I spent a lot time time worrying about being cool when I was younger. I was almost positive I wasn’t cool, but I didn’t really want other to realize that. Especially strangers – it was easier being honest with those who knew me.
I had particular trouble with cool places: record stores or clothing shops and the like. I was acutely aware that a misstep here would reveal my distinct lack of cool. I wouldn’t dress in fashion because to go into a store and ask about the fashion would show that I had nary a clue.
My conception of what cool was was entirely based on the Fonz. Clothes, hair, motorbike. A way with ladies. But most of all a cool self-assurance that was the opposite of me. The Fonz knew he was cool and that would draw people to him. I felt I was not and that knowledge would drive people away. He didn’t care, but I cared desperately.
My Dad used to say, “Tha”s cool.” I was pretty sure he wasn’t cool either.
What I was sure of was that I was a geek. A geek is pretty much the opposite of cool. Geeks liked science, science fiction, computers, games and comic books. A geek might say, “Tha”s cool” the same way my father did.
I’ve been thinking about cool and geeks lately. Since I was a teen I’ve greatly reevaluated my definitions of both. My new definitions don’t put them at the opposite ends of a spectrum. Rather they are descriptors that could easily both be ascribed to the same person.
I read/watched the following three items recently and they helped crystallize my thoughts. Goodfellas, Wil Wheaton on Geeks and a UK teacher on technological literacy. . Mostly because I quite disagree with all three.
For my definition of cool, we can take away the clothes, hair, motorbikes and ladies, but you need to leave behind the self-assurance. Cool is an attitude and that is all that it is.
For my definition of geek, we can take away the games, comics and computers and leave the way you interact with something. You find something, anything really, and devote yourself to it. Devote yourself in a manner beyond the norm.
Geek might require a couple examples. A sports geek (often called a fan) doesn’t just watch sports. They need to interact beyond that. Talk shows, fantasy leagues, box scores, collecting their team’s swag. A sci-if geek doesn’t just read books. Collect books, blog about books, follow authors on twitter, write fan fiction and go to conventions.
In their extreme neither cool nor geek are healthy. Too cool is vanity, disassociation and self-denial. Too geeky is devoting yourself to your interest to the exclusion of everything else. This is where I have a problem with Wheaton’s speech and Goodfellas (who are in this context very cool geeks). Just loving something isn’t right. It ignores excess. In the, admittedly, extreme case in Goodfellas that results in a lot of dead people. Within the bubble of the geekdom, extreme behaviour can seem normal.
I think there is room to be a geek about 1 or 2 things in everyone’s life with the proviso that there is room for other normal non-geek relationships too. Temperance and moderation are not common watchwords today, but their importance has likely only grown greater. (I have a blog about virtues I want to get to soon too. But I still haven’t wrapped up my July list of blogs to publish.)
Professionals in a field don’t have to be geeks in that field. A sci-if writer, an athlete and an IT analyst might just be doing the work. They might even love the work although that isn’t necessary. But that love comes from accomplishment. The love of the geek is experiential. Not quite the same.
But I do think at the apex of every field you will either find a cool geek in that field or a cool geek whose interest is motivating geeks in that field.
It is easier to be a cool geek now than the 80s. Many geeky subjects are less reviled now due to their ubiquity. But that doesn’t mean there will be more geeks. That is where I think the UK teacher goes awry. He assumes that because computers are everywhere a greater percentage of people should geek out to them. But most people just want them to be tools. Tools that allow them to explore their actual interests or needs. There aren’t more computer geeks. Just more computers. And we should not expect everyone to code a regex or discern the difference between the World Wide Web and the Internet.
But the Internet does allow us to interact with more cool geeks than ever before. That is pretty neat. Although the risk of us summing ourselves in a like minded crowd and turning geek era into obsession is greater too.
It doesn’t matter though. Cool geeks always existed.
It would be a great ending if I could circle around and point out that my Dad was my example of a cool geek. He really wasn’t though. I can’t think of anything he geeked out over. He was a should of moderation.
But as I now say these days, just as Dad used to say it, “Tha”s cool too.” That is decently cool.