Adventures In Physical Activity

I played sports my entire childhood.

Up until age 9, that is. Because at age 10, I became a man.

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My older brother and me. Please note that I’M the one wearing a soccer shirt, THANK YOU.

At age 10, I discovered tap dancing.

While my brothers continued to play point guard in basketball and goalie in soccer, I continued to play center with my triple winged time step and power forward with my flap ball change. They watched Gene Banks. I studied Gene Kelly. They worshiped DeJuan Blair. I bowed to Fred Astaire.

My brothers would tease me. They’d say I’d never get in shape if I didn’t take up a real sport. But I so strongly remember one time, in the 7th grade, when my friends and I sat around my bedroom drinking Smirnoff Ice, and we all went around the circle and verbally acknowledged everyone’s best feature – “Adam, you have such beautiful eyes”, “Sam, you have such gorgeous hair” – that after a mild Pinter pause, everyone agreed, “Michael…you have such great…calves. Yea, like, your calf muscles…are really defined.”

Nevermind that I never wore shorts because I was so self conscious about my thigh eczema. Clearly all the better, because my triceps surae were so impressive that they indented my baggy Pacific Sun jeans. And how do you think I got them holy calf muscles? TAP DANCING.

By the 8th grade, I got so cocky about my amazing calf muscles that I signed up for the school’s 50 yard dash competition to place in the county track meet. Nailed it. First place. Sprinting away from my Dad and his giant wooden spoon every time I put my pet rats on the sleeping babysitter’s face was really paying off.

Unfortunately our PE teacher signed me up for the wrong race in the county meet. He placed me in competition for the 600 meter. See I was only a sprinter, an unusually tall boy with a large stride and the immediate burst of energy needed to leap through 50 yards in a matter of seconds. I couldn’t do long distance! I saw Sleepless in Seattle! It almost never works out! And since my dismissal of team sports occurred a few years prior, I didn’t own a pair of athletic shoes that made it through my growth spurt.

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Trick # 1 To Not Showing Your Belly When All The Other Guys Are Shirtless: “Hey man, I’m just gonna keep this life preserver on. It’s so cozy!”

So I rolled up to the county wide track meet in my Capezio Capri’s and Stussy slip-ons and went boldly for the gold, my jock brothers finally cheering me on from the sidelines. Sure enough, for the first 20 seconds, I took the lead. Then one by one, each runner passed me by, until 40 meters from the finish line, Petey, the mentally handicapped boy from my class, skipped past me, glanced back, and shouted, “Sucka”.

I crawled my way past the finish line and fell to my knees panting, my life-long vertigo induced to skyrocketing levels. I looked over at the stands. My brothers were gone. As the rain clouds crept in, canceling the rest of the day’s competitions, I sat under the bleachers alone, the soles of my skater shoes withered to shreds, eating the biggest basket of Nachos you’ve ever seen, all the while lamenting my poor, fat existence. But please don’t feel too sorry for me. The nachos had cheese from the can. THE BEST KIND.

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Trick # 2 To Not Showing Your Belly When All The Other Guys Are Shirtless: “Hey man, I’m just gonna keep this heavy, soaking shirt on in 100 degree weather because isn’t this color just awesome?”

Despite that early bout of foolishness, I learned to know my limits and trust my gut. Well, except for that one time on my Jewish confirmation trip to Israel when the other boys convinced me that 60 seconds of hyperventilation followed by strict breath holding as they charged my chest would help me produce better abdominal muscles. Suffice to say, I came to on the floor surrounded by hyena like laughter. I was merely a pawn in the Israeli scam version of the Slendertone Vibrating Ab Belt.

I did have the last laugh one time. River kayaking was a summer staple for my family. A few years after being crowned the Great Patsy of Israel, I hiked out of the Grand Canyon following a week-long tumble down the Colorado River. I beat my father and my older brother out of the canyon by nearly two hours, in 105 degree heat with 40 pounds on my back no less. When my brother finally reached the top and spotted me sipping a Piña Colada in the gift shop, he exclaimed, “I can still kick your ass, fattie.”

He was right. By the end of high school, I had put on a few pounds. I used to blame the decade’s use of Zoloft that I was prescribed, ever since my Mom diagnosed me with childhood depression in the womb, but I knew it was really the incessant consumption of ice cream while watching Melrose Place marathons that led to my inflation.

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Trick # 3 To Not Showing Your Belly When All The Other Guys Are Shirtless: “Hey man, I’m just gonna hide behind you in the shadows because my body needs to cool off like woah.”

I started dancing more. I started dancing hard. So hard, that I broke my wrists freshman year of college at USC. When I called up my brother from the hospital, he asked if I had finally tried out for the football team. I regretfully had to inform him that I in fact broke my wrists doing leap frogs over my director while rehearsing “Kansas City” from Oklahoma. The orthopedist said he had never heard a manlier cause of fracture in the history of medicine.

Dancing did me good, though. By senior year of college, I lost 65 pounds. No conscious change of diet or activity. I simply continued to dance, because I loved it, and it made me happy. My parent’s didn’t buy it though. On numerous occasions, they sat me down to tell me to lay off the cocaine. I reassured them that I had never done drugs in my life. My father the doctor told me he did a lot of cocaine research in New York City in the 60’s. He knew the signs. I air quoted “cocaine research” right back at him. He said, “No, no, you have to believe me.” And I said, “Right. You have to believe me. I’m just dancing. And be thankful that I’m not air quoting “dancing” too.”

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Can you spot me? Better yet, CAN YOU SPOT THE CAST ON MY HAND?

I did have one misstep in college, however. Senior year, I played the alcoholic Harry in the school musical, Company, while taking all advanced level classes, choreographing for the school dance company, directing and producing the play The Shape Of Things, editing my thesis film, and assisting the Development Exec of a major Hollywood studio. Even Noah himself would have said from the ark, “Hey kid, take a break.”

So an hour before opening night, bleary eyed from final exams prep, I drank a Red Bull. Or two. Rather quickly, my vertigo reached Hitchcockian heights. I couldn’t see straight. I didn’t know which way was up. And I was just about to go on stage in front of a packed house of family, friends, teachers, and industry professionals. Now if you don’t know the show, Harry is on stage for the first 30 minutes, singing in the opening number, downing brownies and alcohol, then doing kung fu and back flips before singing an emotional ballad called, “Sorry/Grateful”.

On opening night, I was only sorry. Thankfully, I did not throw up all over the orchestra as anticipated. So I was certainly grateful for that. I made it through, tears streaming down my face be damned. One friend said to me after the show, “Were you really drunk up there tonight? God you’re SO method.” I then approached the director, my college mentor, with profuse embarrassment and shame. He told me I was fine. Barely anyone noticed. Don’t make such a big deal. Move on.

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The track suit that mocked me.

I remember feeling angry with him for a moment. Where was the consolation, the ounce of sympathy? But he was right. Despite all the physical and emotional turmoil I had that night, I made it through. I did the flips. I ate the brownies. I sang on key, for the most part. Obstacles are merely there to be overcome. That’s how we grow. That’s how we survive. I learned my lesson.

Well, until my last birthday, when I had a Vodka Red Bull with lasagna at dinner, then proceeded to spend four hours dry heaving in the corner of the handicapped women’s bathroom stall at the Maritime Hotel in New York City, while fifty friends waited awkwardly outside. Fun Fact: Women’s handicapped stalls are the biggest stalls imaginable. So spacious. I was just about ready to pay rent. So, Ok, fine. Push forward. Own your choices. Do your best.

Just don’t drink Red Bull.

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Adventures In Making Sense Of Your Childhood, Or, What Happens When You Listen More Closely To The Verve Pipe’s 1997 Seminal Hit “The Freshman”

What excites us changes over time. 15 years ago, when The White Power Ranger & The Pink Power Ranger finally hooked up? So cool. When Mortal Kombat: The Movie” used brand new characters from “Mortal Kombat II: The Video Game”? Thrilling beyond belief. Unlimited rides on The Big Dipper rollercoaster at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk? Best thing ever. These days, excitement comes in the form of paying bills without an accelerated heart rate and severe dry mouth, finding public restrooms in the middle of the day that are just sanitary enough to remove your contact lenses in, or making it through one New York City subway ride without being groped.

Our adult brains have the ability to give old experiences new context, which sometimes make for sudden realizations about random things from our childhood. These moments most often happen in very banal ways, like realizing that Mickey Rourke and Mickey Rooney are not the same person.

Or sometimes they happen in more meaningful ways. I recently received the following message on Facebook from a kid I went to middle school with – someone I have not spoken to in over 15 years. “Hey man, I know it was a really long time ago but I just want to apoligize for the way I treated you when we were growing up. It was really stupid of me and I sincerely apologize.” So. 12 Steps? Did he convert and miss Yom Kippur? I don’t know. Did I appreciate the gut punches and Jew jokes at the time? Not exactly. But by looking at those difficult times with my now super handy adult brain, how could I not thank him for ultimately teaching me resilience and fortitude? So I wrote back and simply said, “Thanks. You spelled apologize wrong.” Adult brains: Good for logic, reason, and being an asshole.

When I was a young child, my mother would sing me to sleep under a canopy of glow and the dark stars with “Michael row your boat ashore, hallelujah,” thus the name of my production company and accompanying e-mail address, Boat Ashore. Beyond my love of all things nautical, and the metaphorical references intrinsic in constantly trying to “row one’s boat ashore”, the phrase today evokes my childhood. It reminds me why I’m here and why I’m doing what I do. But I recently discovered that my beloved “Boat Ashore” isn’t some sea shanty hymn – it is in fact an old African-American spiritual about death and going to be with Jesus.

Well I never had much luck with religious songs anyways. When I was 10, I played Mordechai in the Purim story at Hebrew School. A singing and tap dancing Mordechai, but still, it was a pretty authentic portrayal. My opening number was to the tune of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”. It went, “Ooooo, I bet cha wondering how I knew, about your plans to kill the Jews….” It wasn’t until last year that I realized those weren’t the original lyrics. Now I understand why I got so many strange looks when I was singing along to the musical Motown on Broadway. I wasn’t so off-key after all! #SilverLining

As adults, we listen to lyrics differently than when we were kids. When the ball dropped on New Years in 2000, I was in high school. My mother and I happily sang along with Sting as he crooned “Brand New Day”. 13 years later, I’m horrified of the notion that I once sang to my mother in public, “I’m the train and you’re the station. I’m the flagpole to your nation.” But sometimes, we want our childhood understanding of songs to remain true. Who wants Third Eyes Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” to be about crystal meth? IT’S ABOUT 8TH GRADE.

On a recent walk home at 1 am after a long day’s work, I was jamming out to my mid 90’s alt-rock playlist – because I can’t remember the last time I heard an actual rock song on the Top 40 radio – when listening to The Verve Pipe’s “Freshmen” suddenly gave me great pause. “I can’t be held responsible. She was touching her face…I can not believe we’d ever die for these sins. We were merely freshmen.” …WHAT is he talking about?! And more importantly, WHAT DID HE DO HIS FRESHMAN YEAR?!

Now I could be misinterpreting things, but we often have surprising moments that force us to re-evaluate the past, whether it be something as meaningful as an event or a relationship, or as seemingly meaningless as an old song lyric. For better or for worse, it’s a daily practice for many of us. But perhaps it is these inconsequential moments in pop culture from years ago, like finally understanding why Brenda had every reason to be so angry with Dylan and Kelly when she came back from Paris at the start of Senior year on Beverly Hills, 90210, or what Jareth’s want for teenage Sarah to be his Goblin Queen might really entail in Labyrinth, or that, yes, “Semi-Charmed Life” is in fact a rock song about crystal meth, not middle school melancholia, that have the power to make us re-evaluate our childhoods as a whole.

There’s a reason the famed performing arts camp Stagedoor Manor doesn’t allow past campers to return as (out-of-work) counselors. There’s a reason Disneyland doesn’t want you peeking behind the scenes to see Mickey Mouse with his head detached smoking an E-Cigarette and quickly skimming through audition notices in Backstage West on his 20-minute lunch break. Our childhoods and our adulthoods, due to the proven laws of relativity and the long debated laws of romanticism, must remain two separate halves of the whole. If our adult selves could fully make sense of our child selves, we’d rewrite history and replace every moment of horror with a sense of wonder. And if our child selves truly knew what was to come, we’d have never gotten out of bed and gone to school every morning. It turns out that endless childhood nights in suburbia of gazing at the glow in the dark constellations intricately strung out across the ceiling while we dreamt of infinite future possibility was the healthiest daily practice we ever had.

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A late 90’s high school made collage of my favorite pop culture at the time that still hangs on the wall in my childhood bedroom. Note the tangled glow-in-the-dark stars that hang upon then top left thumbtack.