Through the Looking Glass: A Place To Be “The Man”
By Michael Gordon
Published on Friday, May 11, 2012
Editor’s Note: Through the Looking Glass is The Mirror’s newest feature. We welcome submissions from all members of the community — both past and present — who wish to write about defining experiences, moments or relationships during their time at Dartmouth. Please submit articles of 800-1,000 words to firstname.lastname@example.org.
An upperclassman once told me, “Everyone needs one place on campus where he can just feel like the man.” By sophomore year, I had a lot of keys to places where I expected to be the man — athlete, affiliated, white, middle-class male — but as the discrepancy between what I was and what I thought I should be became larger, I began to feel more and more uncomfortable in my own skin. I lost myself in trying to translate an archetype into reality.
Eventually, after a lot of help from some incredibly compassionate role models, I found my place. It was a cubicle in the art studio at Four Currier covered in paint and Powerbar wrappers, with music blasting. It is my sanctuary, my haven for nurturing the best parts of myself.
Like most of my friends, I spent a long time filling my life with noise. I overcompensated, postured and perpetually devalued anything with my name on it. I tried to look good at everything without showing I was trying at anything.
Every transcript or trophy was an empty offering to “the man” I wanted to be. I compared myself to an impossible standard I’d always known but never met. He lived in James Bond movies, action figures, Tom Clancy novels and billboard-sized Gillette commercials.
We have good intentions — we often just become fashionably apathetic. There is something in all of us that yearns for intimacy. This intimacy, however, necessitates a level of vulnerability, which can feel not only awkward but also terrifyingly irreversible in many ways. And at a place like Dartmouth, where most people are convinced that everyone has their life totally together (except for themselves), this vulnerability is not a place we want to go. So we decide to swallow our yearning and teach ourselves to nod our heads when we want to say hello, to bury a compliment beneath mounds of scrutiny and to hide our passions behind the James Bond suit. We speak in a language that falls so painstakingly short of expressing what we truly mean that we forget what we meant to say in the first place. And the realness we crave lingers somewhere between the courage to reach out and the fear of being called out.
I am happy to say, however, that this pessimistic criticism is far less than half the story. As I’ve grown up and slowly come out from under my once monolithic heroes, I began to recognize a certain spirit in the “outsiders” my training taught me to disregard. They invited me to indulge in that childlike wonder that marvels in the freedom to choose its own happiness. It doesn’t care about the earning potential of a job you are taking because it sounds more like an adventure than an occupation. And it definitely does not care if you make a fool of yourself, so long as you do it laughing.
I still think every man on this campus needs somewhere where he feels like the man — but only when that “man” they feel like being stops looking like a polished contradiction of impossible expectations and starts resembling a reflection of his own ability to give. It can happen in chemistry labs, frat basements and basketball courts, but for me it happens when I walk into my studio.
My mind starts dancing, and my life spills onto the canvas without want or need of recognition. In it, I allow myself to explore those forgotten corners of my memories and release their power over me into color, line and form. I can speak in my own language, which is by no means uninhibited. In fact, it is in recognizing those barriers that I develop my practice and dive deeper into my art.
But I do so with a boyish wonder that smiles knowing I am honoring the best parts of myself.
When I leave the studio, I feel refreshed. Even at 5 o’clock in the morning, creating art fills me with this wild excitement of knowing I am stronger for letting down my guard. It reminds me that there is nothing I have to prove.
No picture will be perfect, no audience will ever be able to tell me I’m enough. That is a decision only I can make. But by continuing to practice, to investigate that joy of creation, and by allowing myself to be vulnerable enough to do so, I get to paint my own standards.
And when I do go back to the classroom, or the basement, or the athletic field, I do it on my own terms.
Michael Gordon ’12 is a self-proclaimed down vest enthusiast who enjoys worn-in couches and long conversations about nothing. He looks forward to growing old, turning his hearing aid off at the dinner table and making wild, egregious statements about his glory days.