Forty years later

I turn forty today. It’s a big birthday, very midlifey, a time of a certain amount of angst, a certain amount of reflection. I could try to sum it all up, write a list of accomplishments or things I’m proudest of, but inevitably that becomes covertly a list of all the things I haven’t accomplished and am least proud of. And that’s not much fun. Besides which, the big things I’ve done in my life — working at Google, graduating from Columbia University, buying a house, getting married, getting unmarried, getting sober, traveling — are things that lots of people have done.

Instead of all that, here is a list of moments, experiences, quirks and flotsam that make me who I am. Instead of a greatest hits compilation that has all the songs you’ve heard a million times, this is that extra disc in the box set that has the b-sides and outtakes and poorly recorded live cuts. So here goes.

  • When I was about four, my dad handed me the lid to the cookie jar. He thought I had it, I thought he had it, it crashed to the floor. I was startled and terribly upset and started to sob. My father told me everything was OK.
  • In nursery school, I once forgot how to walk and could only march or run. This lasted for several days. Another time, I found myself wondering what would happen if I rode a tricycle at full speed into the side of the sandbox. I knew I couldn’t keep moving forward, but I also thought it seemed wrong that I would just suddenly stop. I did the experiment and discovered that the trike stops but I keep going, right over the handlebars, and scrape up my face so badly on the big hard tire that I can’t whistle for two weeks afterward.
  • I know how to Korean dance. And swing dance. I am an award-winning Korean dancer.
  • I’ve had some weird temp jobs. Once I did data entry for a week on a gambling boat while it was in port. The Filipino crew weren’t allowed off the boat for visa reasons, so they hung around watching the same Bon Jovi concert video over and over.
  • As a teenager, I had a fling with an ex-Soviet Russian scientist from a newly formed Central Asian state.
  • Once, the muezzin of the Taj Mahal, after giving the call to prayer, tried to sell me toilet paper.
  • I once spent the night at the Pairothapla Hilton (Pairothampla means landslide in Nepali), which had goat’s blood handprints on the doors to the rooms. I do not believe it was formally affiliated with the international chain of luxury hotels.
  • I have a brother. He’s alive today because I reached into his throat and took out a piece of apple skin he was choking on. I’m not sure he knows about that.
  • The most countries I’ve ever been in with another person (excluding the US) is four: Korea, Hong Kong, Nepal and India with my ex-wife, and France, Mexico, Ghana and Israel with my sister.
  • I remember when the Internet was made entirely out of text (1993). I remember dial tones and busy signals. I know the sound of a tone arm lifting at the end of a side. I have lost Legos in shag carpet. I have ridden in station wagons with fake wood paneling. I remember Pac-Man when it was new. Not Pong though. I’m not old. Seriously.
  • The highest I have ever been is about 12,400 feet, at Muktinath in the Annapurna region of Nepal. At that elevation, I felt stupid and sluggish.
  • The highest I have ever been was after drinking a bhang lassi in Pushkar, India. At that elevation, I felt stupid and sluggish.
  • I speak Korean well enough to have made some bizarre mistakes. Once I pointed to a rabbit and said, “Hey, it’s a demon!” Another time I invited a girl back to my place to look at my phone.
  • I didn’t go to a single high school dance, and I only attended one sporting event, briefly, to meet a friend who had to be there because he was in band. I did go to the dances at summer camp, though, which is where I met my first girlfriend. We slow-danced to “Stairway to Heaven.”
  • My first car was my dad’s old Toyota Corona, which I had painted black and upgraded with a better stereo (cassette deck, of course). It caught fire early on New Year’s Day, after I’d dropped off a friend on the way home from a concert.
  • I’ve only ever had three cars: two Toyotas and a Honda. I’ve had more bikes than that. I’ve never owned a skateboard.
  • Sometimes in high school I would drive up to the parking lot blasting Chinese opera, just to mess with the dudes who would drive up blasting rap. Sometimes I would detune my acoustic guitar to play Lady Sniff in the Denny’s parking lot.
  • Once, outside Covelo, California, some friends and I stood in the middle of a river and smoked a bowl so that we could tell people we’d stood in the middle of a river and smoked a bowl. So now I’m telling you. Mission accomplished.
  • Google is the job I’ve held the longest. The shortest was Yes! Burgers and Malts at the Northgate Mall in Marin County, California. When I quit on my third day, my manager — Patty, seriously — warned me that if I didn’t give two weeks’ notice, I wouldn’t get references. I’ve done OK though.
  • I have always had a rich fantasy life. I’ve also always had a pretty strong sense of the difference between fantasy and reality. I liked to play army and dress up in a camo uniform, and one time my mom took me to a Marine recruiting station to get me some patches. The recruiter asked if I wanted to be a Marine someday. “Oh no,” I told him. “It’s very dangerous. You could get hurt or killed.”
  • I grew up pretty free-range. I used to walk all over my neighborhood, down into the creek, and up into the surrounding hills when I was a kid. When I was old enough to do it, I rode my bike to the movie theater and the mall. I managed all this without a helmet. I fell down many times, and because I was by myself, I had to get back up again. If I’d been seriously hurt, I would’ve yelled, and someone would’ve found me. But I was never seriously hurt. I ate a lot of blackberries though.
  • I’ve lived in Lucas Valley, California; Morningside Heights, Manhattan; the Upper West Side; Forest Hills, Queens; Seoksu 3dong, Gyeonggi-do, Korea; Gowanus, Brooklyn; Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn; Bay Ridge, Brooklyn; and Brooklyn Heights.
  • My first computer was a Commodore 64.
  • I worked at Starbucks in Manhattan the summer the Frappuccino was introduced. Try one with a shot of raspberry syrup, but not if there’s a long line behind you.
  • My first word was “dog.” Probably pretty soon after that I learned to say “dumb dog.” That was our dog’s name. (Her other name was Joplin.)
  • After I graduated from college, I lived with my grandparents for a couple of years in their book-lined Upper West Side apartment. It was vexing and grand. That was the same apartment I used to visit as a teenager. I came once with my friend Joey, and we shot bottle rockets attached to paper airplanes out the 8th-floor window during a thunderstorm. We also saw Danzig and Soundgarden at the Beacon Theater and got terribly sick with neck pains that resembled meningitis but were not meningitis. My grandparents’ weird old doctor wrote a prescription slip for Gatorade, and our grandparents forced copious quantities of the stuff on us.
  • Among the things I have learned how to do and then forgotten: play the violin, speak Spanish, shoplift vinyl records from the mall, walk from Thamel to Durbar Square via Tahiti Tole, solve quadratic equations, ride Muni, use PageMaker, program in Logo, recite all of Bottom’s lines in Midsummer Night’s Dream, win Super Mario Bros. Among the things I have learned how to do but not done in a while but still mostly remember how to do: play guitar and harmonica, drive stick (in San Francisco, too), set up a tent, throw a football, say no in Hindi, write a keyhole essay, solve a sudoku, work an ATM entirely in Korean (the top choice is always withdrawal).
  • In college I took a class on Native American literature with Karl Kroeber, who claimed not to understand Native American literature. I figured that if this guy who’d been studying it his whole life still didn’t get it, what chance would I have during a single semester? I think I got a B. The best thing I learned in college was that I didn’t know anything about anything. Somewhere in my late thirties, I felt like I finally knew a little something about something, and now I’m getting a master’s degree in it.

If I had to do it all over again, I would change lots of things, of course. Life is full of embarrassments, mistakes, wastes of time, stupidities. But you don’t get to do it all over again. You don’t get to live then knowing what you know now. But you do get to live now, remembering what you did then. Happy birthday to me.