A pre-written thing that was meant to be improvised
I attended and performed at my very first ‘Orlando Story Club’ recently. I came prepared to tell a story on the theme, “Anti-Hero” - if I had attended any of the events previously I would have known that I was meant to tell a story more or less off the cuff, but instead I stood up there and recited the whole thing below off of an iPad. Nobody tackled me offstage despite my flagrant disregard for the rules, which I take to be beginner’s luck.
I wrote and rewrote the below to be under 5 minutes, so please imagine me speaking this to you as you read this. If we’ve never met, do me a favor and imagine my voice to be horrible and stupid-sounding so that anything that sounds good at all becomes almost miraculous.
Also holy shit DALL-E knocked it completely out of the park with the above image!
Anyways, off we go:
I was a precocious child. By that I mean that I was a 4-year-old who knew what the word “precocious” was and I knew that it referred to me. I learned that word and a lot of other big impressive words very early in my linguistic career because as I learned how to talk I also learned why - I learned right away that the whole point of using language is to make people clap when I talk! To exclaim what brilliant young man I am. This might sound like an exaggeration but I did have this directly explained to me in no uncertain terms - I vividly remember my mother looking me in the eye one day and telling me, emphatically, that Max Means Smart.
What do capital-S smart people do? Why they become heroes, of course! I was granted intellectual superpowers in order to become a world-historical genius, a polymath inventor or a titan of industry, a billionaire who FUCKS probably. By right of my intellect I was destined to supplant Christ as the basis for the Western Calendar. Or, at the very least, I was to rescue my parents from all of the terrible regret they’d built up over their lives, all of the opportunities they’d missed or pissed away, all of their powerlessness to change their unimpressive past. My existence was to be one of extraordinary success, extraordinary enough to transplant my entire family tree out of the dry soil of misery and mediocrity.
But no pressure. Every light casts a shadow, and every concept has a negation. We are gathered here tonight to talk about anti-heros. And so, as me standing in front of you might imply, my journey did not shake out to be a straightforwardly heroic one. Consider again my heroic origin tagline: “Max Means Smart”. It turned out that formulation cast a shadow on my life, the haunting threat of negation - put concretely, if “Max Means Smart” then “Not Smart means Not Max”. If I’m not smart, then I’m not me! If I’m not me, then what am I? I’m nothing! This logical deduction was never explained to me quite so directly, but on some ontological level I discerned that if I was ever proven to be not smart then that meant annihilation.
I want to interject and say that I love my parents, we’ve talked about this a whole lot and I’m very, very proud of them for getting their jobs done. They gave me my hero-genius-baby identity out of a loving desire to empower me, and then I ran with it in ways that they never could have anticipated. I clung to that hero-genius-baby self-image through decades of lying and denial and rejection and failure, since to lose it would be to surely die.
Here is where my story reaches an inflection point, which is convenient since I’m about halfway through my time limit. Before I graduated high school I picked up drinking, which made me feel safe and relieved immediately in a way that I couldn’t get anywhere else, freed from an impossible contract I never agreed to sign. As I grew older and my self-image strained my drinking increased to fill in the cracks. Drinking all the time became the proof and price of my genius, evidence that I had a high-octane brain that was too hot to handle. I aged out of my precocious boy identity and had nothing else to put in its place, and due to the logic of anti-heroism I felt myself trapped in a living death - I didn’t want to live but I was too scared to die, and so I drank my way as close as possible to oblivion.
People talk about hitting rock bottom, but I discovered that there’s really nothing down there to bounce off of. The depths continue all the way down to the bitter end. I got sober at 27, and I found the experience of getting sober to be more like jumping out of a burning building into a safety net. Yes, the fall into the net is scary, so to be ready to make the leap you have to feel the flames and with them a fear far greater than that of falling.
And so my heroic identity as a genius of destiny was finally allowed to die, and I discovered that I survived. Drinking was an imaginary solution to an imaginary problem. Hero and Anti-Hero were finally allowed to negate each other, leaving me with what? Freedom from heroism! Non-heroism, post-heroism! A life as a democratic citizen, a voice in a chorus. A life as a good romantic partner, a good coworker, a good son.
As a hero, I thought that my struggles and suffering would make me unworthy of love. But it turns out that the things within me that felt the least heroic, the feelings and experiences that I rejected and denied the hardest, those are the things that people have connected with the most, the things that have brought me closest to people, the things that have made others feel uplifted and less alone. I could never have discovered that by my own puny powers. So, to close, all I can say is thank you, to all of my fellow post-heroes, for granting me a bigger and more beautiful life than any I could possibly have imagined. I wouldn’t be here without you.