Cool. California Cool. Just chillin’. I’m cool, thanks.
Maybe we’re trying just a little too hard to be cool. Perhaps we need to warm up a bit, for that is where real human kindness lives. I invite you to consider what you think is “cool” as you read along, and what you consider “dorky”. Simultaneously, I invite you to consider how bias, upbringing, and circumstances can set the stage for what we learn to be “cool” or not.
I grew up with the classic West Coast “California Cool” vibe. Others may describe it differently, but I see California Cool is that laid back, relaxed, can’t be bothered to put on nice clothes attitude that is synonymous with the Left Coast. It’s the dude you see in your local coffee shop in the morning: hair half combed into a man-bun, worn corduroy pants frayed at the heel, Patagonia puffy down jacket from 1999 with duct tape patches (I love my own Patagonia puffies, thank you very much). It’s the #VanLife crew, traveling around from beach to beach chasing bliss in a $100,000 Sprinter van. It’s the beautiful sun-kissed girl lying on the beach with her friends. It’s a relaxed, fun-centered, carefree approach to life. California Cool is actually pretty cool for the most part, but you can hit a wall when you try to go any deeper than its perfectly messy, laid-back image.
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area suburb of Lafayette, California, was where I first learned what was “cool”, and what would make you look just the opposite. In this tony suburb, material wealth and looks were what were esteemed. There were truly kind, down-to-Earth people (like my family and friends, of course), but in general, having a nice car or fancy house earned one bona fide bragging rights. While my family wasn’t the wealthiest on our block, we had a solid upbringing and never lacked for anything, thanks to the tireless efforts of our loving parents. Though I grew up in a somewhat privileged bubble, I was far enough removed from being “rich” to see that all the fancy possessions and name brands were a facade. They didn’t make the person, nor equate humility or kindness. I think most people have this realization at some point in their lives: money doesn’t guarantee happiness, strong moral character, or being cool.
More than the pervasive materialism of the East Bay, “cool” meant detached, aloof, and unimpressed. Laughing too loudly, getting overly excited, or doing anything “weird” could make you a “dork” or a “spaz”. The more stoic you were, the cooler. Acting with self-righteous aplomb was what was cool. But that wasn’t everyone I knew, for sure.
There’s a reserved nature, an aloofness, that underscores some of our cities and towns, where everyone is quintessentially “too cool”. Too cool to be impressed by anything or anyone. Too cool to even notice. Post a YouTube video of yourself surfing, mountain biking, or snowboarding? No one will care unless you wipe out, or do something insanely gnarly (that’s some California Cool lingo for ‘ya). A roomful of Yerba Matte-drinking outdoor athletes will yawn with condescension, silently and quizzically communicating an irritated “Seriously?”
We’ve become so desensitized to outdoor adventures of all kinds. It is nearly impossible to catch the attention of anyone unless you’re someone like Shaun White or Danny MacAskill. Positive recognition is lost under the guise of being cool. We all won’t be impressed by everything, but would it hurt to acknowledge each other every now and then? It seems we are persistently unimpressed. Just watch a group of surfers commentating on other surfers in the water from West Cliff Drive. Or go to one of my mountain bike races.
It’s in the way we speak to each other, as well. California Cool sounds to me like “California Flat”: a flat tone that tends downward with mild snobbery. It’s a combination of voice-fry (think of how Paris Hilton used to say ‘That’s hot’) and Sean Penn as surfer-dude ‘Spicoli’ in the classic movie ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’. Growing up in the eighties, a “Valley Girl” accent was common, but eventually faded flat when people started illogically equating uptone with stupidity. Today, there’s a bit more of an uptone, as if ending each sentence with a question. I suppose it’s a bit more “Valley Girl” than the standard California Flat. But it can register as a flatline on the heart monitor.
Where is the emotion in people’s voices? Where is the inflection, excitement, and enthusiasm? I find it in some people I know and meet, but many sound as if they are on the verge of falling asleep. It’s as if we just rolled out of bed and don’t want to be bothered.
From buzzwords like “Bro”, “Bra”, and “Sick”, you can spot a Californian anywhere by the way that they speak. I was in Italy about fifteen years ago when a local asked me not only was I from California, but was I from Santa Cruz?! He could tell by the way my boyfriend and I spoke. It made me a little bit embarrassed, to be honest. Were we so overtly flat? So nasally, surfer-dude-esque? Apparently so.
It’s not just our tone of speaking. More importantly, it’s the topics we talk, and don’t talk, about. Our close friends and family typically pepper in more emotion when speaking with us, and reciprocate deeper interest in our lives. But casual acquaintances and chance encounters with strangers? Sometimes the experience falls flat. Try going deeper and broaching a big topic like politics, mortality, or the latest natural disaster? Want to tell someone how your week really went? Many people don’t want to talk about that kind of stuff, not that I do all the time either. But it’s part of life, and I think it’s important to accept it. I don’t think everyone is shallow, but I think we’ve become so uncomfortable talking about our emotions, especially about things we care about, that we just avoid talking about them altogether.
You can tell a lot about how happy someone is by their ability to be truly happy for someone else. Some of it is simply a “cool” response to someone else’s warm excitement. Like temperature gradients, a cool response and a hot response are two ends of the spectrum. Intentional or not, think of a time that you shared something you were excited about (“hot”) with someone, and they simply shrugged and said something banal like, “Cool”, or “Um hum…” without further inquiry. It can take the wind out of your sails, if only momentarily. But when someone responds back with equal temperature? With authentic happiness and excitement for you? Fireworks! Relationships are built. Ideas are born. And it sets forth a positive momentum to the rest of both your days.
Sometimes I want to tell tell everyone to wake up! Life is so short, passing by way too fast, and we should be excited about it. There are days when I have to tell myself to wake up, surely. We ought to keep that same childlike curiosity, appreciation, and zest for life as adults. Children and elders seem to have it down, but we “adults”? We aren’t always so consistent, though I’m inspired by those who are. By the time you’re an elder, most people have figured out that you can miss out on human connection, experience, and learning new things by trying to be “too cool”. Many elders I know live with a passion for life; they don’t waste time on small-talk or petty issues. They do the things they want to do without apology or excuse. They love those they love with warm gratitude, recognition, and regular displays of affection; they don’t care so much about what others think of them, or if they look cool or not. I wish we weren’t so held back by our fears of looking “foolish” because no one’s scrutinizing us anyway.
We can be too caught up in how we appear to others, but most of the time no one is noticing us. People are too concerned about how they themselves look that they don’t notice your own flaws. When I worked as a server in a restaurant years ago, my future husband, and then coworker Ron, had a cigarette tucked behind his ear that he’d forgotten about (he no longer smokes, by the way). For the first hour of the night he had to have interacted with at least 50 different people with how busy we were, yet no one had noticed nor even given him a wayward glance. When he asked all of us in the backroom whether we’d noticed, we all couldn’t believe we hadn’t seem something that was so obvious if you just paid some attention. From that day on, that proved how little people were paying attention to the details of each other. So who cared how I looked? I felt liberated. I wish people wouldn’t care so much about what others thought.
We all learn at some age how relative beauty, popularity, and wealth are. It doesn’t matter where we rank on the scope of those attributes. What matters is how we approach life: our gratitude, love for one another, and positive intent. As I get older, I care less and less about how I compare to others. Everything is fleeting, and at the end of the day, it’s the intangibles that mean the most; that is, the people, animals, and experiences that shape our hearts and souls. We are blessed by every moment we get to share with our loved ones.
I wish we would be happier for each other more often, and appreciate each other’s strengths and unique gifts; that we could all feel genuinely seen for who we are. At the end of the day, when we’re old and gray, we’ll think it was pretty cool that we flowed down mountains, traveled the world, and had a family with love stronger than granite. We’ll think it was pretty cool that we had a friend who could knit a sweater like no other; that we knew a guy who could fix any kind of motorcycle left to right; that we challenged ourselves to try and do new things while we could. No matter the story, we’ll think it was pretty cool that we lived at all! So can’t we be that excited now?
A good friend of mine, Peter Miller, passed away recently, and he was always someone to live for the moment. And he definitely didn’t care what people thought about him. We first met at Berkeley Iron Works Climbing Gym in 1999. I’ll never forget driving up to go snowboarding at SugarBowl with him back in 2003. As we were driving in his Jeep along I-80, I noticed he kept looking at the other drivers alongside us in their cars. Not just looking, but actively engaging with eye contact.
“People drive along in their cars like zombies – looking straight ahead, blinders on, like they’re the only one on the road.” He straightened his arms and looked on like an uptight, average Bay Area driver. “Everyone drives around in their own little bubble, ignoring each other. We’re just people in steel boxes flying down the freeway. I like to acknowledge and engage with people in their cars. I bet there’s some really cool people on the road with us.”
And he used that logic to justify driving fast and making his way in front of laggers without hesitation. “Except this guy. Get the fuck out of the fast lane, Idiot!” as he weaved in front of him to pass. He always drove like it was Nascar. He wasn’t afraid to drive like he meant it.
“It’s okay to cut someone off just as long as you don’t slow them down. I just left him in the dust. Valley.” Peter had a healthy balance of wit, skepticism, compassion, and ironic sense of humor. For all his love of people, he wasn’t blind to their faults, nor was he reticent to point them out. We enjoyed a glorious powder day at SugarBowl, and when I had sung “I’m Walking On Sunshine” at least a dozen times (by Katrina and the Waves, to my surprise), he didn’t hesitate to ask, “Know any other songs?!” He hated that kind of music, but put up with me singing it while we glided over dry, fluffy snow.
Peter lived without excuses, with an all or nothing approach to life. He did what he loved to do, and it was that simple. He didn’t have patience for those who weren’t doing the same. Why would people waste time? There was no messing about with the common litany of excuses many of us make; no “I have to work”, or “I’m too tired” came out of his mouth.
Words to Live By
We remained good friends over the years, sharing rock-climbing, snowboarding, and motorcycle rides over the years. Whether riding his KTM dirtbike offroad or sailing his boat on the San Francisco Bay, where he spent his last day on 2/4/2018, Peter lived for adventure and with passion. He was fiercely dedicated to his two daughters and beautiful partner Jenny. He showed me how I wanted to live in many ways. He was proof that I, too, could live my life pursuing my passions without apology; that I could be a badass bitch and still be a nice person. He embodied the true definition of cool, and inspired so many others with his adventures over land and sea.
I think he’d agree with me on some of my points here, especially when I say “Don’t be too cool”. He was never afraid to talk about anything – deep, shallow, in between. He was comfortable talking about the dark and the light. He was totally cool, but not in the “California Cool”, aloof sort of way; not with friends, family, loved ones, or strangers. Being from Portland, Maine, he probably would be offended if I told him he spoke that way. He engaged presently with everyone he encountered. He showed up for the moment and gave it his full attention. He was honest and straightforward, a quality I learned to appreciate from him. He lived with love and compassion, and inspired others to do the same. That was one of the many things that made him so cool.
I think I can be less cool, too. When I speak about people in their tendencies, I know I can fall into that category at times. People are mirrors, right? I would love to be warmer with new people I meet, to not be so inadvertently guarded at times. There is always room for growth within our relationships with loved ones.
Where in your life can you be less cool? How much do you fall into the “California Cool” culture? For how cool California actually is, and for how many truly cool people live here, our stereotype has some catching up to do. Help redefine California Cool in your daily interactions with others. Give directions to a lost tourist instead of barking at them for causing a jam. Give a compliment to a stranger you see doing something cool. Pick up trash while you’re at the beach. Smile when you see an approaching stranger and say “hi”. Laugh loudly with your loved ones no matter who’s around. Life is meant to be celebrated and enjoyed.
Cultivate flow and grace. Express yourself; tell others how you feel. Don’t wait until some future moment without guarantee. Live your passion, and hold onto your love. Don’t be too cool. Live like you’ve got a fire lit under you. Because that, my friends, is hot.