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.
We had originally planned on having eight episodes in our first season, with the final episode being the live recording of the LIVE episode that we recorded a few months ago at the University of MN. Due to some audio/tech obstacles, we’re delaying that episode by two weeks and sharing this surprise mini-episode now.
This episode is built around my poem, “The Art of Taking the L,” which also exists as video, as text, and as part of a ZINE BUNDLE available for order through Button Poetry. But since it relates so explicitly to what this podcast is about, we figured it made sense to share it here as well. Hope you like it.
As always, please feel free to subscribe (on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, all the usual platforms). If you really like it, please feel free to leave a review, and spread the word- share a favorite quote, or ask a question, or just share the link; we’ll be using the hashtag #WhatsGoodMan on Twitter and IG. Find our previous episodes here.
Finally, a quick reminder: we’ve created a gallery of all the quote images we’ve shared on social media; feel free to share them too!
Here’s the transcript:
“What’s Good, Man?” Episode Eight: The Art of Taking the L
Kyle: The Art of Taking the L.
tony: OR: How we can win by losing.
Kyle: Welcome to “What’s Good, Man,” an ongoing, open conversation about men, masculinity and culture.
tony: We are your hosts. I’m tony the scribe, a writer, rapper and activist in Minneapolis, MN.
Kyle: And I’m Kyle Tran Myhre, also known as Guante; I’m also a writer, rapper and activist in Minneapolis, MN. We start every episode with three notes. First, this show is about masculinity, but it’s for anyone interested in that topic: cis men, trans men, people who don’t identify as men but have some kind of relationship with masculinity, and beyond.
tony: Second, this show exists because we listened to people, especially women, in our lives who told us that men need to speak up more about these issues, especially with other men. But we also know that “men speaking up more” isn’t always the answer. So we’re going to try and strike a balance, and be intentional about what stories are ours to tell, what topics we want to address, and how we want to address them.
Kyle: Finally, we’re not experts. We’re just rappers. We both have experience as organizers and educators around these issues, but we don’t have all the answers. We’re here to work through this stuff with you. Because we still have a long way to go. So let’s get into it. What’s good, man?
Tony: Hey what’s up. Here we are close to the end of our first season. And we actually started the season off with a live show at the University of Minnesota. And we got a lot of really, really amazing insights from our incredible guests at that show. And we want to share them with you. But unfortunately, we had some audio/technical difficulties. So I am working my way through the editing process on that to get it to sound relatively usable. And so that’s going to take a little bit more sculpting. So we thought before we get to that one, we might have like a little waypoint episode here to do a little bit more talking about critiques and share Kyle’s “The Art of Taking the L” poem, which we’ve talked about a couple of times and which I think is a really good addition to a lot of the things that we’ve been talking about here.
Kyle: I just want to say too: the episode that WAS going to be episode eight, which will now be episode nine, the live one, I think is maybe the best one of the year. It’s on the future of masculinity. We asked six incredible people just to share their thoughts on this, like, future/visionary question about: what does masculinity look like in 50, 100, 500 years? So I’m super excited for you all to hear that. For this little kind of mini episode, though, it’s kind of a chance for us, yeah, to share the poem and talk about it a little bit, but also to step back, and breathe, and reflect a little bit on this first season. As people out there may know starting a podcast is not an easy thing, especially if you’re interested in people actually listening to it. There’s a lot of podcasts out there! And the issues that we’re talking about on #WhatsGoodMan aren’t necessarily as much “fun” all the time as like, arguing about anime characters or like, learning about famous murders.
So one: just to say we are super, super endlessly grateful to everyone who has tuned in over the last couple months, everyone who shared the link, left a review, helped spread the word in any way. It really does mean a lot. And we have a bunch of ideas for Season 2, which I think we’re also going to preview a little bit in this episode. But to kick things off today, we figured we would maybe do another round of “critique corner” just like we did back in episode five, just sharing a few of the critiques, the thoughts, the comments that people have taken the time to share with us about things that they’ve heard or things that they’re wondering about or thinking about.
Tony: So I’ll kick things off. On episode six, I at one point say that sexual assault is an individual thing. And our friend and regular listener Nicole pointed out to me that it’s not really just an individual thing, that there are a lot of layers of context wrapped around it. And I think that we did an OK job of talking about that in other parts of the episode, but I definitely didn’t want to sort of leave that on the table, that it’s like just an individual thing that happens between individuals because that’s not a thorough analysis of the way that we should look at it. And it runs much deeper than that.
Kyle: Yeah. Another comment that we got, that I remember like we had talked about at some point, but hearing it from someone else was really validating; it’s kind of an encouragement for us to maybe revisit the whole strong/weak thing. Regular listeners might know that that’s how we’ve been introducing each episode, with like a way to model, like, just two men talking about their feelings. How are you feeling? Like authentically inside, like, what’s going on with you? That’s an important thing. But I also hear the critique that like, framing quote unquote, good things as strong and quote unquote, not so good or bad things as weak might not be the best message to send, if that makes sense. Do you have any thoughts on that? ‘Cause it came from martial arts practice, right?
Tony: Yeah. I don’t try to think of them as just “strong things are good” and “weak as bad things.” Right? I try to think of it as ways in which I’m feeling, responding to the world around me. So if I’m feeling strong in something, it means that I’m feeling really stable in that thing. And if I’m feeling weak, it means that I’m feeling really unstable. And I think for us as men, a lot of the time we get taught that stability is good and that weakness is bad. But I think, like, it’s also trying to, for me, recontextualize that like, bad things aren’t always bad. Right? Like, if I’m feeling depressed, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I need to fix it. Or that it’s, you know, some horrible thing that’s going to end my life. It’s just a thing to be acknowledged and worked around. Or worked with, or sat with. So, yeah, I think that maybe even bad things shouldn’t be seen as bad. They’re just seen as part of the path that we walk.
Kyle: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So another point that someone brought up was there was a moment in our “Fix It or Forget It” episode where we’re talking about masculinity. I was talking about evolutionary psychology, specifically about the kind of falseness of the notion, the very common notion, that, you know, “men are innately better leaders because we developed our fight or flight responses on a genetic level while we were fighting dinosaurs a million years ago” or whatever. And yes, that kind of evo psych is bullshit. But I think the way that I said it in the episode, I kind of dismissed the entire field as pseudoscience. And we got a cool email from Aaron Melnek and Heidi Binder, who pointed us to a couple of scholarly articles about evolutionary psychology. I’m going to share these titles in case people want to look them up, if this is a thing that’s interesting to you. One was “Feminist Encounters with Evolutionary Psychology” by Rachel O’Neill and one was “Moving Toward Integrative Feminist Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences” by Justin R. Garcia and Leslie L. Heywood. We won’t go super in depth here for various reasons, but you know, one quote from the latter of those two articles that really gets to the heart of it was this:
“In some ways then, it would seem we haven’t come too far this past century in advancing a research agenda that takes on the challenge of integrating a feminist analysis of power with evolutionary perspectives. Yet new developments in evolutionary theory show significant promise for integrating feminist and evolutionary approaches to the study of social behavior, and in particular, gender and sexuality in the behavioral sciences. This integration has the potential to lead to new research paradigms that bridge the old divide between nature and nurture, and develop frameworks that show the interaction effects between each.”
So like, I went to grad school, so you know, I mean, I’m kind of used to that stuff. I’ve been out for a couple of years now. But I think either way, whether that’s, you know, the language that you enjoy listening to or not, it is very interesting stuff. So if people want to check out those articles…
Tony: And it’s good to know that even in the academy around some of these big disciplines like evo psych, like, these conversations are happening even if it’s not always in an accessible way.
Kyle: And there are people doing the work of like, pushing the conversations, oftentimes in a very uphill manner, towards a more feminist analysis, a more social justice-minded analysis.
Tony: So feminist evolutionary psychologists: we see you; keep doing what you’re doing. We’re here for it.
Kyle: And thanks to Heidi and Aaron for taking the time to share those two articles. You know, that kind of does lead to… and this wasn’t a critique we heard from anyone else, but I know that we talked about that particular episode maybe not being our strongest, just a little bit outside of our wheelhouse. I don’t know if you want to talk about that at all.
Tony: Yeah. So that fix it or forget it episode. Like, something about it just didn’t quite ring right to me. Maybe it’s just that we need more time to think about that conversation. Maybe it’s about bringing guests of other genders on and gender experiences on to talk about that topic with us. But it’s something that we’re just thinking about. So if you liked that episode or if you didn’t like that episode and you have a clear sense of why, hit us up, let us know what you thought. And we’ll consider that as we plan other conversations around that topic for season two.
Kyle: Yeah. And I mean, that’s a cool transition. And we won’t spend a ton of time on this, but just to take a second to reflect on this whole process for us, because we’ve never done a podcast before. We’re both regularly up in front of people talking about stuff. But the podcast experience in general was new for both of us. And I’m just thinking about like, lessons learned or, you know, things that are still on your mind, things that you’re still figuring out. I have a couple of thoughts, but I don’t know if you want to…
Tony: Yeah, I’ll kick it off. I mean, the simplest ones have been just thinking about how we record and edit the podcast, right? So on like a purely technical level. Like the process of making sure that we have the right mics pointed in the right directions with the right pop filters. This is the first like mini episode where I’ve actually been able to fully pay attention to technical stuff. And I’m sure I’ll learn stuff from this episode’s recording too. And just like learning shortcuts. I’ve become a much better editor and a much quicker composer as a result of working on this. So that’s been super great. Another one, I think for me that’s been really good, that cuts a little bit deeper, is thinking about the ways that I’ve had to deal with my own defensiveness and my own insecurity around talking about these topics. It’s been good just to sort of step out on this ledge of talking about this topic and feel a lot of nervousness and insecurity about not doing it right or getting canceled or whatever. And ultimately being held really deeply by our listenership. And having folks approach us in really good ways, whether they’re really loving the show or whether they have critiques of the show. And so, yeah, I don’t know. It’s been a good reminder for me that if you show up and do the work in an honest way, then people are going to respect that and people are going to support; people are going to engage in good faith with it.
Kyle: And even just the word “work” hit me because I know one takeaway that I had was that this was a lot of work.
Tony: So much work.
Kyle: I don’t know if people can tell, but we don’t just get together and bullshit for an hour. Like, these are all outlined; all these episodes like, from like a pedagogical like, you know, I’m an educator. So I’m thinking about like, what concept leads into what concepts and blah, blah, blah. And like, it’s a lot of work and I think it’s stressful for that reason, but also stressful for all the reasons that you just elucidated about… this is something that’s come up a couple times in different episodes, about how if you are a man and you’re like a genuinely like, good man who has like, a strong feminist analysis and like, you act right and you talk right… It’s also sometimes easier just to never do anything or say anything. Just to like, BE a good man.
And I think part of the mission of this podcast is to say that “being” isn’t enough. It’s a great first step. It’s something that we should all aspire to, but that it is kind of about action and about advocacy a little bit. And we’ll talk more about that as the podcast goes on. There’s a stress that comes with that. It would be easier to not do this than to do it. But I think that’s maybe why it matters, why we should be doing it. And I think the biggest thing, just to add on to what you said… I was watching The Witcher on Netflix, which like, I have a million critiques of; I didn’t love it, but…
Tony: You didn’t like it?
Kyle: I mean, certain parts of it… but let’s not go off on a tangent here, right? …it was super ableist.
Tony: It was very ableist. Among other, many problems with it.
Kyle: I do like that not everyone was white, like in the video game, where literally every character is white. But anyways, again, NOT a tangent about the Witcher
Tony: Not a tangent about the Witcher!
Kyle: But I was watching the Witcher in the context of the episodes that we’ve been doing in that time period. And I’m thinking about how like, and in some ways, characters like Geralt, and like Batman, and like maybe Black Panther and Captain America, and a couple of these characters, like, one of their “superpowers” is that they’re in control. That they almost always like, have the right thing to say or they know what they’re doing all the time, even like, you know, for the purposes of the plot, they might be confused about something. But in a general sense, they always have the right quip; they always know what’s going on. And I feel like an important part of kind of pushing back against this harmful, violent idea of masculinity, like that side of masculinity, is pushing back against the idea of having to be in control all the time. And that relates directly to vulnerability. Which is another thing… I think vulnerability is a deeper term…I mean, I’ve been thinking about this a lot: Vulnerability doesn’t mean that we have to constantly tell you our worst moments and our worst stories all the time and be crying into the microphone. Vulnerability, I think in some… like, it CAN mean that. But I’m thinking about it more in that sense of giving up control and just being honest and authentic, especially when it’s easier just to shut up. Any other thoughts?
Tony: (dramatic pause) …okay quick Witcher tangent. One of the things that I love about The Witcher 3 is that it creates this like, unassailable masculine archetype. And then like, as you sort of get to unpack it, you realize that Geralt actually has kind of a deep internal world and some really deep ways about looking at how the world functions and what he wishes he could do about it, but also sets his boundaries around it. Anyway, that’s fodder for another…
Kyle: If you wanted it to be really generous with both the game and the show, you could talk about Geralt as a kind of archetype of masculinity, in that like witchers, culturally, the myth is that they don’t have any emotions…
Tony: But they do!
Kyle: …that they don’t feel anything. But he totally does!
Tony: Deep emotion.
Kyle: There’s something there that could be cool, but yeah, maybe that’s a future episode. And I mean, that’s a cool tangent into the way we’re going to end this little segment was to like, I mean, give people a little bit of a preview. Not necessarily episodes that we’re definitely 100 percent going to do, but episodes that are on our list of stuff that we’re thinking about, stuff that people have told us, that like, we’re thinking could be fun. I already mentioned that the last episode of this season is going to be a cool like, science fiction, futuristic exploration of “what is the future of masculinity,” with a bunch of guests. That’s going to be really cool.
Tony: Yeah. So I think the first one that we talked about like right at the beginning of this whole thing is talking about a D&D episode. So talking about, literally, what roles we play. But also about role-playing. Anyway, we want to talk about ways that roleplaying can disrupt gender, ways in which it can sort of re-up on gender. And all of this stuff that comes with it; we might even play a little D&D. We’ll see.
Kyle: That idea is cool because you can talk about, like what you’re saying, these these deeper ideas of storytelling and like, identity formation through role-playing. You can also talk about like tabletop gaming as like a subculture and kind of the gender dynamics of subcultures; that leads into a whole other kind of bullet point list of episode ideas of exploring masculinity within different subcultures, particularly ones that we’re part of. So for instance, Hip Hop; we’re both rappers. So doing a whole episode on how masculinity kind of manifests in Hip Hop, and beyond the kind of obvious stereotypical ways that’s usually talked about, in some other ways. We can also talk about masculinity in like, progressive organizing spaces, in radical spaces, even like, you know, in arts and music scenes more generally. All the sexism and misogyny that is in like a music scene, for instance.
Tony: Yeah. Another thing that we want to talk about is an episode on like self-care, recovery, basically ways that men show up for ourselves in like, healing processes. I think a lot of us, even like progressive “woke” dudes or whatever, don’t do a good job of taking care of ourselves. A lot of folks look down on therapy, a lot of folks look down on intimate friendship. And I think those networks of support are an inescapable part of doing some healing and transformation around, not showing up in like a toxically masculine way. So there’s a bunch of different sub topics there we can talk about. We really want to talk about men’s friendships. We want to talk about networks of support and accountability networks. We want to talk about going to therapy. There’s a bunch of different stuff there.
Kyle: There’s been so much good writing lately about how when we don’t do that stuff, when we don’t take care of ourselves and we don’t develop networks like, who bears the burden of taking care of us? It’s often our partners, and that’s not healthy.
Another one on this list really quick is… so this might be me; I don’t know if other people are interested in this; you can let us know. But I’m super interested in communication and like, advocacy techniques. So like, if you think that, you know, toxic masculinity is a problem, or that gender violence is a problem, how do we talk about this stuff? We’ve talked about this a little bit in different episodes, but I think really doing a deep dive into technique and tools and like, you know, that can be through the lens of art. How do we make art about consent? How do we make art about masculinity in a way that is welcoming and engaging and not preachy… or maybe is preachy, but is also really good? Like, there are ways to do that. And I think that art conversation can apply to everyone, even if you don’t consider yourself an artist. It’s about how do we equip ourselves with the tools to advocate for the things that we believe in?
Tony: Absolutely. And a last one that we’re thinking about, and there are dozens more, but the last one we’re going to mention right now is thinking about masculinities outside of manhood. So one of the things that I’m really interested in is non-binary masculinities and the ways that different non-binary folks grapple with masculinity. Whether that’s grappling with a masculinity that they’ve been socialized into or whether that’s grappling with the masculinity that they weren’t socialized into. So I think there’s a lot of fertile territory there. And I’d really like to talk to a bunch of the amazing non-binary folks in my life about what that experience looks and feels like.
Kyle: I mean, that connects to a whole other potential group of episodes on just kind of… I think in this first season, we’ve really talk about masculinity from like a dominant culture perspective, which is often like a white, Western, United States perspective… but like how masculinity plays out in specific communities. You know, we have a lot of plans and thoughts and cool contacts to potentially build episodes around that in different ethnic communities, cultural communities, et cetera. You know, if you have other ideas, feel free to get at us. You know, #WhatsGoodMan hashtag on Instagram and on Twitter and all that stuff. But we’d love to hear if you have other ideas.
Kyle: Does that go to your manager?
Tony: Yeah, it does go to my manager. My manager, who is me wearing a different hat, than me not being my manager. Yeah. Good stuff.
Tony: This is tony the scribe. Hey, y’all. Thanks for joining us today on our second to last episode of What’s Good Man for the season. I don’t think the show’s gonna end after this season, but we are gonna need to take a couple months to sort of reset and think through new ideas and rest up a little bit because producing the show is pretty time intensive. We do really appreciate you sharing the show with other folks, especially as we head into the finale. We’ve had a great run so far, but the more people know about the show, the more people get to hear these conversations. So we appreciate you sharing them with people. Transcripts of the show and more information are always available at wgmpod.com. If you have a boomer in your life who hates podcast apps, that’s also the easiest way to get them the show. You can find us on social media. I’m at @tony_the_scribe on Twitter and Instagram. And just on Facebook, as Tony the Scribe, Kyle is at @elguante on Twitter, @guantesolo on Instagram and just Guante on Facebook. Subscribe to the show and give us a good review if you haven’t had the chance yet. That will help you to know when the second season’s spooled up. Thanks to everybody who sent us feedback about the editing on the last episode and sort of the editing shifts and what you thought of them. If you haven’t gotten a chance to do that yet, feel free to hit us up. You can do that via social media or via our email addresses. Kyle’s is firstname.lastname@example.org and mine is email@example.com. As always, our theme music is by daedae and letmode; the other music is by me. And this wonderful poem that you’re about to hear is by Kyle.
Ok, cool. So we’re going to move into the art of taking the L. So, Kyle, do you wanna share a little bit of context with us about what this poem is, why you wrote it, those kinds of things? Then we’ll get into it.
Kyle: Yeah. This poem is called The Art of Taking the L. And it’s something I wrote kind of as a commission, actually. And, you know, I won’t go into all the details, but long story short, I was asked to read a poem in front of an enormous room full of men, like eight hundred men, and mostly men who had not thought super deeply or like, you know, aren’t part of these circles where we’re always talking about toxic masculinity and gender violence and stuff. This was an event to kind of disrupt domestic violence and bring more men into into that kind of work as allies and as people who are advocating for the end of domestic violence. And so I wanted to write a poem that was kind of an entry point, you know? How do we talk about this stuff without using all the buzzwords and the jargon? How do we talk about it on a super real level? For me, just because of my personality, that involves a lot of pop culture references and like just telling stories and using my own history as well, which is very much like a spoken word tactic. Yeah. So the poem kind of went through many drafts and many versions before it got to this point.
It is a little long compared to most spoken word poems, just because I tried to really make it like a mission statement and say all the stuff that I wanted to say in the poem. And then aside from being a poem, it’s also a zine. And so it’s this little booklet that I made that includes the whole text of the poem, also a bunch of discussion questions like, you know, if you’re a teacher and you want to use it as a teaching tool in your class or whatever. And then also a bunch of resources, books, and articles and videos and other poems, some of which we’ve talked about on this podcast, for people who just want to read more, learn more. Again, this is an entry point project. I should also mention really quick that if people are interested in this, you know, obviously all the links and stuff will be in the transcript. But you can order this; it’s available right now as a bundle of zines that include other zines as well that I created, through Button Poetry. I’ll throw the link in there with that as well. But yeah, it’s a project I’m really proud of, and I appreciate the opportunity to share it with y’all.
Tony: So yeah, with no further ado, The Art of Taking the L.
Kyle: 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.
Tony: Thanks, Kyle. No last word this week. But again, feel free to share the show with folks, especially building up to the season finale two weeks from today. Thank you for joining us. We’ll see you one last time this season before we take a break.