illustration by author

I know a genius.

We’ve cheapened the term by using it on everyone, even babies, inflating our compliments until people are walking around with wheelbarrows full of billion-dollar bills, “embellishment bucks,” but the guy I know is the real thing.

Though he’s undiagnosed, I’m certain his IQ is 160 or higher. Maybe much higher. How do I know? It isn’t because I’ve witnessed displays of kickass mental math. He never came up with a chemical compound for solving the gum wads in our stomachs. He doesn’t have a mind palace where he stores and dusts sports facts that go all the way back to the naked Greeks and their games.

I know he’s a genius because of his humor. He’s the funniest spur-of-the-moment talker I’ve ever heard.

It’s an insult to this guy to say he’s quick witted. His wit isn’t quick. It teleports. That’s the only way I can understand it. When he says what he says, crafting killer lines based on the found objects of this or that conversation, I’m shocked. Stunned. I have the unnerving feeling that something supernatural has happened right next to me.

It’s as if he stops time and then ponders, builds, crafting a card-tower of comedic complexity so vast it is the Tower of Babel reborn, then he starts time again and presents the tower to us. We note its amazing width and height. We look up and up like first-timers in a cathedral, gaping and gasping. Then it falls. But it was made to fall, and the breathtaking fluttery avalanche is our gut-twisting laughter.

They say Oscar Wilde’s talk, the chit-chat off the top of his head, was publishable. The top of his head was a silver platter. This dude was an unpremeditated alchemist, turning words to gold in his mouth as fast as they arrived, and then he could spit them out without quality checking a single one of them. He knew they were gold through and through:

“Out, out, out! Give me room for more gold! More me!”

The genius I know is exactly like this.

I listen to his joking, but instead of being slain in the spirit when he talks, rolling on the ground with laughter like a person on fire, trying to put themselves out, I stand there faking it.

I make laughter-like noises. I wiggle, impersonating someone who is delighted.

It’s hard work.

See my face. I am the laughing gargoyle. But what I spew doesn’t come from my stomach, the echo-chamber of the heart. It’s all from the head. Cold. Just what you’d expect from something made of stone.

What’s the cause?

Envy.

The great Satan of my life.

Envy has ruined so many moments, so many people, turning the greatest souls I’ve ever known into secret enemies. They become poison. The scary ticking of my self-esteem’s Geiger counter gets louder and louder in their presence, and my mind screams, “Run! These are lethal levels! You’ll be dead in days! You’re dying right now!”

But how can I leave? This is a party. I just arrived and wandered into the group where he’s talking.

Not talking.

Spellbinding.

And there I stand, receiving, faking, dying.

illustration by author

Remember that movie about Batman? (I ask the question this way to locate kindred spirits. Those of you irritated by the question will say, “Which movie about Batman? There’s more than one, you idiot.” To these people I say, “Is there?” I also say, “We can be friends, but we’ll never be best friends.”)

There’s a scene in the movie about Batman: Michael Keaton (the only Batman, you idiots) is at an outdoor press conference thing, and the Joker shows up to kill the keynote speaker. He kills him. Joker’s goons are there too, and after the execution, they fire machine guns in the air, making everyone jump on the ground to avoid getting shot. But Keaton just stands there while the bullets fly. A bullet even grazes his shoulder. He doesn’t notice. He’s staring at the Joker who’s making his way to a getaway car. There’s a look of bafflement on Keaton’s face. He’s trying to process what just happened: Who is this amazing villain? Dang, I wish I had my black rubber pants on right now.

But he doesn’t have his black rubber pants on, or any of the rest of it. He’s just wearing an awesome 1989 suit-and-trench-coat combo (incredible shoulder pad reinforcement).

This is me at the party, listening as the genius knocks ’em to the floor with bullet-quick comedy. I laugh, but I don’t fall. There I stand, marveling, baffled.

Processing…processing.

My laughter is a suit and trench coat of fakery I’ve been crafting since 1989. Yes, my shoulders look amazing, but inside the clothes, I’m a pool of nothing. Less than a pool: Vapor Boy Wonder.

I hate envy.

See me in a loincloth. Heroin chic. No, it’s worse than that. Gollum. I am tormented by the second self created by my insecurity.

One ego to rule them all.

It tortures me. Accuses.

EGO: Leave this party, you fool. Everyone sees he’s the genius, not you.

DAN: But these are my friends.

EGO: You don’t have any friends. Nobody likes you. Not when they can have a genius.

DAN: I’m not listening.

EGO: I’m a genius, by the way. Or I was, until you came to this stupid party. Now I’m nothing, like you.

DAN: I hate you. I hate you.

This ego trouble only happens when my ego’s proven wrong. And I hate to say it, but it doesn’t take a genius to prove my ego wrong.

A child can do it. So can a dog.

I hear a bright kid say something brilliant, and I think, “Holy crap. Was I that smart? Wait, when this child grows up…she’ll destroy me. Damn it, this kid is my doom.”

Or I’ll be at some gathering, telling a story, captivating three or even four people, and a dog will be standing there. He senses the energy I’ve created. Naturally, it electrifies him. So he chimes in, barking, jumping on the audience, killing my timing. Everyone’s attention swings to the dog, and I realize I never really had them.

I might as well have shouted in their faces over and over and jumped on these people instead of training in secret, chiseling my brain until it bulges with hairless humor pecs and a six-pack of funny. All I really needed was spontaneous slapstick: shouting, jumping, making use of the carpet to hit that famous rectal itch. Comedy gold, apparently.

The Old Ways

My envy wasn’t always about being funny. It used to be about hotness.

Our mall had an Aéropostale, and I thought, “If I can work there, it’ll be decided forever: I am far more than cute. The people will have to call me handsome. Better than that, I’ll be handsome with an edge: hot.

Aéropostale hot.”

I never did it. I was far too afraid. What if they said no? I’d have to try the next Aéropostale location, and if they said no, I’d officially be on a quest. I would leave school and try location after location, even worldwide, whatever, until they accepted me.

I, the prodigal son, on a quest for life that leads me home again, would wander home, still haunted by the compliments I’d gathered in far countries, compliments always given to the merely cute:

  1. You’re such a good friend.
  2. Like a brother.
  3. I’m flattered that you’re interested but…(I learned to recognize this as the end of the sentence.)

Poor prodigal me, dusty from the long way home, so cute and brother-like. Theseus of the mazy friendzone, but Ariadne, instead of giving me a ball of thread to help me find my way out, said, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

“Let’s say the beholder is you,” says Theseus.

“Right.”

Theseus recognizes this as the end of the sentence.

“So…” he says, “what do you think. Would you like to go on a date?”

“Run!” Ariadne shouts.

“What! Why?”

“Minotaur!”

Theseus looks. No minotaur. He looks back. No Ariadne either.

But when I, at the end of my quest, find my way back home and fall into the loving arms of my father, Aéropostale, he says,

“You, my son, are undeniably hot.”

Then, as the story goes, dad and I weep, we have a party and eat beef, and my hot (but suddenly less hot) brother finally envies me.

As an aside, the fear that wouldn’t allow me to risk being rejected by the great retailer Aéropostale is the same fear that wouldn’t allow me to attempt publication for years and years. What if someone said no? What would happen to my ego, which was telling me, “You’re great at writing. Therefore, you have value”?

I was terrified that my monstrous ego would be sucked out into the vacuum of space, grabbing the ankle of my fame-and-glory dream and dragging it away. Ego and dream attempt to scream, but in space, no one can hear you scream, and the two of them float off into forever, squirming and writhing in stop-motion agony until they die.

I didn’t have the guts of the young Stephen King who pounded a nail into his wall and with giddiness impaled rejection letters until it was full. Then he pounded in another nail. He filled that one too, the rejections somehow spurring him on.

If I could only go back in time and mentor the young me, I would say, “Dude.”

“What?”

“Share your work.”

“Oh, it’ll be shared all right. Just you wait.”

“No it won’t. No one knows you’re a writer. No one’s coming to rescue you, son.”

“Are you my real dad?”

“What? No, I’m you from the future. ‘Son’ is just a term people use — ”

“Why aren’t you hot yet?”

“Listen, first thing, you believed I’m from the future way too fast. You’re dumb. Second, hotness doesn’t matter. Third, share your work. You need to get rejected. A lot. You’ve got so much skin-thickening to do.”

“No I don’t.”

“Dude, your skin is transparent. You’re a bubble-boy. Share your work. Seek publication. That’s the only thing that’s going to cut your teeth. It’s the only way you’re going to find out about your blind spots. And you have them. You’re almost all blind spots.”

“What do you mean cut my teeth? What’s that mean?”

“You’re so dumb.”

“I hate you, dad.”

I’m not your dad!

Instead of working at Aéropostale, I decided to shave my head with a razor. I believed the proof of true hotness was this: If your attractiveness can survive baldness, you are truly hot.

My hot heroes:

Vin Diesel, Jason Statham, Taye Diggs, G.I. Jane, Patrick Stewart, Voldemort, and Mr. Clean.

I shaved my head and did not lose my girlfriend. A good sign. I shaved it again in grad school and a professor called my bald head “beautiful.”

I wanted to ask, “But is it hot?”

I didn’t dare.

Sometimes when you say, “Please, sir, I want some more,” you get flogged. So, I left it at beautiful.

Moody God

Sometimes God wakes up on the Old Testament side of the bed and says, “I think we’ll go with judgment today. Screw grace.”

He was in this kind of mood when he created my lifetime’s roster of friends.

Look at my life and you’ll discover a long, long chain of hot best friends. I wear it like poor Jacob Marley. Grumpy God formed this chain link by link, and yard by yard. I’ve never been able to escape the hotness.

What I hated most about the sexy links of the chain was this:

They erased me.

No compliment from mother could change my mind, because I saw the erasure with my own eyes.

The hot friend became the baldness test:

“If I can catch a lady’s eye while in the bright company of my hot best friend, then I am truly wanted.”

While seeking the love of my life, I went to many churches and Bible studies. But I never went alone. I always made sure my demigod buddy was with me. I hated to invite him. It killed me. Because I knew I was slashing the tires of my chances. But I had to. The thought was this, “If you choose me only because something better isn’t around, you’re not really choosing me.”

I wanted to be picked even if I stood in the lineup of all the beauty that ever existed or ever will. My love would shuffle through that monstrous hot deck and pick me.

Then I’d know it was for real.

Tom Cruise doesn’t have this problem. Why? Because in all of his movies, he’s the best. It’s in his contract.

“Mr. Cruise will run, and he will be the best at running.”

“Mr. Cruise will be the best, period. Pilot, spy, samurai, bartender, lawyer, vampire, elf-like thing, crane operator, it doesn’t matter. The best. And don’t forget the running.”

So, it seems Mr. Cruise has the same system as me. The difference is, it works for him, whereas for me, it’s been torturing me to death for decades.

illustration by author

Somewhere along the line it switched from hotness to funniness (in other words, intelligence — that’s how I’ve always seen it).

The result?

When some other funny person is around, I’m afraid.

No, it’s worse than fear.

Terror.

Even worse.

Death.

I mean it. I undergo a death in the presence of someone incredibly funny.

It’s like this. My humor is a flashlight. It works really well when it’s the brightest light around. But what happens when a sun rolls in? In that mid-day fire, my light is extinguished. You wouldn’t even know the flashlight was on. In the presence of suns, I turn off the flashlight as quietly as possible, making sure to produce not even the smallest clicking sound. My death should be obscure. I deserve the silence of space.

What sound do I make? I told you: the sound of a fake-laughing dude. Like a psychopath, I imitate human behavior so I’m not detected. Why is it so important to stand there lying through my laughing teeth? Because I would hate the person who resented me for being amazing.

How dare you! Be gone! I seek the companionship of those strong enough to endure my wonderfulness!

So, I have no choice: by the laws of my friendship code, I must endure the wonderfulness of others.

A Recent Death

I went to a party (worry not, it was an outdoor party) and the genius was there. I hadn’t seen him for a while, so I’d forgotten how good he is.

He took that party and broke its back with laughter, and it loved him for it.

Thank God for my mask. I made all the right sounds, but I think my face would have given it away: despair.

Not only had I forgotten how funny he is, I had reduced him in my mind so I could withstand his existence. My Mozart. The acids of my mean mind-stomach had melted him down to someone who couldn’t slay me so utterly.

But this Mozart of madcap hilarity was here in the flesh, and I learned once again that I’m not free.

Envy is still in charge.

All I am is Dr. No, correctly summed up by James Bond: “Minnows pretending they’re whales. Just like you on this island, Dr. No.”

An Answer

I told a good friend of mine about the party and the genius, saying, “I’m sick of thinking of myself as a strongman, and having that ripped away whenever another strongman shows up. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it.”

Then he said this, “But you have to be the strongman. To do any kind of artistic thing, you have to have that kind of confidence, the confidence to play. Kids have it. Artists do too. While they’re at their work, they are the strongman.”

“But what happens when a genius shows up?”

“Occupational hazard. You live in that moment, accept it, live through it. Let it come and let it go. Then get back to work.”

This idea sunk in slowly and began to thrill me. Just because I know a Mozart doesn’t mean I can’t play. I still get to play! I just have to know what comes with the territory. Tennis players get the elbow thing. U.S. presidents get the rapid aging. I get the temporary death-by-Mozart. Emphasis on “temporary.” Huzzah! After the geniuses go away, I get to live again!

The Problem

But I want more.

One of the great dreams of my life is this: I want to be able to enjoy other people, especially those who are good at the things I claim as mine. I want to stop faking my laughter. I want to be healthy enough to enjoy geniuses.

I’m not talking about the geniuses I don’t know. Those are easy to face. They’re far away or long dead. I’m talking about the local geniuses, the real killers: the acquaintances, friends, and God help me, the relatives.

The Answer?

Yesterday, one of my students may have solved the problem.

She told a group of us about her recent writing difficulties. Whenever she sat down to start a story or work on one, she felt stuck. Why? Because she brought to that task a mighty ambition: I must produce greatness. This has to be everlasting.

The best.

It was too much pressure. It crippled her creativity.

So she decided this: I’m not going to try to be great anymore. That has to go. It’s killing me. Instead, I’m going to write because I like writing. I’m going to write for the fun of it.

She decided her writing doesn’t have to be an act of weaving a net for catching all the meaning of the universe. It couldn’t be that, in fact. That work? It made her hate writing.

“Wow,” I said, when I heard this. “Wow,” and “Wow.” I’m still saying it.

This is the sound of me processing a great truth.

Wow!

After processing awhile, I realized my student seems to be coming around to the idea that she is more than writing. Writing is something good and fun and worth doing, but she’s beginning to hold it lightly. She sees it as a useful and delightful gift, but only one among many.

This isn’t the way I hold on to funny. I hold on as if it’s my lifeline suspending me over hell.

But do I have to?

I’m going to write because I like writing.

And what of this genius trouble? My obsession with being the best? The death that comes to me when I am not the great one?

I think I die these deaths because I believe that funny is all I am. Without it, I am nothing.

my student seems to be coming around to the idea that she is more than writing.

Is it possible that I am more than funny?

I’m dying to believe it.

Then I’ll finally be able to laugh with all my heart, even in the company of geniuses.

illustration by author

A poverty-stricken, soft Batman. Here are some drawings: arkories.tumblr.com. And here’s a blog: danwilliamsbayou.wordpress.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store