Stealing Back Cool from Kerouac

kerouacI’ve always loved cool…have no idea what it is but I love it. Perhaps I have no idea because cool expresses not one meaning or attitude but many, a cross-pollinated adjective moving fluidly in many cultures and languages. An Anglo can say cool in Chinese (kù 酷) and it means essentially the same as in English.
Cool exudes an attitude of calmness as a philosophy of restraint against the heat of living and can assume many meanings, I’m listing a few obvious ones. Yes, it’s the beat generation of Jack Kerouac and his On the Road milieu from the decade of the Fifties. It’s the jazz music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie. It’s British version takes on a restrained outward behavior, a nonchalant gentlemanly Teflon-coating in the mold of Sean Connery, cool in the face of white-hot heat, an unhurried stylish avant-garde demeanor, shaken, not stirred. And then we have the coolness of the The Beatles, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and James Joyce…but, let’s not get too carried away with Anglo cool, because my favorite cool is rooted deeply in the trials and response of the African-American soul, a form of aloof calm rebellion in the face of authority and dominance that eventually manifested its consciousness in the blues and jazz of Gillespie and Thelonius Monk and eventually working its way into the music of Eric Clapton, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Springsteen…and, well, you get the idea. Cool was appropriated from the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, the voiceless who somehow found voice in music and the pride of defiant non-violent rebellion. It’s a coolness of spirit against a raging world lived from hot to hotter. It’s a heart guided by a thermostat set on 68 rather than a thermometer reflecting the capricious ‘what’s hot this year’ of social whimsy. Cool is a dive into a cold clear stream after a descent into Hades.

But it’s also simpler than that. Cool expresses everyday conversational approval or admiration. Cool is an adjective used by young girls and old men, by hipster doofuses and country club blue-bloods. I recently sent this text to my son, “We are coming to Norman for OU/ULM football and have four tickets to the football game.” His response was one word. “Kewl” He misspells it on purpose because it’s cool to do so. A common colloquialism birthed in nonconformity repurposed not so much with meaning, but with spelling. Our modern attempts to articulate our approval and admiration in non-establishment tones, relies on a word that was once original and nuanced but now universally exhausted with everyday usage, a word used to describe a tone of subdued icy calm without too much emotion and just the right touch of nonchalance, but with an absolute seal of approval. Other words from my childhood have come and gone…groovy, have a blast, far out, bread (money), outa sight… all relegated to the language dust bin. Cool, however, simply won’t die. And so I’m rediscovering the birth of cool, stealing it back from the beatniks of the Fifties. Cool is artistic freedom and individuality, but it’s also rooted in the African-American experience of slavery and rebellion, jazz and blues…and the Luke 15 story of the Prodigal Son.prodigal son Betoni
I began thinking of this idea while sitting in a cool worship service this morning at a church in New Castle, OK near Norman, sitting by my son, Brandon, and listening to a lesson from Luke 15 about a Father and a prodigal (lost) son…as well as another son who was lost in his own way, filled with false sense of cool, the certitude of conformity and self-assured righteousness. I rediscovered in this lesson the meaning of cool, the Father of cool. Two thousand years, folks saw the world through the lens of the pater familia, and the dominant view of Fatherhood was of authority and domination as opposed to compassion and inclusion and gentle nurture. Jesus spoke of an image of the Father in a revolutionary way…as a five-year old daughter might speak to her Daddy at storytime. Once while tucking in my daughter Jenna when she still thought me omniscient, she made this request after I gave her a quick story and kiss, apparently thinking it not enough intimacy from her father and that I was simply going through the motions. “Daddy, would you lay down beside me for a minute before you go?” And so when Jesus spoke of the Father, it was simply unheard of for the maker of Heaven and Earth to be spoken of as having the time to be a Daddy, to find His lost ones and to not only find them and redeem their lostness with open arms, but to “lay down beside” His children, when they requested that moment of intimacy.
This was a father dominated age when men could divorce wives whimsically and indiscriminately and treat children as an afterthought. Into this world Jesus speaks words of liberation. He tells of searching for pennies in the cracks of a rustic kitchen floor and a shepherd frantically running through the fields search for a lost sheep. And a Father who runs to welcome his son home from a binge of Bohemian wanderlust, which reminds me of one supposedly cool guy, Jack Kerouac and his book, On the Road. Kerouac’s book is genius in a sense of the stream of consciousness way it’s written…but it’s also compelling reading because it speaks so honestly of what Luke 15:13 reports in one short sentence. Jesus took once sentence…Kerouac an entire book, albeit an amazingly honest reflection of what the prodigal son may have been thinking in another time and place.

Luke 15: 11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.

My demented mind immediately flashed to Jack Kerouac’s stream of consciousness reflection of seeking something On the Road. I’m not sure he ever found what he wanted to find. He died of complications from cirrhosis and internal bleeding at the age of 47.

Here are a few excerpts from On the Road:

“Sal, we gotta go and never stop going ’till we get there.’ ‘Where we going, man?’ ‘I don’t know, but we gotta go.’


“I realized I was beginning to cross and re-cross towns in America as though I was a traveling salesman–ragged travellings, bad stock, rotten beans in the bottom of my bag of tricks, nobody buying.”

And this stunning sentence of self-awareness:

“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”

He was the son from Luke 15 who eventually came home, he died in Lowell, Massachusetts, his birth town. He was often called the Father of the Beat Movement, a title he did not understand. Once someone called him a beatnik, one of the beat generation and he replied, “I’m not a beatnik, I’m Catholic.” Many of his diary pages, almost all reflected a search for meaning, crucifixes and other symbols of faith. His longing to be saved, to come home, can even be seen in his prose. “My whole wretched life swam before my weary eyes, and I realized no matter what you do it’s bound to be a waste of time in the end so you might as well go mad.” …“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved.” ― Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Jesus had the temerity to describe the Father not as a distance aloof judge, but rather as a runner, a hugger, a party planner, a giver of grace. So, cool may be Kerouac and beatniks and jazz and the Beatles…but for me and my house, cool is a Father running to his son with arms open, firing up the barbecue and partying without shame because His son was lost but is now found. Cool is omniscient, powerful, just, the author of life…taking time to listen and walk and talk and even lay down beside His creation. Cool is when the hotness and madness and speed that often rules our worldview is calmed, slowed and cooled by the blessed assurance of naked trust in the world to come, a world that sometimes visits us on earth in moments of grace, the heavens touching the parched and overheated in comforting coolness. Most of us have Kerouac moments, when we open our eyes, perhaps in some street gutter, or moment of pain or weakness, moments we realize ‘we are somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.’

Those moments either consume us in our wallowing narcissism or provide moments of turning, moments that let us run into the arms of God. Eden is restored in small moments of hope as foreshadowing of a coming eternal age without the jerks and the bores and the selfish, along with our struggles to accumulate power and pleasure and stuff. I recently watched the Nebraska football team in a spring game escorting seven-year-old cancer patient Jack Hoffman on a sixty-nine yard touchdown run and then the entire team mobbed him in a congratulatory team hug…that is the Father of cool. It’s the Way, it’s mercy, it’s grace. It’s calm and cool in the face of the heat of all things we think we desire. It’s the recognition that the one thing we long for is coming. That’s pretty cool.

One response to “Stealing Back Cool from Kerouac”

  1. After an afternoon spent with loving family, how cool to be able to end the day with an emotional high. Thanks to the Father for giving you the language to use to transport us to heavenly thinking. Love, Mom

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