Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | November 13, 2016

TWO KINDS OF HERO: Richard (Butterfly) Locke, 06/11/41 – 09/25/96

When I first heard that Richard Locke had signed up to attend a Billy Club gathering I would also be attending I got all excited and nervous. One of my gay icons was going to be at a gathering. I had no idea what, or for that matter who, to really expect and I certainly wasn’t sure whether I actually wanted to meet him or just look at him, preferably from a distance.


Richard at the 1995 Kamp Kimtu Billy Gathering

Richard Locke had starred in, and set the tone for, some of my favorite gay porno films. Along with writer/director Joe Gage (and let’s not forget the rest of the “Gage Men”) Richard had helped to redefine gay men’s images of themselves. At a time when most gay porn was full of young, buffed models with body waxes, Richard was a natural man – masculine, hairy and sexy as hell. Called by BEAR Magazine “the original porn daddy” his image was that of a regular guy, rough-hewn but gentle, masculine without being a jerk about it, and definitely gay – unapologetically if not exuberantly gay.


Richard participating in the May Pole at a May Day Billy Gathering at Saratoga Springs, 1996

Films like “Kansas City Trucking Co.,” “El Paso Wrecking Corp.,” “L.A. Tool & Die,” and, my personal favorite, “Heatstroke” may have had minimal plots (at least they had them) and certainly weren’t going to sweep the judges away at Cannes, but even while trading in fantasy, they managed to present a relatively realistic picture of a life I could have as a gay man. And Richard’s was certainly an example of a realistic gay man.

Something that I’ve always loved about many of Richard’s film performances, and something some folks seem to miss, is what I call the “aww shucks” factor that would turn up from time to time. There is an awkwardness about Richard’s on-screen persona that is sweet and endearing, even when he plays an evil ranch foreman. In the best films he doesn’t play some kind of inhuman, impossible to attain gay fantasy figure [like the prison guard in an early short] – he’s a normal guy, someone any one of us could meet and have a chance with. His devotion to love at first sight in “LA Tool & Die” really is touching – running across the country after the one that got away. Richard’s “just plain guy” character was real.

One of my favorite scenes of him is in “Heatstroke” where he plays the allegedly “straight” foreman of a Montana ranch. He goes to town to meet his girlfriend and encounters her ex-husband, a marine in full uniform (Clay Russell) who proceeds to seduce the “straight” Richard. At one point Clay tries to get Richard to let him touch his cock and Richard tilts his head back a bit, looks down his nose at him and with a perfectly straight face says “Well, I don’t know. I’ve never done anything like this before.” Richard had a way, a tone of voice, an undefinable attitude, that lets each of us in on that joke like we are the only ones who get it.

Richard Locke was a gay icon – a hero of the sexual revolution and the gay liberation movement.


Richard with Sam Kissee & Randy Terrell at the Kamp Kimtu Billy Gathering, 1995

But, as much of Richard as there is in his performances, it is still important not to confuse them too much with Richard himself. At the Kamp Kimtu gathering in 1995 he told me to call him Butterfly (he had a butterfly tattoo on his right pelvis) and asked me not to bring up his films around folks who didn’t already know who he was. He wanted to just be Butterfly, a gay man, one more Billy at the gathering. At that point in his life he really wasn’t interested in being a gay icon, for me or anyone else.  However, he certainly was not above using that status, and anything else he could find, to promote the causes of AIDS education and services. Richard had been living with AIDS for a long time, he told me that he was pretty sure exactly when he’d been infected, he’d narrowed it down to 1983.

He published two books: “In the Heat of Passion” one of the earliest works to deal with issues of safe sex and HIV in a manner that was still sex-positive, and “Locke Out” a collection of short stories and essays. His one-act play “Loving” has been through several productions. When he died he was working on a pair of autobiographies, one called “Living” and the other “Dying.”

Richard was a tireless advocate for HIV and safe sex education, and HIV support services at a time when the disease seemed to be spreading unchecked and what little treatment there was for it was primitive with damaging and dispiriting side effects. He toured the country lecturing, giving informal talks, appearing on radio programs, and working his message into his live sex shows. Later he worked with HIV support groups and put himself to direct use bringing his massage training to people in hospitals and hospices. He talked safe sex and HIV prevention to anyone who would listen every chance he got. His work in that area was pioneering and invaluable.


Richard with Stewart Scofield (in hat) at the 1996 May Day Billy Gathering at Saratoga Springs

Richard had become a second kind of hero. The kind that was easier to miss. The kind whose everyday life becomes a series of quietly heroic acts.

The first time I encountered Richard was at his first Billy Gathering at Saratoga Springs Retreat Center.  Saratoga Springs is a peaceful resort tucked back in a beautiful, narrow valley in Lake County, California. The Billy Club has been gathering there several times a year since 1992, and continues to meet there.  It was the second day of the gathering. I knew Richard was registered but I hadn’t yet seen him anywhere. I asked the guy in charge of registration if he had really shown up or if perhaps he was coming later.  I was told that he was there and he’d been there the whole time. In fact, I was told, that’s him on the Lodge porch right now. I followed the pointing finger.  I would never have recognized him on my own. At that point he was doing chemotherapy and was nearly bald. He was also, of course, older than the video and magazine images I had of him which had fleshed out so much of my sexual fantasy life.

I remembered seeing that man since the gathering began but had not connected him with Richard. I was now even more intimidated and afraid to approach him, I had no idea what I could say to him.  But he didn’t give me much of a choice. That afternoon he came to the poetry circle I was facilitating. Poetry circle was an opportunity to get poems off the page and into the air by speaking them. People could bring their own or others’ poems to read and I also brought a box of poetry books from which people could choose poems. Richard came and read several pieces by his friend, composer and poet Lou Harrison, from a book he had brought with him. He listened carefully as the rest of us read our poems. He talked in between people’s readings, which was not part of the format but you couldn’t fit Richard into a format, he didn’t notice them. He brought such energy with him that the poetry circle ended up being one of the best ever. His enthusiasm and participation inspired the rest of us and healthy discussion ensued. Afterwards he and I talked a lot more. And at every gathering Richard came to it was like that.


Richard with Gryphon Blackswan at the Labor Day Billy Gathering at Kamp Kimtu – 1995

Heart Circles are a space created at gatherings where a talisman is passed among the participants and each person is allowed in turn to speak from the heart without interruption. It is what many consider to be the core of the Billy Club (now known simply as The Billys) experience. It is a process initially borrowed from the Radical Fairies. Once exposed to them Richard took to Heart Circles like he’d been there all his life. Listening attentively as each man spoke and speaking himself when he was moved to do so. He brought such intensity to his shares that he would pull us with him where ever he was going. He fit in like he’d found home.

When protease inhibitors became available Richard was one of the first people I knew to get on them.  As a result he started to feel like his old self again. His hair grew back, he put some weight on, and he dared to hope. One of the medications he was on was supposed to be taken with fatty foods. I remember him coming to a heart circle one morning on the lawn in front of the Lodge delightedly munching on a salami and telling us all that he had awakened with a boner for the first time in ages, because of this new medication. Unfortunately the PIs were too late to save Richard, he was already too far gone.  His reprieve was short lived.

The last time I heard Richard speak out in a Heart Circle was the Labor Day Billy Gathering at Rancho Cicada in the Sierra foothills in 1996, his last gathering.

Rancho Cicada is an idyllic retreat location where steep hills hug the Cosumnes River and hammocks sway in the trees. I remember walking in the river and stirring up the sandy bottom, flakes of iron pyrite rose and sparkled like gold in the cool water. An expansive lawn next to the river is perfect for Heart Circles. It was a beautiful, peaceful location for Richard’s last gathering.

Before the gathering he told me in a phone call that he had to get there. He had to tell us about the heroes. He was in a hospital in Sacramento doing his best to fight off that final illness.  His father and brother picked him up and drove him to the gathering so he could tell us about heroes. And once in Heart Circle he did. He spoke of the everyday heroes he saw all the time whose continuing care and sacrifices went unnoticed and too often underappreciated. He spoke of the doctors, nurses, home health aides, and caregivers from the hospital housekeepers to visiting masseurs. I cannot remember everything he said and I could never say it as well as he did even if I could remember it. 40 or 50 of us were sitting in that circle and most were moved to tears, or close to them. I think all of us knew that we were sitting there listening to one of those very heroes Richard was describing, although he would not have considered himself to be one.  We also had a pretty good idea that it was likely to be the last time we would hear Richard speak in Heart Circle. Afterward I told him he should write down his “Heroes” talk, but by then he just didn’t have the energy.


The last photo I shot of Richard, soaking in the Cosumnes River at the Rancho Cicada Billy Gathering, Labor Day weekend, 1996

While most of the accommodations at Rancho Cicada at that time consisted of platform tents & camping sites, there was a well-appointed cabin about halfway up the steep hillside above the main lawn; that is where we put Richard so he would be as comfortable as possible and have some privacy.

One of the things I’ve always found a little disconcerting about Billy Gatherings is the way I can know a man in the gathering context for years or even decades and yet never know what that man does for living, what his life is like outside the gathering. So I was surprised and relieved at Rancho Cicada to learn that one of the men I’d known for a number of years was a physician with HIV/AIDS experience.  That man stepped in to help take care of Richard while he was with us, giving up much of his own gathering experience to do so. There was a small group of us who took turns taking care of Richard, helping him get around, and seeing to his needs all under the newly discovered doctor’s supervision and direction.

Medications had Richard’s bowels so blocked up he could hardly remember his last movement – and something was making it nearly impossible for him to piss.  The doctor wanted him to keep track of the volume of his urine and I remember standing there with him while he squeezed out a scant few drops into a jar, so there might be something to measure.

Seeing him that last time at Rancho Cicada was disturbing and encouraging, inspiring and frightening – he was seriously ill, and yet wanted to be there so bad. Did he know it was his last chance to be with us? Probably, and that’s probably why he was so determined to be there. I loved Richard, and am proud to count him among my friends. Outside of a few letters and phone calls we really knew each other only at the gatherings – but that is O.K. – gatherings are very concentrated time and concentrated time is what Richard needed, because he didn’t have a whole lot of time left.  Richard Locke died in Sacramento at the age of 55 less than a month later, with family and friends in attendance.

His involvement with the Billy Club didn’t stop with his death though.  When I first wrote this I thought that Richard left money in his will for the Billy Club but memory can be tricky. Upon reading this essay his brother Bob Locke contacted me after many years and has very kindly  corrected that impression as follows:

“Just one small correction to your story about Richard. You say that it was a donation from Richard that was the seed money for the Richard Locke Scholarship Fund, but it was actually dearer than that. At Richard’s funeral (which was very well attended not just by our extended family but Richard’s friends and fans and also at least three of his doctors) I asked that if any of them cared to make a contribution, they should make it to the Billy Club and gave them the address. I had no idea that this would become the seed money for the Richard Locke Scholarship Fund until I visited Rancho Cicada with the Billies eleven years after Richard’s death.” – Bob Locke

As Bob noted the scholarship fund still bears Richard’s name.

Richard Locke was a man who had been two kinds of hero in his too short life and I am proud to have had the honor to know him.

See also:

Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | November 3, 2016

THE COMMUNE Carlotta, CA – 11/30/1973-12/01/1973

The sun had gone down right around the time the gentle rain started and there I was on the side of the road, route 101, north end of Arcata, near the intersection of 17th & G streets, Humboldt County, California – headed south. This was a great place to hitchhike back then, 1973, one never had to wait too long for a ride. That was before the freeway bypass was built burying the spot under tons of concrete and rebar.  But still with the darkness and the rain I was getting worried. The rain was a kind of heavy drizzle that I have since learned simply constitutes the atmosphere of far northern California for much of the winter. Other hitchhikers were pacing back and forth, stomping at the ground trying to keep warm since there was no way to keep dry. The guy closest to me had just wandered off to the nearest market to dry out and get something to eat when a station wagon pulled over and stopped in front of me. The back door opened and without hesitation I passed in my backpack and climbed in the back seat which already held two other guys.  Everyone in the car looked like hippies so I felt safe, Charlie Manson phantoms aside. We pulled away.


Photo shot by Danny Dickerson just as I was getting out of the car at the Smith River Agricultural Inspection Station at the Oregon/California border to start hitchhiking south – November 30, 1973

The driver said they were only going about 20 miles further down the road, which ended my fantasy of a ride all the way to San Francisco. Then one of the guys in the back spoke up. He said they all lived in a commune couple miles off the main highway and since it was raining and getting late I was welcome to come and spend the night. He said we should get there in time for dinner and they could fix me up with a place to sleep and then one of the guys heading off to work in the morning could take me back to the highway. I’d heard about hippie communes and had a little experience of them myself, mostly with the one Dickie and I stayed at in Roxbury, Boston back in 1971. I knew that visiting might be interesting but moving in could be a pain in the ass – the often complex commune politics had a tendency to get nasty from time to time. So I thought that a single night stay at one could be a lot of fun. I figured there would probably be alcohol of some kind, and dope to smoke, and I might even get laid. I was young and seeking adventure and this seemed like it might fit the bill.

I looked outside at the darkness and the rain and told him I would be happy to accompany them to their commune for the night. They all got a little looser once I’d acquiesced. There were four of them I could see and there might have been another one sleeping in the way back next to my pack. Mostly guys but one chick riding shotgun. Now that I’d been seduced into going with them their conversations turned more to each other and I didn’t pay much attention. We turned off of 101 just south of Fortuna onto a road I would years later identify as Route 36. For the first time I began to get worried, leaving the main highway behind. But then something happened that really gave me something to worry about. The increasing references to Jesus gradually made me all too aware that I had once again been picked up by a group of Jesus freak hippies, this time in a station wagon. That van full in Virginia wasn’t enough I guess, God wanted another crack at me. They had carefully waited until we turned off the main highway before they started preaching to me. I’m sure they knew I would probably have asked to get out if they’d begun on the main highway.  And I would have, rain or not. There would clearly no sex and drugs and rock-n-roll at this commune.

We drove on that dark, winding, two-lane blacktop for what seemed like miles and miles before coming to a town. A very small town, in fact not really a town so much as simply a place with a post office named Carlotta.  We turned onto a dirt road and drove a bit further. This is where the commune inhabited a big old house they just called the Mansion. By the time we got there the rain was coming down pretty steady, with occasional strong wind-driven gusts, no longer the drizzle it had been when they picked me up.

They hustled me inside and I found that we were, like they said, just in time for dinner. There had to be 30 or 50 of them, hard to tell as they were moving around a lot and dinner was split between two large rooms to accommodate everyone.  They were mixed male and female and even a few kids running around. There were big long tables with benches in each room and I was introduced to the other believers by one of my deliverers as having been guided to them by the hand of God.  As we sat down to eat I realized they’d begun doing a kind of tag team preaching on me. One would have at me for a while and then when he tired another would take over. Apparently the idea was to wear down any resistance I might throw up in the face of their revealing The Lord’s Word to me.  But resist I did.

After the quiet saying of grace sprinkled with many references to the Bible, the rooms became loud as a high school cafeteria at lunchtime. Dinner was a hearty if not particularly gourmet affair, filling and tasty enough for a traveler grateful for a roof over his head on a rainy night. There were so many people talking at once and always one or more talking to me about The Lord that it was hard to concentrate on food. Being as young as I was then, 21, I tried to respond from time to time. Get my two cents in, so to speak. It did no good of course. They had the moral certainty of their beliefs and I was on their turf as well as being grossly outnumbered. There was no one I could look to for support for my essential atheism. They kept feeling around for a chink in my armor but of course I didn’t really have any armor. All I had was a complete lack of faith, which I held onto doggedly as though it were itself a religion.

I tend to be, or at least think I am, somewhat logical about things even if my logic is often hard for someone else to follow. So committing myself to something which is based entirely on unprovable belief is antithetical to who I am. There have been many times when I’ve wished I could throw myself into a religion, even a cult of some kind. Times when I grow tired of having to make every decision for myself. Times when I might doubt my own determinations of what is right and wrong. At such times I long for a system I could surrender myself to which would tell me, without hesitation, what is right and what is wrong and what I should do in any given situation. But I just can’t swallow any of them. Why should I believe in any one particular religion out of the many available from which to choose? Each one of them asserts with certainty that they are the only true one, that all the others are wrong. Yet they are all basically the same, only the details differ. What makes one any better than any other? And what makes any of them real? Why should I believe any of it?

Even these days, as I grow older, I am sometimes envious of those who possess the certainty of an afterlife, who have the comfort of a deity and a community of worship. But no matter how much or how often mortality slaps me in the face I just can’t turn myself over to any system of faith. They make no sense to me. And that’s not a challenge. It’s a simple fact, part of who I am.

With dinner over I wanted nothing so much as a cigarette. In fact I hadn’t had a cigarette since they picked me up in Arcata and so was getting somewhat desperate. I’d had no opportunity earlier because there was no smoking in the car and we went straight into dinner when we arrived. So I pulled out my tobacco can at the dinner table to roll one up. I was promptly informed that there was no smoking in the house. No surprise there and I had no problem with that. I explained to them that I would smoke it outside. They said I didn’t understand. I could not even roll the cigarette in the house. They wanted nothing to do with tobacco in God’s house. At least they didn’t make me leave the can outside the door.

Since I was their guest and I was outnumbered I agreed without further protest and got up to go outside and do my dirty deed. However when I opened the door I was reminded with a kind of slap from the storm that it was pouring down rain out there. I turned back in and asked if I could please just roll the cigarette in the house. I would be glad to then take it outside and smoke it in the rain. But they would not back down. So I went outside in the wet dark. I found a relatively protected place under a tree with low branches and with great difficulty, wasting more than a few papers, I managed to roll a cigarette using the brim of my baseball cap to shelter it from the rain. Then I had what had to be one of the most satisfying smokes of my life. These Jesus freaks had forced me to figure out how to roll a cigarette in the rain and I was going to savor every last puff.

After my cigarette I went back inside, hung up my wet coat and went into the kitchen to help with dinner cleanup. The tag team preaching continued unabated. I was clearly that evening’s group project. For the most part they were not rude about it, with a few exceptions. It seemed that someone or ones was keeping an eye on the hitchhiker conversion project and when somebody started getting too aggressive would send someone more sensible in to replace them.

It had been a long, emotional day for me.  I hadn’t wanted to leave Oregon at all but felt obligated to return to Cleveland and explain why I wanted to stay in Oregon. I know, that doesn’t make much sense, but it seemed to at the time. Then there was the slow-going hitchhiking since morning and the constant preaching since I’d arrived at the commune. I only got relief from the preaching when I went outside for another soggy cigarette. One time one of them came out to keep me company, at least he brought an umbrella with him which made it easier to roll. I thought that he probably wanted to bum a smoke and I offered to roll him one.  He seemed to want it too, but politely declined for fear, I believe, that one of the others might catch him. I felt sorry for him until he started filling the umbrella with the Word of God.

Eventually I inquired of one of my hosts where I might stretch out my sleeping bag for the night. People had been disappearing for a while and it was getting late. I was hoping to get an early start out of there in the morning. My companion made inquiries and then told me to gather my stuff and he would show me to my bed. The Mansion was a three-story house and I was taken to a large bunk room on the second floor. Single men and women were segregated into separate bunk rooms. The several married couples had individual rooms on the third floor. The long room consisted of a series of bunkbeds with some mismatched dressers in between them. I was guided to an empty bunk with a bare mattress. As I unrolled my sleeping bag and prepared for sleep the guys on either side of me and on the bunk above began to take turns preaching. Clearly this would go on all night if I didn’t fall asleep, which I finally did. I don’t know how long they kept preaching after I fell asleep, but I hope it was a long time.

I woke the next morning with sun shining in the windows and an empty bunk room. I found the bathroom and then gathered my things together and went downstairs to catch my ride back to the highway. I was just in time for the last of breakfast but first I had to go outside for a quick cigarette, relieved at being able to roll it in the dry air of morning.

After breakfast, while I was helping clean up, I asked when somebody would be heading down to the highway so I could get a ride. I was told that everyone who worked had already left. They seemed surprised that I wanted to leave. I kept being told how welcome I was and that I should stay at least another night to give the commune a fair chance. But I really wanted to get out of there. My patience had been worn to a frazzle by all the preaching and I didn’t know how much longer I would be able to remain polite in response. I’ve often wondered if the determination of such people to keep bringing in new recruits might not have to do with an essential doubt in their own faith. Do they need a constant flow of converts in order to validate their own belief? To give the irrational a semblance of reason?

Later, while I was outside grabbing another smoke and trying to figure out what to do next, one of the young women came out and offered me a tour around the extensive gardens. The original owners of the Mansion had brought plants from all over the world and this woman knew them all and wanted to introduce me to each one. The under-tended garden was getting fairly weedy and seedy and was pretty muddy from all the rain but you could still see in that bright morning light how magnificent it must once have been. With a little imagination and her vivid descriptions I could see how magnificent it might be again. This was the only part of my time at the commune that I can honestly say I enjoyed. She seemed pleased and proud to be able to show off her knowledge of the garden and was so into it that she did very little preaching.  I’m sure she had been sent out to try and distract me from leaving. Maybe she thought it would tempt me to stay with them if I could see what a beautiful garden there was amidst all that mud. If so, it didn’t work, but I did enjoy my brief time with her.

After that the tag team preaching continued as they assigned me small jobs to do and tried to convince me that I really didn’t want to leave. They were convinced that God had guided me to them and had a purpose for me. They told me how wonderful life in the commune was. How the duties were all divided. And that they had another location in a lighthouse not too far away. “Would you like to see that?” I was asked. “Maybe you would like it better there, next to the ocean.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I was definitely losing patience, my response to being preached at was growing sharper. I asked somebody in which direction the freeway lay? I wanted to get to San Francisco by that night so I could crash with my friends Jim and Tim. Then I could continue on to Orange County in a day or two and eventually back to Cleveland.

Everyone I spoke to seemed uncertain as to whether or not they should tell me how to get to the freeway. Finally, just before lunchtime, I hoisted the pack on my back and told them I was going to start walking. I figured I could find my own way to the road and hitchhike back to 101. At that point one of them took mercy on me and told me that after lunch he would drive me back to the freeway on his way to the lighthouse. I kept my eye on him so he couldn’t disappear on me, even eating lunch with him. When lunch was over he proved as good as his word and after some discussion with a few others we loaded my pack in his car and headed out. The preaching on the drive was kept to a minimum. The driver tried halfheartedly to convince me that I was making a big mistake. He kept talking up the lighthouse and how beautiful the ocean views were from there but I think he knew it wasn’t going to do any good.

After a while he dropped me off in Alton at Rt. 101 and said goodbye. I was finally free of the Jesus commune and its oppressive faith. They had been kind, in their way, and generous, they fed me well, but their single-minded obsession with converting me made the experience highly unpleasant.

There was nothing much around the intersection in Alton except for a truckstop with diner and gas station not too far away that I could access if need be. I stuck out my thumb and did not have to wait long for a ride. It was by then a beautiful, warm, sunny afternoon. I was finally back on my way and the guy who picked me up didn’t mention Jesus the whole ride. By that night I was safely in San Francisco telling Jim and Tim the whole story of my adventure in the Jesus commune.

I don’t know if my two experiences being picked up by Jesus freaks while hitchhiking in the rain (see the earlier story “Jesus in a Hippie Van”) were unusual or if that sort of thing happened to most people who hitchhiked back in those days. I’m just glad it only happened to me twice.  Who knows what might have happened if there had been a third time? I might’ve finally cracked and given in. I might have ended up trying to convert you right now and the focus of this story would have been completely different.


When I got back to Cleveland I wrote the following poem about the Jesus commune experience (part of the “Moving West” series):


a wooden cross stands at the end of the drive

dirt road, fields flooded from early winter rains

the mansion rises out of the mud, old and dignified

trees and plants from al1 over the world

dot the weedy once glorious gardens

people from all over the country

picked up from hiways, city parks, beaches

anyplace and no place

all of them here to spend their lives in

blind service to a god

none of them seems to know

acting out their loneliness

replacing fathers and lovers

with an omnipotent figure or authority who

asks no questions and accepts no excuses

they eat well, big meals

with 50 of them the mansion is kept in fit repair

and their kindness is great

surpassed only, perhaps, by their persistence

in seducing others into their beliefs

they do not understand that each man can

only believe.

that which is feasible to him

all religions are the same

each claims to be absolute

each denounces the others.

and out of it all the only things that make

any concrete sense to me

are the things they all seem to be missing

the mountains, trees, animals, seas

these are my god

and I must worship in my own way

without pressure

without crowds and display

listening to the song of the wind

the natural incense of the forest bathing my senses

in peace and freedom.



Poem written 12/22/1973

Cleveland, Ohio

Prose section begun Sebastopol, CA, date unknown

– additional material & revisions 10/29/2016-11/02/2016

This essay was written in the early oughts and published in 2004 in the anthology “I Do/I Don’t: Queers on Marriage” by Suspect Thoughts Press, edited by Greg Wharton and Ian Phillips. The anthology is available on Amazon and has a lot of other really good writing it. I remain honored to appear in its pages.

I am posting this to the blog now because this same bullshit procreation argument was trotted out again before the Supreme Court last Tuesday, April 28, 2015, and unfortunately I feel this piece remains relevant, in spite of the dated references (Hawaii, Prop 22, DOMA). It is my hope that some day, very soon, it will lose all relevance and become history.


I have long held the belief that one of the ways gay people naturally fit into their societies, one of the important functions we can fill, is as priests, shamans, etc. On July 4, 1999 I finally got my chance to act on that belief. I was asked to perform a wedding for two heterosexual friends who had first met in my home 8 years before. In order to legally to do this I went online and within minutes became an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church. I was now able to sign all the appropriate paperwork required by the government.

L&P wedding day2

Joe & Teresa, priest & priestess, after the ceremony (photo by Cathy Stanley)

I was working with a priestess, Teresa Von Braun, who had much more experience at such things than I, and the two of us met with the prospective bride and groom several times to put together exactly the kind of wedding they wanted (text at the bottom). We wrote our own text pulling in bits and pieces of things that were important to each of us. It would be spiritual without being religious. We even managed to work in sections from “Behold the Bridegrooms*,” the marriage ceremony James Broughton wrote for he and Joel Singer ‑ my friends liked the idea of using words originally written to unite two gay men in their own wedding.

For the ceremony I would wear a colorful jacket which had been hand sewn with raw silk and other fabrics by Gryphon Blackswan, an African‑American fashion designer, artist, writer, drag entertainer and friend who had died from AIDS several years earlier. Gryphon had really been into ritual and I could feel him smiling as I prepared to marry two people in one of his jackets. There would be a strain of queerness running through this straight wedding.

L&P wedding day

Penguin & Laura after the wedding ceremony, July 4, 1999

The ceremony was held outdoors in a redwood grove next to the Van Duzen river in Northern California. There were over 100 people in attendance, friends and family from both sides. I wasn’t entirely sure how some of them would react to what we were about to do and was trying to prepare for potential Christian indignation. To be on the safe side I did an invocation to Ganesh privately with the bride and groom before the ceremony itself.

Everything went according to plan. The four of us each performed his/her role and things moved along at a good clip so the attendees wouldn’t have a chance to get restless. Quickly we came to that part of the ceremony where I said, “And now, by the power invested in us…” and suddenly I felt something I’d never felt before and have not felt since. I almost stopped in mid‑sentence as I felt literally and abruptly vested with some kind of power. It was a physical sensation ‑ powerful, intimidating and frightening in its unexpectedness; joyous in the way it seized me so completely, like a psychic full‑body orgasm

As soon as possible after the ritual I hightailed it down to the river. I found a comfortable rock and took off my sandals. Stuck my feet in the cool water to ground myself and sat there trying to figure out what had just happened. I could still feel a remnant of the power resonating through me, though it had diminished greatly. Ultimately I could find no rational explanation. It seemed too intense to have simply been an anxiety attack ‑ besides, I know what those feel like. I found myself unable to reach any clear conclusion beyond calling it “magick” and letting go of it.

Later that afternoon I got the bride and groom alone for a moment. I told them what had happened and made it very clear to them that I hoped they had really wanted to be married because after what I’d experienced during that ceremony I was convinced that they really, really were. This had been way more than mere theater. They assured me that they did really, really want to be married, and that they had each felt the power too.

I went to sleep that night knowing I wanted that feeling inside me again. I decided that I would go out and perform more weddings right away (I have yet to do another one…. but I’m available). Beyond that, another thought formed: What had it felt like to be on the receiving end of that power rather than merely being the conduit? I suddenly couldn’t wait to meet Mr. Right so I could get married and find out. I wanted to feel that same power coursing through me and my beloved uniting us in ways we’d never be able to understand.

Meanwhile, over in Hawaii, it looked like that might become a possibility. A lower court had interpreted the Hawaiian constitution to outlaw discrimination of any kind ‑ including allowing people of the same sex to marry. This gave hope to many of us, while sending others into a tailspin of panic.

Less than a year after performing that wedding Pete Knight and the Christian right (sounding like a bad rock band) managed to get Prop 22 passed by a two‑thirds majority of my fellow Californians. This new law very simply said: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” I decided that, on a basic level, Prop 22 was a message from my neighbors & fellow citizens reminding me that I am not truly welcome here, but merely tolerated. It was a reinforcement of a sense of second class status and additional license to the marginally sane to continue and perhaps escalate their queer‑bashing and killing.

Gay marriage, which I’d never given much thought to, was suddenly a direct and emotional issue for me, especially since I was, by that time, in the kind of relationship that had me thinking wistfully along the lines of whatever might pass for my marriage options.

When discussion of Prop 22 came up before the election some of my heterosexual friends and acquaintances told me things like: “What’s the big deal? ‑ it has no real legal import.” Huh? Or, “Just ignore them and they’ll go away ‑ you people make way too much out of these things and it only feeds the nut cases.” Excuse me, but I’m the one the “nut cases” want to feed on, so forgive me if I’m a bit concerned.

My favorite comment was: “Don’t you understand that what you’re talking about here is a complete redefinition of marriage?” This from a friend, himself married several times, who was truly expecting me to agree with him. As near as I can see, marriage has been in a continuous process of redefinition for years, maybe centuries, mostly through the liberalization of divorce laws: same‑sex marriage is just a natural progression of the on‑going process of redefinition.

Marriage appeared to be a major dividing line among those who otherwise consider themselves tolerant and accepting. Many folks seem to support gay rights right up to that point, but then drop out saying something like: “But you have to admit ‑ marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman for the purpose of having children.” And why do I have to admit that? Am I to ignore all that wonderful research John Boswell did and presented in his book “Same‑Sex Unions in Pre‑Modern Europe”?

One thought I’ve had out of all this is to take further the idea that marriage is solely for the purpose of procreating, play it out and see where it leads us. If the intent here is, as alleged, to promote and preserve “the family” then why not go all the way?

I hereby propose that marriage only be allowed between a man and a woman who actually procreate. They will be given a certain amount of time in which to produce offspring, and if they have not done so within that time period, the marriage will be annulled and they will lose all the benefits automatically associated therewith.

Marriage licenses would have expiration dates, just like a drivers license or a credit card. Proof of procreation (live birth) would have to be provided to the county clerk prior to the expiration date in order to make the marriage permanent. A certified birth certificate might do, accompanied by blood test or DNA results attesting to the fact that these two particular people really did produce this specific child. I suppose some kind of life span requirement would be needed as well. The child would have to survive for at least a year, or some other reasonable period of time in order to preserve the marriage.

What if the woman is pregnant but not yet delivered when the marriage expiration date arrives? A certified form filled out and signed by the ob/gyn attesting to the pregnancy under penalty of perjury will get an extension sufficient for the child to be born. After that, see above.

Adoption? Perhaps. Say your marriage is about to expire & you haven’t conceived yet, your only option to annulment could be adoption. But this does present a small problem: single people and same‑gendered couples can and have adopted children. Thus, it is questionable whether marriage is necessary to the adoption process.

What if a couple are trying really hard but it just won’t happen? Sworn affidavits from fertility clinics attesting to the fact that the couple are actively attempting to procreate could be used to delay an annulment. But such delays would have to be limited lest they be used by the hopelessly infertile to merely prolong the fruitless union in a mere charade of true marriage.

You say you want to live with your beloved but don’t want to have kids right away? No problem, just don’t get married until you’re ready to have a family – since it is asserted that “family,” as traditionally defined, is all marriage is about. You can live together, open joint bank accounts, draft mutually beneficial wills, execute Powers of Attorney for Health Care, hold property as joint tenants, and in all ways present yourselves as a couple ‑ you just can’t get married. It’s almost the same thing.

So that’s my proposal. No half‑baked lip service to tradition, no hedging, no discrimination: no marriages without provable, bonafide procreation.

Unfortunately this would mean that my friends’ marriage, the wedding I helped solemnize, would be annulled, since they are blissfully beyond their breeding years. I wonder if that would make them feel less married? Somehow I doubt it.

So, here we are, post‑Prop 22, post‑DOMA with same‑sex marriages having been performed in three states in clear defiance of the law, Massachusetts opening the floodgates**, and constitutional amendment proposals popping up like mushrooms on cow pies, and here’s what I’m thinking:

I do not need a government to tell me I’m in love or to validate any relationship I have. My beloved and I and our community, our natural, chosen and found family, can and will provide all the validation we need.

I believe that should the time come when I decide I want to marry I will feel that same power I felt on July 4, 1999 and no slug‑of‑rancid‑pond‑scum who thinks he’s got a direct line to Jesus, Allah, Jehovah or the pResident*** himself is going to be able to stop it. Such people will be defeated and shown as the ignorant and fearful relics they are.

I believe that we will ultimately prevail. I don’t have to become a priest in order to fit into my society. We and our relationships will be recognized by our society for who and what we are. When I look at the history of this country I see a long and noble movement toward the recognition of freedom for ALL people.

There have always been periods, like the one we may be living through now, where movement seems to be going backwards toward repression, but in the end justice and equality will prevail. I have to believe that. For me, there is no other acceptable option.



*This poem/ceremony can be found in James Broughton’s book “Ecstasies.”

**As of the date of posting this to my blog I believe there are 38 states, and the District of Columbia, where marriage equality has been achieved. The pending Supreme Court decision could either bring the remaining 12 states into the marriage equality fold or potentially invalidate marriage equality where it currently exists.

***“pResident” is a reference to George W. Bush whose family I believe had purchased the office of president for him with able assistance of a biased and illegal Supreme Court ruling in his favor. I felt therefore that he was not the true president but was instead merely a temporary resident of the White House. Thus my idiosyncratic capitalization.



written by Laura, Penguin, Teresa & Joe


(before the ceremony)

You of the twisted trunk and the massive body, with the dazzle and light of millions of suns, lead us on a path that has no obstacles, no hindrances clearing the way in all that we do, ever and always.

1:45-2:00 (time will be flexible)

– Kent & Steve play acoustic music.

– Ushers bring people into the circle

2:00 – Kent and Steve stop playing music, then go into a special song.

– Teresa, Joe, Dan & Donna take their places in the circle.

– Penguin & Laura come down the steps, enter the circle.

2:05 – The song ends.

– After everyone is in the circle, the people at the four directions will position the benches to close in the circle.

Dan: The ceremony will begin.

Sam puts the rings on the table.

Donna takes flowers from Laura and puts them on the table.


Joe: Somewhere in the course of Hamlet Shakespeare says: “There is a divinity that shapes our lives, rough hew them as we may.” Perhaps he was puzzling over the unexpected turns his own life had taken. I know I am certainly a bit puzzled to find myself standing here today.

I first met Laura in 1973, and Penguin in 1979. About 8 years ago the two of them met at my home, and now here we all are. So let us begin.


(Freely arranged and adapted from James Broughton)

Dearly beloved all,

may all be loved dearly here!

Love is the free play of the divine

and we are here to bring the divine

freely into play.

Divest yourself of grouch,

be intimate with cheer,

be generous with caress.

For here, a wedding shall be solemnized.

Laura and Penguin, these two standing before us,

have assembled us here in this forest temple,

beside the water and between the winds,

to share in their celebration of the

deep astonishments of divine grace.

They ask to be joined sacramentally to

the enravishments of their love.

Here are we gathered to surround two lovers

here are we gathered to witness a grace of souls

here are we partners to a boldness of heart

here we gather love to surround these lovers

Let us praise their fine audacity.

Let us praise their risk of happiness.

Let us salute the spirit of love

that brings Laura and Penguin into

this circle of family and friends assembled

in this place of wondrous beauty.

Teresa: We come together in a spirit of reverence and love to celebrate a truly joyous occasion.

I am here today…

Today is a day of hope and harmony. A day when songs and sermons inspire new beginnings. This is a time for trust and faith, a moment when poems and prayers speak of courage and commitment. Today we witness the beauty in giving and the bounty in giving endlessly. This day is signified by the uniting of couples and families in an age old ritual of balance and completion. For today we gather to join in matrimony Laura and Penguin.

Joe: Laura and Penguin wish to give thanks to each of you gathered here, as well as to those who are unable to be here today, and to all those who are no longer physically among us but who remain always alive in our hearts.

Ancestors, Grandparents and Parents, Aunts and Uncles, Brothers and Sisters, Nieces and Nephews, Children, Spouses of Children, Grandchildren and the Family of Friends who have provided constant and inspirational support: we might not be standing here today if any one of you had been missing from the lives of Penguin and Laura. So, on this day, which is among the happiest of their lives, Penguin and Laura thank you for being who you are and sharing your lives with them.


True marriage is not an act of possession, it is a symbol of infinite oneness. It is an ongoing process allowing each to reveal their faith, humanity, aspirations, talents and their love to one another. This fusion of two lives enhances the individuality of each partner as it creates a supple and richly woven union.

This marriage is an intimate sharing arising from deep and abiding love. A love that provides both the courage to stand apart and the willingness to stand together. A love that has created a solid and lasting foundation. This commitment will support you through all the changes that inevitably occur as you each continue to learn and grow. Into this partnership, this state of matrimony, Laura and Penguin come now to be wed.

JOE: Introduction to the Vows

These sacred vows serve as an affirmation of mutual love, unity and life itself. The faith of two persons who love each other transcends all time, all places and boundaries. Creation is made more complete and meaningful with this miracle of love and fulfillment.


Teresa: Do you, Laura, take Penguin to be your wedded husband, to love and honor him, to cherish him as he is, to support and inspire him on his own path of growth, and to be a loving wife from this day forward?

Laura: I do.

Joe: Do you, Penguin, take Laura to be your wedded wife, to love and honor her, to cherish her as she is, to support and inspire her on her own path of growth, and to be a loving husband from this day forward?

Penguin: I do.

Teresa: Laura, please repeat after me: I, Laura, take you, Penguin, to be my wedded husband, to share my life and love. I vow to accept you and enjoy you as my partner. I will do my best to nourish our love as the inspiration for everything we do.

Joe: Penguin, please repeat after me: I, Penguin, take you, Laura, to be my wedded wife, to share my life and love. I vow to accept you and enjoy you as my partner. I will do my best to nourish our love as the inspiration for everything we do.


The ring is an image of the cosmic marriage, the wedding of heaven and earth, strength and yielding, male and female – the circle of life. These rings are symbols of your vows joining the wholeness of each person with the other within the cosmic oneness in which we all dwell.

This act of giving and receiving rings reminds us that love itself is an act of giving and receiving, the greatest gift that life has to offer. These rings proclaim to all your love and commitment to each other.

Penguin: You are my beloved and my friend. With this ring I thee wed.

Laura: You are my beloved and my friend. With this ring I thee wed.

Joe: Love seeks to grow, to draw us out of our own ways into co-operative ways. Love expands us to greater awareness. Love calls us out of ourselves into the pleasure of giving to one another. Love never ceases. Love opens us up to the mysteries of a live well-lived together. This day represents the beginning of an adventure shared in love.


Let us join together in prayer. Infinite and Eternal Spirit with whom to be in conscious union is pure joy, may this man and woman always be conscious of Your divine and indwelling presence. May their pathway be recognized through the light of love, causing their lives to unfold in harmony, abundance, health and joy. May their home always radiate love, unity, well-being and happiness. May whoever they encounter be blessed by the love and harmony of this marriage.

Thank you for giving us this day and this wonderful gathering of friends and family.

May your peace be upon us all.

Joe: It is not a priest, priestess or minister who marry you. You are married through your own commitment, each to the other, and through the presence that dwells within you. Now Laura and Penguin, under the authority vested in us by the State of California, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, who performs every true marriage, we pronounce you husband and wife.

Teresa: Those whom God has joined together may be generously blessed forever. You may kiss each other.

Joe: Greet the newly married couple, Laura and Penguin, husband and wife.

Music begins (from “Powaquattsi”).

Dan: The reception and Wedding Feast will begin at 4:00 up at the cookhouse.

Donna: The bride and groom will greet everyone in the meadow.

Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | April 22, 2015

COMING OUT AT WORK (1993) the early 1990s I spent 3½ years working as a paralegal for an attorney in a small northern California city. I was doing family law, which is basically a euphemism for divorce. In fact after spending 3 ½ years doing that I don’t think I’m ever going to get married. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let someone tell me that I can’t of course, but once I have the right to get married I don’t expect to ever use it.

I officially “came out” in mid-1990 after I went through detox and stopped drinking. There having been such a close relationship between my denial of my sexuality and my drinking that it seemed natural to come out once I dried out. When I began working for this attorney I presumed she knew I was queer. Back then I thought I was so obvious that everybody knew, in time I learned different. I wasn’t the only one motivated by denial, friends could also fall under that spell.

This attorney and I got along pretty well. She’d had a somewhat wild youth of her own in the bohemian haunts of New York City and I was just emerging from mine. One day she asked me if I’d ever heard of a photographer named Gary W, who she’d known and for whom she had posed back in her New York days. When I told her that indeed I had and that he was quite famous she asked me what I thought an original print of his might be worth. Well, W was well known for shooting film but not processing or printing (there were hundreds if not thousands of rolls of undeveloped film in his refrigerator when he died). I explained that he didn’t print that many photographs and most of what was available of his had been printed by other people. I told her that, in my humble opinion, if she had an original print of his, and was sure that he had printed it himself, it was probably worth a substantial amount of money. The next day she brought the photograph to work to show me. It was a nude. I didn’t know how to react. This was my boss showing me a photograph of her younger self, naked. I took it to mean that she liked and trusted me and thought of us as friends. The corners were a little dog-eared but otherwise it was in pretty good shape, not a bad print though not exactly Ansel Adams. If my memory serves, it had, if not a signature, some indication that W had printed it himself. I told her to take care of it. A week later she came in with it beautifully but simply and tastefully framed. She was suddenly proud of it. To my great relief she did not hang it in the office, but took it home.

Later, when it came time for the local Bar Association to assemble small portraits of all its members to hang in a framed display in the law library they hired a professional photographer to do this. The attorney did not like the photograph he took of her. She bought the copy in to show me and then asked me if I could shoot her picture for the bar display. I was flattered, I had done portrait photography before and made my own black-n-white prints, but I was not at all comfortable with the idea. Besides, to be honest not modest, I was not all that good at it. She pressed and I gave in and produced a stark, almost chiaroscuro black-and-white portrait, the solemnity of which was broken only by her wide, almost inappropriate smile. She loved it. She submitted it for the Bar Association’s display. Because it was so different from all the others they were not initially open to using it. But she insisted and eventually they gave in. The last time I looked that display was still in that county’s law library with my portrait of her standing out from the mediocre uniformity of the others. I tell you all this just to show that we appeared to have a fairly good relationship.

One day, after I’d been working for her for about 2 ½ years, I was standing behind her chair as she was seated and going through some recent work I had done. One of my jobs was to ghostwrite declarations for clients and witnesses. She took one of them and handed it back to me over her head saying: “rewrite this one, it sounds like some faggot wrote it.” I was shocked. I never expected something like that to come out of her and I wasn’t sure what to do. She just kept handing me things with her comments. Because I’d been standing behind her chair she could not see the look on my face. So she didn’t know anything was amiss.

I was really upset by what she’d said but I just could not say anything. My father drilled into me a fear of authority figures that I still struggle with. Whenever something would happen, some conflict with a teacher for instance, if I went to my father for support the first thing out of his mouth was always: “So, boy, what did you do? You must have done something or that nun wouldn’t have done that.” The assumption was always that I had done something wrong because the authority figure was apparently not capable of doing anything wrong. I grew to feel that my father was not supportive of me, that he would not stand up for me even if I was right.

A prime example occurred in 11th grade. I was taking algebra III, an advanced math class, and another student and I, his name was also Joe, were getting A’s on all the tests. Therefore we decided that we didn’t need to keep doing the homework assignments, which were just basically the rote copying of formulas. I don’t remember Mrs. Loucks, our teacher, ever saying anything to us about what would happen if we failed to turn in homework. I imagine it had all been explained at the beginning of the semester but we just kind of brushed it off and happily went on figuring we had an A in this class because we had aced all the tests. However, several weeks before the end of the semester she held us back after class and explained to us that for every homework missed she would drop us a letter grade and we were already deep into the alphabet. The other Joe told her she can’t do that. She basically responded: “try me.” At this point she told us that if we wanted to make up the homework we could do that. We agreed and she gave us a list of a week’s worth of homework. We got together after school, did the homework together and turned them in the next day.

Each homework had the date due and the assignment number in the upper right-hand corner. When we handed the first week’s worth of homework in to Mrs. Loucks she just went through and checked the right hand corners, marked them off in her book and handed them back to us along with the next set of assignments. When we saw that she hadn’t even looked at them we just went out that night and changed the dates and assignment numbers on the homeworks we had turned in that day and turned them in again the next day as another week’s worth. She just checked off the assignment numbers like she had the first day and handed them back to us. We did that until we had all the missing homework made up. At that point she informed us that any homework turned in late was only worth half value and so she was still flunking us both. That got me mad. I went home and told my dad what had happened. I wanted him to go to the school and tell them I had been a jerk for not doing the homework but I still had aced all the tests and that woman could not flunk me. Instead the exchange went something like this:
“Well, boy, did you do the homework?”
“Well, yeah.”
“When did you do it?”
“During the last two weeks.”
“Is that when it was due?”
“Then it’s your own fault. You deserve to flunk. You should’ve done the homework when you were supposed to.”

Yes, it was a wiseass thing for me to do but still I knew the material and I aced the exams. I did not deserve an F. I’d earned an A. But dad did not see it that way. And that was that. He was not going to go talk to the school. He was not going to stand up for me. I suppose this was intended to be some kind of learning experience. Was he trying to teach me to blindly follow the rules if I want to get by in this world? If so, I think I learned the wrong lesson. I learned that I could not depend on my father to take my side.

After the attorney was done I went back to my office to do the work she had assigned but what she said started festering. I didn’t know what to do about it. The idea of approaching her and telling her my reaction was just not part of my experience. This woman had my life in her hands, or at least my job, so I had to tread carefully.

This occurred just a few weeks before the winter holidays. I had already scheduled time off to go to my first New Year’s Billy Club gathering at Heartwood Institute. It was to be a life-changing experience for me. The Billy Club is a Radical Faerie inspired gay men’s group which I had only recently become involved with. Many things would happen at this gathering but one of the most important was finding myself with my bedroll on the floor of the Sunrise Classroom next to David L. I don’t think we’d met before but we became fast friends. At some point during the gathering I told him about the incident with the attorney and what she had said. He had no hesitation. He told me I had to confront her about it. That I could not tolerate it. We talked about it quite a bit and by the time we were done I was determined to have it out with her.

When I returned to work after the gathering she came into my office and asked me how it went. I told her it was transformative. She said, “Maybe my husband would enjoy it.”
“I don’t think your husband would be comfortable there.” I replied, hoping she’d ask me why not. Instead, she let it drop.
She then gave me the assignments she had come in with and went back to her office. I sat there seething. I knew I had to confront her but I was terrified of doing it. That coward inside my head kept telling me how hard it would be to find another job and how uncomfortable it was sleeping under bridges, especially with 3500 vinyl record albums and hundreds of books. So I got up and went into her office.

“Let me tell you why I don’t think your husband would be comfortable with my men’s group. It’s a gay men’s group. I’m gay.”

She appeared stunned. Then she said something I’d never heard addressed to me before. She said: “But you don’t look like one. You don’t sound like one. My best friend in college was one.”
By this time I was cringing, to be honest I think it was more with embarrassment for her because of what she was saying and how utterly stupid it was. Then she looked at me and said: “So after over two years why do you suddenly feel compelled to tell me this now?”

If I wasn’t already sweating I certainly started then. “A couple of weeks ago you said…” And I reminded her of what she had said and explained how I had reacted, how it made me feel and how offended I have felt ever since.

She said: “All I meant was…”
I cut her off right there, “I know exactly what you meant, and it was very offensive.”
She then tried to excuse it, to claim some special right to insult me. “My friend in college and I used to faggot this and faggot that all the time – he was never offended.”
“Maybe that was okay between you and your friend in college. And maybe it’s okay with me and my friends up in the mountains. But I do not think it’s appropriate in a law office.”
By this time I was shaking and she had to have noticed unless she was so wrapped up in her own narcissism that she couldn’t see anything beyond her own discomfort, which is likely.

Finally she said she wouldn’t say anything like that again if it made me feel better. I said it would, then thanked her. After another awkward moment or two I went back to my office and sat down. Still shaking but suddenly feeling like I’d done something very important for myself. I had finally stood up to an employer, to somebody in authority, to somebody with control over my life. And on top of that I had told that person I was gay.

By the next day I had gotten over the shaking and the fear and I thought everything was going to be fine. But it wasn’t. Slowly we began having more and more conflicts and slowly I began voicing my opinions more than I’d ever done before. I disagreed with her when I felt she was wrong about something and I let her know when I thought something wasn’t right. We began to butt heads. I didn’t connect any of this with my coming out to her.

One particular incident comes to mind. A friend of mine died under somewhat unusual circumstances. He was masturbating with a plastic bag over his head while huffing cleaning products. His roommate found him in the morning, dead. Somehow the attorney I worked for wound up handling the probate of his relatively substantial estate. Since we didn’t do probate law this surprised me. It turned out that she was going to be depending on me to handle most of it because I’d recently taken a probate law class. She was also thinking of expanding the practice beyond family law and this was her first step.

The problem was that she kept coming in my office periodically with a copy of my friend’s death certificate. Each time she would read out loud to me the corner’s conclusion as to the cause of death and then giggle like a school girl. The official cause of death was “accidental asphyxiation during act of auto-eroticism.” She found that remarkably funny. Now this guy had not been a close friend of mine. In fact we were probably more acquaintances than friends, although we might have become friends the way we were going. Nonetheless I found her actions offensive. I thought it was really unprofessional to laugh over this guy’s death certificate. I explained to her that he was a friend of mine, but it didn’t seem to make any difference. Eventually, when my reluctance to work on the case became clear, she stopped involving me in it. She was clearly displeased, but then so was I. We were not getting along very well anymore.

She used to complain about not being taken as seriously as an attorney because she was a woman. That the preeminent divorce attorneys in the area were all men or so people claimed. Then she came back from court one day and told me that the opposing counsel, a man, had called her a barracuda. I told her that was wonderful. She was a little shocked by that. She said it was an insult. I told her I thought she wanted to be seen as a tough opponent and so being characterized by opposing counsel as a barracuda should have been a complement. She didn’t think so. She wanted to have it both ways. She wanted to be Ms. Nicey-nice and a take-no-prisoners hard-core attorney at the same time. It’s just that it was hard to reconcile those two.

After a number of months she said she was hiring an efficiency expert to come in and tell us how to run the office better. I actually thought that was a good idea. Her office was always a mess. She would stack files up on the floor along the wall under her windows. There would be stacks of files on her desk, always threatening to fall over, mixed in with old food wrappers and paper cups of coffee with mold growing in them. My concern was that this haphazard approach to law would lead to a malpractice suit when some deadline, and there was always some kind of deadline in family law, should pass without our noticing because the file was lost in the miasma of her office.

One day she announced that the next afternoon she and I would be meeting with the efficiency expert as a mediator to try and sort out our problems. I was a little taken aback by this because I thought things were going pretty good all in all, now that I was asserting myself more. Apparently my asserting myself more was not going down well with her. In fact that basically was the problem.

We sat at a small table in my large office and the efficiency expert started off by saying, “So when did the problem begin?”
“I guess it started after I made that Nellie remark and he took offense to it.”
“‘Nellie remark?’ What do you mean?”
“You know exactly what I mean.” And suddenly I did. She had not actually used the word ‘Nellie’ that day or since, but it was certainly what she meant. I just hadn’t thought of it in quite those terms.
The meeting went downhill from there. She began complaining about the arrogance I’d exhibited since that happened and how I needed to learn, or perhaps re-learn, who the boss was. Sitting there I realized that this is exactly what I had expected to happen before I’d opened my mouth. If I stood up for myself, I would get punished. At the end of the meeting we had a set of working agreements. In addition I understood that I was to stop disagreeing with her, although that was not set out in writing.

One of the things that was specifically set out was that she agreed to leave the office one afternoon a week and allow me to go through everything piled up on her desk looking for potential malpractice suits. This was how I learned about the moldy paper cups of coffee. One day while doing this I ran across a notebook full of dated handwriting. It quickly became clear that it was a diary of a husband’s transgressions to be used in a divorce case. I was reading through it to try and figure out which file it belonged to, since there was no name or file number on it, and realized that it was the attorney’s own divorce diary. Clearly she was planning on divorcing her husband. He was an attorney in a different specialty whose office was in the next small city up the road and he would not know what was coming. When it came to divorce that was her territory, not his.

One afternoon, after she’d filed the divorce papers, she sat down in my office. She said that she would be cutting my hours because business was down and her income had dropped. Well, I knew better. I knew the business was just fine but I also knew why her income had dropped. She was doing a lot of trade arrangements with clients whenever she could. So if she was representing a carpenter and she needed some work done on her house (which her husband had by this time vacated) she would swap legal fees for his expertise. In this way the business stayed approximately the same but her income, on paper, took a nosedive. It was clear to me that she was suppressing her income so that when it came time for the court to assess child support and determine if spousal support was appropriate she would be in a position to obtain more from her soon-to-be ex-husband. I didn’t quite think this was fair but it was none of my business, so I stayed out of it.

She cut my hours and then a couple weeks later cut them again, and then cut my days. Soon I was only working 20 hours a week. So I began drafting Marital Settlement Agreements out of my home for couples referred to me by friends and acquaintances. This was what I knew how to do now and she had reduced my hours to where I could barely pay the bills so I started doing it on my own. My mistake was to recommend to each couple I worked with that they pay for an hour of attorney time and have them review the final papers. My attorney was one of the ones on a short list I gave to them.

When she found out I was doing this out of my home she flipped out. She called me into her office and told me I was to stop immediately because as long as I worked for her people would presume she was reviewing everything I did. I made it clear to her that I made it clear to my clients that nobody was reviewing my work, especially including her. That is why I suggested they take it to an attorney for review before filing it with the court. That was how she found out I was doing it. A couple I had done paperwork for took it to her for review. And there is the essence of my mistake because once a perfectly amicable divorcing couple get into an attorney’s office the attorney whips them up into a froth of indignation and anger and before you know it two attorneys have new clients.

What I would do was talk with the two people who came to me with their agreements and draft legal paperwork saying what they wanted to say. What the attorney did was to sit down with them and say: “Why are you letting him have that boat? Half of it belongs to you.” Or, “Don’t you think it’s a little generous to just let him pick up the kids whenever he wants? Don’t you think you should be able to have a clearly defined schedule so you know how to plan your own life?” And by the time she was done with them the amicable split had become a vicious fight. This is one of the things I really didn’t like about family law.

Eventually she laid me off entirely, a nice way of saying she fired me. I went on unemployment and after four months got work with another attorney in a different area of law: her husband. The joke was that they were dividing up the community property and he got the paralegal. To his great credit he never once asked me anything personal or financial about his soon to be ex-wife’s business. He kept me completely out of the divorce except to help him draft forms, which I was pleased to do.

After I’d been working for him for a year or so, and the divorce was heating up, he told me one afternoon that she had been wanting to fire me for at least a year before she did. She held off because she was afraid I would sue her for sexual orientation discrimination. That threw me for a loop. It never occurred to me that might’ve been behind her slow cutting me loose. I thought it was entirely to do with my new attitude. I was grateful to the husband for telling me this because it helped me put the last year working for her into perspective. And, while it endorsed my fear that coming out would have dire consequences, it confirmed my determination to do so and to keep doing so in spite of those consequences.

Every job interview I’ve done since working for her has been a coming out. And after every job interview I’ve had since working for her I was offered the job. Changes in attitude, both in myself and in society at large, have made it safer for me to be open about who I am. And after spending the first half or more of my life hiding from who I am, that is a sweet relief.


begun 03/29/2015
version completed 04/22/2015
Sebastopol, CA

These poems have been selected from the many inspired by my open-heart surgery in early November, 2012. Most of them are ways of remembering and many of them are attempts to deal with the emotions and confusion that came out of the surgery experience. I did not know I had heart disease and it all happened so fast that I barely had time to register it before it was over. This is some of what has come out of it so far. – M. J. Arcangelini (updated w/revisions 02/27/2016)

“It was an illusion that we were ever alive.” – Wallace Stevens

“I survived myself; my death and burial were locked up in my chest. I looked round me tranquilly and contentedly, like a quiet ghost with a clean conscience…” – Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

“And yet nothing has been changed except what is
Unreal, as if nothing had been changed at all.” – Wallace Stevens



the poet’s heart is overactive,
the doctor tells him –
inappropriate beats thumping away,
multi-sourced without discernible rhythm,
without navigable purpose –

what are you thinking about?
the doctor asks
nothing, says the poet
nothing special –
yet the poet’s heart is overactive –

the poet thinks:
there should be no surprise in this,
isn’t that my job?
open eyes, open ears, open nostrils,
overactive heart –

yes, no surprise –
it all fits


he was snaking that thing,
that camera, the laserlight,
through my body and there,
just before the tubes empty
into the atrium, on the video
monitor I had been watching
before unconsciousness over
took me, he spotted it,
my expiration date –
there in the place too narrow
for a stent to wedge,
my expiration date –
spread across three arteries,
repeated, a motif, a design, a sign,
my expiration date –

When the cardiologist said
he was checking me into the
hospital right then, when I
had only come there for a test
he was telling me he had
seen my expiration date and
he was about to throw me
in the freezer to see how
much longer I could last –


The surgeon enters my hospital room
walks over to my bed, smiles,
offers an ethereal handshake,
a wisp of church frankincense
in this cathedral of medicine.
He sits down and starts the
questions: “Where were you born?”
He takes me chronologically
through my life, until we are
back to this hospital room.

He doesn’t inquire into my diet
nor castigate me for lack of exercise.
He doesn’t tell me what he’s going
to do when he operates on me.
He doesn’t ask me if I want surgery.

My first thought is that he is
crazy and I became frightened
that this is my surgeon.
That he is going to open me up
and mess around with my insides.

Then, like a locked door
Suddenly falling open,
I see that he has humanized me.
He has found what he needs to know
so I won’t just be the next
slab of meat on the table.
I will be a person to him, with a history,
and he will operate on that person
not just on the body beneath his scalpel.

I know now that he is the one
I want operating on me –
terror temporarily recedes
beneath his voice.


was i plucked from the edge of a cliff
i didn’t know i as on? sleepwalking
under all those sweet drugs? saved from
a danger i didn’t know i was in?

did i die when they sliced open my chest,
sawed through my sternum
to open the rib cage like
a spring-loaded bear trap,
then collapsed my lungs and
rolled them up out of the way?
when they stopped
my heart to rebuild a part
– was that a kind of death?

was I then resurrected?
and what am I now?
how can life go on the way it was before,
knowing what I know about what was done,
knowing how I have temporarily cheated
death with the help of the surgeon –
how the surgeon has cheated death on
my behalf – is this something between the
two of them? some competition, some deal –
does the surgeon too play chess with death?
but this Seventh Seal was only half broken –

everything now relates to the surgery
there is nothing which does not appear
to have emerged from the surgery
as though there was nothing before
the surgery and everything has been
created anew out of its violence
the rest of my life emerging from my
chest like a baby emerging from the cunt,
dripping, bloody and squalling
there is no part of my life which is not
touched by the surgery
there is not a thought, an action, intent
which does not seem to arise somehow
from the surgery –

was I dead before the surgery
or am I dead now? what am I now?
have i been to the land of the dead
and come back or did they keep me
tethered to life with their machines,
what is there to bring back from that?

a revenant, shadow of myself,
walking dazed and angry
without understanding why

begun 11/18/2012
Sebastopol, CA

a revenant = A person who returns from the dead;
a reanimated corpse; a ghost, a zombie


34 years too late for him
I had the surgery that could
have saved my father’s life

my mother, 2000 miles across
the country awaiting word
from the surgeon
on the fate of her firstborn
must have wondered

so many miles
so many years
too many questions


Crawling into consciousness
In the ICU –
A day and a half missing –
Nauseous –
“Happy bucket” perched on my chest,
That’s what the nurse’s aide called it,
To catch the verging vomit
Which never emerged.
I hadn’t eaten anything in two days.

Friends visiting, in the afternoon
Uncertain apparitions and that
Day and a half lost
Memories of it buried in the
Bone & sinew
The body remembering
What the mind cannot recall
The drugs, sweet companions,
“You were quite a handful
In the recovery room”
The night nurse told me,
“Pulling out lines and tubes”
Bruises on the wrists and scratches.

No room available I stayed in the
Expansive recovery area for two days
The nurse’s aide arguing with me
About using the piss bottle when I
Wanted to get up and go to the toilet –
I can’t piss in a bottle in bed I told her.

Then the move to a room of my own
All the wires and tubes
Mechanical hums, beeps, and tweets.

Massaging booties at night
Alternating soothing hydraulic chords.

And the cold – the temperature
Kept low to inhibit bacterial growth
Makes me hear it as the “icy you”
Nurses bearing heated blankets
Like sweet warm embraces
In lucid moments I pretend
There is a window open
And the cold comes from outside
Refreshing me
But this space is as windowless
As a womb.

The drugs. The dreams. The nightmares.
The nurses sensitive to all my needs
Before I know them myself
The respiratory therapists showing up
On schedule to re-inflate my lungs
The days and nights conflated
Into a single span of time
Reduced to an always present.


They tell me I fought in the recovery room,
violent they say, striking out at anyone
who dared to come near.
Yanking out tubes and wires which had been
skillfully placed to keep me alive until finally
they got me strapped down to a gurney
and pumped full of drugs
for sedation, for control,
for their own relief
as much as my own,
maybe more –

Might I then have met my wraith?
Hovering above my carved and bloody body,
gripping me in its bony grasp and
thrashing me around in hopes of
birthing itself, my own ghost, into this life –

I awoke the next afternoon, nauseous and
baffled, swimming up out of the drugs
as though through a heavy oxygen-infused oil –
I remembered nothing of the rearranging
of my parts, of my reluctance to return,
but my body remembered –
those occasional ornaments of medicine,
bruises and scratches, adorned both wrists.

And the tubes and wires all carefully replaced,
emerging like stray porcupine quills
sharp, awkward, but useful –
each held in place with sutures –
the long incisions, I would later learn,
glued together like a broken tea cup –
an unacknowledged byproduct of the
Vietnam war I had so staunchly protested
and now, decades later, reap benefit from –

Fearful at having betrayed my body,
angry at my body’s betrayal of me,
as though we could somehow be
separated –
I drew my wraith back in with a deep
and difficult inhale, deep enough to
please the respiratory therapist,
deep enough to hide, to bury within
my flesh again the clawed and fanged
beast struggling to escape.


Down the hall a man
cries out in pain
“oh please!
oh please!
oh please!
help me!”
in my head his cries merge
with an old Beatles tune,
the bouncy pop song urgency
so in-congruent with his plea

“10 out of 10” he cries
describing his pain level
I think of my pain,
of how easy it has become
to say 3 out of 10
instead of 6 out of 10
because the drugs fill the gap
and I fear that I will lose
control of my pain
as this man down the hall
has done

A doctor arrives
to tend to the man –
he and I in here
at the same time
me just waiting
to go home
and he just
to die.

ROOM 304

rumor is that there are machine guns
mounted on the insides of the elevator shafts

and special sensors to detect the presence
of drafty hospital gowns in forbidden halls

keep a man in hospital long enough
and they’ll find a way to kill him

rev (w/help from Lang) 06/08/2013
Sutter Hospital, Santa Rosa/Sebastopol, CA


time is distorted in the ICU, fluid in spite of
the calendar in every room telling me what
day it is one day at a time, in spite of the
clocks on the walls, which only seem to be
there to remind me at what absurd hour i
have been awakened to have my vitals taken,
along with small vials of blood – the lights
are dutifully adjusted on schedule to reflect
the agree-upon reality outside the unit and
activity slows down during those hours when
people whose lives are not teetering in quite
the same way try, to various degrees of success,
to sleep, but with no windows onto that world
these divisions of the day could as well be
random – here flow constant IV pain medications,
and sleep can come at any time of the day or
night, consciousness fades in and out, fluctuating
in degree – it does not discriminate, and the regular
patterns of checking blood pressure, heart rate/pulse,
oxygen saturation, respiratory rate, temperature
punctuate the twenty-four pre-arranged day,
dividing it up like the slashes on the side of a
measuring cup, more reliable than any clock –

they call it a schedule and maybe
outside the squishy, drug drenched
haze in which I spent those first days
post-surgery there was something
which might reasonably be called
a “schedule” but it was difficult to
discern lying in that bed, hour after
hour, fading in and out of consciousness,
the powerful drugs given direct access
through the IV to my blood,
to my brain,
to my
self –
distorting the world outside in unpredictable ways –

perhaps there was something one could
call a schedule, but it was alien to me

I was as likely to awaken at 2:30 AM
with no inclination to return to sleep as
I was to drift off into unconsciousness at
2:30 PM, without much in the way of warning

i wake just before 2 AM and work on this poem
still operating on hospital time though two weeks
out of the ICU cocoon – outside the window is
the deep darkness of a cloud covered night,
rain dripping and the wind blowing each drop
there is no reason for me to pay attention
to the time, but I do, the same way the hospital
had clocks on every wall even though it meant
nothing – like putting a railing on a particularly
steep mountain trail even though they know
the winter rains will wash it away every year –


in the movie I’m watching, the handcuffed
steroid case in the elevator with three or four
cops proceeds to swiftly and surely demolish
them before one finally shoots him and even then
he appears to survive them long enough to feel
victory arisen from pure and undiluted rage –

I glance at the shadows on the insides of my wrists
where the scratches and bruises are fading away
and try to imagine myself doing what has been described –
they say I came into the recovery room hysterical,
violent, trying to pull tubes and wires out of myself
and to harm anyone who tried to stop me – I don’t
know how many of them it took to subdue me, the
nurse didn’t say for sure, three or four – they tied me
to the bed and injected more and more drugs until I
finally became docile and fell fully into the abyss of
unconsciousness, unawareness, loss of self –

from underneath that state I have no memory
just an odd mourning for something lost that
i’m probably better off without – loss and a
sense that the memories remain inside hidden
somewhere to later become accessible as dreams
and nightmares, the mysterious raw materials of
poetry or perhaps to merely linger just under
the surface and color everything i say and do
without attribution –

to have the drugs release all constraints on actions
and leave me free, as free as that guy in the elevator
in the movie, to do what feels right at that moment –
to live and act without restraint if only
for the briefest time before i die and then to
live just long enough to savor how that feels.

Sebastopol, CA
rev 07/07/2013-09/22/2013
Hydesville, CA
The film referred to is “Bullhead” (2011),
wtr/dir. Michael R. Roskam


What was once ignorance’s illusory bliss
has given way, through the surgeon’s
knife and needle, to a series of certainties
no longer avoidable – the knowledge and
understanding i thought i had before, now
revealed as the shallow deceptions necessary
to sustain the mundane activities on which
i’ve wasted my life for too long –
i want
adventure again –
i want endless roads and
seemingly unreachable peaks
at the end
of steep winding wilderness trails,
i want the feeling of moving toward the unknown
and beyond –
i want to feel alive and free and, yes, young –
to live out of my backpack again,
travel on my thumb,
sleep where ever i find myself –
never sure what the next day may bring –

but now there is health insurance to consider,
the next surgery,
the constant medications,
the groaning joints and gaseous gut
and this house full of shit i can’t cut loose –
there is the reality of 60 years of living,
some of them as hard as i could make them,
and whether life is sweeter now than it was
before is too difficult a question to answer –

the unknown has occupied the mundane
and things can never be the same –

Santa Rosa/Sebastopol, CA

(a tanka & haiku upon returning home from hospital)

five-twenty AM –
this profound silence tells me
i am home again –

no click, no whir, no alarm
disturbs the morning stillness

Sebastopol, CA

looking out at the
morning as day awakens –
these familiar trees

Sebastopol, CA


Visits in hospital and phone calls.
They fetch my mail, notify others,
Listen to my drugged confusion.
Hang out, uncertain what to do.

Once released to home I am still
Banned from driving for 30 days,
The friends schlep me here and there,
That red, heart-shaped pillow
Clutched fearfully to my chest.
To the market, the drugstore,
To Thanksgiving dinner
In a fancy restaurant.
They bring meals. Do my laundry.
Lift the heavy stuff.
Mediate with visiting nurses.
Sit with me and watch movies.
Listen to more confused babble,
The absurd questions
The experience has spawned.
Respect solitude when
Everyday life is too much and
Profound issues must be
Wrestled with alone.

Through it all the friends come,
Until they don’t.


the house is quiet again,
the phone hardly ever rings
I have become old news
everyone has seen the evidence
everyone has done their bit
everyone has grown tired of hearing:
yes, I feel better than yesterday
and i’ve grown tired of saying it

it’s all old news now, me and
the rain falling lazy outside
no more the violent storms of
the last few days, or not yet,
tonight another storm will come,
or maybe it won’t – old news –

and the violence of the surgery is
old news, even to me who dwells
on it in the silent mornings, the quiet
afternoons, the sleepless nights –
rolling the details round and around
in my head like marbles in a bone box,
imagining what it might have felt like,
wondering if those memories will
ever rise back to conscious awareness,
emerging out of the dirt of obscurity
like the shards of glass that turn up in
the yard, squeezed by time out of the
hard earth to slice an unwary bare foot-

Sebastopol, CA


every morning in the mirror
that brick-red slash down
the middle of my chest and
the smaller, orbiting asterisks –

i’m told that in time this
welt will become a white
ghost of itself drawn
beneath the sparse hair –
memories fading with it,
bragging rights reserved,
while i try to preserve the
feelings, replace the fading
images with words, creating
an external memory to replace
what gets lost in the healing –

to not forget anything –

Sebastopol, CA



as the numbness slowly fades it leaves these
odd pains within the left side of my chest,
muscle adhesions tightening and letting loose,
evidence of scars beneath the surface to match
these visible reminders scattered across my torso,
reaching down my right leg to below the knee –

connect the scars, like dots, to see what they
hide, what image will emerge, what man has
been reborn from the surgeon’s scalpel
sutures and glue, veins re-used for arteries –

connect the dots to uncover
disguised as a rebuilt engine
good for at least another 20 years –
the good doctor said that
and i believe him
i suppose

a new constellation of skin instead of sky
a personal zodiac of obscure meaning
open to multiple interpretations –
mortality is part of the surgeon’s mercy
the guarantee inscribed in the flesh
20 more years, 20 more years

20 more years.

begun 10/11/2013 draft 11/02/2013
Sebastopol, CA

“I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.” – Jack London

what of the deaths of friends –
drug deaths
car crash deaths
suicides, disease
their names run from me now
evading detection
abhorring the uses to which they
could be put by the living –

or have i hidden them
fearful of the responsibility survival bestows?

we could spend eternity mourning the dead
there are enough dead already to do that

so let the mourning begin but
let somebody else do it,

not me – i am too alive again, reborn
in unimaginable ways, to let grief
slow me down anymore
than necessary –

i note each loss
each hole in my life
i mourn and grieve in my own way
but life does not stop

i want to hold the friends i
have left in some safe grip, a
fortress embrace to protect them,

kicking away anything that
might bring harm – as though
i could wrap myself around them,
a fog that death could not
see through to find any
of them when he thinks their
time is up.


You think that’s easy? Being a poet’s heart?
Then you try it – let’s set aside genetics,
we’ll presume he had no control over that and
won’t hold it against him
but all that bleeding heart, flowery poet bullshit,
running around like he thinks he’s the only one
who can truly feel things –
I’m the one who pays for that,
why do you think they call it “bleeding heart”?

Now let’s consider hamburgers and bacon for a moment,
and cheese, let’s not forget cheese, he seldom has –
and you think those extra pounds he’s put on are a piece of cake?
Don’t get me started on cake –

And the way he goes for weeks or months
without anything that could be stretched to be considered exercise,
and then suddenly expects me to spend three hours
hiking up some mountain.
Okay, so maybe it wasn’t a mountain, it was a damned steep hill
I still can’t figure out why he bothers spending
all that money every month on a gym membership.
He hardly ever goes, there’s always some excuse.

But really, he never thinks about me –

And all that unrequited love,
years of it, decades of it,
you think that’s easy for a heart to deal with?
How many times do you think one heart
can be broken before it just gives up?
Well, I could almost tell you exactly how many times –
because I finally had it – enough, I said,
I’m throwing in the towel – I quit.
My decision had been made
and I was not about to turn back.
I was all set to be done with this
and then, before I could take action,
he went to that god damned cardiologist.
I wasn’t even giving him any trouble yet,
I hadn’t even begun to show him what
I=m capable of when I get mad enough.
And yet there he was getting an EKG
and a chemical stress test.

I’d thought I was done with all this
that I would finally get some rest,
the eternal kind.
But noooooo,
I wasn’t about to get what I wanted.
Like always this was all about Joe
and before I knew it the surgeon
had sawed through Joe’s sternum,
rolled his lungs up out of the way
and was staring at me,
lying there naked
under those ridiculous lights
with people in masks and latex gloves
standing all around, watching –

And then they stopped me.

That had never happened before and while
it was certainly what I’d been contemplating
I didn’t like the fact that it had suddenly
been taken out of my control –

By the time they woke Joe up it was all over –
I had been re plumbed
against my will –
I could feel blood rushing back through
my chambers,
moving like it hadn’t in decades,
I almost felt young again –
I guess I’m not going anywhere now,
not for a while anyway –
Joe is getting a second chance.

But I’ll tell you this much,
the son-of-a-bitch doesn’t deserve me –
and he doesn’t deserve another chance –
look at him, has he lost any weight?
He’s already pigging out on pizza
The next thing you know he’ll be
falling in love again,

and we’ll see where that leads.

Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | May 23, 2013

BOB AT THE BANK (San Francisco, 1981)

The teller approached me with a government
check in one hand and, in the other,
a third string ID card without a photo
– not quite a library card,
but not too many steps above one –

He doesn’t have an account with us, she said,
and he wants to cash this check –
i was sitting at my desk, she was standing in front of it –
she thrust both pieces of paper in my face –

the check was payable to a Bob Kaufman
the third string ID card had the same name

i looked up at her and said
Is this the Bob Kaufman?

if she’d had a little more wattage
the look she gave me might’ve risen to clueless,
instead, it was simply blank –

i stood up and looked down the long teller line
to where i gauged her window must be –

there, leaning slightly across the counter, fidgeting,
was a slender black man in ragged clothes who
looked as out of place in that bank as i felt –
i recognized him from photographs –

the poet was here trying to cash his government check
and this child from a mormon employment agency,
who dreamed of little beyond marriage and breeding,
had no idea who he was and
wouldn’t of cared even if she had –

i scrawled my initials in a corner on the front of the check,
approving it for cash,
but when she reached for it, i gripped it tight –

You treat that man with respect, i said,
trying to wedge a vague edge of threat into
my best imitation of a managerial voice,
he is a great poet –

Him? She said,
voice flat and brittle as an ancient page of microfiche –

Any time that man comes in here with a check, i said,
you bring it straight to me –

Okay, she said, reluctantly,
if you say so.
But I don’t think that ID of his
is really any good –

Never mind, i said, i vouch for him –

Well, it’s your job, she tossed back and headed to her window –
having no idea that the sashay she injected into her ass
as she walked away held no sway over me –

from a discreet supervisorial distance i watched
while she counted out the money

saw the poet thank her
pocket the cash and
quietly leave

that was the only time i saw him in the bank,
i was never called upon to approve another of his checks –

occasionally i would see him on Upper Grant street,
or walking down Columbus, or up Broadway,
or at a sidewalk coffeehouse table –

usually alone
often looking lost
or confused –

then i left The City
and moved north –

i never saw him again.


01/26/2012 – 02/09/2012
minor revisions 07/13/2012
Sebastopol, CA

Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | November 21, 2012

Remembering James Broughton (November 10, 1913 – May 17, 1999)

“Memory may forget a lot but it never forgets what should have occurred. All the events in this book are true, including those that did not happen.” – James Broughton, introduction to his memoir “Coming Unbuttoned”

James Broughton’s birthday was November 10, mine is November 8 and on November 9, 1991 (a palindromomic year) he was giving his annual Bay Area birthday reading at Small Press Traffic, a bookstore then located at 3599 24th Street at the corner of Guerrero, in San Francisco. That year he was turning 78, exactly twice the age I was turning, 39 – somehow all those coincidental numbers seemed terribly significant to me at the time, although I have no idea what significance they could possibly have held or could continue to hold. Maybe someone into numerology or some other esoteric form of divination could enlighten me.

Broughton was living in Port Townsend, Washington at the time, but had a long-established tradition of doing a poetry reading in the San Francisco Bay area each year for his birthday. This I presume went back to his days as a Bay Area resident. I was living in Humboldt County at the time and was down in the Bay Area to attend a Consumer Law/Small Claims seminar in San Rafael in connection with my job for the Small Claims Court adviser for Humboldt County. I was taking advantage of being there to visit with friends in San Francisco and Vallejo. I was also treating myself to a birthday binge, spending, as usual, too much money on books and recorded music.

I don’t remember if I knew about Broughton’s reading in advance or if I stumbled upon it when I got to The City. I would have made a stop at Small Press Traffic anyway, looking for rare, out of the mainstream publications by the obscure poets I have always favored. Ever since discovering them in their Noe Valley location, Small Press Traffic had become one of my favorite bookstores. They were unique, there was no one else like them specializing entirely in small press publications, many of which were in limited editions and the costs of which were always reasonable. In those pre-Internet days finding such a resource was invaluable, especially for someone living behind The Redwood Curtain in the chosen isolation of the Humboldt County coast. A trip to Small Press Traffic was always a highlight of any visit to The Bay Area.

I got there considerably early to allow myself time to pore over the racks and shelves of small press publications. To my great surprise and delight I found, among the racks of magazines, several copies of Taproot #17/18, which included one of my poems and three of my collages. I got an immense kick out of seeing it there, made me feel like a “real” writer to be able to walk into a bookstore and find something I had written on the shelf.

I also took advantage of the time to familiarize myself more with Broughton’s work. At that point I had read, and greatly enjoyed, “The Androgyne Journal” (1977) which I found highly intriguing. I had picked it up out of curiosity when I was living in the Swiss American Hotel in North Beach in the late 1970s. I had never read anything quite like it; imagine someone saying that “Shame is no longer possible” when I had been taught that there are so many things of which one could and should be ashamed. As a former catholic schoolboy I was well aware of most of them and dead-set on discovering the rest. James later sent me a copy of the 1991 revised and expanded edition of the Journal and on rereading it those many years later I was as delighted and intrigued as the first time.

However I was then less familiar with his poems, which I had only here-to-fore encountered piecemeal in magazines and anthologies. I had not yet had an opportunity to see any of his films but I had certainly read about them. I chose and purchased two books of his poetry, “Ecstasies” and “Graffiti For The Johns Of Heaven.” The clerk pointed out that he was due to be there for the reading very soon. He then looked at me and said, “So, are you a poet too?”

“Yes,” I replied, perhaps too enthusiastically, “in fact, you can see some of my work in that magazine right over there on your shelf.” I had, of course, been waiting for an opportunity to bring this to somebody’s attention. But the clerk was not terribly impressed. “Yeah,” he said, “other poets are about the only people who ever show up for poetry readings. So I figured you must be one.” Though somewhat deflating, I wasn’t going to let that not-terribly-original observation wilt my growing enthusiasm. I settled down in one of the folding chairs which the clerk had set up in preparation and began reading Broughton’s poems with great delight and increasing anticipation.

I was sitting in the first or second row and slowly people began meandering in and filling the remaining chairs until there were somewhere between 12-20 of us. Then James Broughton arrived with a few friends. He was, as so many people say about artists they admire, shorter than I expected him to be, but the ferocity of his gaze tempered by the kindness of his manner caused him to occupy a space much larger than his body.

There was a brief introduction and then James began reading. To say I was transported out of that room into a realm I’d never occupied before is putting it lightly – there was real magic in the air. Listening to James read his poetry was like being teleported into an unknown landscape in which one nonetheless felt completely comfortable, as though one were discovering a new home which had always been waiting for the right moment to reveal itself – this was that moment. I don’t remember how long he read, nor the specifics of what works he read, only the sound of his voice, the joyful power of his words resonating through my spirit. I recall wondering at one point why there were so few people here for such a remarkable event.

When he had given us all that he could James brought the reading to a close. As people were applauding they were already moving forward to meet him and congratulate him on both his birthday and the fine reading. Soon there were people clustered around him and I was certain I would never get a chance to speak with him myself. I was still sitting, clutching the two books I’d bought, and wondering what I could possibly do after that reading when James moved through the people surrounding him and approached me.

I have no idea what prompted him to do that, perhaps I looked lost sitting there by myself, but the gesture both frightened and excited me. I stood up to take his offered hand and he began talking to me. He asked questions, which I tried to answer without sounding like an idiot. I wish I’d been able to tape record these moments because I cannot now remember exactly what we spoke about. I do remember explaining to him the mathematics of our meeting which he seemed to find amusing. He spoke with me for about 20 min. while most of the rest of the audience slowly dissipated into the warm afternoon. A few other people were waiting to talk to him and one of his friends reminded him that they had to leave soon.

James Broughton’s autograph in my copy of “Ecstasies” – 11/09/1991

Before we parted I asked him to autograph my fresh-bought copy of “Ecstasies.” When he asked my name I explaining that my real name was Michael but everyone calls me Joe. To which James responded, “Then I will use your real name” and he addressed the autograph to Michael.

As I left the bookstore I could swear I was walking at least 2 feet off the ground. This was the only time I met James in person and I will never forget it. There was no further contact between us until 1995.


In the spring of 1992 I became involved with an organization called The Billy Club and through that organization met a man named Bill Blackburn, who remains my friend today. I was reading poetry at Billy Club gatherings and doing some poetry workshops. Bill said he had met James Broughton and would be glad to send him some of my poems for comment, if that was okay with me. It was more than okay with me, and I got a collection of poems together for him. He sent them to James and I then received the following letter:

jb to mja – 06/20/1995 (typed)

Mr Arcangelini, sir,
Someone named Bill Blackburn has sent me a sheaf of your poems and asked me if I could do something about them. There are not enough publishers to serve the hundreds of unpublished poets longing for print. You are the 3rd poet within the past month who has asked me if I could help in this regard. The irony: I am myself engaged in a quest for the same thing.

It has been the same story ever since my first book in 1949. And that one existed only because I printed it myself. Again in desperation in 1982 I self published another book, after rejections by 9 editors. So I could say to you: Don’t wait to be discovered, get into print so you can be discovered. There must be a printing press somewhere near you, a small magazine, a house organ, et al. with a sympathetic cohort or two in the wings.

Plainly you are no neophyte. There is maturity, force, felicity of phrase, tenderness of feeling, in your work. Claim your inevitability. Marry your fate no matter how fatal. I enclose some offprints from my most recent book. Maybe you will find some solace or cheer in them. I wish you well. I wish you much. May blessings attend you.

(signed) James Broughton

Five months later I responded as follows:

mja to jb – 11/18/95

Dear Mr Broughton:
I can’t believe it has been nearly 5 months since I received your letter. Life keeps moving and I keep running trying to catch up with it. I should probably remind you of who I am. My friend, and your acquaintance, Bill Blackburn sent to you a selection of my work and you were kind enough to respond to me with a most encouraging and thoughtful letter.

Many times have I set down to write a thank you and not quite had the words, or the proper frame of mind. Also I felt perhaps I should not bother you further.

I do however have a reason to write now, and a most pleasant one. I have become editor of a gay men’s literary journal. It is called, or will be called BILLY’S JOURNAL. It is published by the Billy Club of Northern California, a group of gay men dedicated to building community and a support system among the scattered gay folk of the rural counties. We mount 4 or 5 gatherings per year in different locations (we are just now preparing for a 6 day gathering over New Years at Heartwood Institute in southern Humboldt County), administer a fund Hiv positive folks may access to help pay bills or for nontraditional methods of healing, and we have a lot of dreams about building and nurturing a community of gay men, their friends and families.

The magazine has been published as BILLY’S NEWS for over three years but we have recently split it in two: BILLY’S TIMES is for newsy, time sensitive information & BILLY’S JOURNAL will be the literary, creative publication. I have enclosed several copies of it for you to review and I hope enjoy. We are pretty proud of it. Thus, as the new editor, I am writing to ask if you might have something we could publish. We would be most honored to print poem or essay, memoir or rumination, something perhaps which has not quite found the right home yet. We can maybe give it a home.

Your work has long been inspiration for myself and many of us in the Billy Club. I read your poem “ODE TO GAIETY” at the opening circle of our gathering over the Labor Day weekend. It set just the right mood for the weekend and besides, it is so enjoyable to read – to say those words the way they tumble all together and out of my mouth is wonderful.

You and I did meet once, in San Francisco, following a reading you gave at Small Press Traffic. According to my journal it was Sunday, 11/09/1991. I remember the intensity of your talk, your enthusiasm and your encouragement.

If you should decide to send something for the Journal, please send it to me at:
Joe Arcangelini
P.O. Box 307
Fields Landing, CA 95537
Thank you for taking the time to read this and for considering our invitation.
Take care,
Joe Arcangelini

Within a week I received his response:

jb to mja – 11/25/1995 (Typed)

Little Archangel of the Billys, greetings, Herewith I send to you the naughtiest poem I have on hand [Everybody Out], never published anywhere.

Along with it goes the transcript of a keynote speech [The Holiness of Sexuality] I presented in North Carolina for a group called Gay Spirit Visions. It was printed in their flyer for a subsequent gathering.

You are free to use either of these items if you so desire. With my blessings.

Joy to you.
(signed) James Broughton
(handwritten underneath) I have extra copies of the 1991 edition of my Androgyne Journal. Want one?

James also sent me a copy of the CD “The Broughton Songs” by Ludar. With the CD, hand written on a copy of the poem “What Matters” was the following note:

Poem & Drawing by James Broughton with handwritten note

The First thing I have to send you is this marvelous recording, which should be widely known.
Just released.
The singer was a soul mate.
He died of AIDS in May

My response:

mja to jb – 12/02/1995

Dear Mr Broughton:
I have received both of your packages. Thank you very much.
I am most pleased to print EVERY BODY OUT and THE HOLINESS OF SEXUALITY (scroll to bottom of letters to read this wonderful essay) in this upcoming issue of BILLY’S JOURNAL.

I find HOLINESS to be an important piece of work which needs to get out into our community – it makes me wish that BILLY’S JOURNAL had a larger circulation. As gay men we are so often told to be ashamed of our sexuality and that shame can be so ingrown and established inside us that we may mistake it for some kind of truth – but it is not. What you have written is truth, I know because when I read it I feel assent rising from the very core of me. I still wrestle with many of these issues of shame around my body and my sexuality. I’ll enclose a recent piece of mine which is about this very topic – “Ben’s Whips.” [included in my book “With Fingers at the Tips of my Words”]

Thank you also for the Ludar CD – it is most enjoyable. I find him to have a strong confident voice, good to listen to, good to take inside of one. The settings of your poems are spare and in most cases simple and to the point, giving words, music and performers all plenty of room to stretch and have their moment. Having myself read some of your poems aloud I understand the pleasure the words give to the mouth, and were I a musician I’m sure the temptation to set them would be there. Ludar has done good work with these songs – letting words and music serve each other – “The Song of The Bed” is like a gentle jazzy reduction of your film.

I would like to include this CD in a review of several recent releases I’ll be writing for this upcoming issue. As such I would like to have some additional information – most importantly where I should send people to get copies. But also perhaps, some brief biographical information.
Thank you for the offer of a copy of the 1991 edition of the Androgyne Journal – yes, I would like one. I have the 1977 edition. It was the first book of your’s that I read. I found it when I was living in San Francisco in 1979. Again, as above, I was struck by the total lack of shame around the body and how it works which you expressed in that book.

It is taking me a long time to work through those issues – I stayed closeted until 1990. But I have good friends around me and with their support and patience and work like yours for inspiration and guide I’m moving along quite nicely – slow but steady.

So thank you again.
Here’s to it! Take care,
Joe Arcangelini

jb to mja – 12/09/1995 (typed)

James Broughton
9 Dec 95
To Arcangelini of the Billys,
I received your letter, with its Ben enclosure. That story of the whips shook me as I resonated to your agonies of guilt and atonement. What a story, what a crippling life you have to free your self from. Did you read my memoir, COMING UNBUTTONED? How blest I was to free my shackles early on.

Splendid if you will give the Ludar CD a plug. Cost is only $12. Plus $2 for shipping. Orders
should be addressed to: Joel Singer, Box 1330, Port Townsend WA 98368, and checks should be made out to him.

There isn’t much additional information I can give you about Ludar that is not included in the CD.
He was a popular supper club singer in Los Angeles who discovered my book SPECIAL DELIVERIES and fell in love with the poems. He composed over 20 settings of my verses. He died of AIDS last May. He was, up to the last, the most vibrant and merry friend.

I am glad you are going to print my holiness piece. I hope it inspires the Billy boys with daring and joy.

Blessings to you,
(signed) James Broughton

mja to jb – 04/01/1996

Dear Mr. Broughton:

Enclosed please find two copies of the April issue of the GALA NEWS, the newsletter of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance of Humboldt. There is a review of LUDAR: THE BROUGHTON SONGS*. there will also be a review of the Ludar CD in the next BILLY’S JOURNAL.

Publication of BILLY’S JOURNAL has been delayed just a bit. The Billy Club, like many organizations runs on volunteer power. Volunteers from time to time reach burn-out stage and need to take a break. Several of the folks involved with the Billy Journal hit that stage just about the time the main lay-out and typing chores needed to be done. However, enough of us have recovered sufficiently now that next weekend we will be starting up the process again. I hope to see the issue out by the end of May.

I am still very excited by this project and by all the wonderful work that we’ll be printing.

I hope the review generates some sales of the CD, it is something that should be heard and enjoyed by more than just a few people

So thank you again for everything.

Here’s to it!

Take care
(signed) Joe

PS: I hear that you have some recordings of your readings available. If so I would like to purchase some. Please let me know the details, the who, what, where, & how much of it. Thanks.

jb to mja – 04/04/1996

Dear Joe of Billyland,
Thank you for the copies of Gala News.
And especially for the splendid plug for my Ludar songs. You are a dear one.
There are 4 recordings of my readings, on tapes only.
They are packaged as a set: $25 for- the 4, plus $2 shipping. Individual csssettes are $7.
The titles:

In June I expect to record more recent work.
I don’t know at this point if or how it will be available publicly.
Blessings. Yours fondly, (signed) James

mja to jb – 04/11/1996

Dear Mr. Broughton: Enclosed please find my check in the amount of $27.00 for a set of the 4 recordings of your readings. I have warm memories of the reading I attended at Small Press Traffic in S.F., I’m sure these recordings will bring that afternoon back even stronger.

I’m working on getting a computer online at home so I can be on the Internet and get e-mail. Robin White, a Billy friend, a fine writer and a real sweetheart, gave the computer to me so I can get “online.” The billies have set up a Bill-E-Mail system of some sort. I don’t fully understand these things but I’m going to try again and figure my way around anyhow. This system will ease work on the JOURNAL as well. I met w/my fellow JOURNALers last weekend and we’ve now got things rolling really good. Heading to the Bay Area this weekend to pick up some work & information from the former editor. I am getting excited.

I’ve also been working on putting together my first collection of poetry for possible publication. The manuscript is now in the hands of a much more experienced friend who is editing/shaping it into a BOOK – something I very much appreciate as it is hard for me to look at the poems that way. in any case there is a possibility of publication soon so I am kind of excited, although I’m trying not to count on it too much because there are never any guarantees about these things. If this doesn’t work out though I may just take your advice and, since I’ll have a book already, look into self-publication. We’ll see.

So thank you again, for everything. I’m looking forward to hearing the tapes.

Take care, (signed) Joe

mja to jb – 05/17/1997

Dear Mr. Broughton: It’s been quite some time since I’ve written. I hope you are doing well. Life has certainly kept me busy enough and then some. My friend Bruce Cameron told me of meeting you and Joel Singer in Hawaii. He was very excited and from his description it sounded very much like I felt the one time you and I met in 1991 or so. I remember talking with you for around 20 min. after your reading and then leaving and realizing that I was walking about 2 feet above the ground – thank you for that experience.

Have you seen the BETWEEN THE CRACKS anthology yet? It took a while but I did receive contributor’s copies eventually. Is quite a rush for me to have a poem on the same page following one of yours. Gavin placed me in such good company.

By the time you get this letter you should have already received your contributor’s copies of the BILLY JOURNAL with your poem and essay. Thank you again for those contributions, they bring honor to our publication. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on the essay. [A] number of guys have picked out the same line that struck me as being so incredibly beautiful: “the penis is the exposed tip of the heart.” Oh, yeah – yes indeed.

I worked on that issue for over a year and then had to back away from it for personal reasons, mostly having to do with volunteer burnout and the weird complexities and tasks life throws in our way. It was then picked up and completed by two other Billys (David Gilmour & Charlie Seltzer) who have done a wonderful job with it: it looks beautiful. They have truly done justice to the wonderful work of the men who contributed.

It would be hard to miss the manuscript enclosed with this letter, so I suppose I should explain it. Back in’ 95, the first time you wrote to me (after receiving some of my poems from Bill Blackburn) you urged me to pursue publication. Well, it’s taken a while but with the continued goosing of friends I have finally prepared a manuscript and will be shopping it around to publishers. A friend has provided an introduction to a New York agent (is that like a Philadelphia lawyer?) And another friend, Pat Califia, has written a Forward.

I am sending a copy of the manuscript to you in the hope that you might be able to read it and perhaps, if you are moved to do so, you might write a brief “jacket blurb” type thing which I could show to prospective publishers. Please consider this request to be made ONLY if you do have the time and you are feeling able to deal with it. I do not wish to impose on your kindness. I will understand completely if you are unable or disinclined to do this and it’s O.K. This is, after all, an unsolicited request and you are a busy man.

Any comments or advice you might have about the poems would also be appreciated but again – ONLY IF YOU FEEL ABLE AND SO INCLINED. This whole idea of publishing is so weird. I’ve been writing for 34 years without ever really feeling the necessity to publish. Now my friends are all urging me to do this and it seems to be falling into place so it must be the right time. It is a bit frightening however, to put one’s self out there in that way – it is scary. But I’ll get over it. Bill Blackburn has told me that “fear is just excitement without oxygen” O.K., breathe.

Since I last wrote I’ve read COMING UNBUTTONED and the revised/expanded ANDROGYNE JOURNAL, which you had sent to me. My only complaint is that the delightful memoirs stop too soon! Might there be a second volume at some point?

The original edition [of] ANDROGYNE JOURNAL was the first book of yours that I read and it had a profound effect on me. Having the excuse of revisions and additions to reread it was wonderful. Much of it that went over my head or was simply beyond my ability to accept when I first read it made so much more sense now.

Thank you,

jb to mja – 06/01/1997 (handwritten)

dear angelic poet

Your OMNIVOROUS*** swallowed me whole.
I had no notion of the extent of your poem-making and of its firm, consistent quality. Overwhelming. Which is generous. Better than skimpy. Inevitably some pieces are sturdier than others. For a final manuscript you may choose to select more ruthlessly. (My motto: When in doubt, cut.) But I honor the desire to collect into print all one’s early work. It leaves one unburdened with the past, primed for fresh leaps.

A blurb? Possible at some future juncture.
When I have digested this buffet of yours.
To gather my wits these days requires special effort since I am slowly recovering from a stroke which rendered me immobilized and incompetent; among other irritations my handwriting has shrunk to [dinky?]# and invisible.
I am aware of your [valor?]# and talent, and of the necessity for a responsible publisher to appreciate them.

The Billy Journal is admired and [powerful?]#.
I will look among my files for anything new you might want to print.

Salutations and affection,

(enc. were 4 poems: “Elegy, With Bird,” “What Matters,” “Sweet Delusion,” & “Twin Flames” all of which appeared in the second Billy Journal, Summer 1999)

mja to jb – Sunday, January 24, 1999

Dear Mr. Broughton:

Again it has been a long time since I have written. I hope this letter finds you well and in high spirits.

I just wanted to let you know that the next issue of the BILLY JOURNAL really is finally moving ahead. As I’m sure I’ve explained before it is an all-volunteer publication so it becomes easy for the events of each person’s life to take the fore from time to time. But now I have found a collaborator who has knowledge of those aspects of pulling together a literary journal of which I am wholly ignorant. Thus my friend Erin Stevenson has stepped up to handle the actual mechanics of publishing, leaving me the joy of editing and focusing the work that has come in.

We still have the 4 poems you sent and plan to use them in this issue. With a little bit of luck your contributors copies will be showing up by late spring. I hope we can make something as wonderful as the last issue.

I was pleased to see the publication of PACKING UP FOR PARADISE by Black Sparrow Press! It is a wonderful collection which lays out the full breadth of your poeticizing in one place for all to find and enjoy. I was especially pleased to discover “A Laud for a Brother” which I had not read before. William Everson’s work had a great influence on this 15 year old boy when I first found it back in 1967. His narrative drive and intense connection to the land helped to ground me at a time when I was just beginning to discover the range of poetic possibilities. Everson then led me to Jeffers and betwixt the two they showed me a way of anchoring to the earth while reaching for the sky. It took quite some time for that lesson to get into this thick head, but it is there now. In a way, the great sorrows of their poetry helped prepare me to recognize and accept the joy in yours and to be more able to embrace it.

This year to open the New Year’s Eve Billy Gathering I read your “Ode to Gaiety” to the 80 or 90 men and women gathered there. It always feels so good to turn those words over with my tongue and feel them coming out of my body. Thank you.

Your friend William Stewart was with us this New Year’s Eve, as he is most years. I hadn’t realized the two of you were friends until he spoke with me after I’d read the “Ode.” He is a very sweet man & I wish he didn’t live so far away. But he does manage to make it here to the west coast for one or two gatherings each year since he moved.

I’m still working slowly on getting a book published but it’s not something that worries me. It is the composition and then the performance of poetry that most occupies me. Publication is certainly nice, but not as important for me as the direct connections with the poem and with listeners. I have taken your advice and am trimming the manuscript down some. Of course it is so old now that I’ve written another big book’s worth of newer stuff. I’ll enclose a couple new pieces to share with you. [enc.: “County Faire,” “Roshi,” “Crabs” & some haiku.]

Well I think I have taken enough of your time here. Thank you again for the poems for the Journal, I hope we do justice to them.

Take care,
(signed) Joe Arcangelini

1. There is no need to return the manuscript – I’ve made many copies.
2. I almost forgot, I’ve begun gathering material for the next issue of the BILLY JOURNAL and would more than welcome something from you to publish in it. If you have something we could print please send it to me. This issue should be out sooner than the last one since we’ve done it once now and have a better idea of what we’re doing.

Thanks again for taking the time for this wholly unsolicited letter.

Be well,

jb to mja – 02/02/1999

My last communication from James, handwritten on the back of a plain, Post Office postcard, was dated 02/02/1999:

Postcard, last communication from James Broughton before he died.

Little Angel –
Thank you for your fine and fond letter and for the sheaf of excellent poems.
Your praises cheer my weakness of age.
Bouquets of Blessings,
(signed) James Broughton

James Broughton died on May 17, 1999. His life partner, Joel Singer, sent me an invitation to the San Francisco memorial held on Saturday, June 6, 1999. This was an act of kind thoughtfulness for which I remain grateful, even though I was unable to attend.


* You may hear this album on You-Tube in three parts at:

** “Between The Cracks: The Daedalus Anthology of Kinky Verse” edited and with photos by Gavin Dillard – Daedalus Publishing Company, `1996 can be purchased on Amazon at

*** The manuscript titled “Omnivorous” went through many changes and was eventually published as “With Fingers at the Tips of my Words” by Beautiful Dreamer Press in 2002 – copies may be purchased on Amazon at

# These words in brackets with question marks are ones I am uncertain of. This letter was handwritten after James’ stroke and while his handwriting, even after that, was better than mine is now, my transcriptions of these three words remain questionable.

Memoir and transcriptions begun 01/27/2008
Draft completed 11/21/2012
Sebastopol, CA

06/16/2013 – So many folks asked how they could find a copy of this essay, referenced in the above correspondence, that I have added it to this memoir.  With the gracious permission of Joel Singer, here are James’ own magic words:

The Holiness of Sexuality
by James Broughton

I am here as a spokesman for gaiety of spirit and glory of the flesh. My text for this happy sermon is a statement from Novalis: There is only one temple in the world, and that is the human body. Persuade yourself of this truth and let it radiate through you. Dissuade yourself of any notion that Spirit is something fuzzy flitting over your head. Recognize that your body is a divinity you inhabit.

I am not here to convert you to any body of doctrine. I am here to convince you of the holiness in your own body. The moral religions – Christianity, Judaism, Islam – have insisted that this precious and beautiful world we inhabit is the domain of Satan. Therefore, its sensual pleasures must he avoided so that one will not end up in damnation. To the orthodox the body is a sewer, not a temple. To them the wondrous natural activities of the body – eating, farting, shitting, fucking, even spitting and yawning and dancing, to say nothing of gambling and gamboling – are disgusting and unacceptable to the Holy Spirit.

I harp on the curse of church doctrine because its inheritance permeates the thinking of our entire society: our laws, education, government and social attitudes. Churches exist to make you feel miserable. And ashamed. And unacceptable to the tyrannies of conformity. This prompts repressive measures, fundamentalist fear of the body and homophobia. Historically the church has denounced pleasure seekers of all kinds: not only lovers but artists, performers, magicians, and mystics. Even orthodox Buddhism is unfriendly toward human pleasure. Buddha himself insisted that life is suffering and that in order not to suffer everyone should get rid of desire. Broughton is very up on desire.

Zen and Taoism are practical philosophies, not religions. They assert the matter of fact as true enlightenment. No gods, no theology. Zen says Everything is. Tao says Everything flows. Only Hinduism beholds the world sensually, seeing everything as divine, praising the sexual organs, celebrating sexual desire as an impulse of the gods, striving toward what is called the Great Light. Let fundamentalism feel threatened by any manifestation of naked joy. To a gay spirit pleasure is a great moral good. Life is happy valley as well as a vale of tears. Life is a densely mixed blessing: a painful joy, a dance of opposites, a warring peace, and ecstatic agony. It is the playing field of the Divine. So let us live fully in our temples with respect for their wonders.

I ask you now to experience your body as a sacred place. A temple is a place to sing hymns of praise. From your tiptoe to your topknot you are throbbingly alive. Feel your glow. Feel it sing. Know that you partake of the divine, that you are lived by the divine, that you are divine. You embody the mystery of life. For a moment place both hands over your genitals. Not to conceal them, but to cherish, and to praise. This is the creative core of your god body, the place of instinct, impulse and transformation. Concentrate on your phallic glory. The penis is the exposed tip of the heart. The penis is a wand of the soul. Whatever its shape, size, or shame, it is your holy birthright. Praise it. Give thanks for its awesome powers. Its energies permeate every corner of your temple, connect all the chakras, the highest to the lowest. Phallus, perineum, and anus form the trinity at the root of your torso’s experience. I use the Latin terms to dignify these centers, to make them sound like Roman gods.

In the holy balls in our scrotum the treasure of your semen is kept. This is the monstrance for the consecrated Host of your temple. Did you know that the one part of you that never grows old is your semen? An anatomist told me. You can lose your mind, have heart failure, suffer intestinal collapse: your semen will remain forever young. Doesn’t that suggest that you will possess plenty of spirit to the end of your days?

When it comes to spiritual enlightenment, it would be better if you’d lose your mind. The mind is a secondary organ that thinks it is smarter than all the rest of you. It is stuffed with critical opinions and inherited prejudices. For instance, don’t let your mind try to castrate you because of some misguided feminist notion that your maleness is something shameful, some kind of despoiling weapon. Genital aggression for intimidation and dominance is perversion that desecrates the temple. Perverse greed for power is the mind’s ugly doing. The mind is the worst pervert in the world. Your sexuality in its natural force does not destroy you. It proliferates.

You don’t have to renounce anything in order to be spiritual.  Renounce only your continuing misery. Renounce making judgments and putting up barriers. Be kind to your instincts. In the goddess sanctuaries of antiquity, her priests castrated themselves as acts of total surrender. But that is ultimate submission to the Great Mother. Becoming a eunuch will not solve your erotic problems, your heartache, or your loneliness. On the contrary, let sexual enthusiasm radiate throughout your body – through your bloodstream, your guts, your heartbeat. Always take hold of your sex with love. The proper activity in a temple is worship. Share your holiness. Visit one another’s temples.

I was born a lover. I was born to love my fellow men. I don’t wish to compete with them, outmaneuver them, trick them, trip or trounce them. I don’t think of them as objects to acquire. They are shining substance of my own Godbody flesh. I am not interested in their armors, nor the games of their egos. I am not eager to ridicule or stab them in the back. For this affectionate attitude I endured humiliating punishments. But in the end I am proud to assert my natural nature and my dedication to loving mankind. Reach/Touch/Connect is one of my mottoes. I have difficulty keeping my hands off my fellow men. The beauty of man is my hope and my sorrow. I long to embrace and caress, lie close, share my words and my songs, confide the secrets of my longing.

Perhaps I was naive in the dear old days of the Turkish Baths. I moved fondly past cubicles and entered each one just to touch and to kiss the holy icon of each body on each cot. I would be astonished when a body would jump up, slam the door and try to rape me. That was not my idea at all. I was simply performing my holy rounds, my Stations of the Cross. Each cock was a bead of my rosary. Now place your left hand on your phallus and your right hand over your left breast. You are touching the Opposites in your Body: your masculine phallus and your feminine breast which holds your heart inside it. This is a way to affirm the wholeness of your being. Inner unity is the wedding of these opposites, creating the Divine Androgyne, the hermaphro-deity you were born with. Your birthright was double-sexed: half from the mother, half from the father. Don’t create other divisions, this one is sufficient.

And from this vantage point you can open your temple to love. If you love your Godbody well, you are better able to love others. To paraphrase a great poet and lover of men who was born in Bethlehem: All that you need to know in life is to love yourself so that you love those around you. Love the Godbody in them with all your heart and soul and mind. On these two principles hang all the meanings of religion. So, share your holiness. Reach out to your neighbor and go together into the kingdom.

In the sauna I was sweating among the sweat of others and the sweat was weeping from the deep ache in those bodies. It wept from their armpits, from their groins, from their brows weeping of unspoken desire, the desire for love seeping from their hearts in mutual sweat. Be not shy of the love you share with other men. Be unafraid of its splendor. It marries Hermes to Aphrodite within you, takes you on a quest with a Twin Hero. Fear of love is fear of the sublime. Deny it at your peril. Love is the only remedy for the plagues of the world. Love is a radiant energy wave. You occupy love as you occupy space. You breathe love as you breathe air. Its force operates the universe. Love one another! Is this too difficult for intelligence to allow? To love is the major goal of life. To be a lover is to practice the major art of life.

Said the wonderful Chinese sage, Lao-Tzu:

Men are by nature born soft and supple.
Dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant.
Dead they are brittle and dry.
Thus, whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life.
The hard and the stiff will be broken, and the soft and the supple will prevail.

Boys are taught to be stiff and hard, brittle and dry. Taught to be cruel, ruthless, unfeeling. Example: the boot camps for Marines in the movie Full Metal Jacket. Instead of being trained to kill one another, instead of bashing one another on a football field, couldn’t boys he taught to dance together? Instead of going out and making trouble, devote one hour a day to making love. It’s a ravishing form of meditation. Put lovemaking in every school. Make loving a national endeavor. Install Love Officers Training Corps in high schools. Instruct youth in every aspect of making love. Clasp, kiss, and connect. Relish differences and similarities. Rub against fellow creatures of all stripes, shapes, scents and sweats, all textures, tints and tastes. How else will we end the civil wars of the world?

You must love even if it hurts. It will hurt more if you don’t love. Can you make a holy habit of sexual love? Can you make a sexual habit of holy love? Can you dump your qualms and excuses, your taboos and allergies? Think of it: if you devoted to the practice of love as much energy as you expend on trivialities and cruel schemes, you might change the world. To make connection – shaking or holding a hand is a start. But let’s go farther. Leo Buscaglia campaigns for hugging, which affirms trust and respect. When you hug, put your whole body into it. I would add kissing. Kissing is head-on connecting. It is life restoring. It resuscitates. Besides, it tastes interesting. Practice life-saving on your neighbors. At San Francisco State University I started kissing all my colleagues in the Creative Arts Department as a regular daily greeting. It seemed to cheer them up.

But what about much deeper connecting? What about fully loving your neighbor as yourself, and affirming mutual divinity? Whatever happened to friendship? Keats said: Friendship is the holy emotion. In an earlier age the highest expression of civilization was the supreme tenderness one man could manifest for another. In that chivalric time these devotions contained intense emotional feeling. Their deep commitment obliged a man to bat for his bosom friend, no matter what the risk, as well as share his friend’s achievement as his own. In Shakespeare, we often observe these noble sharings and their declarations of valorous love. The sturdiest feeling in Hamlet’s life is for Horatio. Michel Foucault has pointed out how, in the 17th and 18th centuries, these heroic passions began to be criticized.  When personal friendships triumph, bureaucracies and political constructs do not function well. In education, in religious orders, in the armed forces, group ethos is more valued than individual loyalties. In order to subjugate fraternity of feeling, the justice system in the 18th century make deep friendship unacceptable, declaring love between men to be sexual perversion. Thus, natural affection and mutual devotion turned into social problem and political crime.

To patriotic ears, E.M. Forster’s vow during World War I sounds traitorous: If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I would have the strength to betray my country. That puts the emphasis on human values rather than on the abstraction of the body politic wherein one is expected to function without feeling. Nowadays a friend is someone you can use to get ahead or borrow money from, someone to drive you to the airport or the hospital. You don’t set off together like knights errant to explore a new land, found a city, bring back a boon to enrich the souls of your fellow men. Nowadays the therapist, the lawyer, the doctor, the stockbroker become those you rely upon. However, you have to pay for their sympathetic aid and can merely hope the investment will prove worth the expense.

Love is the meaning of life, the only meaning it has. A soldier’s hands are wasted cocking guns. Love is the only solution to every problem, the only salvation that has never been implemented. It has been talked about, but never tried. The truth always ends up being Love, and nothing really works well without it. Love is the only scientific philosophy. An unlovable attitude is bad business. Even vultures exercise tenderness in springtime. Could I persuade you to become passionate missionaries? Would you take on the mission of spreading love? I do not see you as an isolated, self-centered clan. I behold you as propagators of the Faith, faith in the loving aspects of man’s nature.

You have shown sterling compassion in tending to the doomed and the dying. Do not forget to tend the living, those who need desperately to be wakened to life before they too begin to perish. Souls are sick all around us in these crass and violent times. Bring them love. Massage their hearts. Become ministers of compassion and wisdom, like many affectionate Dalai Lamas. Could you become a secret order, devoted to spreading the love of mankind, like Jesus and his band of camaradas? They were outside the mainstream of society, because they were in the mainstream of wisdom. They were thought of as lunatic fringe, an annoying minority. But they were actually at the heart of the matter. They believed in the Eros that could be aroused in every man.

Stop thinking of yourselves as outcasts. You are meridian persons at the core of truth. You are not slaves to the breeding machinery. You are not swallowed by the consumer collective. You are raising consciousness, not babies. You are advocates of divine merriment. You could be innovators of a new way of life. Buddha said, The world is on fire, and every solution short of liberation is like trying to whitewash a burning house.

Let yourself be believed by your angels. Open your orifices to dominions and powers. Pledge your valor and irradiate your temple. The holiness of sexuality gives every man his chance to be a genius.


“The Holiness of Sexuality” can also be found here:

Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | October 13, 2011


(Original version published in The Arcata Eye, October 20, 1998, Arcata, CA under the title “The ugly, sometimes fatal face of homophobia” – slightly revised, October 13, 2011)

I don’t get a lot of e-mail, which is mostly O.K. with me. I like hearing from friends, but sometimes I get stuff that makes me glad I’ve got a delete button. Of course then there are those times when a delete button isn’t enough to make something go away.

That was how I felt when I checked my e-mail one recent morning and learned of the horrifying crimes committed on October 6, 1998 upon University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, “a slight 5-foot, 2-inch man who wore braces on his teeth” (New York Times).

The New York Times (10/10/98) put it this way: “… the passing bicyclist thought the crumpled form lashed to a ranch fence was a scarecrow. But when he stopped, he found the burned, battered and nearly lifeless body of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay college student who had been tied to the fence 18 hours earlier.”

The BRANDING IRON, the U. of Wyoming newspaper, in covering the arraignment of suspects, reported: “Reading from court documents, [Judge Robert] Castor said Shepard was ‘struck in the head with a pistol,’ and the suspects allegedly ‘beat him, while he begged for his life.'”

I’ll spare you further details. If you want more information, and you have net access, check out the BRANDING IRON’s web site,*  I’m sure you’ll find enough to answer any questions or curiosity you might have. There are a lot of articles posted about the attack, the alleged perpetrators, the victim’s personal life, the university’s reaction, and the descent of hordes of journalists onto peaceful college town, Laramie.

Or check out any of the media coverage, there’s certainly been enough of it. I think you’ll find that everyone seems to be in agreement on one point: This would never have happened if Matt Shepard had been heterosexual.

I had to stop reading all the articles. I was horrified, struck with a kind of free floating terror. And I was angry, furious, with no outlet for my anger.

This is all too much like what happened to Louis Pearson on May 2nd of this year [1998], just a little south of here on a back road in Mendocino County.

The weekend of May 1-4 I was in Lake County for a gathering of gay and bisexual men. Louis Pearson had come up from Aptos, near Santa Cruz, for the event. He registered Saturday morning, I know because I was registrar for the event. It was his first time attending one of these gatherings. Although he knew no one there he seemed to be open and friendly enough and I figured he would meet folks and find a place for himself in the group.

Many of us, including myself, spoke with him during the brief time he was there. But none of us got to know him very well.

For reasons of which we’ll never be certain, he left the grounds of the resort around 6:00 PM that same Saturday.

I never saw him again.

Sunday evening, after dinner, the Mendocino County Sheriff’s office called and informed us that Louis’ body had been discovered that morning about ten miles from the gathering. They found a flyer for our event in his car. They said they had reason to suspect a hate crime.

We didn’t learn the full details of what had been done to Louis until later. Here’s how the Ukiah Daily Journal (09/10/98) described it: “Pearson died from ‘blunt force trauma to the head and neck,’ according to a Sonoma County pathologist’s report. In addition to being beaten, a piece of tree branch had been shoved up one nostril into his brain.”

The Ukiah Journal reported further: “…Pearson allegedly fondled [accused killer Richard Anthony] Fernandez and made sexual advances. Fernandez, who told detectives he had been sexually abused regularly by his father from the time he was a young child until he was about 14, became enraged.”

Louis was then beaten by Fernandez and two other men so savagely that the rancher who found his body was uncertain at first whether he was looking at his face or the back of his head.

This was a man I had been talking with the day before. A man who I had hugged and welcomed.

I was scared. We were all scared. Shocked, angered, horrified and scared. Because I knew then, as I know now about Matt Shepard, that Louis would still be alive if he had not been gay.

Tragic indeed, you might say, but what has this got to do with Arcata? I mean, we all know how liberal and open Arcata is, how tolerant and sensitive to the diversity that exists among its inhabitants, students and visitors. And for the most part, I think it is.

I am a gay man who comes to Arcata daily to work and who has lived in this county for over 16 years and I’m telling you I’m still plenty scared here – and with reason. Here follows a partial list of incidents, large and small, of which I have direct knowledge. Rest assured, there have been a lot more.

Let’s start with the night in 1993 when the first Gay Pride Day Proclamation was read out loud in the Arcata City Council chambers. I was there, excited and hopeful. But homophobia was there too in the form of then-councilman Carl Pellatz who stood up and, with a petulance I found astonishing, walked out of the chamber in protest at the reading of the Proclamation he had fought so hard to defeat.

That same year a plaza business, normally open on a Sunday afternoon, closed its doors from the beginning of the Gay Pride celebration until it was over. To be fair, they have been open each year since. But that doesn’t change the effect their closing had on us that day, in the community we thought had welcomed us.

And remember, we don’t just exist in a vacuum called Arcata. We are also part of the greater communities of Humboldt County, and Northern California. San Francisco and Santa Rosa newspapers are distributed here, and treated as local.

In 1995 I helped organize a gay men’s gathering at a remote location in Humboldt County. Apparently we weren’t remote enough. Drunken men drove their trucks into our private campground to get a look at the queers.  Several of our parked cars were broken into with nothing stolen, simply to vandalize them. People were harassed. Finally the Humboldt Co. Sheriff’s dept. asked me to announce to everyone attending that they recommended no one leave our campground except in groups of 4 to 6. Word, I was told, had gotten out that we were there and the deputies could not guarantee our safety if we left the campground.

In the spring of this year, 1998, the owner of a resort in the greater Santa Rosa area attempted to place a want ad in the Press-Democrat. The ad was for an office manager and it mentioned that the resort was “gay friendly.” The Press-Democrat refused to run the ad with that phrase in it. Please note: The ad did not ask for a gay office manager, nor state that non-gay applicants need not apply (I saw the rejected ad copy). It simply stated that the resort was “gay friendly.” The Press-Democrat appeared to find that sufficient reason to refuse to run it. Would they have refused if the resort had been described as “family oriented”? What exactly could the Press-Democrat find objectionable, other than the word “gay” itself?

Around that same time, I was preparing to write an article (since abandoned) about the Lesbian/Gay/Bi-sexual/Transgendered Pride parades held in Arcata every year. As part of my research I interviewed some members of the organizing committee, one of whom, an Arcata resident, surprised me by asking to be quoted anonymously, citing fear of reprisals against a family member if they were identified as gay in a newspaper.

Let’s drop back down to Mendocino County for a moment. In the 04/29/98 issue of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, a front page article entitled “The Rage Of A Privileged Class” was little more than a recapitulation of all the standard negative cliches about gay men that have been used over the last decades to try and discredit us. Imagine finding an article on the front page of a local newspaper which offered up as fact statements that all African American men were lazy, shiftless, welfare abusers cruising around in new cadillacs looking for a white woman. If you found that last sentence shocking and unacceptable, you’re getting the idea. The Anderson Valley Advertiser is distributed throughout Arcata, often found in a rack right next to the Eye.

To get back to Humboldt County: During this year’s Redwood Acres fair a friend of mine was followed around by three young men who taunted and harassed him. They called him “faggot,” “queer,” and a few other things this paper probably can’t print. They then followed him to the parking lot where they threatened him and slashed his tires.

My friend reported this to the Eureka Police. The officer he spoke with, after determining that my friend really was gay, told him that he’d best learn to live with the harassment. He, the officer, was himself on the short side and had been teased about it all his life. But, he assured my friend, he’d learned to live with it. Now I wonder, when was the last time that the officer’s life had been threatened because he was short? I wonder if there is a law somewhere that I don’t know about, forbidding short people to marry outside their height range?

My friend then tried contacting the Sheriff’s office. They were not much help either. Apparently they felt no crime had taken place.

And even at the Earth First! protest at Grizzly Creek homophobia finds its place. I read a transcript of the video tape recorded just before David Chain was killed. You know what the worst thing that logger could think of to call the protesters was? “C********rs.”

But homophobia isn’t always so obvious and easy to pin down. The Arcata Eye has, since its inception, covered the Gay Pride Parades, the movement to pass a domestic partnership ordinance, and whatever other gay issues arise locally. And founder/editor Kevin Hoover provided fine coverage of the parade when he was with the Humboldt Beacon.

This year, with I’m sure the best of intentions, the Arcata Eye’s front page coverage of the parade essentially de-gayed the event, making us invisible at our own celebration. No mention was made of what it was that all these people were claiming to be so proud of. The words “gay” or “lesbian” were not used anywhere in the coverage.

Does this, as was suggested by a letter in a recent issue of the GALA NEWS, make the Arcata Eye a homophobic publication?

No, not necessarily. But it does make it a medium for transmission of a tacit, unspoken homophobic attitude which can itself be dangerous for the unintended message it conveys: that queer peoples are best left tolerated but unacknowledged.

And yes, that cover story scared me. All of these things have scared me.

Every day of my life I have to deal with the possibility that the wrong person is going to find out that I’m gay.

The possibility that someone will decide the world would be a better place without queers like me in it, or that beating me is the perfect way to prove that he’s not “one of them.”

The possibility that I, or any one of my friends or lovers, might one day be found hanging, half-dead, tied to a barbed wire fence along a country road, and the further possibility that that fence, that road, could be in Arcata as easily as Laramie.

I may have learned to live with this fear, I have had to, but I really do not like it. I don’t like being in a restaurant and feeling afraid to start telling a friend about the new guy I’ve been dating for fear the wrong person might overhear us and start something. I don’t like being afraid to kiss a date goodnight, for fear that someone might see us. I don’t like being afraid to look at an attractive man on the street. And I really don’t like being afraid to think of what might happen if this article actually gets published.

The easiest and most tempting thing to do when, again, I get my face shoved into the cruel, hateful violence of queer-bashing is to retreat from anyone who isn’t queer; to isolate into what some call the “Castro Street of the mind” and avoid anyone I don’t know well and anyplace where I’m not certain of my safety. And that can be very easy to do. I found it happening after Louis’ murder in May, and after that gathering in 1995.

But I can’t allow that to happen. It’s important, for my sanity, that I not use queer-bashing, whether it be by baseball bat or ballot measure, as an excuse to withdraw from non-queer people.

I need to remind myself of the many non-queer friends I have, and of the many non-queer people who support the concept of equal rights for ALL people.

I need to remind myself that we have ALL been indoctrinated with homophobia since childhood and that there are many people, queer and not, who are doing everything they can to defeat it in themselves and in society at large.

And maybe someday, working together, we will defeat it. But for right now homophobia is strong, healthy, and dangerous. Anytime I open my mouth, or publish an article like this, or take my lover’s hand in public I become a potential target. That is a simple truth that must be factored into my life, acknowledged and prepared for – but I can’t let it run my life and I won’t let it hold me back.  So even though I have made a commitment to myself to be as out and unashamed of who I am as I can be, I still have to remember to be careful, because it is dangerous here, on the out side of the closet door.

* The link cited in this article is now gone.  Here is the current result of a Matt Shepard search on The Branding iron site:

written 10/14/98, Fields Landing, CA

revisions 10/13/2011, Sebastopol, CA

Posted by: M. J. Arcangelini | September 5, 2011


In June I went up to Humboldt County to join the celebration of my dear friend Donna’s 60th birthday party (we went to high school together in Cleveland). Since the party at Grizzly Creek State Park was on a Sunday, June 12, 2011, I took that Monday off, June 13th, so I wouldn’t have to rush back the same day. I then decided, since I had the extra day, to take a lazy and circuitous route back winding my way through backroads down the coast and avoiding the 101 freeway.  This would mean using roads and going places I’d never been before, which appealed to me very much.  The key to achieving this was an obscure dirt road called the Usal Road which connects the southernmost paved road down the coast in Humboldt Co. to the northernmost bend of Route 1, which follows the coast in Mendocino Co.  In between is the King Range National Conservation Area and the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park.  I had long heard that this road was only marginally passable and poorly maintained but a friend told me I would really enjoy Usal Road and that Usal Beach, near the Mendocino Co. end of the road, was incredibly beautiful. I needed no more convincing.
I left around 10 AM on a cold, overcast and wet morning. I drove through Ferndale and out from there to Cape Mendocino.  From Ferndale to the Cape the paved road was in terrible shape, full of potholes and drop-outs.  There was sparse but regular traffic and frequent stops for road repair crews all the way out.  Once I descended from the hills and started south along the beach below the Cape the road almost immediately improved, appeared more attentively maintained.

Then, as I started south along the beach a big blue hole opened in the dark grey clouds directly overhead, expanding into a gorgeous Pacific coast day; a pair of good omens if ever there was one.

Pushed out of the way, the fog sat as a wall across the water on the far horizon and perched on the surrounding hills threatening to slip onto the beach at the slightest provocation to retake the day.
A fence stretches out alongside the length of the road, separating it from the beach.  Wood posts are evenly spaced and nailed to the top of each post is a single penny to magick rot away.

I stopped at the south end of the beach road, just before it turns inland and rises into the hills within which nestle the tiny towns of Petrolia and Honeydew.
This is a place I have returned to many times over the years either with small groups of friends for parties, or for quiet days with one other person.  Often, like this morning, I go alone for solitary time with the sea, reestablishing a connection each time, slipping back into this landscape like an old flannel shirt. It is, to me, one of the most beautiful places on earth, made even more so as I get older by the abundance of memories it holds. Here we have partied long into the fire lit night.  Here too we have solemnly scattered the ashes of two beloved friends.  It is where I want mine scattered when the time comes.

We have collected shells and driftwood and sifted with our fingers the stones of the beach for agates. We have gathered low tide mussels from the rocks and cooked them in salty sea water and white wine over a driftwood fire.  There is a long lines of rocks to venture onto, stretching out into the ocean, wrenched further beyond the reach of the tides by the 1992 earthquakes which brought such destruction to Petrolia, Ferndale and Scotia.  Once, having forgotten the pot, we laid the mussels on driftwood up against the flames and ate them as they popped open, hot and steaming in the cool night air.  We’ve always talked of spending a night there, but I never have.  It is isolated and windy and in the 30 years I have been going out there I have only run into other people a few times.

on the hillside cows
lounging, gazing off to sea –
the windblown dune grass

There is a near-constant wind blowing out of the northwest across the beach and inland all the way down this stretch of coast, or at least the parts that I have walked.  At dusk, on certain unpredictable and indefinable evenings, as the sun sets and the sea and sky take on the aspects of a Frederic Church painting, the wind becomes an unaccountably warm caress which seems to stop time.  At such moments one can only stand in the sand, eyes closed, hat in hand and let the wonder wash over you like a gentle wave.

remnants of a fire
in the lee of that dark rock –
ashes to the sea

I stayed there that morning longer than I’d planned, shooting photographs and writing bad haiku, reluctant as always to leave. Once on the road again I made good time through Petrolia and Honeydew where, instead of taking my accustomed route northeast through the mountains to Rt. 101, I turned south.  Not long after, taking the left fork headed southeast toward Ettersberg instead of the more direct route which would have taken me southwest down Chemise Mt. Road through the King Range until it met Usal Road, I made my way to Shelter Cove Road where I headed west.

Then, after some initial confusion when I took the road out to Bear Harbor by mistake (I realized my error and turned back before going too far out of the way), I finally found myself on Usal Road.  The signs at the turnoff were so full of bullet holes they could barely be read, which somewhat accounted for my wrong turn. One sign, when deciphered, warned that the road was not maintained and travel is at your own risk.  Another bullet hole bedecked sign flat out said the road was “Closed to through traffic.”  Well I figured I was heading for Usal Beach, so I wasn’t really “through” traffic, I was more like “to” traffic.  Of course after Usal Beach I intended to continue south to meet Rt. 1, which more-or-less sort of made me “through” traffic after all.  It didn’t matter, nothing those signs had to say was going to dissuade me, the warnings only made it more attractive.

After starting off on Usal Road I quickly began to encounter an apparently endless series of big mud puddles of various depths stretching sometimes all the way across the road; I’d thought the road would be pretty dry by June but the rains this year had lingered longer than usual, a fact I’d conveniently managed to forget. However I had recently spent way too much money on truck repairs so I figured it was about to pay off.  With a new rear end, breaks and shocks, I felt totally ready to go four-wheeling. We’ll set aside the fact that I had not packed chains, a saw, an axe, a shovel or a companion, and concentrate on my having a sleeping bag and pad, small amounts of food and water, toilet paper and a cell phone with sporadic coverage.

I drove for miles on that pot hole filled, drop-off punctuated, narrow, twisting, alternately clay-based mud and dry dusty, steep dirt road. I traveled up and down the mountains through the deep shadows of the fir, oak and redwood trees and along the fern covered floors of the forests.  All colors of rhododendrons were blooming and the dappled shadows brought the forest to fervent life. From the high points I could often look through the trees to see the Pacific Ocean far below and off to the west.  I cranked up the stereo (Rory Gallagher’s BBC recordings) and had a hell of a good time bouncing along that road. For a while I passed the occasional driveway, almost always with a gate and a “Private Property” sign at the bottom, but I never once encountered another car or person the whole time I was on Usal Road – didn’t even hear anybody else. Outside of the noise I made the only sounds were birds and the wind in the trees.  I did encounter a rock slide which had been cleared just enough for a vehicle to squeeze through and some fallen trees from which enough had been carved to allow me through. I was also following fairly fresh tracks, so this was not virgin territory. Someone had been through here recently, probably over the weekend.

On spotting water ahead I would pull up close to it, get out and survey the often pond-sized mud puddle across the road to determine the best way to approach it.  Sometimes it didn’t reach all the way across and I would slowly make my way through with one side on more-or-less dry ground and one side in the water.  Other times, there just was no good way and the only thing to do was to back up, get a running start and power through sending broad sprays of muddy water flying into the air on either side. Doing this engendered a joy that transcended any trouble I might be getting myself into.  I was practically giddy with glee. Like being a kid and not merely stomping in the puddles on the way home from school but skidding through them with watery wings in my wake. As though I could transform myself into a speedboat and back again whenever I needed to.  Like a super hero with a very specific power who has finally found the perfect expression for it.  Or maybe it was just my inner redneck coming out.

This was easily the worst maintained and most enjoyable road I have driven since I lived on a mountain ranch in the mid-80’s.  I had my V-8 and my four-wheel drive and I thought I was ready for anything, always a feeling to be indulged with caution.

Just as I was becoming certain that I was getting to within a mile or so of the beach (I probably wasn’t even close yet; we all believe what we want to believe when we need to believe it.) I saw something ahead that looked like it might be a serious problem.
Before me lay a stretch of mud, no water just thick mud sculpted by the tires of previous four-wheelers into an imposing set of ruts and ridges.  On inspection it seemed to be composed of pure clay with a consistency such that one could probably make pots out of it.  The area it covered was three to four truck widths wide and four or five lengths long, way too much to power through.  Many of the ruts were a foot or more deep and there was nothing solid and dry anywhere on which at least one set of tires could make purchase; previous travelers had used it all up, steadily expanding the width of the disaster as they did. The mud stretched, squishy in spots, firm and forbidding in others, from the steep bank on the east side to the line of trees on the west side.  This was going to take more planning and forethought than anything I’d yet encountered.  I walked through it gingerly, analyzing the situation and decided that there was only one possible way across and it would be tricky.  I would have to line up my wheels on two narrow ridges between ruts, very close against the trees.
I had a go at it but when, a short way into the morass, I felt the tires sliding sideways into the ruts I changed my mind and slowly, carefully backed out, reconsidered, and then started filling in the ruts alongside the two likeliest ridges. Problem was that there weren’t any rocks or stones around, everything pretty much being clay beneath a layer of decomposing vegetation, so the soft rotting branches were all that was available to rebuild a firm roadbed – not particularly promising material.  Still I wanted to try and worked on filling the ruts for a while, then had another go at it.  But each time I tried I’d slide sideways again just past the part where I’d filled the ruts. After 20 or 30 minutes of this it was clearly time to re-evaluate the potential for success, what it would take, whether or not it was possible and whether or not it was even worth it.

Ultimately I decided that I would pretty much have to fill in the whole length of at least two of the ruts if I was going to get across, and that could take hours that I didn’t have; evening was not far off.  Plus, there was no guarantee that I wouldn’t run into something just like this, or worse, another quarter-mile down the road.  If I truly got stuck on that road there was no telling when someone else might have come along to help me out, or if they’d have been able to.  Spending the night back there sounded like fun initially but then I gave it more thought.  The cell phone didn’t work where I was and I had no idea how far I’d have to walk before I might pick up a signal.  Even if I was able to call for help, getting a tow truck out there or a rescue from the forest service or sheriff would probably have been more expensive than even I could imagine. So, reluctantly, I surrendered to logic, turned around and headed back to Shelter Cove Road, exercising good sense for what was probably the first time all day.

Returning to the main road was a lot quicker because I now had a sense for what was in front of me and I presumed that I could make it through everything I encountered since I had already done so once.  While I was disappointed at not being able to get to Usal Beach and connect to Rt. 1, I nonetheless had one hell of a good time trying.  This was the first real four-wheeling I have probably done in this truck since I bought it in 2005.  The truck showed it too, it had the appearance of having been painted by Jackson Pollack on a bad hangover morning.  Mud had been exuberantly sprayed across the body from the wheel wells on out and the wheels themselves caked with mud; I didn’t want to look underneath.  I viewed it as a badge of honor and decided not to wash it off until I’d had a chance to show it off.
If I’d had one of those testosterone pumped rigs that sit three feet off the ground with the oversized tires that look like they belong on a tractor, I would’ve made it.  But what can you really do with such a vehicle when you get to the other side? And how often does one encounter one’s personal muddy Waterloo?  I suppose one of those Transformer things from a Michael Bay movie is what I really needed, but as with most things one thinks one really needs, no such thing truly exists.

Even though I was unable to accomplish what I’d set out to do, this had been more pure fun than I’d had in a long time.  I came home from that trip and especially that day, exhausted, energized and ready for more.  It carried over into a good mood that lasted for days.  I rode around town in that mud-splattered truck for two or three weeks until even I was tired of looking at it and washed it off.

06/14/2011 – 09/05/2011
Sebastopol, CA

Once it was established that I was not simply requesting nitrous oxide but had already paid for it myself, since my insurance didn’t cover it (the experience of pain not being one of their overriding concerns), the oral surgeon instructed his assistant to set it up.

The chair, with me in it, was tilted back at a sharp angle with my head aimed toward a far corner the floor. This would allow the doctor access to the offending wisdom tooth, which was growing crooked out of the back of my left upper row and reaching roots into my nasal cavity.  A strap containing the nitrous inhaler was attached, holding my head firmly in place.  I was told that for the first five minutes or so I would be receiving straight oxygen – this, said the assistant, would open up my lungs and make the nitrous more effective; I was all for that.

I had one of R. H. Blyth’s haiku books held in front of my eyes. I had this notion that reading haiku at a time like this would keep me calm and centered – yeah, sure. I made the motions of reading but don’t believe I actually absorbed any of the words my eyes were racing across.  I was waiting to feel something which might indicate that the nitrous oxide was beginning to take effect. For what seemed like a long time there was nothing.  After a while someone wandered in and ask me if I was feeling anything yet. “Very little.” I offered. She wandered back out.

Then the doctor came in, having decided that I must be ready whether I thought so or not.  If you’re going to have someone leaning very close into you with his hands in your mouth for an extended period of time, it helps if he’s good looking.  The doctor or intern or resident or whatever he was (this being a teaching hospital) appeared to be of Mediterranean descent, handsome, dark complected, black hair with a neatly-trimmed beard; I approved.

A panorama x-ray taken on November 1, 2007 by the oral surgeon in Petaluma who determined that the offending wisdom tooth was more than he could handle "in a clinic setting" and that I needed to go to UCSF to have my jaw dislocated under general anesthetic - sure glad he sent me elsewhere.

He opened my mouth as wide as it would go, and then some.  I could feel him poking about with his fingers then I could feel the needles going in, one after another.  There were quite a few of them but the only ones which hurt were the ones entering the roof of my mouth, the hard palate.  Even those hurt very little, just enough to spark memories of such injections without nitrous oxide. Nonetheless I automatically adopted a white knuckle grip on the book I was now holding tight against my chest, as thought haiku could shield me from harm, like a pocket bible to catch a bullet in an old war movie.

Then there was another wait for the lidocaine to take effect before the doctor and his assistants returned.  I was fully under the sway of the nitrous by now and cared little what they were doing. He did not provide for me the kind of running narration of what he was doing that some dentists have done – and which I appreciate.  His speaking was mostly aimed at his assistants.  From time to time, there would be an instruction to me to turn my head one way or another.  Somehow I always managed to pick those instructions out of the flow of words and never mistook them for requests to one of the assistants, at least I think I did.  It was as though he was able to pitch these instructions directly to me through the nitrous haze.

The doctor had warned me in advance that they might damage or even knock off the large crown on the tooth nearest the one they were pulling, so from time to time I did wonder if the bone-crunching crack I heard was the wisdom tooth breaking up or the sound of more dental bills accumulating to redo the neighboring crown.  Such wonderings though did not linger long in nitrousland.

I don’t recall any specific dreams or hallucinations while I was under.  Nor do I recall what I was thinking about much of the time.  It seemed like they were working for an awfully long period; it had to have been over half an hour, maybe 45 minutes.  Periodically I could hear the high pitched  whirring of drills and my skull would seem to amplify the vibrations they made.  Then there was the hammer and chisel – at least it felt and sounded like a hammer and chisel, sharp, shiny, metallic whacks.  With each blow my skull would abruptly jerk from the impact. The sound was a combination of a clang and a crack.  I imagined a surgical steel chisel wedged between the roots of the tooth and the bone of my skull.  Each slam of the hammer budging the roots ever so slightly and slowly out of their grip on the bone.

I could feel him pulling pieces of the tooth out and sometimes would hear him say something to an assistant to the effect that they had gotten a particularly difficult piece.  Eventually it was all out and the doctor sent for his supervising surgeon to come in and take a look at what he had done. This was the doctor whose name would actually appear on all the records and bills.  They both sounded pleased.  Then the repair work began.

Everything that happens on nitrous oxide has an abstractness to it which allows for great distance from what is occurring and truly does not admit fear or anxiety about any of it.  I said that I did not recall dreaming while under, but everything feels like a dream – so how could I tell?  When it would seem that things were taking too long, the catchphrase “this too will pass” actually held meaning and allowed me to drop any concern I had and just kind of cruise along, a dispassionate observer of my own experience – there and not there. This is an ability I wish I could conjure without nitrous whenever I should need it.  The part of me that the doctor needed was there, while the parts with the potential to get in the way of what they needed to do were drifting off in the aether somewhere, looking down on the entire procedure with a lax curiosity.

When they removed the wisdom tooth it opened a passage between my nasal cavity and my mouth which now needed to be closed in order to prevent the unhealthy, not to mention unappetizing, exchange of matter and fluid.  This was apparently the part of the procedure which none of the previous doctors I had seen in Sonoma County felt capable of handling.  Now I was having this attractive surgical intern or resident do it under the supervision of his teacher, of whom I caught only the proverbial fleeting glimpse.  Thanks to the nitrous, I was unconcerned by this.  I heard discussions between those working on me but could not quite make out the words, or perhaps simply didn’t care enough to make out the words.  Then I felt the needles going in for the stitches.  Like the lidocaine shots, I could feel the ones going into my gums and cheek but they did not hurt.  The ones going into the roof of my mouth pierced through the nitrous oxide as though it were simply another layer of tissue through which they were passing.  The pain itself would probably best be described as a tweak or sharp pinch – nothing to get excited over.  It was more the surprise that I was feeling it at all that impressed me than the minor pain itself.  Of course, being able to feel this small pain brought into question the effectiveness of the anesthetic altogether; and off along such anxiety-strewn paths my mind began to wander until the nitrous would scoop me up into its gaseous arms humming an atmospheric lullaby, and it would be as though I had completely forgotten how to worry.

Then I felt them gathering up all the various equipment and tools that had been laid out across my chest and tilting the chair, with me still in it of course, back into an upright position.  The doctor said, “Okay that’s it.  We’re done.”  The nitrous in my nostrils was slowly replaced by oxygen again.  I was becoming aware of the novocaine/lidocaine pins and needles-y numbness, that sense of inflated flesh swelling my face into Elephant Man distortion which disappears when a mirror is presented.

The doctor explained to me what he had done, it seems they cut out a piece of the inside of my cheek and planted it into the hole through to my nasal cavity, then drew gum and tissue over it and sewed the whole mess up.  He and the assistant instructed me in follow-up care, thrusting written instructions into my hand, and that was it – they were done.  I thanked them, adding “I don’t imagine that was easy.”

Before he could escape, I asked if I could take the tooth with me: a souvenir, a talisman, something to add to the gris-gris bag.  But he said that it was in too many pieces to be recognizable besides, he went on to inform me, he could not release it anyway because it had to be disposed of as bio-hazard waste. With the nitrous still lingering in the corners of my consciousness my first thought at hearing that was to wonder if anyone had told the tooth fairy.


begun 12/15/07 – 12/23/07
revisions 1/16/2011 – 03/10/2011
Sebastopol, CA

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