Monday, November 16, 2015

Adventures in Hedonism – Pier Review

We visited our third pier this week, The Belmont Veterans Memorial Pier in Long Beach. Safely tucked behind the breakwater at length of 1,620 feet, it ties for 8th longest pier in California with the Ventura County Pier. Built in 1966 with concrete pilings it’s construction and location will probably keep this one safe despite its length.

This is my “home town” pier, but I rarely visit it. A "Y" shaped pier it ends with two branches stretching out and to the sides, allowing more space for seaward views and casting. While the Belmont Brewing Company sits at its base, the restaurant and boutique laden Belmont Shores are blocks to the north. One wonders if tearing down the breakwater and letting the waves roll through would make it a more attractive destination – though  of course more vulnerable to El Niño.

While piers will always attract fisherman, this pier feels more like a fisherman’s pier, complete with moorings and a dock. During summer months one can catch the AquaLink water taxi here, and visit other sights in the harbor like the Queen Mary, or Shoreline village.

Like other piers, the is a restaurant space at it’s end.  Signage announces “Buoy’s on the Pier,” but it last Yelp review was written in June of 2012. Apparently the space can still be rented for weddings or private events, but as a public venue it seems those days are gone for now.

The pier does afford nice views of the "Astronaut" Islands in Long Beach Harbor. Man-made oil platforms close to shore, they were designed and decorated to appear as resort destinations, landscaped, illuminated, complete with waterfalls. They used miniature plants and forced perspective to create the illusion that they were farther off to sea than they really were. White, Grissom, Chaffee, were named for Astronauts that lost their lives in the Apollo 1 accident.

So that's a total of three piers visited so far, with no major storms in the horizon. However, for those following along, the Sea Surface Temperature for this year's El Niño sustained a record anomaly of +3.0° above average for the week. This breaks the record set in 1997 - the last big pier-destroying El Niño year. Time will tell if this data point correlates with more damaging storms in the coming year. In the meantime, I'll be visiting more piers.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Adventures in Hedonism - Pier Review

Earlier this week we had our first thunderstorm of the season, no rain to speak of, but quite an evening light show. Watching the lightening flashes with my wife we couldn’t help but think about the fact that this was supposed to be an El Niño year. Immediately we started to reminisce about the El Niños of the past, the storms, the floods, the damage – and then in particular – the damage and destruction of certain piers. It seemed that each El Niño at least claimed one, if not more piers along the California coast.

So our quest was born, a desire to visit as many piers as we could before El Niño claimed any. By Thursday, finding ourselves in Orange County we visited our first piers, Balboa and Newport.

It’s perhaps fitting that we start out at the Balboa Pier, this was the destination of many a late night drive during my High School days – fire pits, the Balboa Theater with an ever-changing selection of vintage films as well as midnight showings of the Rocky Horror Picture show.

The best time to visit was an hour after beach closing  - the police and lifeguards long completed their sweep of drunks and Christian youth groups that clung to their claimed fire pit. Then, in the still and quiet of the night, you could lay with your sweetheart hidden behind the high-tide berm, listen to the waves against the pilings, and watch the moon sink behind the pier and into the sea.

Our visit was in the morning, and perhaps the most surprising thing we saw driving into the B-Street parking lot, was the huge bulldozed berm that stretched out perpendicular to the pier. Clearly other people had been contemplating the coming of El Niño and its potential to do damage to this beach peninsula.

At 920 feet it ranks about 22nd in length among California’s Piers. Originally built in 1906, this  nearly 110-year-old wooden pier would seem at high risk for potential damage.  In fact, it took a hit in the 1998 El Niño. Its pilings have since been reinforced with steel.

One of the main features of the Balboa Pier is that at its end it features the very first Ruby’s Dinner – so of course we stopped for breakfast. The pier is also popular for fishing. This creates an interesting juxtaposition of 50’s retro-dinner and oldies Rock and Roll against elderly fisherman reeling in their catch of mackerel while listening to Vietnamese pop music – all while various sea birds nervously look back and forth at you breakfast and the fishermen’s catch.

After Breakfast we headed up the peninsula to check out the Balboa Pier’s younger sister, the Newport Pier. At 1,322 feet, this pier rank 12th in length of California piers. Built in 1940, after it’s predecessor, McFadden Warf was destroyed in a Hurricane in 1939 (no doubt another El Niño event before we knew about El Niños), it also was refurbished in 2002 probably in hopes of preventing the type of damage the Balboa Pier sustained in 1998.

Perhaps one of the things that make the Newport Pier unique is the Dory Fish market located just to the right of the pier’s entrance. A beachside fishing cooperative, it sports an open-air fish market. Aside from the selection of fresh seafood is an abundant collection of seabirds, none of which who are timid among humans.

The Newport pier also sports a restaurant on its tip, but this one has been closed since 2012. The folks at the end of the pier said poor plumbing has kept the place vacant with neither city nor potential leasers wanting to foot the bill for the required repairs. Perhaps that’s some foreshadowing of this pier’s fate for the coming El Niño?

Our visit to the Newport Pier was made special by crystal clear waters that enabled us to watch a seal chase a school of anchovies around the pier’s pilings. A calm beautiful day, augmented with views of Catalina, and the Huntington Beach Pier to be visited sometime in the near future

There are over 30 piers in California that jut out into the Pacific Ocean. I’ve started cataloging them in a Google map, and will use this as a tool to guide my future “Pier Reviews.” My goal is to see as many as I can before El Niño takes any away. I’ve also included piers protected behind breakwaters, or safely tucked away in places like the San Francisco Bay, less likely to be damaged by the pounding surf, but who knows what storms and surges the year might bring.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Obstacles in Hedonism - Fear

To be an enlightened hedonist, one must engage in a process of exploration and discovery. One must uncover the things that are ultimately fulfilling. Those things are often unique to individual interests and not always obvious. There are no short cuts. In fact the surest way to disappointment is to follow someone else’s dreams thinking they are our own. Consequently, it helps to understand what obstacles may lay in the way of our own individual pursuits of happiness.

In my last post, I brought up the challenge of distractions, but there is another obstacle we create for ourselves, namely our fears. Sometimes it is obvious when our fears hold us back but sometimes they can be hidden.

In planning our pursuits we all have to confront our existential realities. Our environments, our social circumstances, and even the laws of science can limit just what we can do. Our fears though, play in to this existential calculus, acting as some other unchangeable reality that we just must accept – unfortunately sometimes we do.

For myself, I sometimes fear I might be “to old” for something, or the best time to do certain things may have already passed. This happens to me every year with Burning Man. It’s easy to listen to the critics that the event has “jumped the shark” while I secretly wonder if I could even survive the experience. So I miss it again, only to find myself another year older facing the same questions – not yet willing to give up wanting the experience, but also not willing to push through the fears and just do it.

I’ve been listening to the Invisibelia podcasts, and came across an excellent one dealing with fear, titled of course “fearless.” One of my take-aways was the fact that our fears are almost entirely out of sync with modern day living. They are remnants of our primordial fight or flight response.  As a result, our fears cause us to react way out of proportion to actual risk or threat. We would all benefit if we could be more fearless.

The podcast includes a story of a man who overcomes his irrational fear of rejection, by actively seeking three rejections a day.  He knows hearing “no” is nothing to be afraid of, so he asks people to do things he expects them to say “no” to – and they do (but perhaps not so surprisingly as much as he expected). With each “no” he gets, the irrational power of that fear diminishes.

It seems easy to intellectually deconstruct fears but quite another thing to overcome them. If I fear I am “too old” to do something, it’s easy to see how quickly it becomes self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps there are similar hacks to be found in naming fears, challenging them, and pursuing their imagined results. Is this not facing our fears?

If I fear failure, should I not pursue failure as a goal? Is this not the same as the phrase “in order to succeed you must first learn how to fail?" These are all such clichés, but maybe we have to keep hearing them in different ways just to sneak past the fears that hold us back.

Perhaps this is also why things like the laws of attraction and positive affirmations can work for some people. They don’t necessarily change the reality of one's circumstances but rather change their perspectives. They enable us to see what really is possible, by removing the things our fears have told us were impossible.

However we deal with our fears, its clear we must develop some tools and approaches for moving beyond them so we can continue to craft the life we find the most fulfilling.

Monday, February 16, 2015


I am currently reading Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit. In it she talks about barriers to the creative process, namely fears and distractions. To be sure these things create barriers for more than our creative lives, but focusing on distractions, I realized that these are particularly difficult for an enlightened hedonist.

Think about it, many of the distracting tasks we engage in, we do because they provide us with some amount of pleasure. Whether that’s the rush of getting a Facebook “like,” or just relaxing in front of the TV set. Little pleasures – isn’t that what hedonism is all about. If I enjoy watching TV and thus decide to spend my life watching it, isn’t that an application of hedonism as pure as it gets?

And I hesitantly have to answer, “yes, but…” And here is where I make that distinction on what makes one’s hedonism, “enlightened.” While truly you might experience pleasure from TV watching, couldn’t you do better than that? Would you look back and regret missing the other things you could have been doing?

Personally, I have to answer that I would not be satisfied with that life of just watching TV – the pleasure turning to disappointment. But here I also have to acknowledge that our decisions and journeys to living a fulfilling life are personal and subjective. Consequently, there may well be a person whose most fulfilling life is one sitting in front of the TV.

The calculus of hedonism is easy when you’re viewing it as a choice of pleasure over suffering, but more often than not; we are navigating our lives through choices of different pleasures. Enlightened Hedonism comes from a state of abundance  - survival is easy, fulfillment is more difficult.

With our lives on earth being finite and limited, each choice negates any alternate path. Distractions can be a dangerous seduction to a hedonist thus something to be mindful of.

For myself, most of my distractions come by way of LCD screens. Early on I knew I had to avoid video games. Playing the SIMS, 3AM rolled around and I realized I was more worried about my virtual character getting enough sleep than myself. Social Media is another distraction for me with the added seduction of creating the illusion of connecting with other people. I turn off most notifications, block certain feeds that I know will just annoy me, and try to limit my time in general. Still,  more often than not, I spend more time there than I would like.

But this is what it is to be an Enlightened Hedonist, to periodically question yourself and your desires, to take inventory, and make changes to suit your current circumstances. Its not enough to be experiencing smooth sailing; you have to ask yourself if you are you actually getting closer to your intended destination. While they still may be subjective, not all pleasures are equal. Distractions can be a sirens call to abandon your journey to experience the most fulfilling life. We must plot our course accordingly.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Circles in Time

Long before she passed, my mother gifted me a collection of 3x5 index cards, with at least one card for each day of the year. A prolific diarist, my mother had always filled her calendar books with notes about each day. These were not the sort of diary entries wrought with internal dialogue, emotional outpourings, or philosophical handwringing. Rather, they were simple one-line affairs, often remarking on the weather– were it particularly hot, cold, or stormy – but also including tidbits of events, births, deaths, or who she may have visited or called that day.

Eventually she transcribed these entries onto index cards, so as each day passed she would look at the card for the day, see the events that had happened on that same day years past, and make her new entry.

At some point she duplicated her cards for me, telling the story she had captured from my point of view; “dinner with Chris” in my mom’s version, became “dinner with mom.” I’ve had these cards for years and finally decided to make them a project of my own – to put them in some electronic format that I can read and follow along, and also update as my own days pass.

I too, have kept journals. Unlike my mother though, mine are full of haphazard exposition often written in deliberately obscure hand writing. An entry might include several pages of repetitive introspection followed by weeks, sometimes months, of blank pages. Yes I’ve filled volumes over the years, but they paint a timeline that is admittedly rather hard to follow.

Here is the brilliance of what my mother had created – while my journals assemble a sort of linear timeline one might expect in telling one’s story, my mom created a sort of circular, or spiral timeline, in which the past is revisited in regular intervals. In these cards a sort of rhythm is revealed. The spikes of activity in holidays and birthdays are evident and it becomes clear how these are events we normally use to anchor our memories.

In addition, I’ve found that my mom’s simple capture of the day’s events in a single sentence, can also be powerful triggers. As I recently flipped through the cards and saw the words “Dad is ill” I knew that was the day my father could no longer get out of bed, his brain tumor finally causing his immobility. That event forever changes the entire dynamics of our family from that point forward. Three words, no pages and pages of tearful resentments necessary.

I understand this is a code decipherable in many cases only by me. My First concert is recorded on May 19, 1979 as “to LA with friends to see Camelion and whiskey a gogo to see rock group” –my friends would refer to as the day of Cultural Suicide. It included seeing the play “Pygmalion” at the Music Center, the Movie Jubilee at the Nuart, and The Screamers at the Whiskey.

Then There’s February 8, 1984, “opening of winter Olympics in Jugoslavia” – Sure a historic event easily Googled, but for me this marked the start of a three week period of decadence with my soon to be wife eating chocolate, and downing shots of slivovitz anytime a medal was won, or a jump was landed. These simple sentences are memory seeds waiting to sprout and grow into full blown remembrances.

As this project continues I’m slowly learning my mother’s simplified methods of distilling a day into a sentence. I know I’m consciously trying to capture the things that will become my future memories, but I also wonder about those events whose significance only reveal themselves in time. Points in time, points on a circle. I’m enjoying this journey through my forgotten anniversaries.