When uncool becomes cool
I'm frequently mocked for my AOL e-mail address, which calls me out as old and out of touch, the kind of person who rides the information superhighway at five miles an hour with his turn signal flashing. I'd change lanes to let you pass but -- as my e-mail address confirms -- I'm terrified of change.
Like John Stockton with his short shorts or Pete Rose with his bowl cut or Jimmy Connors with his T2000, the AOL suffix continues to give me comfort long after everyone else has abandoned it. I now wear it as an act of defiance, in the way that Tom Landry wore a fedora 30 years after everyone else stopped.
Landry was one of several giants who were cool precisely because they weren't cool. John Wooden "was so square he was divisible by four," as Jim Murray memorably put it. Grandpa Simpson, watching Super Bowl III, said of America's favorite buzz-cut: "Now Johnny Unitas -- there's a haircut you could set your watch to." Vince Lombardi was as uncool as the side of the pillow you're using right now, which is why he and Wooden and Unitas have never gone out of fashion.
Cool is contingent on context, of course. A Troy Polamalu jersey on Troy Polamalu is cool, but a Troy Polamalu jersey on Larry in Human Resources is slightly less cool. But then life is full of little indicators that say, "I'm not cool," and it's especially hard for sports fans to navigate these swift currents of coolness.
If you own face paint and a bulb horn and you're not a circus clown, you might be uncool. (Not being cool, I can't say for certain.) If you wear a headband and five pair of knee-highs and you're not Jason Terry, you might be uncool. If you call the Internet "the information superhighway," as I did in the first paragraph, you're uncool and unaware of it, which is especially alarming.
And so I preemptively call attention to my own uncoolness, as if I'm in on the joke, just as Wayne Rooney pointed to his magical hair transplant on Monday after heading in a goal against Spurs.
As a cheap alternative to a hair transplant, incidentally, I bought a hat the other day, out of necessity, while roaming the mall during a downpour. It was a New Era 59/50 fitted cap and -- to reinforce that I am an old man -- I made a show of peeling the gold sticker off the brim on my way out of the store. It was a conscious act of brazen fogeyness, one that said I'm buying this cap to keep my head dry, nothing more: It's not a sad stab at youth fashion, but neither is it a sad wallow in baseball nostalgia. Sometimes a hat is just a hat.
When I rocked up at the Stride-Rite store to greet my family in my new fitted cap, my wife said with a mixture of laughter and pity: "You look ridiculous."
But I looked ridiculous without it, too. Sports and fashion move so fast that I can't possibly keep my ear to the ground. For one thing, my ear trumpet gets in the way. And I'm hardly alone. I know people who refer to basketball, in conversation, as "b-ball." I have encountered, in the past year, men wearing 1986 Phil McConkey jerseys paired with -- this is where it crossed the line -- 1986 Phil McConkey mustaches. When he's our houseguest, my father reminds me every night to "tape the news," even though tape no longer exists and the news is on 24/7.
The point is, after a certain age, it's not just hard to keep up -- it's undesirable. Trying to keep up is the ultimate act of uncoolness. And so I still retrieve not one but two daily newspapers from the driveway. (And I wear a pair of Stan Smiths when getting them.) I still spread the sports section across the breakfast table like I'm MacArthur studying a map. (As for maps, I keep a box full of them in the basement, next to the fax machine, the Yellow Pages and the VCR.) I have literally yelled at kids to get off my lawn (but in fairness, they were my kids, and I was calling them into the house to help me navigate the interwebs).
But there's a bi-fold beauty in being uncool. For starters, if you stick with what you like -- Pabst Blue Ribbon, nylon Pumas and Scrabble -- it eventually comes back as an affected retro-hipster phenomenon.
More comforting still, sports provide the wonderful cover of irony, so that almost anything can be cool, if it's uncool enough. Are Tour golfers wearing white belts and salmon slacks as a wry joke, or with utter sincerity? Are the hairstyles on display in the English Premier League for real, or an elaborate put-on? White belts and fright perms are, in their own way, as squarely archaic as my e-mail address. Let him without AOL cast the first LOL.