Tom Matlack on traveling, why opposites attract, and outrunning your DNA.
My eyes were trained on Cole, 5, as he jumped from one jagged, black volcanic rock to another with his new best friend, Matthew, just a few feet from the crashing Pacific waves.
“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 Pacific Ocean.
After they arrived, Elena kept asking them detailed questions, clearly convinced that we would soon be heading to Australia too, if she could figure out how to home school the kids along the way.
“Imagine a population smaller than New York City, spread out over a country as big as ours,” Ken explained.
“What are the beaches like?” Elena asked.
“Pristine,” Gisela responded, with a British-sounding accent, “if you saw 10 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 Hawaii.
As much as I really liked Ken and Gisela, this whole exchange set off a familiar terror that was difficult 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 film As Good As It 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 brought plastic silverware to the one restaurant he patronized. Mom said the film helped her to understand some of the men in our family like nothing else had.
The reminder was a very unwelcome thought as I attempted to fit 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 define myself on my own terms. Yet now, at 45, the terror had me thinking that maybe I hadn’t outrun my DNA after all. I stared into my diet coke and remembered my first 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 I finally 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.
I wouldn’t call myself a recluse now. I like people fine—just in small doses. I 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 iPhone. 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 fills 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, finding a friendly bed to sleep in (with some hope of “hosing” the young lass), 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 had thought, wrongly, that I could handle the trip. So I snuck out of the party to try to calm down and get some sleep.
Elena and I took our first trip together to the Amalfi Coast. She mentioned that 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 Sea.
I sleep horribly the first night, suffering through nightmares of abandonment and humiliation. When I finally awake, I 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 fly 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. It’s the first time I 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 The Providence Journal 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 simply 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, benefiting 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 I can fit in, that all I have to do is play along a little, find some friendly faces, makes all the difference.
Maybe after attending event after event, I finally found my sea legs. Where at first I 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 I once thought. I could always find 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 fully.
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 iPhone 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 film, 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 I am with her. It’s her opposite nature that attracts me, challenges me, and somehow, unconsciously, I have always loved most, even when it stirs the parts of me I would most like to avoid.
In Kona Village, Elena made new friends at the pool. After half an hour of intense conversation on the chaise lounge chairs across the way, I figured it was time to find out where we were going next. I 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 move.”
I laughed. Despite the fact that Elena and I 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 I was looking for,” I said, without a trace of sarcasm.
“Really?” asked Elena, looking me directly in the eyes.
“Really,” I said with a grin. “We still gotta get to Australia. But who wouldn’t love horses, beaches, mountains, and California sunshine?”