Saturday, April 5, 2014

Kurt Cobain vs. Me: And the winner is...

Kurt Cobain, 1989
Kurt Cobain, 1989

Kurt Cobain committed suicide 20 years ago. Only five years before that Nirvana was an obscure band touring and playing in dive bars such as The Sun Club in Tempe.

The Sun Club was a dilapidated bar down a short dirt road. It somehow made you feel like you were in the middle of nowhere -- not in the middle of Arizona's biggest college town. The inside was dirty. If you are the kind of person who can detect the faint smell of urine where urine shouldn't be, your pissometer would have started beeping the moment you walked in.

Going there gave me the illusion that I was on the frontier; like any kind of shit might go down. None ever went down when I was there. And if it had, the cops were only about 45 seconds away.

Nirvana played the Sun Club in 1989, the same year that my band, Jumping Genes, played there.

I'll disappoint you right away: This is not a story of the time I met Nirvana, because I never did. I only know this because I found this video of Cobain and Nirvana's pre-Dave-Grohl drummer Chad Channing behind the backdoor of the Sun Club, trying to cool off. It was 102℉ outside in Tempe that day. It must have been worse inside.

It's not a very interesting video, but it's only 29 seconds long if you don't want to take my word for it:

When I realized that Jumping Genes and Nirvana played the same crappy club the same year, I asked my current band-mates (The Nutrients), "Cobain is dead and I'm alive, so who won?"

Tom and Ron answered, in unison, "Dave Grohl."

I think they're right. And Dave Grohl probably never had to play the Sun Club.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Nose Shrapnel from my Latchkey Youth

"What's that metal in your nose?"

About every ten years someone asks me that question -- someone who is looking at an x-ray of my head.

"As a young man, I was shot in the face by a crazed Gypsy girl." That should be my answer.

Renie Apolius* was the first girl I ever French kissed. Memory is fuzzy, but I think I was 12 years old. We were playing Spin the Bottle, or maybe Truth or Dare. I tried to act experienced, but the kiss was a mess -- more like thumb wrestling with tongues.

The Apoliuses were a family with a spooky Gypsy mystique. In their home they had an ornate crystal ball, an "authentic" Ouija board, occult art on the walls, and a small collection of 8mm porn films.

The older brother, Uriah, allegedly had the ability to hypnotize people -- which is supposedly how he persuaded his youngest sister, Naomie, to strip buck naked in front of a small group of neighborhood kids. She was convincingly furious at everyone present when she snapped out of it.

Needless to say, they were an interesting family.

Renie became my girlfriend for a short period of time, and then she wasn't, and then she didn't like me much at all.

I was a so-called latchkey kid. I kept my house key on a big rubber band around my neck. And when I was bored (which was often)  I would occasionally twirl that rubber band around my finger, or wrist, developing skill and inventing tricks for what surely would one day become an Olympic event.

Latchkey Weapon
Historical Reproduction

One day after walking home from school, I was in front of the khaki colored stucco condo where I lived, lingering with some friends before we parted to our respective homes. As I twirled the big rubber band, it slipped off of my finger. The key shot straight for Renie's foot. She might have been wearing sandals. It probably hurt a little.

Renie picked up the key and threw it straight at my face, cutting into the tip of my nose. I ran to my house and unlocked the front door with the very key that had just been used as a weapon against me.

I put a bandage over my nose. It took weeks to heal.

Jack Nicholson - Nose Plaster - Chinatown
For awhile my nickname was "Chinatown."
But it eventually did heal, and left no noticeable scar. There was, and is, a hard spot right at the tip of my nose. At first I thought it was just a piece of cartilage that got pushed out of place.

A few years later in high school I got hit in the head with a shot put. Some equally dumbass kid and I were playing catch. I was taken to the ER to see if I had a concussion, and a radiologist took an x-ray of my head.

My skullcap was fine, but the doctor looked at a different part of the x-ray and asked, "What's that metal in your nose?"


"Uh huh. Only metal shows up bright white like that."

It took awhile to get used to the idea. I wondered if it would set of metal detectors (it doesn't), or if a powerful magnet might cause it to rip out of my nose (it doesn't seem to be magnetic).

Now, mostly I don't think about it. I'm as used to the metal in my nose as I am to my Bergmeister's papilla eye floater, and my constantly popping ears. I never feel the shrapnel unless I push it with my finger.

Recently I was at my dentists office, and he left the room while my panoramic radiograph was still on the computer monitor. I pulled out my phone and took a photo of the screen.

Key Shrapnel
Yes, I've had some dental work too.

So, Renie, if you are out there, your youthful passion and problems with impulse control are still a part of me.

Those trendy nose piercings and subcutaneous implants -- the ones that look like keyrings; those are for show-offs. I think this is way cooler. I have an actual key in my nose implanted by an unlicensed miffed Gypsy.

*First names are changed.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Cameroon is so Gay

Arizona may lead the US for the most asinine anti-gay law proposed (but vetoed); Uganda may be leading Africa for the most oppressive anti-gay law actually enacted, but Cameroon leads the world in arrests for homosexuality.

That's the claim made by the makers of Born This Way, a documentary about the persecution of gays in the country where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

The only time have ever been propositioned -- and menacingly -- by a man was in Cameroon. The sexual bully was a cop.

It was in the town of Mbouda, where I was visiting my friend Susan.

Women volunteers often complained at how often they got propositioned by men. I heard stories of men showing up a their doors, and matter-of-factly asking to come in and have sex.

But a more common story was about the creepy, lewd handshake. I had no idea what my female colleagues were talking about. Something about stray finger on the man's hand tickling them on the palm.

Susan and I were near the Mbouda market, and this policeman, in uniform, walked up to us and introduced himself. He shook my hand, and there it was -- tickle, tickle, tickle...

Anger swelled inside of me. I felt very uncomfortable. He began asking me where I lived, and demanding to know why I hadn't invited him over to my house. He was very persistent. I stonewalled him.

(Actually, I employed a response I'd developed for arrogant Cameroonians: I spoke only in American Smartass English, at full speed. In my experience, a Cameroonian blowhard with pretensions of being bilingual would never admit that he can't quite understand me. Some Anglophone Cameroonians would go as far as to claim that they didn't speak or understand Kamtok -- the English-based pidgin of Cameroon, regarded by snobs to be the language of the uneducated.)

I extracted myself as tactfully as I could manage given my inner disgust. The disgust was not that I'd met an apparently gay Cameroonian, but because the police are regarded as "the most corrupt public institution in the country." The police just pissed me off -- as did the army and the gendarmerie; the agents of Cameroon's sham democracy police state. You'd have a hard time finding a Cameroonian who hasn't been shaken down by, or paid a bribe to a policeman.

Ted and Susan near Mbuoda, Cameroon
Susan and me around the time the policeman tickled my palm. (1996)

The stonewalling strategy would not be available to most Cameroonians in that situation. I was well aware that as a foreigner -- an American in particular -- I could make more trouble for this policeman than he could make for me.

I speculated that he had a history of bullying men into sex; using intimidation to extract nonconsensual sex (a.k.a. rape) rather than money. It's a near-perfect crime: the taboo of homosexuality combined with the impunity of men in uniform. A victim would be very unlikely to come forward and charge the perpetrator.

So Cameroon leads the world in arrests for homosexuality. I don't doubt it.

I suspect that some of these arrests for homosexuality are made in retribution -- and that many of the people arrested are straight.

According to a report by Amnesty International:
In most cases, arrests are made on the basis of appearance or because neighbours or family members denounce a person as ‘homosexual’, rather than on evidence of the acts that are defined as offences in the law.
This is what to expect where homosexuality is regarded as a status offense. In Cameroon people are regularly accused of witchcraft and/or demonic possession -- because demonic possession exists according to the Cameroonian legal system, and homosexuality is a manifestation of demonic possession.

I write this from a state where we recently entertained a law that would have allowed businesses to discriminate against people on religious grounds if someone suspected a would-be customer might be gay.

I write this from a country where a politically influential televangelist preaches that homosexuality is caused by demonic possession.

Give these religious kooks their way, and my penchant for chick drinks is this close to becoming a legal liability in the Land of the Free -- just as it was for the two Cameroonian men sentenced to five years in prison on the evidence that they ordered cream-based liqueur in a bar. (The conviction was overturned.)

Anywhere you make a person's identity a status offense, you create an opportunity for intimidation, blackmail, and other forms corruption. When you combine that opportunity with entrenched discriminatory social attitudes, you create an incentive for corruption.