Years ago I read a Cary Grant interview in which he was asked how he managed to live up to his larger-than-life-image. Never lacking for the right thing to say, the inimitable Mr. Grant replied, “We all wish we were Cary Grant. Sometimes I wish I was Cary Grant.”Notwithstanding the fact that this American icon was from England and that his real name was Archibald Leach, which he discarded as easily as he did a great number of wives and on-screen leading ladies, this comment cuts to the very crux of manhood: we men want to be cool.
Sure, there are other driving forces at work behind much of what men have accomplished since we started walking erect, but most of the really big things can be traced back to the simple and innate guy urge to think, talk, act — and most importantly — be cool.
But alas it’s tough to remember in today’s Modem Millennium that there was a time before .com was the touchstone of our culture. Back in the halcyon days, when the world wasn’t connected by a web, boys grew up with vivid ideas of things that’d be cool to do as men. The choices were simple and clear-cut.
Boys admired men who played baseball, who were cowboys, soldiers, writers, singers, politicians, astronauts, fighters, doctors, lawyers and even actors. Why? Because these professionals were cool. They knew what they were about and where their place was in the world. They spent time on the world’s stage playing fulfilling leading roles. They got to say cool things – having the right language is an intrinsic part of being cool. They wore the right clothes and had the right equipment. They got to be cool while they did what they did.
“Today I consider myself the luckiest man in the world.”
“Rye. Gimme’ the bottle. Fresh water for the horses. Tonight we ride.”
“Cover me, Sergeant, I’m going in.”
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then that experience stays with you forever because Paris is a moveable feast.”
“I Did it My Way.”
“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
“The Buck stops here.”
“Ask not what your country can do for you…”
“I have a dream…”
“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
“I’m a baad man.”
“I need 30 CCs of O-Positive, Stat!”
“Your Honor, may I approach the bench?”
“Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand.”
“Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse.”
“Of all the gin joints in all the world, she had to walk into mine.”
Yes, America’s clearly the coolest country that ever graced the earth. And it’s not just because we have way more nuclear warheads than everyone else does (though that helps). From the very beginning, when our proud Founding Fathers got tired of taking orders from the nancypants on the throne and decided it would be cool to start their own damned country, it was our Manifest Destiny to be cool. The good old U.S. of A. was built by a group of men who truly believed anything was possible no matter how tough the odds were against them. This idea was the very lifeblood of being an American; more a state of mind than a nationality.
Even though the beloved Statue of Liberty welcomes the tired, the hungry, the weary and the poor, what we most often get is the cream of the crop from the rest of the world. The people who want to be on a winning team. But you can only coast on your cool beginnings and more perfect union for so many centuries. The future should always be cooler than the past.
If the Bard of Avon was right, then our cool past is prologue. But a cursory glance at contemporary society reveals a distinct lack of coolness. Today there are boys who actually look up to and admire nerd poster-boy Bill Gates. Women swoon over…Leonardo DiCaprio, who’s a certifiable superstar. John Rocker throws a baseball very fast and very hard but happens to be a narrow-minded idiot. When Iron Mike isn’t in prison he’s nibbling on ears. When most NBA, NFL and MLB superstars aren’t re-negotiating their contracts or staging a strike, it seems they’re plea-bargaining with their attorneys. Even the First Dog, Buddy – maybe Bill’s best, last and only friend – is more than a little disillusioned by the presidency. You can see the shame in his dark puppy dog eyes. Motivational-guru Tony Robbins is revered as a god but talks so much about unlimited power that is seems, well, unseemly. Our powerful role models of yesteryear were all the more respected because they acted cool and just went about their business. They were too busy accomplishing things to run their mouths off about them. They did what they thought had to be done. And then went on to do something else.
American heroes just might be going the way of the dinosaur, and what’s worse the sad truth may be that they brought about their own extinction. The real heroes may just have made life a little to easy for us youngish-men today. Maybe, like the country we live in, everything has come to easy to us young men of today.
When modern men and boys aspire to MBAs, Venture Capital and Internet IPOs more than they dream of saying, “Take her down to periscope level,” or “Charge!” or “The Eagle has landed,” maybe being cool just isn’t so important anymore. When being in touch via pager, laptop and cell phone is more important than being in control, well, perhaps we’re just out of control. If you look around the lunch table and don’t know who the loser is, there’s a good chance it may be you, my friend.
There will be those among you who think that aspiring to be cool is shallow and superficial. Those among you who never wished they were Cary Grant. Those who think this is actually a very cool time we live in today. But who cares what you think, anyway?
Part of being cool, whether like Ali, Brando, Bogie, McQueen or even JFK, or Blood-and-Guts Patton, was just not caring what anyone thought at all.
In a time long before being cool was gone with the wind, debonair Clark Gable as cool Confederate Rhett Butler said it best just before walking off alone: “Frankly, my dear, I just don’t give a damn.” I just wonder if anyone could say that today.