The Art of Taking the L (new video + big list of counter-narrative masculinity resources)

(Editor’s note: this video was scheduled to be released today, and there’s obviously other stuff on a lot of people’s minds because of yesterday’s supreme court news. While the thread in this poem of masculinity only being able to make sense of itself through the lens of power and control is relevant, if it can be useful to anyone, I’ve also pulled together a list of poems on reproductive justice here).

This is actually an older piece; Button Poetry posted a version of it back in 2019, but there was an audio issue, so we decided to record this new version. I’m grateful, as always, to them for giving an admittedly… nontraditional poem/speech/thing like this a home. 

It’s also a fun break from promoting my new book; the sci-fi-driven “Not a Lot of Reasons to Sing, but Enough” definitely has a thread running through it examining masculinity and its relationship with authoritarianism, but a poem like this, taking place on our world, written in my own voice, can be a lot more straightforward. I don’t think “straightforward” is a good thing or a bad thing; it’s just one way for a poem to be, and I like experimenting with multiple ways.

NOTES AND FRAMING

“The Art of Taking the L” grew out of a specific commission for a specific event/audience: a big group of men who were open to these ideas, but probably hadn’t had a lot of conversations about “hegemonic masculinity,” or done much thinking about gender essentialism or whatever. The idea was to write a poem that could be a doorway into thinking more intentionally about how our understanding of masculinity impacts our lives, and the people around us—especially when it comes to interpersonal violence.

a photo of KTM performing

With all 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. There’s an assumption, sometimes, that people who do the kind of work that I do are trying to tell men (or white people, or cis people, etc.) “how to be.” In my view, what we’re really doing is trying shine a light on all the ways that society is *already* telling us how to be, so that we can instead be our full, authentic selves.

From that, the “narrative/counter-narrative” thread emerged. What stories do we tell about masculinity? About gender in general? What stories do we hear, growing up, whether they’re explicit or implicit? What are the implications of those stories? Who benefits from them? 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 how stories work. My hope is that the poem can continue to be useful as a conversation starter about all that and more.

ADDITIONAL MATERIALS (AND BOOKING INFO)

Before any video was available for it, “The Art of Taking the L” was a 12-page zine. I still have a few copies, but it’s not currently available for online order. The zine has some additional content that I’ll make available here too- (1) a big bank of recommended readings and resources, (2) some discussion questions, and (3) the full text of the poem itself. Find all of my zines here.

a photo of the zine "the art of taking the L" featuring that text plus a faded-out image of a man with his hands over his ears

Also, before I share the additional resources below, another thing to remember about this poem is that it was written much less as a thing to be consumed, and much more as a tool for facilitated dialogue. For people already doing that work, please feel free to use it. But I should also mention that you can contact me, via the booking page on this website, if you’d like to talk about my own arts/narrative-driven masculinity programs and workshops. I’d love to connect with your high school class, university housing unit, college first-year orientation program, athletic department, conference, or beyond.

A last note on these next three sections: there are obviously many other resources, books, and poems that could be included here. These are just ones that I’ve found to be useful. Hopefully these lists can be starting points.

RECOMMENDED READINGS AND VIDEOS AVAILABLE ONLINE

A FEW BOOKS

A FEW POEMS:

POTENTIAL DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1. Identify your own “earliest memory” of masculinity (or femininity, or the gender binary in general). What do these early lessons teach us? What’s the point of these lessons? Who benefits from narrow, rigid conceptions of gender roles?

2. Men are not all the same, and factors like race, culture, sexual orientation and more impact the messages we get about masculinity. How does the “dominant story” of masculinity align (or not) with your own experience?

3. One section of the poem is built around “small” anecdotes that, looking back, had an impact on how the speaker came to understand masculinity (or, more specifically, came to unlearn some of what he thought he understood about masculinity). Can you identify any stories from your own memory that taught you something valuable either about gender, or how society frames and makes sense of gender?

4. The text doesn’t say that “taking the L” is always a good thing, just that it’s an important skill. How do you determine when to accept a loss, and when not to? How do you choose the battles that matter?

5. What concrete steps can we take to cultivate a more liberated, humane, healthier vision of masculinity?

TEXT OF THE POEM

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. (editor’s note: this line is referring to Cee-lo in the Goodie Mob song “Gutta Butta”).

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 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.

Thanks for reading. Find more of my poems here.