MIRRORS ON THE WALL
Payne Whitney Gymnasium's towering gothic spires were a kind of cathedral of refuge during my years of graduate study at Yale. Its apparently endless rooms and corridors housed every physical exercise from aerobics to weight lifting. And they were a welcoming solace when the Hapsburg silver mines of the 16th century got to be just a bit too much.
Recently, I thought of the football team portraits that chronologically lined the corridors, from almost the first moment photography was popularly available on. As I hurried past them toward the pool, I remember a really remarkable shift in the visual rhythm of those portraits.
The convention at Yale is that its football team should be portrayed casually draped over the Yale fence, which once marked its boundary with the town. And with the teams from the 1880's, 90's and early 1900's, "draped" is certainly the word for it. The 'Bubbas' and 'Mooses' of that day seem to feel no inhibitions about sprawling all over each other. The men pose body to body, leaning against each other, sometimes with their arms over one another's shoulders. It all means to say we are the brothers of the football team and we want the world to see that.
But suddenly, just about 1918 or 1919, everything changes. All of a sudden, the men in the portraits go bolt upright, and very, very separate from one another. Bodily touching and arms over shoulders become things of the distant past. Now we stand staring at the camera with just the right space dividing us. And that's how the poses remain right down to our own time.
I'm thinking now of the times the men in my group and I have tried to approach the question of bodily contact. How skittish we become. How many jokes suddenly become necessary.
I remember a conversation on the subject one night with my good friend, Dennis. He points out the only thing in the bar he isn't allowed to touch is me. We're both careful to note how different we feel about the women standing around.
I remember how guilty and uncertain of myself I have felt when I discovered how good it might feel to touch or hold another man -- or, god help me, be touched or held by him. What anger I've felt toward my father who never embraced me or really even touched me in a way that told me he had a body just like mine and that it was O.K. to have mine. Somehow these always seemed like very personal hurts -- very tough to talk about. Somehow such feelings always skirt my dread of homosexuality. These are areas where it's just too tough to explore the answers my questions might offer me.
But there it all is up on the gymnasium wall for all the world to see. It's not just a question of my father and me, or of my solitary fears. Some sort of monster flew over this land just after World War I. What did it do to separate me from the sacred beauty of my own male body, and thereby from confidently knowing the sacredness and beauty of yours? How did we get so split from one another that we must overcome mountains of fear before we can hold one another up? I'm sure I don't know the answer to that question. But whatever it is, I'm sure the football team showed me the way.
John Guarnaschelli, Ph. D.
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