A Tsunami Brewing
I’m a little fucked up (i.e., drunk). And drunk, I’m a better version of myself: more in touch with my emotions and unafraid to register those emotions. Forty years ago this week, at 17, I joined a fraternity at UCLA. Pledging ZBT was one of the best decisions I ever made. I grew up with no siblings and an absent dad, so I had few male role models. Without the socialization, scrutiny, and camaraderie of my “brothers,” it’s unlikely I would have graduated from college.
One friend from that time is more present in my memory tonight. Ron Baham was smart, handsome, and talented. After college, he went to work in entertainment, and by 30, he was director of programming for Disney television. Three years after, ill from AIDS, he called several people to make amends before ingesting several dozen valium mixed into a large glass of vodka.
In the late nineties, America’s view of AIDS deaths among gay men was roughly “that’s a tragedy, but you kind of had it coming.” Only people who contracted the virus from a blood transfusion or heterosexual sex were the legitimate “victims.”
Before the Tsunami
There is an interesting discourse in social media re the importance of addressing issues early, before they can become a real shitstorm. We Democrats ignored the chipping away of women’s rights over the past 20 years only to have the unthinkable happen. It’s likely going to take years, decades even, to get the moral compass of the U.S. back on its axis. The steady erosion of gay rights is accelerating into a second tsunami.
One GOP principle that’s always resonated for me (though it’s barely visible in today’s GOP) is personal liberty. Opting for the individual, making your own decisions about how you want to live your life. Paramount: the right to pursue life. Next: liberty. It’s unfathomable to imagine, in my view, a society dictating whom we can love and who can love us back. New laws in states all over the union, couched in false flag concerns about school curricula or swim meets, amount to nothing but a gross assault on what it means to be American and a violation of our sacred right to liberty.
If advocating for fraternites and gay rights in subsequent paragraphs sounds inconsistent, you can take comfort in knowing that the world is not cable-TV news. Society, people, and life are more nuanced and complex.
Anyway, I wrote this in 2017, which means 97% of you have not seen it.
[The following was originally published October 6, 2017.]
Tom Petty and Bad Timing
Tom Petty’s passing hit me as much as any death of a celebrity since Robin Williams. While we don’t know celebrities, they can transport us back to a time in our life we usually feel good about. Death is not airbrushed or shot in a soft light, so we see them as more human, empathize, and register our own mortality.
Tom Petty takes me back to freshman year at UCLA. As a fraternity pledge, I was thrust into a four-man, 300-square-foot room in the fraternity with my “brothers” (total strangers):
- Gary was a big kid from Seattle who rowed in high school and wore expensive polo shirts. He drove a new Accord and was more ambitious than us, at an earlier age. Senior year, he essentially stopped going to class so he could work full time at a real estate firm. He traded smoking a shit-ton of pot and watching Planet of the Apes with friends during the day for the chance to get a nine-month professional jump on us. The rest of us opted to spend 60, vs. 61, years working and experience a year with Charlton Heston, cannabis, and each other. So. Worth. It.
- Pat was from a farm in Visalia. He was also the most creative and likable person any of us had ever met. He was hilarious and outrageous, writing songs and scripts and then having us sing and read them, usually very high. Pat and I bonded, as, unlike most of our brothers, our families were not affluent. We were always broke … always.
- Craig was from the Valley and had a nice innocence about him. He was artistic and constantly doodling, and soon he was designing all the shirts and swag for social events. Claiming it was his psych homework, Pat would put on the theme from Jaws, pin Craig to the ground, and tickle him until he passed out from oxygen deprivation. Then, in the middle of the night, he’d put on the theme from Jaws so we could watch Craig wake to the music and reflexively scream “NO!” This still stands as the hardest I’ve ever laughed.
- Ron was a handsome Black guy with a movie star voice. He dressed as if he’d walked out of The Preppy Handbook. He ended up at a Jewish fraternity when he was unable to secure a bid from the Lambda Chi fraternity next door. Ron seemed older than his years and was universally loved. Today, there’s an endowed scholarship in his memory at UCLA.
Damn the Torpedoes
The soundtrack to all of this in 1983 was Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA albums, which we literally wore out. Hearing of Tom Petty’s death took me back to freshman year, and a bunch of us started a group text around the shock of his passing. I was reminded of Ron’s deaths by his absence.
The last time I saw Ron was at a friend’s wedding. Severely ill and wasting away, he seemed embarrassed to speak to me. I tried to be as nonchalant as possible, acting as if nothing was wrong, talking about anything else. A man was dying, and another (a friend) was too immature to find the behaviors or words to bring some grace to the situation.
By that time, the early nineties, American society was slowly becoming more accepting of gay people. But at UCLA in the eighties, there was no acceptance whatsoever of gay people or their lifestyle. I couldn’t have named a single gay person at UCLA, though several of my good friends, unbeknownst to me, were gay. My closest friend, the godfather to my youngest son, and the CEO of my first firm — all of them friends from college and grad school. All gay.
So much about who we are and the lives we get to live is a function of where and when we are born — out of our control. I have no choice over my sexuality. Being born a straight man in California in the sixties was the luckiest thing that could have happened to me. Being born a gay man in the sixties proved fatal for Ron.
Born 20 years earlier, he could have had a full adult life. Born 10 years later, science would have caught up and made living with HIV manageable.
Most of us have had the chance to do the things we dreamt of in college. Many of those things (achieving material items, having exotic experiences, finding relevance) have been meaningful. But as you get older, the relationships you have with people you love and who love you overwhelm everything else in your life. It’s not something easily explained to a young person. And, unlike most things, we get better at love as we get older. At a minimum, we appreciate it more. Ron was more talented and likable than any of us, but he was robbed of the time to achieve much more.
I heard about Tom Petty and was sad and nostalgic. I remember Ron and I’m just sad. Very sad.
Life is so rich,