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Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose | 2017 | Archipelago of Social Islands


If I try to be like him, who will be like me?  

-Yiddish Proverb

The Problem of Cool

When I was a teenager -- the coolest period in anyone's life -- I went to concerts at least once a month at a club called The Chance. Paul McCartney once said it was one of the clubs he most wanted to play in the States, though I don't see that he ever did.

In the nineties, I saw awesome bands: GWAR, Collective Soul, the Verve Pipe, Sponge (three times!), Blink-182, Chevelle, Eve 6, Goatwhore, Murphy's Law, Paramore, Puddle of Mudd, Sum 41, and Third Eye Blind. There are undoubtedly many more who slip my mind at the moment, certainly opening acts whom I mostly ignored at the time because I was too eager for the headliner and they were going on too long. Who is cooler than the entitled in our culture? I wish I had a list of all the bands I saw, just to reflect on shows I only hazily remember from the jet engine drone of being directly in front of the speakers, the sore calves from jumping around, the torn shirts from other concert goers, the smell of smoke that clung to my hair for days.

I don't know how I afforded so many shows. I'm sure most were paid for by my kind parents, since squirreling away lunch money and babysitting earnings only got me so far.

I went on school nights, staying until midnight and being hazy the next morning. I flirted with girls, earning myself several girlfriends just outside the mosh pit. I screamed myself hoarse, singing along with men and women I knew from my morning MTV. I stage dived after being shoved by bassists. I made out with a stranger because she said someone had hit her in the mouth and I asked if she wanted me to kiss it better, a story I tell with mock embarrassment to this day (for years afterward, this girl would call me on my birthday, just to talk; I must have been a good kisser). I earned the continued scorn of security guards by fraternizing with the smokers in the ventilation of open fire doors. I was a golden god and had no idea. I assumed my experience of life was standard.

Now that I have the money, I wanted to resume going to the Chance, but it ceased to be cool around my sophomore year of college and now mostly features Stryper cover bands. Cool is fleeting. Even Fonzi jumped the shark.

There was a time, though twenty years ago according to the calendar, when I was a social landmark. I had an adored ex (someone to whom I would have been a better, but not terminal, boyfriend if I had any sense) who used to ask people how they knew me as an opening line. If you were within four years of my age, you likely knew someone who knew someone who had snogged me at a party or befriended me at a playground around midnight. I was spoiled by the attention, assuming it would always be the case.

I am not now cool. The quality of coolness and the caring about it is a young man's game, though I didn't think about being cool then. I just did the best I could to live a life I liked, going through predictable adolescent missteps along the way to amuse whatever chaotic neutral deity might have tuned into my life.

On paper, I have a few attractive qualities, the primary of which is that I am a published author. Knowing me marginally increases your chance of literary immortality, assuming the world ever gets around to reading my books. I was always gregarious, ever since some stoner pointed out that I never had a reason to hide my light, bundled with a woman I loved telling me that every man wanted to be me and every woman wanted to be with me, a line I later learned she had cribbed (however, it is a line that pervades our culture, so I refuse to assign it an author; it is as good as hers). She also told me that I spoke like I was in a movie, though I choose to believe I did to her because she inspired cleverness in me.

I am a person worth knowing. I have some connections, enough that I will delightedly help a former student get a gig writing about teen sexuality for an academic publisher or connect a friend with a job teaching art to my juvenile delinquents. I want to increase the amount of happiness in the world, though specifically for people whom I have come to like and respect.

I think I am actually dorky. Cool has a dangerous edge. Daniel referred to me, with ample evidence, as aggressively nonthreatening. One doesn't think a puppy is cool, not in a shades-and-biker-jacket sense, but one can appreciate its exuberant company.

I don't imagine I will ever be cool again. I may be admired, or appreciated. I may be a favorite teacher, a liked author, a tolerated uncle, but I will not be cool. And I won't try. Nothing is less cool than an adult fixated on being cool.

There are experiences I want, ones that would make me more interesting at cocktail parties - a sort of party to which I am not often invited - but I am not made to be center ring in this circus. In the too distant past, I craved eyes of me, as a validation of who I was. It is exhausting caring so much of the opinions of teenagers, each just as certain they are in the constant spotlight.

I went to boozy parties, though I didn't drink. Beside campfires, lovely girls lay their flower blossom heads in my unworthy lap. I assumed this was what life would always be, because I was sixteen and thus na´ve about what constituted normal.

This could all be a product of distillation. All the music in my youth wasn't Soundgarden. Most of it was terrible, but that didn't survive to be played of today's radio. All that is played is what deserves to be remembered, with some too soft edges in either direction, so I retroactively make that the soundtrack of my summers.

I remember elements that made me feel cool, but my younger self didn't go to cryptid museums or get offered $5 for his autograph. That kid would likely find me cool, for the most part. Or he would at least not be too badly disappointed in all I have so far turned out to be.

I live in a two-story apartment walking distance from a cute, safe town. My home is decorated with occult paraphernalia and gadgets that border on 1990's science fiction. I am a brisk bike ride away from a liberal private college - incidentally the one where Teen Me twice attended Summer Scholars and thus set myself on this twisting path. As such, there are regular cultural events and no end of castoff hipness to appropriate as needed. My literary idol, Neil Gaiman is on the faculty of the college, though frequently elsewhere.

I am married to a quirky, bright woman who exceeds what Teen Me sought in adolescent dating, one who devours her curiosities for and devotes her time to forming a compassionate life and who fairly worships me even when I feel less than loveable. Daily, she improves my life and gives me another reason to go on in hope. She has shown me a light I never previously knew existed and a compatibility that exceeded what he imagined possible through fiction.

I do not think he would like my day job, trying to educate literal juvenile delinquents - the very types who made his high school life difficult - but I am certain he would be impressed how good I am at wrangling them. He certainly would stare agog at my bank account, so accustomed was he to think a few hundred dollars a fortune.

He would be impressed that I have four novels and a smattering of other things published. Would it matter to him how little the books are purchased or read when he saw how often that are quoted in internet essays and South American term papers? How businesses use his words to peddle diamonds, wine, and computer programs? He might just refer to himself as the literary descendant of Vonnegut's Kilgore Trout and think no more of it. He had so much ego that he didn't have to place all his chips on one number. He could be anything and he knew it, still confident he was an undiscovered big fish in a very little pond.

I cannot guarantee that he would not be a little let down that some of his loftier ambitions went so far unmet, but refocusing one's aims is a part of growing up, else we would be a world of astronauts. I had neither the aptitude nor circumstances to star on Saturday Night Live, for one, to say nothing of liking to be in bed when it is on.

On balance, though, I think he would be astounded by my progress. Even in the darkest hours of my night, I do not think I have disappointed that boy. Even if no one else manages to, he would think I am cool.

Soon in Xenology: Adventures.

last watched: Under the Skin
reading: Another Roadside Attraction
listening: Temple of the Dog

Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose | 2017 | Archipelago of Social Islands

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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