Arthur “the Fonz” Fonzarelli, was the coolest person to never live. Nothing affected him. He was handy. He knew how to fight. He rode a motorcycle. Men wanted to be him. Women wanted to be with him.
Most of my life, on the other hand, has been decidedly un-Fonzie-like. I have historically been hypersensitive, copping quick resentments and easily falling into depressive states. I have been pretty inept with tools for most of my life. I didn’t (and don’t) know how to fight. I owned a motorcycle, but it was crashed in a very un-Fonziesque manner. I have had trouble earning the admiration of men. I have had greater difficulty getting the attention of women.
This lack of inherent Fonzieness didn’t extinguish my ambition to be like the Fonz. To be cool has been a principle aim for much of my life, often at the extreme detriment to my happiness.
The trouble with being cool is it has made me inflexible. Cool is an ideology—i.e. a way of behaving driven by an idea. In my case, the idea that Fonzie knew the answer. And when you’re an ideologue, you have trouble stepping out of that idea. Acting within the ideology of cool, I couldn’t be a dork or a whiner or whatever a situation might dictate, even when to do so would save my life.
Death of Cool
One night when I was eighteen, while tripping on mushrooms, I decided it’d be cool to ride my bike around the world. The trip was meant to be an excursion of self-discovery: me, my bicycle, the open road, reflections, exotic landscapes, new people and (as coolness insurance) a sheet of LSD.
After negligible planning, I arrived New Zealand, where I planned to prime myself for Australia and then who knew—Southeast Asia, India, Eurasia, Europe, across the US, back home to Colorado, the return of the prodigal. I knew the trip would be epic—me and the elements, duking it out on lone highways. I would get my meals from friendly families along the way. I would do the Fonz proud by sleeping with the teenage daughters of those families. The trip would show me and the world what I was made of.
Unfortunately, the trip did show me what I was made of: 34% depression, 51% fear and 15% addiction. No families invited me into their homes because people don’t like spending time with unhappy people. No women offered themselves to me. I duked it out with the elements and New Zealand’s incessant rain delivered a decisive knock out. My primary reflection was that I was miserable and life sucked.
The one bright spot of the trip was a fellow bike tourer I met named Paul. I would later realize he was the first happy person I’d ever spent time with. Which is not to say that I briefly met other happy people, but never I never spent more than an hour or two with them.
After spending two weeks riding with Paul, I realized he was unlike anyone I’d ever met. He never complained. When it rained, he put on a jacket. If he was hungry, he ate or found food. He was friendly to strangers. Strangers were friendly to him. He liked his job, his girlfriend, his friends, his life. He was in excellent physical health. He played guitar and piano. He composted.
Paul also wasn’t a TV character. Whereas the Fonz presented an ideal dependent on twenty-two minute framing, Paul was the real deal. Paul, while not necessarily the embodiment of cool, was happy, and I was beginning to suspect that was just as important as coolness.
Paul’s happiness didn’t bleed onto me unfortunately. After six miserable weeks in New Zealand, drenched, lonely, burned out on acid, withdrawing from the absence of my normal hourly uptake of marijuana, bereft of self-discovery, I returned home broken, uncool.
I spent a few months languishing in my folks’ basement when I got back (full disclosure: it was a pretty nice basement). My daily routine consisted of getting high every waking moment, riding my bike, running, lifting weights, making chimichangas and watching hours of reruns such as Charles in Charge (perhaps a subconscious plea to Scott Baio for help). After three months of this, I was in great physical shape and as depressed as I’d ever been in my pretty depressed life.
Out of this emotional cesspool emerged an opening—a moment of clarity as they say. Paul had planted the idea that happiness was not something relegated to sit-coms. And while I had thought I knew the way to happiness—one part leather jacket, two parts thumbs—maybe I didn’t know. Maybe looking to Happy Days to learn how to have happy days was a faulty strategy. Maybe I had to ask a real, live happy person how to do it.
Since Paul didn’t live near my Boulder, Colorado home, the first place I thought to look for happiness was spirituality. Boulder is a hub of new age spirituality. While lame, spiritual folks always seemed content. I’d always excluded spirituality as an option because of family-derived prejudice. In my household, one of the least cool things you could do was be spiritual. My dad was raised in a politically communistic, culturally Jewish household. If religion was the opiate for the masses, he taught me to just say no. Mom was a lapsed nun who never uttered a word about God, religion or any spiritual matter. I inferred from them that to be spiritual meant being stupid, and stupid is always uncool.
But I was in a bind: I was so unhappy and out of resources. I traveled and that didn’t help. I couldn’t get a job. I was too socially awkward and stoned to meet a woman who might fix me. I lacked the decisiveness to kill myself. Spirituality seemed like my only option.
The trouble was, I had no idea what spiritual meant. My best guess came from a copy of “Be Here Now” my mom gave me around that time. Ram Dass had me going for the first part of the book, but then things got weird, so I watched an episode of Quantum Leap instead.
Then I came across a Transcendental Meditation™ store on Boulder’s walking mall. It seemed like a good intro to spirituality: they would teach me how to perform their patented form of meditation (something involving the word “om”); they would line up my inner vibrations; and I would find peace. Unfortunately, inner peace required $800 I didn’t have.
After being rebuffed by my dad for a loan, he referred me to a friend of his who was into some type of meditation thing called Siddha Yoga. I knew nothing about it except that it was free. I couldn’t go soon enough.
I went to their center that was in a seventies-era office complex. I got the lowdown: Siddha was a tradition rooted in Hindu beliefs and practices; they had a guru named Gurumayi and she had a guru named Muktananda (there was a lot of emphasis on gurus). We sang strange Sanskrit chants and we meditated quietly in an incense-filled room and we read the books by the gurus. When I got home I chanted and meditated and read some more. It was all very un-Fonzie-like.
A month into this way of life I was fucking out of my mind with joy. I knew peace. I had found God. I stopped smoking weed without trying. A lifelong insomniac, I began sleeping deep and easily. Always socially awkward, I started making friends easily.
For a few months, I would attend the Siddha center twice a week. I meditated and chanted twice daily. I began doing hatha yoga. I baked bread for my folks in my free time.
Then something got to me: the desire to be cool. Siddha Yoga wasn’t cool. Perhaps I should have acknowledged the profound lack of coolness of my previous life: doing bong-hits alone in my folks basement at 3AM, eating dry granola and watching Webster. Instead, on some level, I was thinking, “The Fonz didn’t need to meditate. The Fonz certainly didn’t need help. And if I’m so enlightened, where are the chicks?”
The Siddha community was pretty uncool too. They were older and had the annoying affect of the happy—like Tony Robbins without the booming voice and gesticulations. And then there was the uncoolest thing about Siddha Yoga: pictures of the guru’s feet. They were everywhere. I suppose it was some sort of devotional thing, but I never asked because it was just too weird.
A few months after starting my yogic period, rather than staying in Boulder to establish a spiritual foundation, I decided to take a job in Alaska at a resort. I was out of money and thought the move would be cool: living in the wilderness (or employee housing in the wilderness), fleeing bears, communing with nature, meeting new people. The situation started well for me, still warm from the embers my spiritual fire. Despite the party atmosphere of my new digs, I kept up my chanting, prayer and meditation routine. I still slept easily and met new friends effortlessly. But soon the embers were soon snuffed out.
Most of my coworkers were burnouts, scraggly itinerant workers who boozed their way from one seasonal job to the next. One of them made the seemingly benign offer of some marijuana. To refuse a smoke-out epitomized uncool.
I soon became too groggy to meditate. At the cafe where I worked we started stealing beer. Before long, I was drinking and getting high every day, shacked up in my dorm, repelling my new friends with my old depression, immune to the charms of nature much less meditation. When I got to Alaska, I was blissed out, chanting and praying daily. Eventually, these activities seemed like a stupid faze I went through.
I returned to Boulder that fall unhappy, restless and not much cooler.
Shortly after my return, I went to upstate New York where I had a longstanding date with the guru. Part of Siddha Yoga’s path requires getting blessed by the guru. They call it shaktipat, which they say unlocks your kundalini life-force. Baked in Alaska, sliding back into depression, I held onto the idea that perhaps the shitty direction my life was taking could be rectified by unblocking my kundalini. All I needed was to be shaktipat-ed back to sanity.
I went to the ashram. I met many nice, happy people. The guru waived a feather on my shoulders. Nothing noticeable changed. I decided to my return to chasing the cool dragon. As usual, traveling would be my agency. It embodied the Fonzian ideals of independence, adventure and romantic possibility (though my virginity would have surely displeased Fonzie).
I decided I would dovetail travel and pseudo-spirituality. I would connect with my roots in the Middle East. Both my father and grandfather had spent time in Israel working on Kibbutzim. I thought perhaps I’d get some insight as to who I was. It also sounded far more romantic than a pilgrimage to my suburban Chicago birthplace. The trip would corresponded with many foolish notions derived from TV or movies.
Right before leaving, I watched Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (the one where he goes to Egypt). I was drinking vodka siphoned from my parents liquor stash while I watched it. As I got drunker, I began to feel my fraternity with Jones—we were both scholars, adventurers, lovers, seekers of knowledge. Though I had never produced anything, nor had any tangible feats to my name, I imagined that one day people would know my greatness.
This boozy grandiosity obscured the fact that I was a lost nineteen year old, holding myself against a standard that could never be realized. A fact that descended on me when my buzz-kill parents returned home early to find their son alone and drunk in their living room.
The trip didn’t go so well. I got scammed in Cairo, ending up with reams of papyrus and overpriced, seed-strewn packets of weed. I found myself on a perpetual hunt for booze, a scarce commodity in a Muslim country. When I got to Israel, I didn’t connect with my roots, I just found that I didn’t like communal living. I eventually got kicked off the Kibbutz after a debacle stemming from the twenty shekel (about $6) liters of vodka I was drinking every day.
Once again, I returned home broken and uncool.
When I got back, I somehow met a girl and lost my virginity, which was cool. I decided to follow her to school. She dumped me, but I decided to stay in school anyway, throwing myself into my studies (in later episodes, even Fonzie returned to school, taking night courses to obtain his high school diploma).
After my first semester, not content with being a good student, I concocted one of my coolest ideas yet: I would ride my bicycle solo across the US. If that didn’t make me cool, if that couldn’t facilitate self-realization, if that couldn’t get me more action with women, I didn’t know what would.
It was not enough for me to ride across country—I had to start in Colorado, then ride to Seattle, then ride to Portland, Maine. I rode all day, every day. What moments I wasn’t riding I was eating. And while riding and eating, most every moment was pervaded by misery. Once again, no one invited me into their home, no women offered themselves up. The only time I found any relief from my unhappiness came in extreme situations—ironically, plowing over a Cascade mountain pass in freezing rain, I couldn’t pay attention to how much my life sucked.
After a two-and-a-half month ride, I returned not having not realized self and not feeling appreciably cooler.
I thought perhaps it was my methodology that kept me from coolness. Somewhere along the line, maybe influenced by my yogic trip or time with Paul, I had developed a crunchy, adventurer paradigm of coolness. But I still wasn’t getting the attention of women or the admiration of men. I still felt uncool.
I decided I would return to my roots, transforming myself into the lovechild of the Fonz and Jim Morrison. Cool, but alcoholically so. I got a motorcycle, a leather jacket, drank bourbon, went out every night, slept around, wrote poetry. I was starting to feel cool.
My coolness crashed out April 4th, 1998. After the cops tried to pull me over for rolling through a red light, I fled, not eager to have them tell me that bourbon and bikes don’t mix. A couple miles later, the cops were handcuffing me to a stretcher after crashing my bike going eighty miles-per-hour. Cool, perhaps. Poetic, maybe. Fun, definitely not.
My cool, poetic existence didn’t stop there. My sleeping around led me to picking up a girlfriend with a heroin addiction. We were Boulder’s arhythmic Sid and Nancy.
Then I got arrested again for running from the cops. This time I was pissing in an alleyway. The cops hailed me and I bolted, and a few minutes later I was being handcuffed to a stretcher again after being tackled and forced into a pavement smooch session.
Through it all I thought I was a rockstar (albeit one without music or talent). But life was getting desperate. I could hardly get out of bed in the morning. The junky girlfriend drank all my hooch and was somewhat emotionally erratic. I couldn’t walk for a few months after the motorcycle accident. The arrests and courts were a nuisance.
Maybe I should have looked closer at the guru’s feet.
In the spring of 1999, I decided to ride my bike around Europe, swashbuckling my way through the continent, breaking hearts and spreading American coolness. But after a couple years of continuous boozing, biking was near impossible. I’d ride for a bit, stall out somewhere to get loaded, throw my bike on a train, arrive in a new city stinking of cheap Scotch and pretensions of imagined former glory.
After a month of this, I arrived in Munich, which turned out to be a bit of a drinking town. Following a night of hanging out with some frat guys at the Hofbräuhaus, I woke up destroyed. I tried to wash away the night with a half-liter of beer for breakfast. Nothing. I had another. Nothing. I was exhausted. I thought about Paul. I thought about my experiences with Siddha Yoga. What happened?
The barriers to happiness often seem more aesthetic than technical: we know what to do, but we are bound by aesthetic ideologies that prevent us from doing those things. My ideology was cool and cool people don’t ask for help—they certainly don’t carry pictures of anyone’s feet.
There are many other ideologies people subscribe to: sexy, industrious, independent, studious, pious, righteous, wealthy, whatever. We do these things because we’ve conflated them with happiness. But they are usually conceptions of happiness rooted in fantasy and reaction, not experience. I wanted to be cool like the Fonz, because the Fonz got what he wanted—he got respect and attention. Because I felt disrespected and ignored, and because I assumed that those were the things in the way of my happiness, I assumed that if I were like the Fonz all would be well. I would be happy. The reality is I just wanted to love and be loved. The reality is that I yearned for inner peace. The reality was these things had nothing to do with being cool. The reality was I was far happier hanging out with a bunch of middle-age, incense-burning guru-worshippers than riding around on a motorcycle like the Fonz. The reality was that Fonzie was a fictional character.
Unfortunately, we let go of these ideologies primarily when we are shattered by pain like I was after New Zealand or sitting there in Munich’s Marienplatz. Of the latter situation, I was able to let go of cool for a while. I was wrecked. I went home, cleaned up and got help. And even though I’ve made numerous attempts at regaining my cool since then, the efforts have been far less strident. I’m not as tough or faithful as I used to be.
Probably the greatest prohibition on happiness is having any fixed idea of what will bring us happiness outside of direct experience. All ideologies are static and dead. The finest aesthetic can deceive. We must evaluate on a moment-to-moment basis whether something—a behavior, a view, an action, etc.—does or does not generate happiness, free from our need for things to look a particular way, free from our need to produce a particular result, free from preconceptions, free from fantastic ideals derived from sitcom characters. Until we do so, we will forever run from happiness in pursuit of an idea.