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by Tom Matl ack
“We just got back from three months of driving a rented RV along the coast of Australia,” Ken
said, eyes gleaming.
“It was amazing,” added his wife, Gisela, a South African woman in her late 30s with a beautiful
face and brazen crew cut.
Just before meeting our new best friends, my wife, Elena, and I had been sitting at the bar in
Kona Village, a family resort on the big island in Hawaii, watching a mommy and baby humpback
whale breach out in the Pacifc Ocean.
After they arrived, Elena kept asking them detailed questions, clearly convinced that we would
soon be heading to Australia too, if she could fgure out how to home school the kids along the
“Imagine a population smaller than New York City, spread out over a country as big as ours,”
“What are the beaches like?” Elena asked.
“Pristine,” Gisela responded with a British-sounding accent, “if you saw ten people that would
be a busy day.”
“Wildlife?” I questioned weakly, trying to play along, but disturbed by the direction the
conversation had taken.
“Kangaroos everywhere,” Ken said. “But the coolest was a Koala Bear wanderin’ from one tree
to the next right beside the RV. He stretched halfway up before climbin’ the rest of the way and
goin’ back to sleep.”
“That’s so cool!” Elena said enthusiastically, her wheels turning. During our seven-year marriage,
we had been to Florence (twice), Athens, Paris (twice), London, a dude ranch (four times),
Florida (countless times), New York City (countless times), Laguna Beach (for a month once),
Los Angeles, Dallas, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Sedona, St. Lucia, the Bahamas, and now
As much as I really liked Ken and Gisela, this whole exchange set off a familiar terror that was
diffcult for me to hide. As a hulking former swimmer and rower, I still had my fair share of
demons. I was still alone in a certain sense, not by choice but necessity.
Something my mom had once said about the flm As Good As lt Gets-Jack Nicholson plays an
obsessive compulsive with whom Helen Hunt falls in love-involuntarily entered my thoughts.
Gisela had mentioned port-a-potties and campground showers and my mind had somehow
connected the strange bathroom protocol on a three-month road trip in Australia to Nicholson
coming home to pull a bar of soap from his medicine cabinet (stacked with nothing but soap),
rubbing his hands under scalding water, dropping the bar in the trash and repeating the process
over and over again, exemplifying extreme germ phobia. He even brings plastic silverware to
the one restaurant he patronized.
Mom said the flm helped her understand my dad in a way nothing else ever had. Dad is
perhaps the smartest man I have ever known, having graduated from Princeton, Oxford, and
Yale. But he has to arrange the chairs in a certain way at family gatherings and becomes visibly
upset when food is served in a way that doesn’t meet his expectations. He is not as extreme
as Jack Nicholson in the movie, but his obsessive-compulsive tendencies can lead him to dark
places. These compulsions were a source of huge fghts in my house growing up and continued
to pain me as an adult. There are certain behaviors that he simply can’t control; but mom always
wished he could.
three months of driving a rented RV along the coast of Australia
The reminder was a very unwelcome thought as l attempted to ft in with the heavy drinking
crowd at the bar. I graduated from high school a year early to leave home abruptly at 17,
determined to escape my parent’s relationship. Yet now, at 45, the terror had me thinking that
maybe l hadn't outrun my DNA after all. l stared into my diet coke and remembered my frst
experience away from home.
Kids are playing four square and tether ball and jumping off the dock during free swim in a
chorus of boyish delight. The late afternoon sun shines on the lake at Camp Becket. But I’m
in the dark back corner of my lower bunk, crying hysterically, my head buried in a pillow so no
one can hear me.
I had been brave all day long. I had awoken disoriented; why was I in this strange place?
I somehow managed breakfast in the dining hall, woodworking, swimming, lunch, nap, and
archery. But after suppressing my angst, I felt like I was going to burst. I made my way back to
the cabin to be alone.
“Tom, you alright?” Stuart, my counselor, asks softly from the doorway. I look up, my eyes red.
“Let’s go for a walk, son.”
The camp director feels that talking to my parents would only upset me more. When l fnally do
a few days later, my parents tell me that it’s important that I stay at camp for my own good.
I bravely make it through a month, realizing I can swim and run faster than any other kid my age.
But the open wound hasn’t healed by the time I get home. It has only festered.
l wouldn't call myself a recluse now. l like people fne - just in small doses. l do like being
alone. And I do like doing the same things repeatedly (obsessive compulsive?). I ate, drank,
earned money, exercised; all to excess. Having overcome those addictions over a decade ago,
my current vices include coffee, ice cream, and my Blackberry. I struggle without a normal
routine; change of any kind is excruciating. I am not always at ease socially.
I’m 19 and in the back of a U-haul van in the fetal position, trying to fall asleep. There’s an open
keg at my feet; the stench of beer flls the air.
I am on the rowing team’s “Hose & Hike,” which consists of piling into a van on a Saturday
afternoon, drinking beer en route to a women's college, fnding a friendly bed to sleep in, and
then waking up Sunday morning to hike up and down a mountain.
Inside, my rowing teammates are playing strip twister. I have had another meltdown. I thought,
wrongly, that I could handle the trip. So I snuck out of the party to try to calm down and get
After my divorce 14 years ago, I dated some nice girls (and some clinically insane ones too). But
none captured my attention the way Elena did. We were engaged in two months and married
in six. l grew up in a Quaker family as close to a commune as you can get without offcial
designation. Think lesbians, pot, protests, FBI surveillance, and endless community meetings.
Elena grew up in Bronxville, New York. While I was getting arrested with my dad for committing
acts of civil disobedience at Westover Air Force Base, Elena was becoming a debutante.
Four months into our relationship, Elena and l took our frst trip together to the Amalf Coast.
She mentioned she wanted to see it and I immediately booked the trip to please her. After two
planes, a van, a ferry, and a taxi, we found ourselves on the very tip of Capri in a room with an
amazing terrace overlooking the limestone masses, the Faraglioni, jutting out of the Tyrrhenian
I like people fne - just in small doses.
l sleep horribly the frst night, suffering through nightmares of abandonment and humiliation.
When l fnally awake, l walk outside to the deck to stare down hundreds of feet at the birds
swirling along the cliff below. My childhood fear of heights is suspended in that moment
watching the birds fy in and out of the holes in the massive limestone cliffs rising directly out
of the impossibly blue sea.
We wrap ourselves in thick white robes, don sunglasses, and order espresso, fruit, and pastry,
basking in the beauty surrounding us. lt's the frst time l remember feeling completely at home.
Soon the terror returns, but it’s a sure sign of progress.
Before meeting Elena, I had never been to a charity event. I taught myself how to behave at
work, handling myself well enough to become the CFO of a large media company. But for an
introvert like me, crowds have always been torturous. I don’t like, and have never been good at,
small talk. After every required business event, I’d come home with a painfully sore back from
holding myself rigid like a board while shaking hands and talking. I can’t relax in a crowd.
Elena soon became a leader of several well-known charities. She was chairing not one, but two
of the biggest annual social events.
The Storybook Ball, benefting the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, is perhaps
Boston’s event of the year. I put on my tuxedo shirt, trying to negotiate the cuff links.
“Just remember, Tom, there will be 500 people there. Just blend in. Find someone you like to
talk to. No one is really going to care what you do. They are just there to have a good time.”
I am shocked. It has never occurred to me that I might not stick out as if I had a neon sign on
my forehead blaring “Loser!” for all to see.
Just the idea that l can ft in, that all l have to do is play along a little, fnd some friendly faces,
makes all the difference.
Maybe after attending event after event l fnally found my sea legs. Where at frst l would literally
go to the bathroom 10 times during the course of a dinner merely to be alone, I found that
talking to people really wasn't as hard as l once thought. l could always fnd a familiar face and
at least one interesting story.
By the time we got to Hawaii, it was really just my fear of travel that continued to plague me.
I still had to suffer through the painful transition of leaving home and adjusting to a foreign
environment and the loss of routine. I had been in therapy for a couple years, taking medication
for persistent depression; but it wasn’t until I stared into that diet coke and heard my mom’s
voice talking about Jack Nicholson that I understood my dad and was willing to see myself
In that moment, I realized that as much as I like to pretend to be macho, I am no different from
Nicholson’s character or my own Dad in his struggles. I am not sure if my obsession with Twitter
and Facebook is a clinically diagnosed condition, but they’re where I hide out. Checking my
Blackberry every twenty seconds day and night, even while driving with kids in the car or taking
a leak in the middle of the night, isn’t normal or healthy. I have always taken the internal fear and
transformed it into narrowly focused-okay obsessive-compulsive-action as a way to blot out
the discomfort. My maniacal focus -while useful in competitive situations, like sports or deal
making- has stood in the way of my ability to show up in my life.
Like Helen Hunt in the flm, Elena has pushed me to walk on the cracks; something Nicholson's
character wouldn’t do. She won’t let me slip into the cocoon that would swallow me whole if I
let it. She's forced me to see the world and become a better man-that's why l am with her. lt's
her opposite nature that attracts me, challenges me, and, in somehow unconsciously, I have
always loved most even when it stirs the parts of me I would most like to avoid.
Just blend in. Find someone you like to talk to.
ln Kona village, Elena made new friends at the pool. After half an hour of intense conversation
on the chaise lounge chairs across the way, l fgured it was time to fnd out where we were going
next. l got up and walked over to my wife and yet another set of new friends.
°Tom, meet David and Lisa. They were telling me exactly where in Santa Barbara we should
l laughed. Despite the fact that Elena and l had both spent our adult lives in Boston, she had
long been determined to move some place warmer. Santa Barbara has been high on her list.
The sweet-looking couple in their late 40s, smiled as they discussed the microclimates.
°Sounds like just the adventure l was looking for," l said, without a trace of sarcasm.
°Really?" asked Elena, looking me directly in the eyes.
°Really," l said with a grin. °We still gotta get to Australia, but who wouldn't love horses, beaches,
mountains, and California sunshine?"
was Chief Financial Offcer of The Providence Journal until 1997. He was the
lead investor in the Art Technology Group, which reached $5 billion in market
capitalization in 2001. He founded and ran his own venture frm from 1998
to 2010 before turning to writing. His work has appeared in Fogged Clarity,
The Philadelphia Ìnquirer, Rowing News, Penthouse, Boston Common, Boston
Magazine, Boston Globe Magazine, Wesleyan, Tango, Pop Matters, and
PenSpark, and he is a frequent contributor to The Huffngton Post.
Ìn 2008, Matlack founded THE GOOD MEN PROJECT with his venture capital
partner James Houghton. He has appeared on national and local television and
radio as well as in print across the country. Ìn the fall of 2009, Matlack led a non-
conventional book tour that started inside the Sing Sing Correctional Facility
and ended in Hollywood with a screening of THE GOOD MEN PROJECT documentary, followed by a panel
discussion including Matt Weiner and Shepard Fairey. All proceeds from the Project go to helping at-risk boys.
Matlack has an extensive social media platform including:
Read more of Tom Matlack in his ongoing “Good Is
Good” column in The Good Men Project Magazine.
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