When I was growing up, I often felt out of place amongst my extended family. Whether it was real, or all in my own mind, the reason was very clear to me. My uncles and cousins (like many uncles and cousins I suppose) were very into sports. It seemed to me that the value one might have in their eyes depended largely upon how good you were at playing sports, how much you knew about sports, and sports sports sporty sports. And let me be quite clear about this, for those of you who have never met me in person. I am terrible at sports.
Now, again I must confess, this could have been something I was projecting onto them based on my own feelings of inadequacy in the realms of all things physical and coordinated. I still see my extended family decades later, and we all seem to get along fine now. But back then, as a clumsy nerd-boy to whom “outside time” meant switching from reading a book in bed to reading a book under a tree, I felt very out of place. I had nothing in common with these people that I spent summers and holidays with. I didn’t know who played on which team. Half the time I didn’t know which team played what sport. And I was not at all interested in learning. But I am not here to complain about my athletically gifted super-human family. I am here to tell you about the coolest cousin ever.
Though I felt trapped in a sea of manly he-men (I mostly played with my girl cousins, which there is absolutely nothing wrong with, unless you are feeling judged on the basis of your masculinity), there was one cousin that introduced me to so many of my defining loves that there is no way that I can ever thank him enough. He was (and still is) eight years older than me, and for now let’s call him “Himmy.” An eight year age difference is a pretty big deal when you’re a kid, and it meant that we didn’t really play together much. It’s too bad that we weren’t closer in age, because I think we could have been great friends. Of course that didn’t stop me from thinking he was about the coolest thing since, well, actually, I had no basis to judge coolness on, since I was a huge nerd. But he was cool.
For one thing, Himmy was into more than just sports. Oh sure, he liked sports too. He was fluent in Red-Sox-ese and Celtic. He was able to hang out with everyone and talk scores and stats like I never could. But he also collected comic books. Not baseball cards, like everyone else within a two hundred mile radius. Comic books. And he would let me read them! Perhaps there is no way for you to truly understand what an oasis it was for me, showing up to his house having spent all day feeling powerless and lost, and being set free in what was the biggest comic book collection I had ever seen at the time, but if you have ever suddenly felt at home after feeling out of place for days at a time you can probably approximate the feeling. Finally, there was a male person that I was related to with whom I could carry on an knowledgeable conversation. We could debate whether the Thing could ever beat the Hulk in a fight! We could discuss Spider-Man’s love life! And I didn’t feel like a clumsy idiot the whole time! It was awesome!
Himmy made me feel right at home. He never talked down to me or picked on me, even though I’m sure my eight year old self was probably very annoying to his sixteen year old self. I looked up to him from day one, and I haven’t even told you about the music yet.
Oh man. There are images from my childhood that filled me with awe and wonder that will stay with me until I die, and the sight of Himmy’s cassette tape collection is one of them. They were all organized in these huge cardboard boxes that he might lay out on the dining room table to go through, and that is where I discovered so much great music that I have carried around with me every day since then. Michael Jackson! U2! Aerosmith! And most importantly of all, “Even Worse,” by “Weird Al” Yankovic.
You may have noticed by now that I enjoy making up silly songs and writing parodies, sometimes based on board games, and sometimes based on Christmas carols, but it can all be traced back to 1988, when I first discovered “Weird Al” thanks to my cousin Himmy. In fact, I met Al once and thanked him for getting me into music. The first musical “performance” I ever gave was at a lip synch contest, and it was to a “Weird Al” song. To say that the reason I became a performer is thanks to Al is not completely wrong, and to say that the reason I found this music was thanks to Himmy is also not wrong. In a way, I can thank Himmy for most of my life choices, including becoming an opera singer and spending most of my disposable income from age 10-30 on comic books.
Himmy has recently moved back home from Florida to deal with some health issues, and while he is not feeling so well I wanted to let him know that we are all thinking of him and wishing him well. I started putting my thoughts together and realized that, not only did I want him to know what a difference he made in my life, but I wanted everyone to know it! He’s a great, stand-up guy who I always idolized, and there’s no reason that the rest of the world shouldn’t know it too. So now you know.
I went down to see him a few weeks ago, since I hadn’t seen Himmy since before he moved to Florida years ago, and my daughter got to play with his daughter for the first time. They are about eight years apart in age, but they seemed to do well together. They have lot in common, after all. They both have great Dads, and, wouldn’t you know it, they both love superheroes.