time.”

“But you look tough even when you’re smiling. I’m not so sure it would be the same for me.”

Kid might have a point. “You ever work out?”

“I run sometimes.”

“Your arms and chest.”

“Like with weights?”

“You want me to take you to the gym sometime?” He tried to imagine that and vetoed it immediately. “Or tell you what, if I got you some weights, would you use them?”

“You mean it?”



“Done. Means it’s going to happen. Another thing about cool, if you don’t get something, just ignore it. If it’s important enough they’ll say it again.”

“Got it!”

“You’re getting it.”

“Jimmy, I can’t tell you how much this -“


“Right. Sorry. I mean, right.”

“Later, Brandon.”

“Later, Jimmy.”

It was going to take a lot, but what could he expect — kid never had a father.

Eric Green is a Belfast artist and freelance writer.