Today I turn 11110. Today I turn 1e. Today I turn…

Today I turn 11110.

Wow. I made myself feel old. Let me try that again.

Today I turn 1e.

Better, although since most people don’t count in either the binary or hexadecimal systems, I suppose I should tell you that today, according to the decimal numbering system and Gregorian calendar, I turn 30.

Automated systems have flooded my inbox with celebratory messages; friends have sent me emails and notifications in various social sites wishing me a happy birthday. (The automated systems outnumber the friends. How sad is that?) Some of those people have been asking me how it feels to turn “the big three-oh”. I tell them it’s just a number in a particular numbering system. In truth, the answer–which involves the feeling of aging, marking one year closer to the end of my natural lifespan, joying at the understanding that comes with age and seeing history unfold, better appreciating the greatness of life and the people around you, etc.–is far more complicated; it’s far easier to keep it simple since those same complicated answers apply to every birthday, not just this one.

I know it’s supposed to be a pretty big deal, turning 30, but I would rather judge how monumental a birthday is according to what happens around the time itself, not because of a milestone in a particular numbering system. (Think about it, if we only had four fingers per hand then the world would likely run on a base-8 numbering system; I would be turning 36 today, which would be as much of a milestone as my turning 25.) For example, in retrospect, the year I turned five was a pretty monumental one.

I had recently grown cognizant of the concept of a calendar, though it hadn’t yet dawn on me that every year had 12 months. In fact, I still distinctly remember the day it happened, looking at the calendar and reading Septiembre, which meant that Christmas was only four months away, then New Year’s. “How many months will next year have?” I asked. My mom said “Twelve,” and for weeks I wondered how people knew how many months a year had, or what those months would be called. Maybe there was an announcement made on television, or maybe they got a letter. And if this year had four months while next year had twelve, then how many months would the year after that have, sixteen? Eight?

A few months later, I still was not yet totally comfortable with that whole “number of months in a year” deal, but at least I knew enough to know not only when my birthday was, but I also to anticipate it well in advance. Those random parties people threw for me in the past, although I didn’t quite remember them, now finally made sense, temporally speaking.

Yes, in some ways I was a slow child, one with far more imagination than sense.

Despite my inability to remember these previous birthday parties, I knew they were good events. Even with all the milestones and events of that year, or maybe because of them something about this year was different. Everything changed. That’s because this was the first birthday I can, to this day, really remember having a birthday party. Actually there were three, but I can only really remember one. (I think I remember another one, but I might be mixing up memories.)

My uncle’s family owned a place on a mountain in Jayuya, a tiny town in the middle of Puerto Rico’s central mountainous region, the Cordillera Central. While I infamously hated the trip up there–the twisty mountain roads all but guaranteed my becoming a fountain of vomit–I loved everything after arrival. The weather was cool, the view unmatched and I got to walk around in their farm. (A farm there is often on a mountainside.) In the house, I got to play with the arcade machine my uncle kept in his porch, the one with the coin bucket lock open so we would only need to use one quarter to play.

It was fun. Lots of fun. But as great as that was, a warning from my cousin turned that from a a dream-like, hazy occasion into a concrete memory.

For my birthday that year, during a party previous, I received a He-Man game. (I don’t remember that party, but I do remember getting the game, playing with it over and over, and taking it with me.) The only thing that still sticks out in my memory is the board, which had a plastic overlay that shifted players’ positions throughout the game session. During that period it was my favorite game. (It was a new toy, what else would you expect?) My cousin’s cousins (unrelated to me) were coming over, and while I was excited about more people coming to play, he told me they were thieves, and they would steal my toys. That’s when paranoia struck: they wanted to steal the game!

I raced though the house not only putting that game away, but also everything that belonged to me which I feared they might steal, mostly other toys. After hiding everything in the room, I went looking for my mom, who was in the kitchen with my aunt, and tried to convince her that we should leave before these thieves got there. Of course, I didn’t call them thieves. I didn’t even tell her I was worried. I just told her I really wanted to go home: there was another birthday party waiting there for me and I was simply making sure we wouldn’t be late.

I never met these cousins. We left before anyone got there.

Since then I’ve wondered whether what my cousin said was true, or whether he said that just to scare me. I’d like to think both are at least as likely, but given how my cousin was and given my willingness to trust him–being that he was so much older and therefore wiser than me (he was six)–it was far more likely that he wanted to scare me.

There isn’t much I remember after that point. I’d like to say that I remember having a party at the local Burger King, but while I do remember a party there, I don’t remember whether it was subsequent the trip, or even if it happened that year. I do remember going back to school after the Thanksgiving break and feeling like an old soul, wizened by the passage of years, finally able to stand tall next to all the other five year olds, although later, as a 5 year old in the first grade, I would once again learn that I was still young. Only in retrospect can I truly appreciate how young I was.

Makes one wonder whether youth really is wasted on the young, or whether it can only truly be appreciated by them.

Today I turn 30, or 1e or 11110. Take your pick. While I’m not in the “age is just a number” crowd, the fact is that it is, so instead of judging whether a year is a milestone based on a particular numbering system, I would rather judge it by the events surrounding it, and more importantly, by the memories that survive over the long haul. For example, I’m in the middle of my first attempt at a novel now, spurred by the National Novel Writing Month. I’m also working with my dad on his new business venture. My health is steadily improving, making this birthday considerably better than my 27th, 28th or 29th, even though it was during that last one that I bought a house, and during that first one that I went down to Puerto Rico for a great, but short vacation. Still, I actually feel younger than I did then, and unlike then I actually feel good about the year to come.

Instead of passing judgment, however, I’ll spend my time enjoying the occasion. Whether for good or for ill–the best memories contain aspects of both–history will attend to the rest.

I wonder if people will make as big of a deal when I turn 100000, or when I turn 20.