“Please, name the top 10 events in your life time that have had the greatest impact on the country.”
In December the Scripps Howard News service ran an editorial (which appeared in the Star News on Dec. 28) asking people across several generations to answer the question. Recently, over dinner I found myself in a multi-generational conversation about that prompt. It has really rattled around inside my head. I think because I can almost divide the question a variety of ways: science and technology, the arts, politics, meteorology (hurricanes, volcanoes, etc.).
The generational divide is an interesting parameter: by virtue of the necessity for events to have happened in one’s lifetime, it precludes reaping the benefits of that which has come before and almost sets one up to appear shallow to previous generations. The Civil Rights Act has had a serious long-term impact on all our lives, as had the development of the birth control pill and polio vaccine. But all that happened prior to my birth in 1980. Here are events I have lived through and therefore would put on my list.
1. September 11.
Almost everyone at the meal cited the infamous date: 9/11. Certainly the long-term effects are still felt on a daily basis. Anyone who doubts the veracity of that statement can simply compare and contrast any experience trying to board a plane pre-9/11 and post 9/11.
2. The AIDS Crisis
I would say the AIDS crisis had a tremendous impact on the world during my time on the planet. The arc that followed it is surprising:
“What is this strange plague that targets gay men?” (1982)
“How is it transmitted? Anyone can get it! Don’t touch anything!” (1986—a striking parallel with the confusion about the transmission of polio and TB at the height of both illnesses).
“It is a death sentence!” (1982- late 1990s)
“It is a manageable long-term illness.” (2000s)
That’s less than 25 years from discovery to management. Compare the timeline with polio (1780s-1955) and TB, which plagued humanity from the earliest records until the introduction of streptomycin in 1946.
Among the effects of AIDS was a challenge to sex education as it had previously existed. The focus wasn’t just on preventing teen pregnancy but possibly saving lives and reducing the spread of a killer disease.
For people coming into adulthood and all the sexual exploration and discovery that is part and parcel, AIDS was a very real part of life. Only during the last few years was the 1979-enacted restriction lifted against donating blood for people who had intercourse with a bisexual man.
3. End of the Cold War
When I mentioned to Jock that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break up of the Soviet Union would rank high on my list, he expressed surprise on its impact on my life directly.
“Did your children grow up with ‘duck and cover’ drills?” I asked, citing the now-famous (and ludicrous) nuclear attack drills of the Cold War where children were advised to “duck and cover” under their desks. I think perhaps knowing people who had escaped from behind the Iron Curtain and what they sacrificed made it very real to me at a young age.
My consciousness of the political world was largely expanding and being shaped in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s—when it felt like every week a landmark event was on the nightly news. The fall of the Berlin Wall is an image I can summon up immediately. The Baltic countries breaking away from the now former Soviet Union is another. Watching Dan Rather struggle with reading the names of the new countries on the day they announced their existence also is memorable. The world map we ate dinner next to looked like a very confused geometry project from all the newly drawn borders and added names.
4. The Election of President Obama
The Scripps Howard piece had most generations citing the election of President Obama as groundbreaking. Indeed, the people around my table cited the elevation of an African American man to the highest office in the land as a turning point in the country. If you asked me in 2007 if we would ever elect an African American to the presidency in my lifetime, I would have said, “I hope so, but I doubt it.” The same for the possibility of electing a woman to the presidency. I have been proved wrong once; I hope to be proved wrong again. On a broader note, I would argue as someone who travels internationally, the global perception of President Obama changed the role in the United States in foreign policy and greatly altered our relationships with our neighbors for the better.
5. The Microchip Revolution
One single event that snowballed into the greatest impact on the world, and my personal life since 1980, is the microchip revolution and all that comes with it: personal computing, desktop publishing, the Internet, cell phones, and personal global communication.
I still have our first family computer: an Apple II e. Just a few weeks ago several friends were helping me with the massive game of life-size Tetris that is my life: We were trying yet again to relocate boxes and belongings from one place to another for a variety of forthcoming construction projects.
“Careful with this.” I handed the combined keyboard and processor to Megan.
“It is older than you are.”
She smiled and asked me what it was—because it certainly didn’t look like any computer she had ever encountered.
“Why are you hanging on to that?” John asked.
“It is collectible,” Austin chimed in.
“Besides,” I added. “You never know when you are going to want to play ‘Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego.’”
“Or Oregon Trail,” Austin added helpfully.
From the humble beginnings of a world where my father’s first book was typed on a word processor and saved on six floppy disks (because of their limited memory capacity) to a time where I can email an entire novel to myself as “backup,” personal computing has changed daily life in ways we take for granted. I couldn’t have imagined in elementary school that from home I could make labels for products, flyers, spreadsheets, and signage for my bookstore. My dependency on the personal computer ensures the bookstore’s ability to function as a business and helps me keep the bottom line down. I would have had to pay dearly for all of these services 30 years ago. The use of social media and user-friendly websites are equally important and have made huge leaps in availability over 10 years ago.
“When do you think we are going to have free international calling on cell phones?” I mused to Jock when discussing this topic. “I mean just in the time you and I have been together, cell phones have gone from a huge expense that charged by the minute with complicated roaming structures to free long-distance service. Our last phone bill when you were in Africa was under $200. We have come a long way from the Sprint and AT&T advertising wars of ‘10 cents a minute’ in the 1980s.”
It led to a long chat about Skype, Facetime and just the surprise that people can text from Africa to NC instantly. We are insanely well-connected in ways that should make us more empathetic yet somehow we find ourselves increasingly drifting toward like-minded people more and more. Maybe one day we might let our curiosity and humanity reap the full benefits of a world where we can connect with people different from us and then truly benefit from the promises of a connected world.