Are you cool? How does it feel? I’m not sure if I’ve ever been truly cool, or what the criteria for measuring coolness are, assuming there’s some objective means of determining this elusive phenomenon. I’ll have to ask my friend who’s a scientist. (I’ve heard that having such a friend is cool.)
A few years ago I read that the reason cellphones became so popular is that they made “talking cool.” As soon as I read the words I thought, “Talking isn’t cool.” I spoke from experience. I’m one of the most talkative people I know, and also one of the least cool. Not that anyone would accuse me of being hot–maybe twenty years ago, if only for a couple of minutes, but certainly not now.
Living in a big, hip, post-post modern megasupercity like Seoul, it’s hard not to get caught up in all this adolescent silliness, even when you’ve got both feet in the grave and are stomping on the lid of your empty coffin like someone knocking on the door to a farmhouse, pursued by hound dogs and whistling men with shotguns. One of the worst things about middle age is it’s so bloody humiliating. I guess that makes me guilty of the sin of pride. If I’m mortified, it serves me right for taking myself too seriously.
But every clown is with silver dining (isn’t that how the saying goes?); at least I no longer have it in me to hate myself. That’s my wife’s job. (Many years ago, I remember grappling with the following conundrum: “Which do I hate the most–myself, my life, or the world? Hmmm. . . Further study is needed.”) These days I’d have to say I hate my life more than myself, mainly because the self doesn’t exist. I don’t hate the world; I love it, but it’s tough love. (Ditto for my country, which probably isn’t really mine anymore anyway; in fact, I’m not sure if it ever was. My European forebears stole it from the so-called Indians anyway. Oh well. At least they were kind enough to send most of them to heaven in the process. I hope when they got there, Jesus gave them free coupons for a pizza at Chuckie Cheese’s.)(By the way, I don’t always hate my life, only when I have to get up in the morning and go to work. By the time I leave the apartment, I’m usually fine.)
Getting back to the point I was about to make about talking being uncool, I can’t keep track of all the times I’ve put my foot in my mouth–more often than food–and saying sorry afterwards just makes you look that much more awkward and pathetic.
You know what’s cool? (Please tell me if you do.) Listening. Being polite. Not playing bad music in a public place. Not shooting people. Not smoking while you’re walking down the street. Not staring at people just because they look funny (I’ve gotten used to the feeling of being a foreigner, not that I’ve ever been a Foreigner fan; “Hot-Blooded” is perhaps the most boring song ever written). Not stretching your legs out when you’re on the subway, or sitting with them spread apart (unless you’re a woman, in which case it’s perfectly acceptable–just kidding–or am I?).
The reason I’m harping on this so much is that lately I’ve noticed a proliferation of Korean people talking a lot more volubly on their phones while on the subway, each one of them carrying on as blithely as if he or she were sitting at home in the living room trying to make himmerself heard over the TV. In fact, I think a lot of them consider it fair game because of the white noise the train makes when it’s moving, which just persuades them to raise their voices even higher.
I used to raise my own voice a bit more assertively when confronted with such a boor, lout, or troglodytic cretin. These days I generally say nothing. Maybe I’m becoming more Korean. You see, the culture seems roughly divided between those few who broadcast their obnoxiousness with absolute impunity, and those who stoically endure the onslaught, poker-faced as overworked undertakers. The trials of a semi-tragic marriage may be the force that’s installed me–at least for the moment–in the latter camp. Or maybe I’m afraid if I do speak up against one of these garrulous prima donnas, I’ll just snap and permanently lose my mind. As long as I don’t end up like that yutz who doused a subway car in Daegu with gasoline eleven years ago (just before the debut of the second Iraq War) and killed about a hundred people, I guess I’ll be okay.
For instance, you may know that I’m a mite cynical about my wife’s religious fanaticism, along with her fealty to her pastor and his chintzy church. (One of his favorite hymns to force on the compliant congregation is “Trust and Obey.” Can you think of a more sinister suggestion?) Much as I like or tolerate some of the people who go there, I feel nothing but bottomless contempt for such collectively pusillanimous behavior and knee-jerk loyalty to an ostensibly charismatic con artist.
And yet, the other day when I heard coming from the apartment directly below me the following buzzing, mosquito swarm-like chant of a large number of people intoning ad nauseam, tongues going a hundred miles an hour, “Hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah” (what do you know? I’ve accidentally converted–shit, that wasn’t supposed to happen) I resisted the urge to march downstairs, pound on their door, and scream, “SHIKEULO!” (meaning, essentially, “Shut the hell up!” although the direct translation is simply, “Noise!”).
Instead, I just grumbled about it to myself and put on my industrial-strength, soundproof earphones, the kind worn by the folks on the tarmac at the airport who guide winged traffic on the runway. It wasn’t so much out of Christian charity as live-and-let-live practicality. I mean, how often have my wife and I lit up the building with our shout-fests? That couldn’t be much fun for the neighbors. So if I have to put up with a bunch of brainwashed yahoos’ insane hyperventilating for an hour, big deal. Not that they can’t go fuck themselves.
In a world that’s got more problems than you can shake a stick at, being cool seems a luxury none of us can probably afford anymore.* I imagine that those born in our wake will look back on us as the lamest bunch of dildos in the history of civilization if we don’t get our act together real soon in a big way.
Or maybe they’ll be too busy trying to figure out how to be cool themselves to cast aspersions. The irony is that on a planet whose population promises to climb to ten billion some time in this century, the biological excuse for the preoccupation with cool (something which seems to afflict boys and men a lot more than it does girls and women–maybe because so many of them are naturally cooler than we are) is the ever-compelling urge to reproduce, or at least go through the motions.
Sex is too much fun and all too often too entwined with love to ever jump the shark, but untrammeled human multiplication could spell the end of the species, a fatal marriage of eros and thanatos, both wed and divorced in one fell swoop (one of the countless idioms and words attributed to Shakespeare, or as he was known, “Mr. Smarty-pants.”).
* It’s a wonder we’re not all running around like the figure depicted in the Edvard Munch painting “The Scream.” Those who are can’t be heard or seen by their peers, who are too immersed in their handheld screens and earbud feeds to hear or feel their fear or despair.