Don’t Ever Be Too Cool
WE SAT TRANSFIXED on the football bleachers, Diane’s hand in mine. In seventh grade holding hands was just about the extent of my romantic exploits. Oh, sure, I knew about kissing, but it took me 15 months to rally the courage to hold hands; I figured I’d get my first kiss about the time I sprouted ear hair.
So, there we nestled—our compacted palms sopping in a puddle of sweat—watching the eighth and ninth grade boys play “tackle-the-man-with-the-ball” below us.
The more we watched, the more I realized that this could be my chance to prove myself. After all, I was known as the “Rocket” in sixth grade; I could out run anyone my age. I’ll show those big kids a thing or two. Just give me that football and I’ll dazzle them with my footwork. I’ll give them a hip and take it away. I’ll fake left and spin right. I’ll leave them with their tongues unfurled and sucking wind: “Who was that guy anyway?” The girls will talk about me in the bathroom, their words bouncing off the porcelain like a trumpet fanfare.
Veronica (The most provocative girl in ninth grade): Did you see Allen Johnson? Isn’t he just the cutest thing?
Jessica (The second most provocative girl in ninth grade): Adorable. Absolutely adorable.
Veronica (Writing something on the mirror over the sink with pink lipstick.) Do you think “Allencakes, make me your love slave” is too forward?
YES! I separated my hand from Diane. Schplachk! “I’ll be back in a jiffy,” I said with a sneer.
Out on the field I hiked my Levi’s up a notch and waited for the chance to make playground history. Then it happened. Four or five of the bigger kids huddled for a moment, glancing over their shoulders in my direction. The leader—an early entry on the food chain—outfitted with fat lips and a five-o’clock shadow, thrust his finger at me and said something less than nurturing. I zoomed in on his muzzle: “YOU’RE . . . DEAD . . . MEAT!” he mouthed.
All my bravissimo drained out of the breathe holes in my sneakers. Before I cou ld scramble back to the bleachers for safety, they had tossed the pigskin to me. This was it: the moment of truth: hero or road kill.
Somewhere on earth the sun was shinning. Somewhere in time the songbirds sang. But for me . . . life was the pits.
At first my legs were my friends. They did amazing things: wheeling and whirling through space, leaving the outstretched arms of my assailants grasping at air.
I scoffed at their feeble attempts, “HA!”
I slipped one, two, three more tackles and shot an eye at Diane in the grandstands. She smiled demurely. Then I reversed directions and ran—SPLAT—into “Hefty Lips.” I slid off his face like a flapjack. While I lay there, partially entombed, 20 hands yanked at my blue jeans. OH, NO, I WAS BEING DEFROCKED OF MY LEVI’S, PANTSED ON THE 50 YARD LINE FOR ALL THE WORLD AND DIANE TO SEE! This was not happening to me—not to me, not the “Rocket.”
At that moment in time, my trousers languoring at my ankles like a pool of blood, I could only think of my mother’s prophetic counsel, “Don’t forget to change your undies, dear; you never know when you may be in an accident.”
Could it have been worse? I suppose. Thank God I was not wearing my special edition Howdy Doody boxer shorts. Or they could have run my breeches up the flagpole, leaving me in the middle of the field “in the dawn’s early light.” Yeah, it could have been worse; still, the embarrassment [em-bare-ass-ment] was enough to steam clean my wardrobe for a week.
Despite all that, I did endure. I did not fade away. I did not even have to change my name or transfer to another school. Even my girlfriend still liked me. (Although after 18 months of courtship, she lost interest. I couldn’t blame her. Whenever I thought about kissing her, my lips fell off my face like a slinky.)
I walked away from that experience with two insights. The first was this: an embarrassing experience has a half-life 10,000 times longer for the recipient than it does for the casual observer. I went through school with those same kids for the next six years. In all that time no one ever said a single word to me about the incident; I don’t think anyone particularly cared.
The second learning? Never, ever be too cool. I think that was my undoing. I thought that in order to be cool, others had to be uncool. (Hefty Lips must have sensed that.) It doesn’t have to be that way.
To be overly cool—or, in adult language, arrogant—is always driven by a comparative mentality that is inevitably based on insecurity. Every shock-talk show feeds off this human flaw, beckoning the viewer to say, “I may be messed up, but those people are really fried.” (Shame on Hollywood for exploiting our most base selves; and shame on us for watch it.) Comparative thinking—I’m cooler than you are—is both insulting and self-defeating. Conversely, I am at my best when I recognize and accept “coolness” in everyone—including myself. It’s a better idea. It’s also a good way to keep your pants securely hoisted.