Reflections of a Black Sheep Boy - Siblings Week

ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTORS Matthew DeMello

Geri Reichl, who played Jan Brady on The Brady Bunch, poses with a fan. Photo by Brian Horowitz.

If you love me let me live in peace
And please understand
That the black sheep can wear the golden fleece
And hold the winning hand

– “Black Sheep Boy” by Okkervil River

Being the odd one out in any family is never an easy or scar-free experience, even when equipped with that family’s complete love and support. As the typical second-born resident middle kid in a family of three (and a recovered attentionholic), I feel as though the innate discomfort of my obligatory ‘awkward years’ were multiplied simply by my station in life.

My parents, a dentist father and a nurse practitioner mother, carried a very peculiar and eclectic set of interests in their genes that were eventually polarized in the carried interests of their three children. In other words, I was the lone musician sandwiched between two all-state, scholar athletes– my older sister was the captain of the high school softball team and my younger brother was the captain of the football team. My high school peers, all completely unaware of  both my father’s guitar skills and my mother’s amateur songwriting abilities, often asked, “Where the hell did you come from?”

The question itself never bothered me, but it was nearly impossible to ward off feeling like an outcast in the eyes of my gossipy small town no matter how much my family attempted to make me feel welcome. In re-reading that last sentence, it smells of a cliched brand of destiny that I should end up a jaded Brooklynite in the ‘10s.

Though, it is worth noting that direct path to my musicianship didn’t follow along the lines of the typical rock-star-wannabe narratives. Instead of being handed a guitar at 14 and killing my household’s eardrums until I left for college, my fixation with storytelling and melodies found home in the cassette tapes of Broadway soundtracks my mother played ad nausea while taxiing her children between errands. It was her way of keeping risky radio station choices away from her impressionable and sheltered kids while providing us an entertainment as attention-consuming as televison possible without ‘frying our brain-cells.’ Looking back, I probably would’ve become a filmmaker had I grown up instead in the current age of DVD player screens embedded in the backs of headrests as they are today in luxury vehicles.

In listening to these soundtracks, my imagination would often veer off course from the actual plotline of whatever musical my mother felt like listening to that month, allowing me to stumble upon my sense of narrative creativity. For instance, before I saw the movie Evita I always thought it was the story of Madonna cheating on the guy from Miss Saigon with Antonio Banderas, whom I thought was named Argentina (though to be fair, my 10-year-old understanding of the movie only affirmed these beliefs partially, but you get the idea).

It was around that time that my parents signed us up for classes in Tae Kwon Do (which I’ve since discovered is the wussiest and least effective of all martial arts disciplines), and I would subsequently spend the next three years serving as my siblings’ legalized punching bag in sparring sessions. It certainly doesn’t help a boy’s growing self-esteem or sense of manliness if your sister can pummel you into a fine pulp from day one and your younger brother can follow suit by the time he’s 14.

Swapping boxing gloves for community theater troupes and piano lessons in my pre-adolescence (paired with my complete inability to catch a baseball) further caused my sexual orientation and masculinity to become suspect in the eyes of… well, just about everyone.

My dad always had faith in me. There’s valuable home video footage taken in the late ‘80s of me as a toddler sitting in a booster chair, watching Wheel of Fortune and cheering ecstatically every time Vanna White came on screen, or crying in agony every time the camera cut to anything else. Sigh, she was my first love.

“That’s how I always knew you were straight,” my dad loves to say with a reassuring smile in our recollections of these very strange and formative years.

Falling in love with punk and indie rock in my teen years helped translate my passions to everyone around me in ways that were much easier for them to understand, while still not ascribing to outright conformity. And when you think about it, it’s not that hard to connect the dots from West Side Story to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run. Becoming proficient enough on piano to jam with my dad gave us an exclusive enough foundation for a strong father-son bond to form where catcher’s mitts and fishing poles never seemed to do the trick.

That said, I still carry a deep-seated fear that I feel swims in the back of the minds of so many musicians and arts-oriented males. Naturally that fear entails how my skills as a father will be inept since I don’t own a tackle box or a motorcycle. It’s always been a widespread joke in my family that my sister and brother will both parent impish boys with coke-bottle glasses and golden voices, meanwhile I’ll be stuck with WNFL-bound 200-lb. linebacker daughters who will only want to play catch or beat me up.

Still, my siblings and I always find ways of exploring common ground. Since I can’t keep up with the Red Sox while living in the tri-state area, this tends to be through music. For instance, I recently had to coach my hip-hop loving sister through her suffering at a country-radio pop concert at the behest of her adorable heartland boyfriend. Luckily, she survived.

Which reassures me that, no matter what, there will always be common ground. As any black sheep boy or girl will attest to, it’s hard to stray too far from the family tree when you’re cut from the same cloth.

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