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The Utterly and Completely Definitive Guide to Cool

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Yeah, sure.

There's never going to be such a thing, because one fundamental quality of Cool is that it changes over time, from culture to culture and from generation to generation. It varies in how it's defined, how it's exhibited, and how it's determined. If you need a guide to tell you what's Cool, you don't know what's Cool.

There is one thing that has not changed and probably never will change, about being Cool, though. That is that if you're sufficiently Cool, you can get away with things less-Cool people couldn't pull off in their wildest dreams.

There's the Cool that comes from how you dress, the Cool that comes from how you act, the Cool that comes from what you can or will do. There's the Cool that makes others see you as unattainable, and the Cool that makes others see you as desirable. There's Cool that's hot, and Cool that's cold; Cool that's completely in control and Cool that's completely not in control but unflappable nonetheless. There's the Cool that is comfortable anywhere, any time, in any circumstance, and the Cool that removes itself from any insufficiently-Cool scene and doesn't associate with unCool people, and the Cool that causes a scene and the people in it to be Cool because Cool is there.

It's always cool to start at the beginning, so that's where we'll start.

The History of Cool:

When did Cool begin? Probably long before there were even words. Cool as it often means now was popularized by Miles Davis when he made the album Birth of the Cool in 1957note , but it was used in the same sense by musicians as far back as the 1930s. One thing all varieties of Cool have in common is that Cool is a status that others give to you, rather than one you can claim for yourself — if you have to say that you're cool, you aren't.

In the really old days, Cool was largely related to physical prowess and social responsibility. Gilgamesh was Cool. He was handsome, he was manly, he was physically perfect. He was strong and brave and a leader, and trustworthy. He was fearless and almost always in control of the situation, whatever the situation might be. And if he wasn't in control, he didn't let on.

Odysseus was Cool. He was strong and brave and wise and clever (two very different things.) He inspired loyalty in his followers and his wife loved him enough that she refused to remarry even though it was ten years since he stepped out to get the morning paper and conquer Troy and he never called to say he'd be late getting home.

The Norse Gods were Cool. Thor and Odin were Cool, but Loki was Cooler. Why was Loki Cooler, though? He wasn't stronger, or braver, or wiser. But he was one thing that the Norse culture valued: he was cleverer. We still mostly think that Loki is Cooler, but the reason has changed: now he's Cool because he's more fun, because he keeps things stirred up and interesting. We see Thor as kind of a bully, and Odin as a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, and Loki keeps them from getting too comfortable. Beowulf was, and is, Cool for much the same reasons: he was strong, he was brave, and he was clever, but also, he knew how to have fun. The whole reason he killed Grendel was because the monster had put an end to a great house party.

Oh, and Jesus Was Way Cool. Everybody knows that.

Then times changed and Cool became Chivalric Cool. The Knights of the Round Table and the Companions of Roland were Cool, but it was a different kind of Cool. For them, Cool didn't lie in wisdom or social responsibility, it lay in chivalry. Chivalry was partly bravery and strength, but it was as much gallantry, physical prowess, and especially, honor. Chivalric Cool was about being Lawful Good and badass, or rather Goodass. Chivalric Cool is also when Cool begins to be available to women, if they are sufficiently graceful, beautiful, and honorable. Guinevere was kind of Cool. She wasn't entirely there, but she was close. The fact that she cheated on Arthur kept her from being entirely Cool at the time. Historical figures like Nest ferch Cadell, Empress Irene, St. Jadwiga, and Jeanne D'Arc were, however, totally Cool. Eleanor of Aquitaine was not only massively Cool herself, but she contributed to the formalization of Chivalric Cool by encouraging troubadours and jongleurs to write songs and poems celebrating it. Fragments of Chivalric Cool remain in Fashion Cool, with plate armor (the armor of the knights) being Cooler than mail, which is Cooler than leather, which is Cooler than fabric; and in Techno Cool, with swords always being Cool, and clubs rarely being Cool.

After Chivalric Cool came Aristocratic Cool, the first Cold Cool. Aristocratic Cool is stiff-upper-lip, don't-let-them-see-you-sweat, never-admit-that-you-feel-anything-strongly Cool. It's Cool that gives the appearance of being a bit removed from the world that less-Cool people inhabit. It's Cool that says "I am in control of the situation." It's the Cool of the Three Musketeers and Cyrano de Bergerac, of Machiavelli and The Scarlet Pimpernel, of Dracula and Sherlock Holmes, of colonial explorers and the British officer class. It's the Cool of Oscar Wilde, Beau Brummel, James Bond and Greta Garbo. This kind of Cool gave rise to the Magnificent Bastard archetype, where a villain is Aristocratic Cool and knows it.

Meanwhile, Japan was developing their own brand of Cool. First they had Samurai, and they were Cool, but were overshadowed by the fact that Ninjas were even Cooler. Both knew that Katanas Are Just Better. Then one Samurai got savvy to the fact that Wooden Katanas Are Even Better, and that allowed those few Samurai who were skilled enough to actually use them as lethal weapons to compete with the Ninja on their level of Cool. Eventually, however, Japanese scientists started developing Humongous Mecha so they'd be invited to the same parties that the Samurai and Ninjas went to. That ended up backfiring, however, because it was the kids they paid to pilot their mecha that ended up being the ones invited to the parties in their stead.

While Japan was having Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot battles for the lulz, various other nations were trying to out-cool each other (Except the United States, who had already cornered the market on New World Cool). So two groups of nations (known as the Allied and Central Powers) agreed that they each outCool their rivals by holding the biggest party ever. And that was cool too. At least, until Archduke Ferdinand (who was only kinda Cool, because he had a Cool name at least) was shot by some random jerk, leading to the largest bar fight known to man (now known as World War I). It was cool at first, but soon people got tired of it, and just wanted to go home. Except America, who decided they wanted in on the action as well, but were barely getting rolling when it fell apart.

Also arriving too late were Those Wacky Nazis (though to be honest, they were never really invited in the first place; everyone thought Hitler's Jetpack was kind of stupid). Pissed off, they kicked a few puppies before realizing that the phrase "Cool" was purely subjective, meaning they could be considered "Cool" by shooting anyone who said otherwise. They jumped across the Moral Event Horizon by doing just that. Thus began WWII, and with that, the Dark Age of Cool.

Not much is known about these times, or at least not much we can say without pissing various people off. However, among the indisputably cool people in this time period were Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nikola Tesla, Captain America, Kamina, and Winston Churchill.

Once the dust had settled from WWII's Weapon of Mass Destruction (The Atom Bomb, which is still considered Cool in some places, not including Japan), it was obvious that any direct confrontation between global superpowers would result in the annihilation of both countries, albeit in the most awesome explosion ever. To this end the Cold War began, signaling the end to the Dark Age of Cool.

The meta-types of Cool

Cool that's hot

While hot and Cool sound like opposites, in this case, they aren't. It's "hot" in the sense that it's active Cool, energetic Cool, vibrant Cool. It's also a Cool that can be acquired by superficial means: the right clothes, the right gadgets, being seen in the right places or hanging out with the right people. This aspect means that it can be a very superficial Cool and that it requires constant effort to maintain. Hot Cool tends to be very fluid as well; what is Hot Cool today will be dated and passe in a few weeks, months or years. Rock Star Cool, Cosmetic Cool and Techno Cool tend to be Hot Cools. Some things that are usually (but not always) vogue in hot cool, though, are Hot-Blooded-ness and Rated M for Manly.

Cool that's cool

This is Cool that's colder and more timeless than Hot Cool, but hotter and more fluid than Cold Cool. Where Hot Cool generally encourages the display of emotions and Cold Cool requires that you keep them hidden, Cool Cool allows a moderate amount of emotional display, as long as it doesn't result in a loss of control or dignity. It's the Cool of jazz musicians, Cool actors, of the "gangsta" and hip-hop cultures.

Cool that's cold

Cold Cool is Cool that is (or appears to be) effortless. It's Cool that's distant, Cool that makes the possessor seem unapproachable, removed from the world that the rest of us inhabit. Cold Cool doesn't rely on appearance, it's all about attitude; these folks know the true definition of dressing Cool is "Whatever I'm wearing, baby," and the true definition of a Cool place to be is "Wherever I am." Because of that, the people who are this type of Cool tend to be the ones who set the standards for Hot Cool: other people wear the same type of clothes and go to the same places, thinking that the Cool will rub off on them.

Rules of Cool

  • The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Cool, which states that any attempt to define or to explain Coolness changes it, and that you can know that something is Cool or why it is Cool, but not both at the same time. Okay, Heisenberg never said any such thing, but it would be Cool if he had.
  • Schrödinger's Cool, in which you ponder whether something that may or may not exist would be cool, but invariably, if you try to find out, it's not cool.
  • The Mythbusters Rule of Cool is that Stuff Blowing Up = Very Cool.
  • The Rule of Negation of Cool by Self-proclamation: If you have to tell people that you're cool, you aren't. Cool is about showing, not telling.
  • The Rule of the Doctor: The Doctor has the Cool that's Cold, so if the Doctor says something is cool, it is, by definition, cool. This includes Fezzes and Bowties.

Types of Cool

Cosmetic Cool: Cosmetic Cool is Cool that relies on what the person looks like or owns. It's only superficial, because if the items that bestow Coolness are lost, damaged or destroyed, the Cool goes away too. Or, maybe fashions change, and those Cool Shades are now "sooooo last year". In short, Cosmetic Cool can be purchased.

Vehicle Cool: Because how you travel is as important as how you look and act.

Place Cool: Where you crash can speak volumes of you.

Occupation Cool: What you do for a living, or with your life if you don't have or don't need a job. Some occupations simply are so cool that the coolness rubs off on anyone who does it.

Personality Cool:

And that, readers, is Cool.