Photo: Eleanor Kaufman Photography
My family and I live near Frederick, Maryland on a small mountain in a retrofitted mid-19th century cabin with crummy satellite internet connection, a leaking metal roof, gorgeous vistas and sylvan peace that’s often punctured by neighbors’ rifle shots. Our two-acre yard is pocked with holes from our neurotic Australian Shepherd-mix and my nine-year-old son and me, metal detecting for Civil War relics. (No, we don’t live on a battlefield—close to one, though. I just want my son to believe that a world of possibility can exist below ground, as well as above it.) My wife, Elizabeth, and our son, Macallah, are the only other things that can eclipse the full moon and stars for me on a clear, cold mountain night. (That may sound cheesy. I’m cool with that. If being emotionally honest is square, then I’ll stay in that liberating box.) Becoming a husband and father are the two defining relationships of my life.
I taught tennis, on and off for a long time, and, still daydream, far too often, about hitting clean strokes and developing into the player I always thought I’d become. (Taking on any older students at your academy, McEnroe?)
School never came easily to me as a child, yet I have found myself in the classroom since the mid-1990s, teaching at a small historically Black college, Coppin State University, then middle school English at a private school where I read “The Telltale Heart” to students in a mouldering 18th century graveyard. I now teach writing, men’s studies and cultural studies at Towson University as a full-time lecturer. My two favorite courses to teach are seminars I created for the Honors College: Leading Lives That Matter and The Changing Face of Masculinity.
I’ve been a cultural critic of sorts, publishing pieces in the New York Times about the obsession with social ‘perfection’ on social media and the challenges of teaching and practicing civility in an age of hyper-individuality in the Washington Post, among others. In 2015 and 2016 I had two different pieces published, in the same newspapers, in which I first stepped into the choppy waters of contemporary masculinity. The birth of my son in 2011 was the thing that kept nudging me farther into those waves. Both pieces went viral (one of them had 1.5 million+ readers), opened some big publishing doors and convinced me to finally explore a long-standing, deep passion that I had ignored for too long—the need for a newer, healthier masculine identity.
This quest led, most essentially, to my forthcoming book, Better Boys, Better Men (December 1, 2020, HarperOne Publishers). This book is a one-on-one with the reader about the many ways that the static, business-as-usual masculine identity we tolerate and encourage in this culture no longer serves boys and men—nor the rest of us—in a 21st century where empathy, collaboration and strong communication skills predominate. After researching this topic exhaustingly over four years, I can promise you: Unlike many books on this topic, Better Boys, Better Men takes this conversation farther forward, and trades in greater, more honest complexity. It goes beyond merely torching masculinity without any constructive ideas about what needs to rise up from the ashes.
If there’s anything I most proud of about Better Boys, Better Men it’s this: Through the many studies and boys’ and men’s stories (as well as some of my own), the book ultimately constructs, from the ashes, a new, more dynamic masculine identity that allows for deeper emotional lives beyond anger. This gives boys and men permission to finally, finally embrace their deeper humanity. This is a masculine identity that’s far more healthy, resilient and sustainable for boys, for men—and for people of all genders.