Reflecting on who you are, and what shaped you

What made you you?

We could certainly sit here and have a nature-nurture discussion, but much of what gave us our personality today – what we do, how we react to events and to change, our socio-political beliefs, etc., can be attributed to some of the things that have happened during our lifetimes.

I've already written about some of the events that have shaped me. Tienanmen Square and the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Grunge music and the 9/11 attacks.

Mitch shared a piece on Facebook recently. It was Elton John writing about Ryan White changing his life. And Mitch included a note that I'd forgot about: While right now we take AIDS for granted as somethiing we're working to cure and we feel bad for people with AIDS, but they'll live thanks to medicines and such, in the 1980s, AIDS was awful.

Not just "you are going to die a painful, miserable death" awful – because you were, and it was probably going to just say pneumonia in your obit – you were an outcast. Barred from school. Separate water fountains. Disposable plates and silverware. People refused to shake your hand, or even wore surgical masks in your presence.

In 1985, before donated blood was tested for HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), my brother had a blood transfusion. We were scared shitless for six months (that's how long you had to wait to find out). I was 9.

I was 13 when Ryan White died and very much aware of what was going on. Health classes had units on AIDS as early as teachers could stomach teaching the kids. There wasn't very complete information; what do tell 11-year olds?

That was some scary shit right there.

You know what else was some scary shit while I was growing up? Crack. It taught me all about race and class.

Rich people had been doing cocaine for decades before the 1980s hit. But crack was a cheap, very un-pure form of the drug available in a constituted ball (called a "rock") that you could break up and smoke. It became predominant in lower-class neighborhoods, particularly African-American neighborhoods.

There are still people who think the introduction of crack was a government conspiracy to get poor black folks hooked and either permanently spaced out or to just kill them all off. The cocaine-crack divide was a huge eye-opener to a pre-teen in the late 1980s.

The point here is, if you're going to know who I am and why I react to some events the way I do, you probably need to know some of the things that were on my mind in my formative years.

Rodney King and the LA riots.

OJ Simpson's transformation from football star to goofy movie actor to that rich weirdo cops chased in a white Bronco on national TV. (If you don't remember the racial divide on the criminal trial, go do some reading. I remember where I was when the verdict was read.)

The fall of Soviet Russia.

The introduction of the Internet to the public.

MTV and a new model for music.

The wider availability of cable television (remember the early 1980s when they couldn't figure out how to get cables across operating railroad tracks? People on the other side of the tracks couldn't get cable.).

Hugely escalating higher education costs (the most expensive school in the country by far was Bennington, which ran about $21,000 a year, including room and board; that's would be a middle range school now).

[By the way, I can't believe that from the time I was in college until now, minimum wage has increased $2.50 an hour, from $4.75 to $7.25, and gas has increased $3 a gallon. I'm embarrassed by what we're paying people these days. We wonder why we have a crisis in the income gap.]

What kinds of things shaped you?