I’m sitting down at the beach watching the tourists tan. I don’t sit out in the sun for the purposes of tanning anymore, because … well, I wasn’t sure. I guess, before I lived where it’s sunny most of the time, I felt like I had to make the most of the sunshine there was to counteract a syndrome I developed while living in Seattle with its 6 months of gray: SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), and undamaged white skin. But the people I was observing come down here for 6 months of the year during the winter, traveling back to the cold in short hiccups. So I voiced my comment, something like: you’re getting a tan so you can go back to milk-toast land and show off that you’ve been someplace cool.
“COOL?!” … a decidedly non-cool gust of indignation nearly fried me to a cinder like a million years of sitting in the sun couldn’t do if compressed into a single second of time. Cœur d’Alêne (orthographically rendered here according to one theory of the name’s origin), Denver, Seattle, Vancouver BC, Montréal, and on. Each ambassador of these locations asserted the coolness of the places they chose to not vacation in. I folded up and vowed to myself I would muse on just what in the hell could I possibly have meant by “cool.” Did I really mean that the places where they worked, played, and lived were not cool places because I referred to Puerto Vallarta as being a cool place by some sort of freudian juxtaposition?
In that same beach session, I had occasion to interject myself into a conversation where two parties were disputing the use of the word “philosophy,” as in “Bush governed according to the philosophy of his party,” which translated to policies. “Philosophy is just a way of thinking,” one side maintained, “that has nothing to do with policy.” This came out of the mouth of a reasonably schooled and intelligent older gentleman. Somehow, how people plan to act (policy) flowing from one’s “way of thinking” had no connection to him. Which one of them was “right,” and how to navigate the tope (Mexican for speed bump)? So I settled in for some officious and pedantic speeching.
Top of my speech was that “meaning” (the significance assigned) for words is really only a social contract where we agree that a certain combination of sounds will stand to represent a philosophical notion or concept. We agree that this word shall mean this, and that the meaning shall be composed of “nodes,” or the individual notions contained. Now, I’m not talking significs (yes, that’s a word), or how we arrive at the semantics of a word here. Just the dictionary definition to start with. K?
But how many of us have the passion to acquaint ourselves with or employ more nodes of meaning for a word beyond what is necessary for a general and “friendly” dialog? (Passion might not be all that is required, though. I’m suspecting you also have to be painfully literal and blindingly linear.)
Anyway, I worked with a project manager one time whose word choices were seriously node-poor. Trying to get a clear picture of what we needed to accomplish and how were nigh onto impossible, which required some very loose interpretation in order to exact a course of action detailed enough to design databases. It reminded me of Ayn Rand’s minuscule book, “Objectivist Epistemology”, wherein she uses various metaphors and similes to describe how people approximate their way through a dialog by trying to cut diamonds with a dull hatchet or “condensing fog into fog.” I ended up making her (the PM, not Ms. Rand) cry: she simply had to consider better what she was saying and choose words to match, equal to the precision required of the conclusion. (From this job, I arrived at the expression: they want formal results from informal processes.)
So then I proceeded to craftily tie my point to discussions where, “friendly conversations” or not, if you are trying to make a clear point about complex subjects, understanding the words you choose would go a long way into both one’s own comprehension and comprehensibility . . . over which my just-previous use of “cool” cast a tanning-proof shadow. But I may be able to salvage myself yet.
“Cool” is a word we use to color a referent as having characteristics that we or other people deem inherently excellent, admirable, etc. (“etc.” being a truncation of nodes that fall within the same subset of assets). And “cool” is comparable: one thing can be cooler than another using a wide array of criteria. But to judge whether Cœur d’Alêne is as cool as Puerto Vallarta, we have to compare using the same criteria.
In addition to comparing certain criteria, quantities also matter — quantity of shared nodes, quantity in terms of degree of some attribute, and quantity in the voting tally. We have to use the same criteria by which to judge, else the agreement on the word “cool” can’t be reached, and no social contract achieved, and “friendly conversation” has shriveled to smoldering silence.
“Vacations spots” is a term we use to label places to which people travel to spend non-work time and is a useful, comparable node. Of course, I assumed that one of the criteria for comparing Cœur d’Alêne with PV is vacationing, since I’m sitting surrounded by people here on vacation, and at least one representative is here to escape the current weather conditions in Cœur d’Alêne in which tanning would lead to hypothermia. (Nothing is understood in a vacuum: Understanding is a function of the perceived relationships one thing has to others. So why people are here, in the context of cool places, seemed applicable. But I’ll leave discussion about assumptions for another post.)
I, truly, believe that Cœur d’Alêne is definitely a cool place for a bunch of reasons. But Puerto Vallarta is among the 10 hottest vacation destinations in the world. Cœur d’Alêne is not. PV has more of the reasons more people choose PV to spend their vacation than has Cœur d’Alêne. Whatever those criteria are, there is a huge number of people worldwide that agree on the degree, quality, and quantity of characteristics. When referring to PV, these people could use the word “cool” and the social contract would be crystal clear.
But context provides another angle instructive in understanding cool. I will hazard to say that where people live & work is not where they want to vacation. They want to go somewhere else, and not necessarily someplace for the sake of being different, but some place that includes attributes they find attractive (or whose attractiveness they want to discover). So, imagine I’m in Cœur d’Alêne, all highly and purposefully skin-damaged, and a local on the lighter side of pale calls out, “Hey, have you just come from someplace cool?” (Exotic is an attribute people tend to equate with cool; and exotic, for some reason, seems to always have lots of sunshine, which produces tans.) I can look at Casper and say, “Yes, I just got back from exotic Puerto Vallarta!” to which an appropriate reply would be, “How cool is that !”
So, I don’t think I was saying that Cœur d’Alêne is not cool, nor was I saying that Cœur d’Alêne is not cool compared to Puerto Vallarta, but rather that Puerto Vallarta is a cool place to go outside of where we’re at [Cœur d’Alêne].
I’m thinking that the blast of indignation was actually intended to deflect the reason they were tanning instead of talking about it head on. In any case, I have decided that beach conversations are probably more related to bar conversations in the depth one should expect to reach — like a tan: skin deep. I’ll stay under my umbrella and know that I live in a fantastically COOL PLACE year around!