Prepping for the Personal Essay: Who Are We and How Did We Get This Way?


There are many ways to understand who we are. We are, for example, in a literal sense, what we EAT and drink and breathe. When we digest things, we literally take the external world and make it part of ourselves (hence the miracle of the pig, who, as Jim Gaffigan has noted, can take an apple and miraculously turn it into bacon). Less literally, we are the sum total of our THOUGHTS and FEELINGS, in that what we think about all day and the emotions they generate become the template of our personality/disposition. We are also what we DO, for our actions and our thoughts and feelings exist in a chicken-and-egg relationship and, in the end, our accountability and our legacy rest not upon what we intend but upon what we DO.

Perhaps less obvious to many teenagers is that we are also whom we hang out with—our FRIENDS—and that’s why primary care givers care so damn much about who these people are in particular.

We can’t choose our families (not at first, anyway) but we CAN choose our friends. I think it’s important to have experiences with all different types of folks and be open to the “randomness” of the universe to a certain extent, but to choose the members of our inner circle—those with whom we spend the most time—very thoughtfully (see for example, Tip #2. Socialize with EVERYONE, but Hang with the Winners, from Leaving Soon for College? Dr. Yo’s 6 Simple Tips for Guaranteed Success).

The other night I was enjoying a BBQ at my friend Robert’s house and I was thinking about how we met. Robert’s a few years older than I and we grew up one street away from each other in a quiet, secluded neighborhood in WeHa. He had and still has, three beautiful sisters, the youngest of whom, Nancy, was one of the heartthrobs of the town for kids 15-18 back in the early 80s. But I digress.

Around the time my parents first allowed me to ride my bike unsupervised around the neighborhood, I first encountered Robert. I had a dinky three-speed bike and he had a shiny, gargantuan ten-speed; but the thing I remember most vividly, aside from his size (Robert’s six feet tall today and back then he was a LOT older and bigger), was that he was zipping through the summer breeze faster than I knew bicycles could go and even from a distance I could tell he was sitting up straight…no hands on the handlebars. It was the coolest thing I ever saw.

Graciously he stopped—think about it, most kids who had a few years on you would not think to stop and chat with a little kid—but Robert did. He was eating an apple (after all, his hands were free), and one of the things he said—he claims to have no memory of it, but he’s also incurably modest—was, “I love apples. I eat at least two apples every day. If you have two apples a day, you’ll never get sick.” I’m thinking he’s 10 at the time, 12 at the most.

Ok, so he’s neither doctor nor nutritionist, but here’s my point: I was lucky enough to stumble upon an older kid—a de facto role model—who became a friend, whose actions and words bespoke of riding bikes athletically (exercise) and eating healthfully (e.g., apples) as good things. I could’ve just as easily encountered older kids smoking pot or scheming about ways to swindle younger kids out of their lunch money. And they would have appeared just as cool and grownup to my young, starry eyes.

As a 51-year old, I still enjoy riding my bike, and while I don’t eat two apples a day, apples are a staple of my diet. Do I owe it ALL to Robert? I think not. But I owe part of it to him, as I do to the basic fact that he was a positive influence in my early life. I don’t think he was TRYING to be anything other than what he was, namely, a good kid. The influence just happens, like apples turning into bacon.

And that’s part of the magic of friendship and why you should choose your friends wisely: they influence you whether you want them to or not. It’s just how it works. And yeah, I AM the crazy man riding round the town with no hands ;-).

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