A good head on my shul-ders.

Just For Laughs is about to begin and thrust my life into chaos. For a basis of comparison, where’s my life at now? Is it any more stable?

Of course not. That was a bullshit premise concocted in order to excuse any bollocks I wrote afterwards. For some reason this morning a memory popped into my head. It was high school. I was running for deputy head boy. Yes, really, I ran on a platform of ‘let’s not shit ourselves. We all know who’s going to win.’ He did, after all. In any case, I knew I was really in the running when my best friend showed up at my front door in the morning before school. “So I put up your campaign posters” he proudly exclaimed. “Campaign posters?” I queried, expecting the worst. He pulled out a stack of papers emblazoned with the image of a rabbi, yarmulke and all. Plastered above the image were the words “I’d vote for a Jew. Wouldn’t you?” Below read “Vote Leon for Deputy Head Boy.” I literally facepalmed, IRL, etc. He’d stapled them up all around the school. I was a relatively known person anyway, but given that nobody else had the audacity (I guess I should include myself in that group) to put together a campaign whatsoever, it gave me a short burst of limited popularity.

In the lead up to the “election” students excitedly came up to me. “Are you the Jew?” They asked gleefully. I’d sigh and shake their outstretched hands. I guess I had a platform. It was silly and didn’t matter. I think I went for it primarily because I thought it’d help my chances of university acceptance. Maybe I’d get inducted into a fancy illuminati cult or something. Also I dug the fuck out of public speaking and wanted an excuse to write a speech. Speeches have always been one of my favourite things to do. Don’t ask me why. Narcissism and a captive audience, probably. Anyway. I treated the speech like stand up. It was likely pretty dumb. The only line I remember was “well as my campaign posters indicated, I am a Jew (break for laughs). So I guess I lost all the Nazi votes out there.” I got an applause break and everything. I guess we were easily entertained back then. These days losing the Nazi votes is apparently a deal breaker. It was all pretty tame. As I said, the guy who we expected to win did. I didn’t, but I got some Arts and Cultural Captain role as a consolation. It’s fine, I didn’t need the extra responsibilities. I had a lot of anime to watch and video games to play in those days. Priorities.

Ugh, remember feeling like you were heading somewhere in your life? When Nazis were these extinct concepts we warned our kids about like the black plague? I guess that’s due for a comeback some time soon. Can hope be too?

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Well I certainly won’t be motherbored.

At the moment life looks like a bunch of pixels. My brain is unravelling and I can see The Matrix. It’s not bad enough for my vision to have devolved into binary, but I could be in need of a graphics card upgrade. RAM’s usually pretty cheap. Let’s toss some more in there too. I don’t know if that ol’ 512MB of DDR RAM can keep up any more. It’s been a decade since I last knew anything about computers and it seems like my mind is similarly outmoded. Oh well, it’s not like overclocking could have any severe ramifications…

I still haven’t caught up from my holiday hangover. I caught a cold and instead of shirking it off, I spread it to my girlfriend who begrudgingly held up her end of keeping the contagion going. Thanks honey. So I spent the weekend soaking in the festering putrescence. I’m still congested and my squishy think-y bits are accordingly dealing with my internal traffic jam. Everything’s taking a while to process. Pity, because returning from holiday has meant a significant backlog at work. We’re ramping up to the busiest time of the year, which co-incidentally coincides with the colossal comedy festival, which I’m covering. Cool. Cool cool cool.

Buuuuut, my accreditation hasn’t yet been sorted. Normally I’m all geared up a week or two ahead of time. This year, a combination of poor communication and a new PR firm covering the festival has meant that three days out I still haven’t been told the status or extent of my accreditation. They want me to submit my requests, but they haven’t told me what level of shows I get access to. This means I have to put together requests with contingencies. I usually plan pretty carefully to maximise what I’m able to see. Some comics stay for a couple of nights, others pop in for a night or two. This makes the festival into an elaborate puzzle.

This puzzle is further compounded by travel times. It’s all well and good to book a 7pm show and 9pm show, but if the 7pm show is at the Sony Center and the 9pm show is at Comedy Bar, it can be pretty fucking tricky to make it from the first show to the second in time. Sometimes shows run long. Furthermore, now that they’ve included Yuk Yuks in the venue list for midnight shows, it’s damn near impossible to get from a 10.30pm show to the midnight show in time, even after taking an Uber (RIP the novel experience that is Andy Kindler’s Alternative Show).

So one axis is timing and venue distance, the other is headliner access. If I can see headliners, it’ll change which shows I prioritise. If I don’t, that’ll change the shape of my festival. Without knowing whether or not I get headliners then, will affect the structure of my schedule. If I get Mulaney on Thursday night, for instance, it won’t only change what I see on Friday night, but could affect which shows I opt in for on Friday, Saturday and Sunday too. Which means I need to submit multiple contingencies based on what access I will get, without knowing how this will play out. Anyone else confused?

Then while all this is happening I’ll also have daily coverage, a full time job (which could be in another department with later hours if I get the job (it’s a six month assignment that would start over the next week or two. Fingers crossed) and the necessity of keeping up physical activity (or otherwise truly go insane). Sleep comes in there somewhere too. Is caffeine more effective if I shelve it?

The scary part is, this is what I do for leisure. I think I need to learn what priorities are.

Counterpoint: The world is a genuinely shitty place for many, many people.

In a truly unexpected turn of events, it was harder returning to Toronto than I thought. Emotionally, that is. It’s not like I got held up at customs for excessive contraband suppositories or anything. It was strange, because I genuinely love this city. Toronto has a capacity to surprise me. It often takes a lot to deal with living in a busy city, but Toronto often gives more than it takes. So after all that fellation, what’s my deal? I’ve had one large gripe, with no idea how to structure it. I’ve been searching for a way to lay it out that doesn’t make me sound whiny, entitled, or privileged to the brim. It’s been hard to succinctly state it and still come off as a reasonable person. So instead I’m gonna own that fact that I often live in a cartoon world of whimsy and barrel through it. Here goes.

People in Toronto don’t smile.

It sucks, and makes a wonderful city feel oppressive and unfriendly. You can see how this reads, right? Straight white cis dude upset that his path isn’t paved with yellow bricks? I expect people to smile because it makes me feel better? I’m expecting strangers, irrespective of the machinations of their life, to cast off their frowns and bring my Toontown fantasy land into reality? To serve my interests because I don’t want to admit that there’s darkness, inequality and suffering in these streets? Or am I just one more dick in a landfill of bros telling women they should smile more?

I’m not an idiot, I get how this sounds.

It’s such a contrast from Portland, where almost everyone I smiled at on the street would smile back. If I saw someone heading out of a cafe, I’d smile and they’d nod or wave. Drivers that stopped so I could cross the road would smile at me. People walking past would wish me a good day. Kids would beam at everyone who crossed their paths. It was unreal. The more smiles I’d see, the more I’d give, until we were all swapping sunshine and joy like Oddbodz cards. There was this alluring small town charm that was impossible to resist. Would you stand in the way of strangers spreading happiness?

In Toronto if you smile people automatically assume ill intent. It’s a time poor city and everyone’s in a hurry. If you’re smiling and making eye contact, it probably means you want something from them. They’re late for a very important date and you could be an unwelcome distraction that digs them in deeper. Or you could be a legitimate threat in a physical or emotional manner. I’m by no means mitigating this. Just because I rarely have to put up with harassment, that doesn’t change that fact that it’s rampant. If I smile at a child, parents often assume I’m bad news. Like I want to molest their kid instead of just thinking kids are funny and cute sometimes. If I smile at a woman, I’m sure it triggers a response built up over years of encountering unwelcome encounters. If I smile at a guy, I dunno, he thinks I’m into him, which makes me unwanted detritus. If I smile at most anyone they think I’m unstable in some fashion.

Please understand, my disappointment isn’t with the people who don’t reciprocate. It’s a systemic issue. The structure of our society tells us that we need to be cautious of those around us. That people have the capacity to harm or threaten us. That if we’re not vigilant we’ll be punished for our carelessness. We’ve been enculturated into a mentality of fear that tells us not to let our guard down. It sucks. I don’t know how to let people know that I’m harmless, that I come bearing no ill will. I wish there were a way to salve those rampant worries and culture of defensive behaviour. I wish that Toronto’s denizens had good reason to assume the best rather than the worst. Most of all I wish that people wouldn’t have to feel the way they do, because mostly it’s likely a learned response to past shitty experiences. I want to let go of all of this and smile, but Toronto isn’t giving me much reason to.

Can’t everyone just chill out and buy a coke?

It was, in short, a magic gathering.

I think yesterday was the kind of day I’d come to Portland for. A day spent going with the flow and enjoying where it took me.

In a weird coincidence, The Smiths played at least once in every establishment I set foot into yesterday. Which is even weirder because last night I dreamed that somebody loved me.

The last day or two had me feeling a little lonely and isolated. I wasn’t getting a whole lot of social interaction and the connections I hoped I’d find didn’t eventuate. When travelling, connecting with strangers and interacting with people outside of my usual experience keeps me going. What you see when going from place to place makes for a great backdrop, but the characters you meet provide the flavour. Tinder has proven to be a dead end. Without any matches it’s more a time sink where I get to judge a portfolio of people and marvel at what a terrible human being I am. What did work out though, was Couchsurfing. I was terrified of ending up in another meet up where people said “schwag” on repeat for 20 minutes, but I downloaded the app to try the “hangout” function. Simple but effective, it lists people who are actively seeking others to hang out with. It’ll say what they’re looking for (coffee/tea, drinks, lunch), have a link to their bio and show approximately how far they are from you. I saw that some dude within a 3km radius was looking to grab coffee. He was an aspiring audiophile and well travelled guy. I figured I lost nothing by opting in for a hangout. I sent a message and within minutes he accepted. He said it’d take him about half an hour to get ready and suggested a cafe about half an hour from where I was. What could go wrong?

Nothing, apparently. He was a nice bloke in his late 30s. He’d been constantly on the move for the past nine years or so, periodically coming back to Portland between journeys. He’d taught English in Korea, Japan, backpacked around South America and Columbia. Used to work in PR for tech companies, but got wanderlust and had to sate his thirst. We talked about cultural differences in the places he’d visited and how his language acquisition had gradually increased. I mentioned how I’d had trouble pushing myself to meet people. How I’d felt that I’d be interrupting or forcing myself on others who were just looking for their own space. He said not to worry, that if you’re not being a dick the worst they’re gonna say is “no thanks”. He said that oftentimes he’ll just chat with the bartender if they’re not that busy, which creates the opportunity for others to join in on the dialogue if they’re feeling it. He mentioned the difference smartphones have made over the years. How on one hand they’d made it harder to spontaneously connect with the people around you, as everyone was plugged in. At the same time, they were infinitely useful when travelling alone in order to find your way around a new city, figure out events to check out or make online connections for meet ups. I asked him, with all his travelling, what was the first thing he’d do when arriving in a new place? He said that he wasn’t much of an insta-traveller, that he often stayed somewhere for a few weeks to a few months. He said that establishing a routine made him feel more comfortable, he’d check out coffee shops and local bars. Once he felt settled, he’d engage more with connecting to others. We chatted about music, how we sourced new artists and how our relationship with music had formed and changed over time. We talked podcasts, TV and films. He suggested a few places for me to check out around town, some particularly choice food cart pods. After our coffee he took me around the corner to a pod (that’s what they call clusters of food carts, if that wasn’t immediately obvious) and introduced me to a delicious korean pork belly lettuce wrap. It was the size of a burrito, with a delicious spicy sauce. Food carts are so good here. The quality and prices are both unbelievable. Social batteries recharge, I ventured out to Happy Hour with a renewed vigour.

I stopped back into The Hungry Tiger and sat at the bar. Sipping on a whiskey & coke, I noticed someone looking at her phone and picking at a macaroni & cheese. I thought ‘here goes nothing’ and thought of what the Couchsurfing guy said. If the worst was gonna be “no thanks” I could always just go back to playing on my phone. “How’s the mac here?” I asked. She looked up. “It’s vegan and I’m vegan so it’s pretty good. They use better “cheese” than some other places.” That wasn’t so bad. We talked for a while. She’d been looking to move to this part of the country to do her masters in photography. She’d checked out San Fran and was leaving Portland in a few hours. The cost of living here was lower and she was strongly considering it. She asked me if I watched Game of Thrones and lit up once I said yes, so we talked the ins and outs of Westeros for an hour or so. She was 25 and not the sort that I’d usually hang out with, but that didn’t make her a bad person by any means. Frankly, it was just nice to talk about a mutual interest with someone and kill an hour. I guess the Couchsurfing dude was right.

The only thing I’d actually planned on doing yesterday was checking out Tonic Lounge. A bar on the North East side, it hosted a weekly Monday night Magic event. Given my lack of success with events over the past week, I expected to walk in and find the place empty. Instead there were around 20 or so players by the time I arrived. Everyone was playing, sipping on pints and eating bar snacks. The music was great and they had old episodes of Robotech playing on the projector. Since most of the staff were Magic players themselves, the bar extended the Happy Hour specials all night for anyone who was there to game. I had a great chocolatey stout and ordered a $6 plate of pulled pork nachos. I couldn’t believe how good they were. The pulled pork was sweet and tangy. Super cheesy, there was a dollop of sour cream in the middle, fresh bruschetta on the left and picked carrots/jalapenos on the right. Everyone was really friendly and, while experience levels varied, nobody seemed to be outright cutthroat. It was an amazing space to enjoy the game, see some great plays and have fun hanging out. I had such a fantastic time and only regretted not being able to become a regular.

With one and a half days left here, I haven’t got a lot left to cross off my list. How much debauchery can I get up to before I leave?

Nobody wants to talk about Air Bud? Story of my life.

The most bizarre aspect of this trip so far is how my perception of time has warped. In my quotidian existence I’m used to a certain pace. The workweek comes with its own time markers. Toronto, like most big cities, is a time-poor location, in that people are typically in a rush. There’s so much to do, busy busy busy, etc. Taking a step away from that for a week has left me feeling marooned. With no agenda at times I’m left floating aimlessly, unsure of how to fill a whole day.

Typically I’ve been going to bed before 1am, waking up and getting out of the house before 10am. Then returning around midnight or so. This means I’m on the move for around 12-14 hours per day. I’ve been checking out different neighbourhoods, restaurants, quirky shops and generally looking at things. By the time Happy Hour rolls in, I’m usually ready to take a load off and grab drinks/vittles. I don’t know if I’d call it a schedule, per se, but it’s how things have played out over the past few days.

Maybe I’m old, but I’ve been getting weary. I got lost on a jog up a mountain a few days back, which ended up taking an hour+. After several hours walking each day, my right leg has basically given up. Big blisters on my pinky toe and heel made walking fraught and whatever path of least resistance this caused my leg to take, various muscles have tightened to the point where walking is pain. I’ve tried to stretch as I’ve gone, but today was the first time I settled down for a long stretch session. It definitely helped, but my body is still rotting, clearly. Wubbalubba dub dub.

Yesterday I mellowed out a lot. Ate ice cream, roamed the Mississippi and Alberta neighbourhoods and spent a bunch of time on my phone. A lack of abundant social contact has meant more Reddit/Facebook. It feels tacky on holiday, but self-care is self-care, right? A friend on Facebook recommended that I install Tinder as a way of meeting people. I hastily put together a profile:

“A New Zealand Chris Traeger. Begrudgingly adorkable. Your mum thinks I’m funny. Knows way too much about Air Bud. I’m here in Portland until September 13th. Come and be a tourist with me in your own city.

Mainly using this for friends/activity partners. Ethical Poly, etc, but really want to make friends while on holiday. We could chat about Air Bud, even.”

So far I’ve had one brief response and it went less than nowhere. I have zero expectations, but it so far hasn’t met those. I do think it’s absurdly fascinating though. I’m on it to look for friends, but I still find that I’m subconsciously super judgey about who I do and don’t match with. No profile? No match. Just Instagram? No match. I’m on it to make friends but if I don’t find someone attractive I swipe left. Then I’m all ‘hey, why should looks matter? You’re right internal monologue, they don’t’. Then I swipe left on another person I don’t find attractive. It’s fucking stupid. If I do find someone to be super attractive I swipe left thinking ‘they’re way out of my league and won’t respond anyway’. I’m sure they do alright and won’t mind. Self-defeating. I find a billion reasons as to why things won’t work with most everybody I see. It’s not like I don’t swipe right, but it’s also not surprising that I’m not drowning in matches. I’m the last one in the world to realise, I’m sure, but it’s crazy addictive getting a brief glimpse into strangers’ lives.

I went out to a Rick and Morty viewing party at a “weed bar” last night in the hopes of making like-minded friends. The “weed bar” was someone’s house. Most everyone was too high to follow a real conversation. The episode was brilliant, so at least I got that much out of it. As I went to leave the host said that $5 was her standard charge so I paid, having enjoyed the chance to watch the episode. After I left, I realised she thought I’d been smoking and the charge was for pot. Dumb.

I just installed the Couchsurfing App to find people to hang out with. Let’s see how this goes. If worst comes to worst, there’s a bar hosting Magic the Gathering tonight. I can find my tribe. Unless someone on Couchsurfing slits my throat and dumps me in a river somewhere. Then I won’t have to worry about it, I guess.

Schwankers, the lot of ’em.

At this stage of my journey, I should be scheduled for a meeting with the goddess anytime now. I need some reason to overcome adversity having learned from my travels. Otherwise what was the point? To become a beer bellied hedonist filled with hollow experiences? Not on my watch!

The biggest trial so far has been loneliness. Not a soul-crushing, reaching out from the void, swathed in darkness and despair kind of loneliness, but more of an ‘I’d be having more fun right now if I was bouncing stuff off someone else’ kind of loneliness. Some activities are just more enjoyable shared. Like the Japanese Garden yesterday. It was all well and good to look at curated horticulture, sculpted zen gardens and those little bamboo shoots that drip water. But as someone who doesn’t get much of a kick taking photos of stuff (I’ve done it on trips before and I never look at it after, so why pull myself out of the moment?), it was a serene yet dull time. I could only repeat “how ’bout that serenity” so many times in my head before the reference lost its lustre. It was very pretty and aptly quiet. Once or twice I sat down on a bench, and tried to map out the sound. It’s something I started doing a while back when I used to produce audio. To close my eyes and open my ears. To listen and imagine the waveforms rebounding and refracting off one another. To conceptualise panning and balance in relation to my position. It’s a centering exercise that helps settle me. I stopped thinking about my desire for social contact and instead tried to be present with my surroundings. That being said, I could only pretend to be super impressed for so long before cutting my losses and checking out the neighbouring rose garden. It also was pretty and I huffed a rose or two. That’s the stuff.

I checked out a couple of happy hours. Ash Street Saloon had $2.75 microbrews and $4.50 burgers, so regardless of how out of place I looked in the borderline biker bar, I enjoyed my DJ Jazzy Hef jasmine wheat beer while looking at the leaderboard for Buck Hunter. Finished, I moved onto Rontoms, a classy place with vast amounts of space, comfy chairs and a cool vibe. I was still a little peckish and I had no idea what jackfruit was (the connotations are menacing enough), so I ordered jackfruit tacos and a whiskey & coke. The bartender gave an absurdly strong pour which pushed me further than I’d expected. Bored and internetting, I resigned myself to drink in lieu of having company. I could bring my own cheer right? RIGHT? I had another whiskey and thought of how I’d successfully used Couchsurfing in Montreal to meet people. I looked up local events and discovered a Portland meetup three minutes walk away from Rontoms. This was my meeting with the goddess, my turning point!

I arrived with five minutes left in happy hour, so got myself a Full Monty, a delicious concoction of ketel one, local ginger beer, lime and some kind of syrup, served in a copper mug. Things were looking up! I sat down with the group and introduced myself. ‘Look at all of these fellow travelers’, I thought.I thought wrong.

They were awful. Like, all of them individually. Or moreso just socially awkward and super fucking basic. Plus none of them were traveling, they were all hosts. I don’t know why that distinction mattered, but it did somehow. There was the California transplant who couldn’t stop talking about the features of different aircraft. There was his friend who kept on asking the group if anyone partook of certain hobbies (photography, video editing, running, rock climbing), saying he’d been looking at getting into them. It was like he was reading from cue cards on how to hold a conversation. There was the gal who kept steering the conversation back towards hookah bars (she eventually left to go to a hookah bar). There was the old guy who just sounded like he didn’t have many friends. There was the 20 or so year old guy who’d brought his girlfriend (maybe who was in from out of town) seemingly to show her off? He kept pawing at her or lying on her shoulder when she was just trying to make conversation with people. It was awkward and cringeworthy. Then there was the super frequent flyer guy who brought a bunch of his trophies from having flown so much. There was a scale airplane model, a thank you card from the airline, a small triangular medal thing and some earbuds. He passed these around like show and tell, gloating about all the “swag” he was getting, but pronouncing it “schwag”. “Schwag” he kept saying. It was the fucking worst. Then others passed the stuff around, saying “schwag” as they did. It was like walking into a cult ritual. By the 20th or so time someone said “schwag” I had to leave before I lost my cool. Where the fuck had these Cronenbergian nightmares crawled out from?

Maybe I’d make more friends if I wasn’t so judgemental, but hell, a guy has to have standards, right?

How bon will this voyage really be?

While I’m not overly superstitious, I’m continuing the vaunted Leon tradition of pre-trip insomnia turning into writing time. If I’ve got a good thing going, who am I to stand in the way of it? It’s currently 3am. I got in bed around 9pm with hopes to get around four hours sleep. With an alarm set for 4:30am, I figured this was an achievable objective. I figured wrong, so after four hours of rotating one way and another, I cut my losses and got up. I’d forgotten to download the new LCD Soundsystem album. Why even bother travelling without it?

I like a challenge, so why not take a day of international travel with zero sleep? It’s not like I was doing anything for my brain by staying restless in bed. I mean, I’ll no doubt be a shambling mess all day. Hell, I think I tried to write “if” with an apostrophe before (I’f). I’m all kinds of floppy. Oh, wait, let’s do a tally. I’m majorly sleep deprived, I’m doing my best to fight off a sore throat (sleep would’ve helped there) and the skies in Portland are raining ash as a smoky, unhealthy haze fills the air. If I ever was to be thrust into an 80s action movie style protagonist role, this would be it. I mean, as a kid my favourite Mortal Kombat character was Kabal, so I’m getting my chance to live out a childhood fantasy.

If it sounds like I’m a rambling lunatic right now, that’s a pretty accurate assessment. I’m sure clearing customs will be a walk in the park. Then I get to roam the price scalping food courts in search of USB outlets before getting bored and going to my gate. No doubt the flight will be delayed, my home made ham sandwich will be soggy and my in flight entertainment won’t work. So I’ll spend the flight inexplicably drawn to my neighbour’s screen (showing nothing but Big Bang Theory reruns). I won’t have to worry about missing my connecting flight, because all the smoke in Portland will make it impossible to land. So I’ll get to hang out in LAX for a week and get scurvy after eating nothing but single serving cheese slices from airport kiosks.

Grim and defeatist as all of the above sounds, I’m actually really excited about the trip. I swear that’s not merely delirium talking. I wouldn’t have this much trouble sleeping if it was merely anxiety. I’m not remotely nervous. I love flying and travel in general. I’m so stoked to get out and adventure through somewhere new. The smoke and ash is mildly disheartening, but by the sounds of it there’s gonna be light rain and shifting winds over the next day or two that’ll likely send it packing. I didn’t think I’d be this happy about rain on my holiday. Perhaps this is my chance to learn a greater lesson about appreciating the little things. Or catalyst for joining a nihilist rain cult. Even better, I could finally justify putting dollars down on those steampunk accessories I always dreamed of. THIS COULD BE ME (skull and all. What do you take me for? Some kind of fucking amateur?). Truly living my best life in Portland. Maybe I’ll put a bird on it.

Only an hour until my alarm goes off!