Watching the sun as it set on the Waikiki skyline at the close of the last day of 2012, I recalled that it was a bumpy year for many, what with unemployment, low pay, high gas prices, shooting deaths, broken marriages, the fiscal cliff, floods, storms and more. On the upside, we had national health care reform, the growth of philanthropy, Occupy Wall Street's youth leaders, Gabby Douglas' gold medal, returning troops and emotionally intelligent leaders. For me it was about embracing "the new 30" (the old middle age).
These days scientists say (and I hope it's true) that in my 40s I have only lived a third of my life. What a gift science is to us, a gift embraced by this president and a chance for all of us to leave the world more glorious than we found it.
The gift of longevity is probably the greatest gift of all for my cohort. I experienced my teens during the worst of the American AIDS crisis. I saw professors die at Yale, gorgeous, virile friends disappear and a Gingrich-Reagan culture war that raged where we seemed to be losing. I hardly believed any of us would survive for very long, and thousands did not. So what does it mean to be young(ish), alive and virile(?) at "the new 30"?
It gets better. I started teaching at Yale two years ago, and no generation has anything on this new one. Born into a rich country, their first vote was for a young, black president who plays basketball and is from Hawaii and whose middle name is Hussein. Vogue is plastered with images of a beautiful, black first lady born in a low-income part of Chicago. The wealthiest Americans pledge to give away their wealth to fight global diseases and poverty. They breathe a new air, love openly and know that they can change the world.
Courage's costs and the rewards are breathtaking. In 1989 I hugged Michael Callen, the then the longest survivor of AIDS, when my friends and I brought him to speak at Yale, where people were afraid to be in the same room with him. In 1990 we brought in Joseph Stephan, who had been expelled from Annapolis for being gay, to talk about being gay in the military. Being out was dangerous, and being black could land you in jail just for driving in New Jersey, where I lived. I upset a lot of people, including family, but they all came to embrace a new world. A mentor, Woody, whose own career was one of firsts, advised me on the risks of to going to work for a gay organization, a career killer for sure. It might have been, too, except that Woody and his wife became two of the biggest donors to the nonprofit I later founded.
Family matters, and friends sometimes more. I think God gave us the families we have for a reason: because we probably wouldn't choose many of them as friends if we had a choice. But that is wonderful, for it is our first chance to learn to be tolerant of people not at all like us: the crazy one, the loudmouth, the bigot, the kindly one, the snob, the flirt... you know the drill. And being loved by them is one of life's greatest pleasures. I remember my sister's wedding in 1992, when I insisted that her vows, to be read by the Roman Catholic priest in Voorhees Chapel, include a prayer explicitly for gays and lesbians to be able to marry just as she and Ken were doing. The then-attorney-general for Jamaica was in that church, and he and they helped change the world. And my friends -- Bruce and Mark, Gerry and Mindy, Dan and Ellen -- were there for the ride, and no blood is thicker than the water they carried for me.
An eventful life is not a curse. This old Chinese saying is wrong. Failing, when the job is your passion, is the building block for later success. Succeeding in a job that is meaningless is failing in life. I learned to embrace -- and talk about -- all the failures that happened along the way. My career and life have not been a wonderful stroll in the garden. The thorns have pricked, and blood has been shed indeed. But the eventful time I had gave me a life story that I would not exchange for anything. How do you take the vice president's position at the largest (and almost exclusively white) gay rights organization, and then almost the same position at the largest black civil rights organization, when you are both black and gay? With joy and pain. But you help birth the wonder of the NAACP embracing marriage equality and HRC embracing diversity in all its forms.
Do your own life. Everyone else's is taken. My high school friend Glen, who became blind from meningitis, taught me that. He has lived the last 10 years blind and mentoring young hip-hop talent, and his life is an original. Your story should be an original, just as your DNA is. It is easy to hanker after some of what others have -- the high-paying job, the accolades, the suburban family -- and that may be your life. But your life might also be singing in Berlin and Barcelona, risking it all on a march on Washington, shacking up with a crazy guy in Tecal, falling in love with a sailor in Hawaii. I learned to see life and career as not a straight line of dominoes but a creative and inventive process whose rewards only you may ever know.
Prepare for death, and life will be richer and deeper that your wildest dreams. When Hollywood screenwriter Nora Ephron was dying of cancer this year, she advised us, in her comical way, to have our last meal way before it is our last meal. How terrible it would be, she mused, if you died by accident after eating a tuna melt. What a waste if you could have had that wonderful tiramisu or chicken and waffles if you had only known, or if, when you are sick, you can't eat at all. So plan for that last meal, have it with friends, and you will know it was good when you actually die.
I have always wanted to go sky diving, to just about everyone's horror. When I was in law school, I came to Hawaii the first time and met the first real love of my life. He was wonderful in every way, but I made a different choice, and our relationship ended. I tried to rekindle the fire when he moved to New York briefly, but he would have none of it. Then he moved back to Hawaii and stopped communicating with me, to my intense regret. Over the last few years I wrote, left messages and got no response. I never returned to Hawaii until this December, and on an off chance I decided to try again, without success. Then I googled him and found his obituary; he had died in 2006.
When we were together here, we laughed about going sky diving, but given that both of us were focused on legal careers, we didn't take the risk. Now I can. So Emilio, this dive is for you.
You can have the life you want -- (sky) dive in! It will be beyond your wildest dreams.
Follow me on Twitter @maximthorne.