Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Why Hedonism?

Recently, in articles about hedonism (yeah they exist, and yes I do read them), the term “eudemonia” keeps coming up. Usually it goes something like this:

“The Greek term eudemonia is often mistranslated to mean ‘happiness,’ when in reality it encompassed much more than happiness; more accurately the term refers to state of fulfillment…”

Inevitably, it is contrasted with “hedonism” already presumed to be “wrong” and consequently “lesser than” eudemonia:

“The pursuit of pleasure is merely hedonism, whereas true fulfillment and ‘eudemonia’ can only be obtained by…”

And here is where you fill in the blank with the author’s particular belief as to what truly provides happiness and fulfillment e.g. God, service to others, kindness, etc. But whatever the conclusion, hedonism is consistently regarded an inadequate pursuit to any right minded individual.

Epicurus - The Original Hedonist
Returning to the Greeks though, you’ll find the likes of Epicurus arguing that the path to eudemonia is through the pursuit of pleasure. So while the Greeks may have had these distinct terms, they didn't consider them mutually exclusive.

I know I can be loose with my terms of hedonism, pleasure, and the pursuit of happiness, but I guess my objective with this hedonism project it’s to achieve eudemonia – fulfillment – and yes, even enlightenment.
So why Hedonism, why use that term for my pursuit? Well, first off who wants to have to explain the term eudemonia every time you use it? Second, I think it actually better describes what I am doing in my approach – That is, once you get past the simplistic definitions of hedonism.

I think part of my hedonism is a reaction against asceticism – the notion that enlightenment comes to those who deny and overcome their desires. Whether through oaths of chastity or poverty, it seems widely accepted that eliminating these “distractions” of desire somehow enables a “purer” sense of being. I believe the Buddhists view desire as the source of suffering, and that to eliminate suffering one must naturally eliminate desire.
Buddha ultimately gave up the ascetic life,
but was he also a hedonist?

Now, the Buddhists may be right. This may well be the way to enlightenment (or Nirvana if you're a Buddhist).  Still I wonder if there might also be another path. This ascetic way of thinking seems like a byproduct of a culture of scarcity; the notion that most desires remain unsatisfied, or when fulfilled for one, necessitates their being denied to someone else. If I eat that slice of pie no one else gets that slice.

Hedonism, or enlightened hedonism as I’ve come to term it, instead comes from a culture of abundance. I’ve been clear that don’t think it’s a possible pursuit before one’s basic needs are met. But those are taken care of desires and pleasures fulfilled do not necessarily take away from the desires or pleasures of others. Actually they can be grown, shared, and increased with others through social interactions. Perhaps one can become enlightened by leading an ascetic life, but I think the same might be true for someone pursuing life as a connoisseur.

When people ordinarily use the term “hedonism,” I think “pleasure” is defined too simplistically -  that they all ultimately reduce down to getting wealthy, famous, or laid. Those desires have their place, but I think our desires are far more complex than that. More importantly they often are at odds with each other. To me, this is where their value lies. Confronting the contradictions in our desire force us to make those existential decisions that define who we are.

A quick example from last weeks’ cocktail quest – Champagne cocktail #3, a attempt to make a lemon based champagne cocktail. On the surface this doesn’t sound all that significant, but take a look at some of the desires that drove this quest:

Could a Failed Cocktail
Lead to Enlightenment?
  • A desire to improve my skills in mixology and the use of champagne
  • A desire Learn about Limoncello, a liquor I’ve never worked with
  •  A desire serve others by being a good host, providing good drink and entertainment
  • A desire to feed my own ego for receiving praise for what I thought would be a sure winner of a cocktail
  • A desire to be seen as an expert mixologist
  • A desire to simply enjoy the pleasurable buzz of a cocktail.

Now the cocktail was a failure. It was a drink whose parts were best enjoyed separately. So while I may have satisfied a few of the desires noted above, I also failed to satisfy some. Did I come out ahead in the decision to attempt this cocktail? I certainly learned something from the experiment, and what I learned will help me be a better mixologist in the future, and better satisfy those desires. Does that make me more enlightened? Or would I have been more enlightened to have not engaged in the experiment at all and just served my guests tap water or just ignored them altogether while I chanted in the next room? Yeah, enlightened or not I think the later would have just made me a pretentious prick.

It’s the decisions I make that define who I am, and I don’t think I can make authentic decisions without acknowledging my desires – all of them, the lazy ones, the self-conscious ones, the one’s that just want to get drunk, along with the one’s that want to share with others, and help satisfy their needs and desires. Heck, were I religious, I think the desire to serve God, would also have to be a hedonistic quest for it to be a sincere one.

Simply put, hedonism is my path to eudemonia – or at least the one I’ve chosen to follow.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Checking In - The Pursuit of Happiness

I’ve been engaging in a number of hedon inducing adventures lately, so I thought it time to check in and see the impact of these spikes of fun. Looking at my weekly mappiness, it seems that while still volatile, I hit an all time weekly high, crossing the 80% mark. Not bad. Now the question is, can I sustain it? Is there a hedon hangover in my future? What's a reasonable happiness level? All good questions - perhaps I'll even answer some as I continue this project.

Happiness on the rise, but can I sustain it?

In the meantime I came across this article in the Chicago Tribune (Study of happiness is great, but why am I still bummed out?) which gives me some additional hope for success in my endeavors. However it does start with an anecdote illustrating the maxim: The best way to be happy is not to think about whether you are happy. This, if true, destines my rational hedonism project here to failure. Fortunately, the article moves on to mention some interesting biological work going on in the study of happiness.

Buddha Brain or the Happiness Trap

There were a couple noteworthy references in the article that caught my eye: The first called out the work of Rick Hanson, author of “Buddha’s Brain.” He asserts that we can condition our brains to become “happiness traps,” by savoring our moments of pleasure and happiness. Perhaps this is a bit like positive affirmations. By repeating a statement you come to believe it, act on it, and ultimately become it. If that’s true, then perhaps my work here is actually a contributing factor to my increased happiness; I not only savor my happy moments, I also take time to relive hem a little in their retelling. Well, I certainly hope that is true.

The second reference was to  study that showed that people become happier after 50 – a milestone date that is fast approaching for me. The suggested reason for this, is that with age comes better managed expectations along with more moderate aspirations. I can certainly get behind better management of expectations as a contributing factor to ongoing happiness. However, that last part - moderate aspirations - seems to imply that perhaps we just grow content with our dullness. I hope I can avoid that fate, and keep doing fun and interesting things.

So is the pursuit of happiness a fools quest? Well, this fool plans to carry on a while longer,


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Adventures in Hedonism – Photo Shoot

On thing that tend to generate a lot of hedons for me, is to engage in creative projects. Recently, a friend proposed participating in a 30-day photo challenge – a photo a day on list of daily topics.

The Challenge that started it all - 8 days later

We started late but with a growing bunch of creative participants, the submissions have been fun and clever.

Day 1 - Self Portrait in Car Wash

While I started out just taking quick snaps from my cell phone, I’ve been having more and more fun, thinking of different ways to approach the topics, setting up shots, and playing with all those camera settings I usually ignore. Then there are those topics that inspire an adventure…

30 Day Photo Challenge – Day 4: Favorite color

Yeah, that has all the makings of a rather dull photo – find an object or two in your favorite color and take a pic. However, I have a certain specific  favorite color –it's blue, electric blue - specifically the electric blue of airport taxi lights. Now, I suppose I could have found a substitute. Blue reflectors are typically used to mark fire hydrant locations, squad cars sometimes have an electric blue in their flasher ensemble, and somewhere I think I still have my pair of electric blue spandex…

Many Years Ago in a Far Away Place - My Pants were Electric Blue

But I live in Long Beach; we have an airport here, and more importantly the vantage point of Signal Hill that should afford a nice view of the airport at night, so I should be able see all those electric blue taxi-ways.

Next thing I know I’m in the car with Lisa and the dogs headed for Signal Hill. We parked and headed down a service road to get a clear view of the airport through the tree line and I snapped my first pics.

View from Signal Hill - Tiny string of Blue Lights

Unfortunately, while I had a good view of the airport, those blues lights, even when concentrated in certain patches, comprised a small fraction of the total image. I tried several camera settings zooming in to where I could capture the most blue, but the results weren't that satisfactory. Even at the highest zoom, those lights but were dots on the horizon.

View from Signal Hill - better exposure but less Blue

I thought perhaps a time exposure would do, letting the blue bleed in intensity, but lacking a tripod, of any other good surface to keep my camera stationary I found I couldn’t keep a clear focus. Of course this was my first accidental discovery of how I might just capture that blue in the best light. The blur of my unsteady hand had an effect of painting with light, so now I started doing time exposures deliberately moving the camera in certain patterns to wash the blue over the image. I liked the effect, but now was wondering if somehow I could get closer to the runway.

View from Signal Hill - The less steady my hand, the more Blue

Back in the car and down the hill, we started a slow surveillance around the perimeter of the airport. The airport businesses obscured most of the sight lines, but we found a service entrance with just chain link and barbed wire, hardly a barrier for a camera. Out of the car and pressed against the fence I tried my luck again to capture a field of electric blue – all the while wondering how long before the Department of Homeland Security might come and shut me down for the night.

Best spot to take a picture - don't tell DHS
Planes so close you could almost touch them
Best not to linger...

We stopped at a few locations around the airport. I didn’t want to stay too long in one place, an while I got closer to the lights at the fence, I still liked the effect of painting with the time exposure. They were like a blend of electric Rothko and Pollock, with a little Kandinsky thrown in.

Looks a bit like a physics experiment

I see a shark in this one

I swear this one has electric blue monkeys line dancing

I was quite happy with my end product, happier still over the whole adventure or stalking the airport, and happy to play in this whole Photo Challenge. 

My Day 4 Submission

I hope there's more adventures to come, and hope if you haven't done so yet, that you take on this challenge and see what adventures it take you on.


Link to my 30-Day Album
Link to my out takes

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Champagne Cocktails

One of my favorite hedonistic indulgences lies in the art of mixology. In a former life I would have been an alchemist slaving away to make odd potions and distill interesting liquors. Today that translates into amassing a collection of odd liqueurs to mix, shake, stir, sip, and share. I love making a good cocktail as much as I love drinking one.

Death in Bohemia - Mata Hari Bohemian Absinthe and Brut Champagne

My recent adventure with Lucent Dossier and the classic Hemmingway “Death in the Afternoon” got me thinking about the possibilities of the champagne cocktail. I already quite fond of the “Bhura Peg, “ a champagne cocktail I stumbled upon in my favorite vintage cocktail book, the Gentleman’s Companion.

Here’s a copy I saw at the OC Fair, sadly my copy is a bit more worn from good use

The cocktail tail itself is simple, tasty, and quite beautiful. First dowse a sugar cube in bitters (I’ve come to prefer Peychaud for its color and brightness) and drop it into a champagne flute. Next add an ounce of cognac then top off with champagne. The cognac adds a delicious complexity to the champagne, and it’s a delight to watch the ruby tinted sugar cube slowly dissolve amidst the bubbles.

The only problem in experimenting with champagne as a medium is that once a bottle is open you pretty much have to use it up – and the sooner the better. Nobody wants flat champagne. That pretty much means, I won’t experiment much with champagne on my own. While I could probably drink a bottle, the addition of any other brandy or liqueur into the mix, quickly reduces my aesthetic sensibilities.

However, last weekend we had several people over for a “craft” day – sewing, knitting, writing, and in my case cocktailing. With such a group, I could easily conduct several champagne cocktail experiments and get some feedback as well.

First on the drawing board, I wanted to see if I could make a Champagne version of a rather potent aloha punch I made for a luau themed party earlier this year. My guests loved it, but it seemed a bit too potent and deceptively so. It relied heavily on rum and pineapple juice, so I started with that as a base thinking the champagne would lighten it up and just make it sparkle. Unfortunately the flavor seemed a bit muddy with just the rum, so I reach for a Heering Cherry to brighten it up.

Champagne Cocktail #2 - Cherry Heering, Pineapple Juice, Champagne & Peychaud Bitters

I’d never used this before, II searched rather unsuccessfully for it last year to make an authentic Singapore sling so when I recently came across a bottle I snatched it instantly. I was sort of expecting some sort of sweet bright cherry flavor, but this liqueur has a deep dark almost black color with a thick deep rich cherry flavor. Its addition dramatically improved the cocktail, providing a better depth and blending of flavor. Except now it became obvious that the problem with this drink was the rum. This lead immediately to my next experiment, Champagne Cocktail #2

This was a simple concoction of ½ oz Heering Cherry, 1 oz Pineapple Juice, Champagne and a dash of peychaud to dot the foam. The result, a perfect sweet summer cocktail, fruity and flavorful. This was definitely the favorite among the afternoon’s crafters. I poured everyone a round and kept refreshing this one throughout the day

My success with the cherry Liqueur lead me to try another fruit, some citrus perhaps? So I pulled out some limoncello. Now, I didn’t want to bury the lemon flavor in any other fruit juice, so I tried a ½ oz with just champagne, but the flavor was buried, so I bumped it to a full oz, but still the flavors were fighting. Perhaps if I had used a brighter, extra dry champagne it may have worked, but with the Brut I had it didn’t get better than mediocre. Frankly the combination did nothing for either the Champagne or the limoncello

Champagne Cocktail #3 - Even the color is mediocre

I decided to go back to tradition and go with a brandy variation and try some B&B. I figured the sweetness of the Bénédictine would alleviate the need for any sugar, so I tried just a straight oz of B&B followed with champagne. The result was rather good, the herbal flavors of the B&B added some depth to the champagne, complimenting it, playing off the champagne’s tartness. Champagne cocktail #2 was still the preferred drink our guests, but I had least one taker of this variation, and I added it to my book.

Champagne Cocktail #4 - B&B, Champagne & Bitters - One for the book

Now with plenty of open champagne and satisfied crafters around me, I decided to revisit my inspiration for this day and try a couple absinthe variations for a little death in the afternoon. 

I started with the Mata Hari for a bohemian death.  Mata Hari is a bohemian style absinthe – with less or no anis/fennel (the stuff that provides the licorice flavor) and more wormwood (the stuff that contains the once feared and maligned “psychoactive” thujone). Generally bohemian style absinthe is panned by most absinthe connoisseurs as a dumbed down variation, especially as it often lacks the “louche” (the milky transformation absinthe takes when water is added).  The Mata Hari produced a satisfying louche with the champagne and certainly was bitter, bitter yet refreshing.  I knew this would be a hard sell for many, but it set me contemplating that other bitter liqueur, Campari and the possibility of a sparkling negroni for future experimentation.

 la Mort Suisse - AKA "Death in the Afternoon"  Swiss Style
Sticking with absinthe though, I pulled out my more traditional Swiss absinthe, Kübler, for la Mort Suisse. I think this actually paired better – anis, fennel and all. The effervescence of the champagne perfumed the air around me with the scent of licorice, and the drink itself -  Like drinking sparkling Good & Plenty. Of course that conjured more thoughts of childhood than death, making the whole “death in the afternoon” appellation seem a bit overwrought. Still a treat to keep in mind for the non–licorice averse, but probably not the party beverage of choice.

All in all a successful afternoon with 2 new cocktails to add to my book, and some new ingredients to play with later.

So what cocktails have you been experimenting with? Have you had any luck working with Champagne? Do tell how your hedonistic pursuits are going.


Friday, August 5, 2011

Adventures in Hedonism – Lucent Dossier Experience

Lucent Dossier at the Palace - Photo by Luiz  Tuazon
Last Thursday I had the pleasure of attending Lucent Dossier’s reopening of the Palace Theatre in downtown LA.  When the show was announced, I knew I had to go. I’ve been following this troop of artists ever since I stumbled upon a performance of theirs at Coachella in 2004. When I saw them there again in 2005 they became my must see act – and the secret compelling reason to bring me back to Coachella every year. I had fallen in love, and so I warn you right now, this will not be a review of the night’s entertainments, but rather a love letter.

To simply see Lucent Dossier perform is to miss the point. To be sure their shows are exceptional, but you would be missing out on what truly is a total “experience.” In the past, I’ve climbed into a non-descript van on a rainy night to be taken to their temple, I’ve danced with them, tasted potions, posed for pictures, had my fortune told – I’ve even had my feet washed in rose water. Is it any wonder I stand so seduced? Or that I could not expect the most hedonistic of experiences?

I assure you, I was not disappointed. We arrived a bit later than I hoped – knowing there’s plenty show going on before the official 8:30 showtime. However, It appeared many others did the same, some ninety percent of the theater’s 1,000 person capacity seemed to be lining the block like a 1977 showing of Star Wars. We had a moment of despair as we hiked down the block to the end of the line, but once there it was clear Lucent was already bringing the show the street, entertaining us with a stilt walker, operatic announcements, and a whip wielding dominatrix to keep us all in line.

And this is the magic of Lucent Dossier, they cannot be confined to theater or stage. Lucent's performers also possess multiple creative talents, dancer, clown, soothsayer, masseuse, chanteuse, aerialist, photographer, painter, sculptor, poet - I don't know any of them limited to one single talent, they all shine in so many ways.

And so as I got to the theater, I treated myself to a Lucent cocktail, “Death in the Afternoon,” an old Hemingway favorite being a sort of Absinthe based champagne cocktail. It was a perfect accompaniment to the night and caused me to contemplate some other possible Champagne cocktail variations that I’d like to try out as I further refine my mixology inspired hedonism - stay tuned.

We settled in upstairs to see Very TALL Paul complete his act, and the two acts of Lucent Dossier’s main event, Act 1 - Showacide - Island of Lost Toys and Act 2 - Android Lover - Invasion of Love. We were in the balcony this time around, quite a change for us, as we usually position ourselves up front to elbow it out with the photographers (sorry about that Curious Josh, et al.). I missed the ability to give our favorite dancers a wink and a smile, but this time I got to be eye to eye with the aerialists.

The show itself? Fun, sexy, beautiful - the pyro elements had me at the edge of my seat – fire in a hundred year old theater? It seems no one so much as lights a cigarette on stage anymore – but words are useless to describe the experience, a long string of superlatives desperately trying to capture the right kind of awe, wonder, and desire. Instead follow the links below to see a few sites that captured better images of the evening. Of course, I must also administer the disclaimer that the images satisfy but one of the senses tantalized this evening.

As the formal “show” wound down, the “experience” was already in full swing. After thanking both audience and performer and before leaving the stage Dream Rockwell, Lucent’s fearless leader, dancer, choreographer, chanteuse... brought on DJ, Imagika, who immediately started spinning and set the dance party going. Our hips swayed their way through the tribal cumbia on our way to say our hellos and thank Ringmaster Roger, one of our favorites in the Lucent family – dancer, choreographer, photographer – did I mention that everyone in Lucent Dossier sports a multitude of talents?

DJ Imagika

My next destination for the evening was a visit to the Oracle (also dancer, chanteuse, artist...). Mind you, I’m a skeptic, but a skeptic that loves to pull out a deck of Tarot cards and give readings of my own. I have my own ideas on perception, and find that we say so much with our bodies, non-verbally, that often someone with the right kinesthetic sensibilities can easily come across as psychic. I think this is partly why I love to see dance so much, the primal wordless communication often reveals to me an almost omniscient wisdom. And again, as a hedonist having already satisfied the five usual senses, how could I pass up a visit to the Oracle and have a taste of the 6th?

The Oracle had me pull three stones, representing:
1) My present state – Transformation
2) My “call to action” – Lucent
3) My future state – Surrender
My Reading

The first is an easy read. The second was a call for me to let myself “shine” and be a star. The third was the most interesting to me. Surrender, but not in the sense of giving up and being defeated – rather in the sense of ceasing my own internal resistance and letting myself go. That’s a bit of a paradigm shift for me and a welcome bit of contemplation as I continue on my exploration of how I can live a happier, more fulfilling life as an enlightened hedonist.

Thank you Lucent Oracle.

The Oracle - Photo by Eleonora Barna 
While we didn’t stay till the 3AM close, we did spend some time in the basement Listening Lounge.  I sipped another Absinthe cocktail while Very Tall Paul pumped out one-man renditions of Spooky, Moonlight, and Billy Jean, as other lucent performers stopped by to dance and play.

Hanging out at the Listening Lounge

We had one last visit to make, our friend Risa who we met at a Lucent workshop a couple years ago, herself an aspiring performer, dancer, choreographer, and aerialist. In addition to those talents, she’s also quite the baker / connectionist and had offered us some vegan snickerdoodles, after all the other pleasures already encountered that evening, they were the perfect pallet pleasing dessert to conclude our hedonist adventure – exhausted, satisfied, and inspired.

Of course, my wife, Lisa also picked up some Harlot Hand Soaps, on her way out,which she has left in my car. Now every morning as I go to work, or drive off on another errand, I'm greeted by these hand-crafted scents and the pleasures of the evening continue to flood my memories. That, is hedonism at it's best.


Your Happy Hedonist - Photo by Eleonora Barna

Some important links for further study:
Lucent Dossier Experience Website
Lucent Dossier Experience Facebook Page - go ahead and "like" it

Review & Pictures on China Shop
Review & Pictures on Huffington Post
Review & Pictures on LA Music Blog

Awesome pictures of the event and after party by Lucent performer, photographer, Eleonora Barna
More awesome pictures from Phil Holland

Zbook - Very cool collaborative art project connected with Lucent's Oracle, Ceci Castelblanco

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Measuring Happiness

So on the surface it seems like an impossible task, measuring happiness – how can something so subject have any sort of objective metrics applied to it? Of course, this goes on all the time, and while I may joke about “hedons,” (a single unit of pleasure) there are some very real and interesting measurements one can make. Take in point this great graphic that FourSquare  put out in honor of reaching 10 million users.

They mapped the happiness of these the major metropolitan areas by assigning value to reported status from “Awesome” at the happiest end to “WTF” at the bottom, so it’s interesting to see where these “happiness clusters” end up – Manhattan’s looking pretty good. Of course the Disneyphile in me wishes they would have included the greater Anaheim area in this collection to see if it was true that Disneyland is the happiest place on earth.

In the realm of measuring happiness, there’s been some interesting work over at the London School of Economics.To oversimplify and summarize, they are exploring the question of what public and economic policy can lead to happier citizens. In their latest attempt to capture data and test some hypothesis they release an iPhone app called Mappiness

As a self-professed rational and enlightened hedonist, I naturally downloaded it as soon as I discovered it. The app pings you at least twice a day and asks you to report how happy, relaxed, and tired you are (as measured on a sliding scale). It goes on the query where you are, who you’re with, and what it is you’re doing. Oh and occasionally asks you to take a picture. After you’ve used this app for a while you can download the information and see what interesting things it might reveal about your own happiness.

So, in my case I can answer my FourSquare question at least for myself and see that compared to other places I’ve been this year, Disneyland ranks pretty happy (Green)  – the hospital and hospice where my mom spent her last days, not so much (Orange & Red).

That’s sort of a “d’uh” realization as is the fact that I seem to be happiest on the weekend:

Or that I’m Happier at home than at work:

And perhaps you could even say that about my happiness over time:

In which you can see the obvious dip surrounding the illness and death of my mother earlier in the year. But then again, it does show me on an upward trend and over time should at least capture if in my self reporting I actually am getting any happier, or just staying at the status quo.

Mappiness itself cautions against reading too much into these charts, but it does create a benchmark of sorts and so for the time being I hope to play around more with this tool and check in from time to time to see how I’m doing. With any luck, we’re all trending to happier times.