Television

Foxified Culture: Incurable Optimist Michael J. Fox

How can I start an honest discussion about what Fox has meant to me? How can I pull him apart from my 28 years of experience in this world?

“Hope is optimism informed by knowledge.”

-- Christopher Reeve

For all my witticisms, for all my analysis of the cultural icon Michael J. Fox had become, his evolution from acting heartthrob to stem cell research activist to author and family man, and now reflecting on what his life has meant to me and how I might react to the tragic news of his death, I can’t help but fall speechless, neither a witty remark nor a smarmy pun to save my life. (Well, there’s a small one, but I’ll need humor to get through this article.)

Silence is perhaps the start, because however much I try to imagine that lackluster world, I always hit an almost insurmountable mental brick wall, lost at the shoreline of my vague emotions, like awaking in a dark, unfamiliar room, suddenly possessed by existential despair, no idea where the switch waits to light the way into the future. Silence offers a chance to think, to process. Silence gives us the opportunity to accept these celebrity tragedies, to grieve for a moment before we pull ourselves from the bed of depression and conquer the new day. Just as Fox writes about his experience waking each morning in his newest memoir Always Looking Up:

At the turn from our bedroom into the hallway, there is an old full-length mirror in a wooden frame. I can’t help but catch a glimpse of myself as I pass. Turning fully toward the glass, I consider what I see. This reflected version of myself, wet, shaking, rumpled, pinched, and slightly stooped, would be alarming were it not for the self-satisfied expression pasted across my face. I would ask the obvious question, “What are you smiling about?” but I already know the answer: “It just gets better from here.”

It’s that optimism, that smile that I will remember, mourn, and emulate (or at least try to emulate). Unfortunately, this piece isn’t about silence; it’s about Michael J. Fox, or more accurately, how Fox has been somehow woven into the fabric of this writer outside the spotlight named Justin Dimos. How can I start an honest discussion about what Fox has meant to me? How can I pull him apart from my 28 years of experience in this world? (He isn’t just an appendage of mine that I can study and somehow rationalize on a therapist’s couch after all.) And more to the point, how can I hope to imagine a world -- even my small world -- without him, especially now that he’s planted the seed of modern optimism and brave scientific innovation is so many of us 20-something folks who have watched him blossom over the decades?

After much silence -- and staring at my blank computer screen for hours, unable to articulate the reasons why I’ve invested so much emotion is this public figure named Michael J. Fox, a man whom I’ve never met in person, a man I will probably never meet face-to-face -- there comes only possibilities. There are no answers, no quick logical fixes to the mourning I know will suddenly surge to the surface when I hear the NPR announcement of his death one morning, but only misty, fragmented possibilities that will inevitably contribute to my quiet desperation; and though I don’t myself suffer from Parkinson’s, I’m positive that my friends and family will happen upon me and notice the “mask face” I can’t seem to budge, a bradykinesia of the heart.

* * *

“I wish people would love everybody else the way they love me. It would be a better world.”

-- Muhammad Ali

Perhaps you could attribute this celebrity attachment of mine to Fox’s presence throughout my lifetime. Though I can’t seem to remember much from my childhood, what I can remember are countless afternoons at my grandmother’s house, my brother and I huddled around the television watching reruns of Family Ties, Alex P. Keaton somehow connecting with family as he attempted yet another get-rich-quick scheme, usually (and often satirically) involving the republican party. I can remember watching Marty McFly charging the time circuits of the flux capacitor and driving his DeLorean back to 1955 as Doc Brown is gunned down, my parents prattling on about Christopher Llyod, all the while mesmerized by Fox’s charisma -- I was just a kid back then after all. Let’s not forget about Teen Wolf (1985) and Doc Hollywood (1991) and The Frighteners (1996) and Spin City (1996–2000) and the dozen other movies and television shows that kept him constantly present in my daily existence (at least cinematically).

Thing is, I never once considered how his death would affect me back then. Even while my parents mourned the deaths of celebrities like James Cagney (1986) and Frank Sinatra (1998) as I was graduating high school, my idols weren’t the same, and I was far too young to bolster my emotions for their inevitable demise. Yet now, as I read and research more about Fox’s life achievements for this article, I find myself reminiscing about those cult classics that acted as markers in my life: basketball tryouts after watching Teen Wolf or that first date with an ex-girlfriend watching For Love or Money. Logically, I know Fox didn’t intentionally mean to punctuate the chapters of my life -- why would he? -- but since he moved to Los Angeles at 18 (before graduating high school even), found an agent, and landed his infamous television gig, he’s somehow acted as a kind of pop cultural guardian angel, lifting my spirits with his seemingly overzealous, keen acting ability.

* * *

“Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever.”

-- Lance Armstrong

And perhaps my connection to Fox can be attributed to how impressed I’ve been by the fortitude with which he’s made his decisions, too. One minute an actor drowning in a drinking problem, the next a sober, loving father and husband -- he has never whined or complained about the cards he’s been dealt. He simply accepts his responsibilities and adjusts his life accordingly, and how many times I’ve skirted such hard decisions, instead choosing the path of least resistance? How many times have I envied Fox’s determination?

Especially now! Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, his brain sporadically electrifying his nerves, jumpstarting his limbs uncontrollably, he manages a smile; he continues to make guest appearances on shows like Scrubs and Rescue Me; he had become a superb example of husbandry and fatherhood despite his disease (and maybe because of his disease); and he’s even published two memoirs now, both of which have proven themselves to be two of the most honest, sincere, and inspirational books I’ve ever read (and I’ve read thousands of books!).

Personally speaking, just the idea of continuing ahead with my life as I struggle with a degenerative disease (say Alzheimer’s, for example) terrifies me. Part of myself constantly slipping away, forever lost, who wouldn’t be terrified? And yet Fox proceeds forward, unashamed, writing about his devotion to human development in Always Looking Up, neither flaunting nor denying his condition. Interview after interview, democratic commercial after commercial, he refuses to hide behind his Parkinson’s, but rather continues to educate and work towards a practical cure. How can you not love him?

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