One of the odd and unusual places I find the presence of God is in cool. Yes, cool.
I’m not talking about Don Draper charisma, exactly. And I’m not talking about rock star arrogance, either. I’m thinking of one day during my first semester of college, when I spotted an acquaintance, Marie N., walking across the school cafeteria, lunch tray in hand, looking around for a place to sit. I knew how it felt to scan the room in search of a familiar face. In fact, I planned my lunchtime so that I’d have a few friends to sit with.
But before I could catch Marie’s eye so that she might join my friends and me, she spotted an empty table and, with no visible sign of hesitation, sat down and started eating her lunch.
At first I was surprised, not believing Marie could feel comfortable alone at her table. Roughly three seconds later, my feeling turned to admiration, and then to envy.
“Cool” and real cool
In that moment I realized the difference between “cool” and real cool. “Cool” is reading Kafka in the coffeehouse, listening to Joy Division, smoking, not smiling. But true cool? Perhaps five kids in my entire college class were cool. Marie made the grade when she sat down to lunch. Beth S., too, verged on cool because she was kind to everyone — genuinely kind, in an unselfconscious way that had no hint of prefabricated “niceness” to it.
But the one person who, in hindsight, was indisputably cool? Matt L., the chemistry major who wore high-water pants and got excited about mitosis — so excited he didn’t notice the derision heaped on him. I cannot imagine Matt looking in the mirror and asking, “Am I cool?” But he was, in my view, way cool.
Cool, then, is pure engagement, untainted by self-consciousness or irony. We all swim in cool as children, but lose it by degrees — beginning when other kids laugh at us in elementary school for wearing the “wrong” shoes or pursuing the “wrong” hobby. By the time we reach the working world, most of us are accustomed to compromise. We trade passion for a paycheck, curb our enthusiasm to fit in, tailor our hopes and our imagination to the prevailing standard — all the time, looking over our shoulders to make sure that we are doing exactly what everyone else is doing.
A few of us don’t fall into this trap — unafraid to embrace an interest, no matter what it is, and bring to it a zeal that verges on mania. In my own adult life I’ve met only a handful of these people. One builds bicycles. Another bakes pastries. And one is, believe it or not, a lawyer.
To me, these people have a direct line to cool. To others, these people are, well, geeks.
But why shouldn’t “geek” be a word of praise? I think of it as a synonym for enthusiast, and I often apply it to those rare and fortunate people who have found a way to take their passions to work with them.
Take Steve Almond. He’s a candy geek. In a book called Candyfreak, he shares with us his lifelong penchant for candy bars and other commercial confections. Many of them are now teetering on extinction and he, in a fit of nostalgia, is trying to save them.
Yes, Steve Almond is a geek. Venus Williams is a geek. Dave Matthews is a total geek.
How many others can call themselves similarly blessed — people whose work brings them full-spectrum fulfillment: emotional, intellectual, tactile, aesthetical, imaginative? One in a thousand? One in ten thousand?
Clearly, geeks at work are the few, the cool, the engaged. The luckiest among them spend their days in a “flow state,” fully immersed in the task at hand, unconcerned with what other people think about what they do. When I imagine this flow state, I picture Jesus in his carpentry shop, surrounded by wood shavings and bathed in a glow of grace.
Is it any wonder I aspire to be a geek?