Our theme for the month of July is “stunt journalism.” Writers were asked to try something new, take on a challenge, or perform some other interesting feat strictly for the purpose of writing about it.

I’ll begin by saying that I don’t believe in an objective, naturally occurring masculinity and certainly don’t tie myself in clove hitch knots trying to conform to its standards: my college classes were female-dominated; my wardrobe is more floral than the gardens at Versailles; and the March Madness bracket I organized this year was not for college basketball, but for RuPaul’s Drag Race. Generally, I’ve resolved to simply like what I like and let society interpret me as it will. Occasionally, though, I find myself clinging to scraps of masculinity—marathon running, backpacking prowess, mentally archived Olympics stats—never wanting to totally become a stereotype in society’s eyes.

This week, I decided to spend a day allowing society (a.k.a. the internet) to tell me exactly how I should be a man. For one day I would dress, drink, and spend my time how the cyber arbiters of masculinity determined.

The Rules:

  • Whenever I felt like doing something—eating, drinking, listening to music, getting dressed—I would ask the internet how I, a man, should do it by typing a Google query including “masculine,” “how a man should,” or “like a man.”
  • I would also complete a few tasks from a list of manly activities I brainstormed with my friend Amy (who also gets title credit for this post).

The Exceptions:

  • I would not renounce my vegetarianism for some misguided male carnivorousness.
  • I would still attend a pre-arranged Sex and the City-esque wine and cheese night with friends.
  • I would not wear cargo shorts, for the love of God!

Task 1: Wash a Car

I began my experiment in the afternoon by doting over my automobile. Generally, I couldn’t care less about cars. I’ve memorized the make and model of mine in case people ask (“I drive a 2006 Hyundai Azera and will not return the question because I am aggressively uninterested!”), but I view it as little more than a way to get to and from Denver or a device with which to blast Lady Gaga music. Amy initially suggested that I should fix something on my car, but the last time I attempted that I chopped off a part of my vehicle with a pair of loppers. So, I settled for a simple wash. I’d be like all those super masculine guys in Grease!

And, like the super masculine guys in Grease, I wanted some music to scrub along to. Everyday Gabe would have quickly queued up a blend of bubbly Carly Rae Jepsen bops and imagined himself the lead in the “Call Me Maybe” music video. The internet, however, had other ideas.

A quick Google search for “masculine music” turned up a GQ article entitled “50 Songs That Make Us Feel Like Men” which promised “the testosterone-charged anthems that make us feel like man at his best.” I suppressed an eye roll and programmed the tunes into my Spotify queue. From what I could tell, the playlist was just a sequence of white dudes singing rock songs, alternating between the soft and hard varieties and doing little to inspire any Jepsenian car wash fantasies. Mercifully, there was no country music.

After pulling up a wikiHow page on washing cars, I slipped on some basketball shorts and set about sudsing up my windshield. As I worked, I puzzled over the fact that cooking and cleaning have historically been branded feminine spheres, but the moment a grill or a motor vehicle gets involved, they become the most masculine of tasks. I experienced no change in my testosterone levels.

Task 2: Dress Like A Man

Car washed and tummy rumbling with a manly hunger, it was time to get ready for my evening. Everyday Gabe would have picked out a nice patterned short with a grandad collar button-up, but Today Gabe sought the instruction of fitness blogger and expert on all things man, Chad Howse. At the beginning of the article, Chad promised to teach me not just how to dress like a man, but how to dress like an alpha male.

Chad said that fashion was stupid (except, he clarified, for Victoria’s Secret runway shows).

Chad said that an alpha male doesn’t care what those he leads think of him.

Chad said that I should “buy some nice, dull t-shirts.”

Chad said that “above all else, don’t pluck your eyebrows.”

Chad literally mentioned “throwing the pigskin around with the fellas.”

In related news, I don’t like Chad.

However, I dutifully obeyed Chad’s commands. I put on jeans for the first time in at least a couple years and paired them with a grayish-green crew neck T. Chad encouraged me to “go heavy on the grays,” which is a concept I am not comfortable with. I cinched on my Clarks, slid on a belt without tucking in my shirt, and popped on a baseball cap which I had bought at a thrift store a couple years ago thinking it was a Red Sox hat, but which apparently just has a red “S” on it that means nothing. I popped out the door to buy some beer.

What happened next surprised me. I hated walking into the grocery store looking so generic. I didn’t hate it; I loathed it. I detested the way I felt. I abhorred knowing that the person I was presenting to the world, even for those few minutes, wasn’t me. It was Matt Vander Man from Anywhereville picking up beer drinks for sports night.

There are many gay people who describe their lives before coming out as “living a lie,” having allowed others’ expectations to dictate their behavior. I’ve never felt that way before. I’ve always dressed how I wanted to dress and acted how I wanted to act. Until yesterday. I realized that for perhaps the first time in my life, I was dressing by someone else’s rules, and it felt crummy.

Chad says that fashion doesn’t matter. If anything, this experience has convinced me of just how much it matters. At the LGBT+ summer camp I worked at last summer, we had a dress-up theme for every day—superheroes, rainbows, gender exploration—aimed specifically at giving campers the permission to experiment with new identities. Clothing is perhaps our most constant, visible form of self-expression, and dressing by Chad’s rules made me feel dishonest.

I bought the beers and left as quickly as I could.

Task 3: Build a Campfire

In my man-vestigations, I came across a site called “The Art of Manliness,” which supplied a comprehensive list of “100 Skills Every Man Should Know.” The Art of Manliness aims to cultivate a more enlightened and philosophical (yet still exclusionary and heteronormative) definition of manliness, so I was pleased to see that many of the skills I already knew—parallel park, paddle a canoe, recite a poem from memory.

Having grown up backpacking with my family, I felt that the item “Build a Campfire” seemed like a simple feat. So simple, in fact, that I would do it with just one single match!

Ok.

Well, one match is ridiculous. Two matches! Or three, I mean fou-five! Ok. I think I meant to say one match book.

As I fumbled with the tinder for the fifteenth time, I realized with embarrassment that despite all of my camping experience, I’d never really been the fire guy. Every camping entourage has a fire guy (or gal), the person who self-identifies as “a pyro” and ceaselessly prods the fire with a stick and has a maniacal gleam in their eyes. I was always more of a faithful firewood gatherer. Now, though, I was all alone, and this task had become a primal battle for personal honor.

After struggling to split wood with a hatchet, running upstairs for a second match book, and nearly declaring defeat, I finally achieved the prehistoric feat of fire and, after carefully nursing the flames with the air from my lungs, slumped back with exhausted satisfaction.

Task 4: Build Something Else

I’ve often said that if I could have one God-given skill I lack, it would be handiness. My dad has always been good with tools, jig-sawing wooden cut-outs of Egyptian gods for my fourth grade project and fashioning a wooden bar beside our fire pit. I, however, had never built something by myself in my entire life. Today that would change.

I procured a few wooden beams, a saw, a level, some screws, an electric screwdriver, and a ruler from the garage. I set my materials out on the bar beside my sputtering campfire and began work on the manliest project I could conjure: a squatty potty. A squatty potty is essentially a small stool that you place your feet on while on the toilet. It “unkinks” the colon allowing for a more pleasant and complete bowel movement. I’d like to say I chose the project to mimic shitting in the woods like a man! But really I chose it because it’s always advertised on RuPaul and Michelle Visage’s podcast.

However, regardless of my motives, less than an hour of sawing and screwdriving later, I had fashioned a squatty potty all my own. It was wobbly, and it was ugly, and it was way too high, but I had summoned it into being with my own two hands, dammit! I realized as I looked at my off-kilter creation that there are things in this life that I long ago decided I simply couldn’t do and that maybe I’d been wrong.

Task 5: Sip Whiskey

As the fire hushed to a whisper and the logs rolled over to show their glowing magenta underbellies, I scampered upstairs and clinked a few ice cubes into one of my dad’s whiskey glasses. I can count on one hand the number of drinks I’ve had alone by myself and, on the other hand, the number of times I’ve had whiskey. But, I channeled my inner Ron Swanson and listened to the amber liquid crackle over the ice.

I walked back out to the quiet embers and turned off all the lights. I pulled out my phone and began to read The Art of Manliness’s “20 Classic Poems Every Man Should Read.” I read Shakespeare and Tennyson and Twain and Yeats and watched the liquor shine like stained glass against the light of the coals and felt loneful.

Maybe being a good man—no, being a good person—is about being honest to who you are while acknowledging that there’s always more of you to be explored. But it sure as hell is not about going heavy on the grays.

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