Tom Matlack thinks about manliness as a diverse range of stories and perspectives.
What is the best part about masculinity?
The pure diversity of our manliness, in my view.
Maybe it was growing up in the chaos of a hippie college town in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but I have always sought out men that might teach me something about manhood from a different perspective.
I’m straight as an arrow, and yet a best friend in college and best friend in graduate school both came out to me before anyone else. I have frankly always loved certain gay men because of the humor and perspective they bring to my otherwise uptight manliness.
From a young age I’ve been fascinated by the experience of being a male of color. My very first best friend, Mark Green, in the third grade, was an amazing African-American hockey player. That interest has continued to this day here as part of GMP and in my personal life. I have always felt I had something to learn from men like Stephen Locke and Jackie Summers.
So amidst this fascination with male diversity, the charge leveled at me that I am somehow a gender essentialist, believing in some particular set of male characteristics that I have identified and give me the right to speak for all men, is particularly hurtful.
I think there’s a fundamental disconnect in my meaning and perhaps in the way my critics interpret my words.
One of the places that my appreciation for maleness in all its shapes and colors, as well as for personal narrative, took shape was in the context of trying to get sober and save my life.
I have attended countless AA meetings, many for men only, as the goal was sobriety not dating. In those rooms I thirsted for true stories of men getting better. The reflex is to always say, “That guy doesn’t look like me. Why do I care what he says? He has no fucking idea what my life is like and how hard it is.”
Over time I learned to identify and not compare with the speaker, no matter how profound the superficial differences. What I found was that the outside has no bearing on a particular man’s inside story and how much it might help me stay sober another day.
For a time, I found it important to go to meetings where the sobriety was direct from the heart and the participants were specifically not Ivy League-educated finance dickheads like I was. Intellectuals have a harder time telling the truth when it comes to sobriety. My buddies in Southie who work construction, not so much. They spend less time trying to think through something that can only be accessed via the soul.
A decade into sobriety, after I had gotten sick of being a venture capitalist and decided, foolishly, to try to become a writer, my focus became writing profiles of people, mostly men I just thought would be cool to hang out with and expand my understanding of manhood.
I have always loved the profiles in the New Yorker above perhaps any other writing form. The complete immersion in another person’s life is fascinating to me in a way like no other, so I became obsessed with pitching profile ideas to major magazines.
I got to do quite a few about men of remarkably different vocations and backgrounds: the Harvard-educated and African-American lead guitarist in Rage Against the Machine, the grandson of an immigrant garment district worker who, in part to honor him, created Mad Men, the Polish-born U.S. Olympic rowing coach, the Mexican curator of Shep Fairey’s art, the 30-year-old genius who became the leading stem cell researcher in the world, the Boston Celtics’ Russian masseur, a disgraced hedge fund manager, and many others.
In each case, the work was not work. I got to try to really understand what it meant to be man from a completely different point of view. In every case, I selected my subject because I felt he had something to teach me, was sure he would expand my understanding beyond my venture capital work life, and often just because he was damn cool. (Going backstage to hang with the band at a concert or in the locker room to interview NBA players is hardly “work” in my book.)
What I always sought in my profile work was to put the reader in the shoes of the subject—in other words, to first try to figure out a way to understand, myself, what it must be like to have the potential to cure any number of major illnesses with my research or to create a massively popular TV show. Once I could see my way to that, I tried to build a narrative framework to allow the reader to crawl inside that man’s skin as well, often by explaining his background, his motivations, or just the minute details of his day-to-day life.
So again, what is good about masculinity? I say, the amazing variety of ways we express our manhood—but also our ability to relate, to find commonality under the surface, to identify with one another. Often, the most profound lessons come from those most unlike us, since they alone force us to shed the armor of our everyday existence and to look deeply into our own souls.