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.

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