When I came into the office this morning two of my co-workers were bickering over which animal was cooler: the polar bear or the Siberian tiger. Apparently this is a Facebook thing run by a friend of theirs every week. (My local coworkers are all good friends and younger than my beard, so I don’t participate in their gang-related activities.)
I really had no choice but to kibbitz and side with the polar bears, not because I really care, but anything that draws attention to their plight and dying ecosystem could be important.
Cool, after all, is subjective. There is only thing that is cool in the objective universe and that is The Fonz.
This led me down a bit of the memory lane because I was one of those kids who had a “Fonzie for President” bumber sticker about 10 years before I could drive a car. The Fonz was important to me as a kid. I have never unpacked this piece of my childhood idol worship.
I know at some point I stopped watching Happy Days, probably when Joanie and Chachi were the big story because Richie Cunningham had gone off to college or something. I don’t recall. But I do remember in the early 90s there was a retrospective on the series and they highlighted the finale, which I don’t remember watching (unlike the final episode of M*A*S*H which had me in tears I think). But the retrospective kicked something off in my head, too. It was probably the first time in my life I remembered feeling nostalgia, and it was not a good feeling.
At the time I was struggling in school (I had no business being in an art program) and struggling through a horrendous first marriage. Maybe all it was was realizing my life had been simpler as a child and I was just trying to process the crap that comes with being an adult in a generation where childhood never really ends and adulthood never really begins.
So why the Fonz? The leather jacket, for one. The only leather jackets in my life were the Fonz and some cousins who I thought were really cool (they are all at least ten years older than I am, so that’s just cool when you’re a kid). There was the popularity. Everyone liked the Fonz, it seemed, and very few people liked me. I made an effort to be unlikable. Not mean or cruel (although I unintentionally was) but I was determined to be myself and that was never going to win me popularity points.
I also hated myself, which I think is a different story for a different time, but maybe, just maybe, that’s what I liked about the Fonz. He liked himself. He liked other people, too, but he was happy with his life. Looking back on it I have to wonder why. He lived in a studio apartment over a garage. He owned a bike shop and I rarely meet a small business owner who is generally happy. Mr. Cunningham owned a hardware store, if I recall (so why did he wear a suit?) and I don’t remember it being a source of joy and happiness for him. The Fonz could fix a juke box with a thump and get girls on his arms with a snap of his fingers. He was most likely having an affair with his landlady.
The Fonz also pretended not to care about other people but he really did, and that fact slipped out often enough to keep me going. Was his disinterest a thing I admired? Probably. Part of being cool is not caring about things, about being dispassionate, which is probably stems from some strange idea we share that being passionate about things is either a) being influenced by other people or b) uncool. Damn. I think I hit a useless tautology here. I mean, the joke about hipsters is they don’t care about anything but justify it as “I was into that back when it was cool but it’s passe now”.
But being passionate about things is a hallmark of the geek. The geek loves things openly and proselytizes about them and in darker moments just can’t understand how other’s don’t get how frikkin’ cool this thing is that they love so much.
This is the trouble with reduced vocabulary. We ask too much of our words.
I’m wandering around the point, but I think what I liked about the Fonz was that he lived his life on his own terms. Nobody told the Fonz what to do. Okay, most likely he paid his rent and I don’t remember any storylines about wild parties being thrown above the garage. One of the strongest episodes that stayed with me was the time the Fonz lost his sight in an accident and had to be coddled and he didn’t handle it well. It was a time when an idol lost his cool.
I paused writing this to review the Wikipedia page on The Fonz and I’m not entirely wrong in my memories, but that rabbit holed a bit. There was one line in the Wikipedia entry that stood out though. The Fonz considered Ralph and Potsie nerds because they were constantly trying to fit in, but Richie was okay with the Fonz because he kept to his principles.
It’s like an entry level drug of communal respect. The Fonz can disagree with Richie but because Richie shows some backbone, the Fonz can respect him. The dark side of this is the extreme form were assholes decide they can’t respect anyone who isn’t an asshole. I don’t want to be that person.
Do I still want to be the Fonz? Not really. Do I want to live my life on my terms? Hell yes. Do I want to spend the effort to appear disinterested in things? Hell no. I’m a geek and my enthusiasm for things is really who I am. I dive deep and take things seriously.
I am a geek. I think what I want to be is more of a cool geek. A geek that doesn’t froth at the mouth when evangelizing. A geek that listens more and draws connections that really matter. A geek that doesn’t giggle in public. Or in private.