“My earliest memory of masculinity is not a particle, it’s a wave. My earliest memory of masculinity is not a man, it’s a mask.”
**UPDATE (2/12/20): Check out some fantastic audio of this full poem as part of the #WhatsGoodMan podcast!**
I am beyond excited to release this new project. Aside from the new video, I’m collaborating with Button Poetry to release this exclusive bundle of zines featuring the new poem, plus zines I’ve worked on over the past couple years (and a blank one so you can make your own!), a signed note, and a surprise sticker or two. There are only 250 bundles available, so go get ’em.
A few more thoughts:
Check out the ZINES link on this site for more information on each individual one, plus some background on the philosophy behind zine-making in general. One other note: these are all printed on 100% post-consumer waste recycled paper, at a union shop here in MPLS called Smart Set.
On “The Art of Taking the L”
This poem/speech has gone through a ton of revisions, and may go through more. The original version of it was a commission- I was asked to share something at an event with a few hundred men in attendance, most of whom had not had a ton of conversations about “hegemonic masculinity” or whatever. So the piece is meant to be an entry point, a first step into these issues.
With that in mind, one specific impulse became clear. I knew that the piece couldn’t be judgy. It couldn’t be a “those guys over there are bad and these guys over here are good” kind of piece. It couldn’t be a commandment to act differently, because no one wants to listen to that. So instead, I tried to focus on the “commandments” that already exist, even if we don’t notice them. From that, the “narrative/counter-narrative” thread emerged. What stories do we tell about masculinity? About gender in general? What are the implications of those stories? Why do stories matter?
One could ask the same questions about race, class, nationality and citizenship, and a bunch of other identities. Maybe that’s a writing prompt. But especially today, we need to be paying attention to the stories being told to us… and the stories we’re telling.
On Connections To The “What’s Good, Man?” Podcast
Of course, all of that relates directly to my OTHER new project, the upcoming podcast, “What’s Good, Man?” with Tony the Scribe. If you’re interested in this kind of critical masculinity, narrative/counter-narrative stuff, please check it out. We debut on Wednesday, November 6, and are having a LIVE episode recording that same evening at the UMN. Get details on all of that here.
Additional Resources, Poems, and Readings
The “The Art of Taking the L” zine includes the full text of the poem, plus a bank of discussion questions, plus a bunch of cool resources. I’ll share those links here as well. Obviously, there are many more books and readings and poems that could be listed here, but part of making a zine is how you navigate the limited space. My thought is that these are a few resources that might be useful entry points. Feel free to add others in the comments!
ARTICLES AND VIDEOS AVAILABLE ONLINE:
• Relinquishing the Patriarchy: adrienne maree brown
• A Call to Men: Tony Porter
• Violence Against Women—It’s a Men’s Issue: Jackson Katz
• Don’t Blame Mental Illness for Mass Shootings; Blame Men: Laura Kiesel
• The Boys Are Not All Right: Michael Ian Black
• Queer and Trans 101 statement at www.reclaim.care
• The Mask You Live In and Tough Guise (documentaries)
• Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics: bell hooks
• The Man They Wanted Me to Be: Jared Yates Sexton
• Not that Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture: Roxane Gay
• Man Up: Reimagining Modern Manhood: Carlos Andrés Gómez
• The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love: bell hooks
• Know My Name: Chanel Miller
• The Heart and the Fist: Rudy Francisco
• Masculinity So Fragile: FreeQuency
• Baby Brother: Javon Johnson
• I use my poetry to confront the violence against women: Elizabeth Acevedo
• Shrinking Women: Lily Myers
• Masculinity: Alex Luu & Jessica Romoff
• Genderlect: Donte Collins
• Ten Responses to the Phrase “Man Up”: Guante
• Handshakes: Guante
• Find many more poems on this and other issues in this curated list.
FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW
THE ART OF TAKING THE L
Batman, driving the Batmobile, pulls up to a four-way stop. And he gets there first, so he’s about to go, when this other guy, who clearly got to his stop after Batman, just goes. So Batman slams on the brakes. This guy’s white truck flies by; he’s talking on his phone; looks at Batman, and just keeps going. Now, instead of continuing on straight, does Batman turn right, follow this guy, this criminal, to wherever he’s going, and then use his billionaire vigilante ninja skills to teach him an unforgettable, bone-cracking lesson on how to properly navigate a four-way stop? …No. Batman has more important things to do. Batman takes the L, and continues on with his day.
That may not be the most exciting Batman story, but it contains an important message. Just like when someone cuts in front of James Bond while he’s waiting to get a fried apple pie at the State Fair, or when Achilles has to squeeze through a crowd of people at the airport who’ve lined up even though their boarding group hasn’t been called yet, or when Wolverine discovers that his beefy five layer burrito has sour cream on it when he ordered it without sour cream, but he went through the drive through and he’s already back at the X-mansion. Sometimes, you just have to take the L. Sometimes, getting your way no matter the cost… costs too much.
Of course, some people learn that very early. Depending on your race, your religion, where you grew up: it may not be a revelation to hear that your heroes aren’t bulletproof. Others, however, don’t hear those stories growing up. We only hear the other ones: all those heroes. All those powerful men. Always in control. Always dominant. Always winning.
My earliest memory of masculinity is… and I’m supposed to say something dramatic here, right? The smoking rifle and the dead rabbit, or the stepfather’s fists. But it doesn’t take a bolt of lightning to keep the television on- just the steady, background hum of electricity, the invisible power coursing through the walls. My earliest memory of masculinity is not a particle, it’s a wave. My earliest memory of masculinity is not a man, it’s a mask.
And look: reflected in that TV screen, it’s me. An acorn kid, the son of a single mother sun who gave me all the light I’d ever need. I was (and am) soft; an indoor boy. This is neither a bad thing nor a good thing. It’s just a way to be.
Tell that to the TV, though. Of the infinite number of ways to be, look at our heroes; look at what stories we choose to tell. A million different jobs, and half the shows on TV are about cops. A million different ways to be in relationship with other humans, and half the movies have the same boy meets girl (‘cause it’s gotta be a girl) subplot. A million different looks, and half the video games star the same strapping six-foot tall white guy with short brown hair, a five-o-clock shadow, and a bad attitude.
A million little examples that mean nothing on their own, but they add up… to a story. This story we tell about manhood is an old one, and an obvious one: a “real man” is what? Strong. Brave. Stoic. Sexually experienced. Has a firm handshake. Orders his steak rare. Drives a big truck. Plays sports. Wins. And look: none of these things are bad or good either. They’re just ways to be.
But what happens when that’s the only story we tell?
From the TV screen, to the locker room, to the dinner table, to the headphones, to the comments section: what happens when that’s the only story we hear? The “real man.” All fist and no hand. All swirling cape and six-chambered steel heart. That man, who wins at any cost; that hero, always in control, never sad or confused or frustrated. So when we feel sad or confused or frustrated, because every human being does, watch: insecurity bloom like a virus. Watch how our bodies fight back by seeking security in power, in conformity… in that story. Watch, how easily being the stereotypical “guy’s guy” goes from one way to be a man, to the way to be a man. And then watch how that gets enforced, because masculinity has always been a team sport: Man up. Stop crying. Be a man. If I have to fit in this box, then you have to fit in it too.
And watch how easily all the positive qualities we assign to men reveal their secret identities. Courage becomes carelessness. Strength becomes violence. Leadership becomes entitlement. Cool becomes cold. Watch how easily “the desire to win” becomes “the need to dominate,” how easily “the desire to win” becomes “the inability to cope with loss, with frustration, with rejection.”
And watch, me, a young man, soak it all in. Like cosmic rays. Like radiation. Watch how I mutate. How I become something bigger than myself, maybe stronger than myself, but also other than myself.
If you know how stories work, you might expect this to be the point in the story where something really bad happens. Maybe the young man at the center of this story hurts someone. Maybe he finds himself in a situation where he knows what the right thing to do is, and he knows how the story goes, and he knows they don’t line up, but that story is so powerful. So full of power.
…That isn’t how my story goes, though. And I’m definitely not any smarter or better than any other man; I’ve swallowed that same big story. It’s just that somewhere in the margins of it, I’ve been able to write this other one too. And there’s no big, full-color splash page, life-altering lightning strike event at the root of it; just a bunch of random little moments, luck and privilege and relationships and loss, especially loss.
When I felt the most defeated: the football coach who found me crying in a hallway after a tough loss and just gave me a hug.
When I felt the most inadequate: the friends who modeled for me a strength that was not based on our capacity to hurt someone, who affirmed for me that as easily as we can be warriors, we can be healers.
When I felt the most persecuted, the mentors who reminded me that the Ls we take matter, but so do the Ls we’ll never have to take. Batman never has to worry about where his hands are when he’s pulled over. John Wick never has to laugh off an inappropriate joke his boss made because he really needs that job. Wolverine never has to walk back to his car holding his keys between his fingers like adamantium claws.
When I felt the most unforgiving: the rapper who told a story about getting carjacked, and having a gun, but choosing to let the car go because even an enemy’s life is worth more than a car.
When I felt the most alone: the question echoing through that funeral home: what if we treated every loss like the way we treat the loss of a loved one? Not a reason to punch through the drywall or run an SUV off the road; an opportunity for reflection. An excuse to step back, and breathe, and put things in perspective.
When I felt the most cynical: the activists who showed me that there are some battles worth fighting, that winning them is work, and so is choosing the ones that matter in the first place.
A million little examples that mean nothing on their own, but they add up… to a story.
It’s not that loss makes us stronger. That can be true, sometimes, but loss also kills some of us, or drives us to hurt others. The heart of my counter-story is not loss itself, it is the impulse to understand it, to know how to take the L when you have to and keep moving. Learning how to lose, learning that I am entitled to so little, saved my life more than once.
Because when you step outside that big story we tell about manhood, you start to see the poison in it. When the hero always wins. When the hero always “gets the girl.” When the hero always has a trick up his sleeve to save the day, or one last burst of energy to defeat his enemy. When you’ve been taught, all your life, that you are the hero, that a real man is always in control, always dominant, always wins… what happens when you lose?
Because you will. And not every man can share the little heartwarming stories about learning how to lose that I shared a minute ago. So the small things, like getting cut off in traffic or someone being mean to you on the internet, transform from annoyances into challenges. And the big things, like getting laid off, going through a tough breakup, having people you love die; they transform too. A difficult chapter becomes a sea of red ink.
The story tells us that “real men” always win. So when we lose, some of us take that as evidence that there’s something wrong with the story. And some of us take that as evidence that there’s something wrong with us… or with the world.
In the US, 75% of suicides are men. 85% of gun deaths are caused by men. More than 95% of mass shooters are men. And we can talk about guns, and we can talk about access to mental health services, but why aren’t we talking about men? The vast majority of sexual violence, no matter who the victim is, is committed by men, and we know that rape isn’t about sex; it’s about power. Sexual harassment isn’t about pleasure; it’s about control. It’s about entitlement.
Our heroes never ask for help. Never ask for anything. And as much as we talk about how “man up” means to take responsibility, how many of us really do that? Admit when we’re wrong? Apologize? Reflect? Grow?
This is an old story. The rugged individual. The self-made man. The dark knight. 007. Weapon X. All these code names. All these masks. All these hysterical TV pundits and sunburnt pseudo-intellectuals saying that men are in crisis because “we’ve forgotten how to be men.” I think we know all too well how to be men; we’ve heard that story since birth. What we’ve forgotten, what we’ve lost, is how to be ourselves.
Untethered from that stereotype, that sense of entitlement, that burden. All these “heroes.” All these real men we will never be as strong as. Because they’re not real.
The Batmobile, continues on its path. Batman has to pick up his two daughters from volleyball practice. There’s no Joker in this story. Doesn’t mean there aren’t villains in the world, though. And yes, there are some times when taking the L is unacceptable, when you fight on, no matter the odds, and never give up. And yes, our heroes do teach us some good things: be true to your word. Stand up to bullies. Do the right thing, even when it’s hard.
But none of that has anything to do with being a man, much less a hero. It has everything to do with just being kind, with being yourself. Whether you’re Bruce Wayne on a budget, or Wolverine, with bones simply made of bone, or a father, driving along with the family he loves, windows down, just going home.
All we have lost, for better or worse, has brought us to this moment. If we could lose just a little more- imagine how light we could become. If we could lose just a little more, I bet we could fly.