Tom Matlack, "I am a sucker for real-life heroes, particularly the ones that get overlooked. My profile work grew from my first published piece, THE RACE, which describes my own life altering experience in an athletic event barely worthy of the local paper. Coaches and athletes in the sport of rowing were my initial focus before expanding to mainstream sports like professional basketball. Music, film, and television have proven fertile ground for heroic journeys of a different, but related, kind. Finally, I have continued to write bits and pieces of my own story in an attempt to inspire and enlighten."

Thomas Matlack was Chief Financial Officer of The Providence Journal until 1997. He was the lead investor in Art Technology Group, which reached $5 billion in market capitalization in 2001. He founded and ran his own venture firm, started companies like American Profile (sold to Disney for $260 million) and Telephia (sold to Neilson for $560 million), before turning to writing. His work has appeared in Rowing News, Boston Common, Boston Magazine, Boston Globe Magazine and Newspaper, Wesleyan, Yale, Tango, and Pop Matters.

In 2008, Matlack founded, with his venture capital partner James Houghton. He has appeared on national and local television and radio as well as print across the country. The fall of 2009, Matlack led a non-conventional book tour for The Good Men Project that started inside Sing Sing and ended in Hollywood with a screening of THE GOOD MEN PROJECT documentary film followed by a panel discussion including Matt Weiner and Shepard Fairey.

‘Can We Tell It Like It Really Happened?’: On Race and ‘The Scottsboro Boys’
Male Bonding
Questioning My Faith
The Sweetest Sound

‘Can We Tell It Like It Really Happened?’: On Race and ‘The Scottsboro Boys’

Facing protests, Broadway production The Scottsboro Boys will close this Sunday. Tom Matlack argues that the show was misunderstood.

When I was 8, while my classmates were learning their multiplication tables, I was thrown into the back of a paddy wagon and dragged into court. My dad—a Quaker activist—and I had committed civil disobedience on a crisp fall day in Western Massachusetts.

As a little boy who just needed to go to the bathroom, I tried, futilely, to take a leak into a single, seatless toilet in front of a cell full of men. Those few hours behind bars scared me. I didn’t want to go back. While many others who had run-ins with the law at such a tender age went on to serve time, I never stepped foot in prison again as a young man.

But a quarter-century after my childhood arrest, I did go back to jail repeatedly, this time as a visitor. I went to South Bay House of Corrections in Boston, a maximum-security prison in Connecticut, and ultimately, Sing Sing. Sitting with a room full of lifers, deep in the bowels of that stone structure “up the river,” two things struck me: the inmates were nearly all black, and they looked so young. When they went around the room to introduce themselves, it brought tears to my eyes to hear that even the youngest-looking boys had been inside for more than a decade.

Nationally, unemployment among black men ages 16–24 stands at 35 percent. Sixty-five percent of black boys grow up in fatherless homes. Of the prison population of 2,424,279 inmates, 44 percent—more than a million—are black; there are 919,000 black men enrolled in college. If current trends continue, one in three black male babies born today will end up in prison.

We Americans ignore the obvious because it is far too uncomfortable to consider: Martin Luther King’s dream is still far from being realized.

Into this myth of racial progress enters The Scottsboro Boys, a Broadway production that debuted on October 31 at the Lyceum Theater. (Full disclosure: I helped finance the play, in honor of my parents who travelled to Mississippi in the Freedom Summer of 1964, and to honor the African-American inmates with whom I have spent time in ancient human cages like Sing Sing.)

The Scottsboro Boys, about the nine young men who were falsely accused and sentenced to death for raping two white women in 1931, provides a screen upon which our unresolved racism is uncomfortably projected. It sticks its finger into the still-open wound that is race in this country, forcing the audience to watch the boys dance and sing in a minstrel format as they struggle to find their true voice.

The show flips the traditional minstrel show on its head, using it to humanize, rather than caricaturize, the participants. In the opening moments of the play, Haywood Patterson, the eldest Scottsboro boy, asks, “Can we tell it like it really happened? … This time, can we tell the truth?” And by the final scene of the play, the blackface is gone. The minstrel show is over. And we see real men telling a real story of injustice and racism.

Watching The Scottsboro Boys, I was made painfully aware of my own racism. I judge people by their skin color, their religion, their sexual orientation. The fact is, we all do; it doesn’t make us bad people—it makes us human. But if we are ever going to get anywhere on the topic of race, we have to stop sugarcoating the discourse. We can’t let the election of a black president obscure the fact that we’re still locking up all the black men in this country.

“The first time we ever did a reading of the show was the day after Obama was elected, that Wednesday morning, sitting with a group of black men in a rehearsal studio, reading the script,” the show’s writer, David Thompson, told me recently. “And for a second there, it was as if there had been a seismic shift in the world. We thought: ‘Is this piece relevant anymore? Have we discovered that we’re on the other side of the conversation?’ … We realized very quickly that, no, what we’re having now is a very veiled discussion. We’re using new words to discuss racism. We’re screaming ‘You lie!’ on the floor of the Senate to a black president, because somehow that seems appropriate.

“That’s why the minstrel show combines that ability to have that strange laugh that you would have at the expense of others,” Thompson continued. “In South Park, when you’re watching something that’s just so politically incorrect, you still laugh, and then you think, ‘Well, did I really laugh at that?’ Because it demands that you question something.”

A group in New York calling itself the Freedom Party—a bastardization of the Freedom Democratic Party, for which my parents risked their lives to help blacks get the right to vote in 1964—launched a much-publicized protest against The Scottsboro Boys, picketing the theater and calling upon patrons to boycott. The protests certainly contributed to its demise—it will close on Sunday, December 12.

None of the protestors had seen the play. The group’s leader, Charles Barron, a one-time gubernatorial candidate, organized the protests to raise his own personal profile, while attacking artists who are asking tough questions about racial injustice—the same racial injustice that the Freedom Party claims to be fighting.

My question to the protestors is the one I ask you: When are you going to stop the minstrel show that is race in America, wipe away the blackface, and start telling the truth, no matter how uncomfortable that might be? It will always be easier to lie when the system reinforces myth.

While the play was being protested outside, the Theater Development Fund bought out two performances for high-school students, most of them black and who had never seen a live theater production. The kids were leaning forward in their seats, cell phones off, fully engaged in the story. “They were laughing, they were screaming, they were gasping, they were laughing louder than I’d ever heard anybody laugh,” Thompson recalled. “And they were more live than I’ve ever heard an audience, especially toward the end.”

Afterward, there was a Q&A with the actors. One kid in the balcony shouted, “If you were in a situation where you had the ability to get out of … to get parole … if you just lied, would you do it?” Somebody else asked, “What was it like to put on blackface for the first time? And what’s it feel like to take it off?” Another kid asked, “Now that you’ve been in the show, what is your opinion about the death penalty?”

The kids got the play at the deepest level, even when the adults outside did not. They were prepared to ask the tough questions we all too often shy away from. Part of our collective immigrant heritage—whether Irish, Italian, Chinese, Mexican, or Africans brought here as slaves—is to leave our children a better world than the one we endured. Are we really prepared to leave them, black and white children both, a legacy that perpetuates a fundamental fiction about race in America?

Read Tom Matlack’s full conversation with The Scottsboro Boys writer David Thompson.

The Sweetest Sound

For as long as I can remember I have had the same nightmare. My brother and I are in a prison buried deep beneath a mountain. The guards beat us. A fire breaks out. The guards flee, leaving us locked up. Dad is trying to get to us but he can't. Just as the flames reach our cell, I wake up. I would stare into the dark and try to see something real tofocus on-something to erase the images in my mind. Mom said that I'd often scream for quite some time before she could wake me up. Apparently, the unconscious drama had to play out to a certain point before I was allowed to escape death by fire.

During my waking life I've always been tormented by noise-voices in my brain that turned terror into self-hatred. The sensation in my body was bone grinding on bone. Tracing the origin of the noise is like trying to unravel the mysteries of the Big Bang. I am sure my parents' utter commitment to justice, combined with my fragile nature, planted a seed that sprouted and flourished as my size (I was already six feet tall in the sixth grade) made me a freak. It became a cancer that grabbed my soul with its dark tentacles.

Despite being a swimmer of great promise, as a teenager I'd gorge myself on Oreos and banana bread until my stomach was distended, then look into the bathroom mirror with an overwhelming urge to smash my blond-haired, blue-eyed image. I discovered some small respite by going out for my daily 10-mile run through the hills that surrounded our house. I was always alone. I liked to run the same paths to reduce the mental energy required to figure out where I was going. The physical pain of running up those hills was what I sought. At the top, I could swear at the top of my lungs and no one could hear me. The payoff was the dead, dreamless sleep I craved. The noise stopped at least until the next morning, when I'd have to figure out a new way to obliterate my senses.

From age 17 to 27 I was in a blackout. I experienced moments of freedom rowing boats in college, crushing opponents in our wake, but the main focus was all-out drinking; it required less effort than my physical trips to the other side. I flipped a car on the Massachusetts Turnpike, threw a couch out a high rise at a UCLA dormitory, got kicked out of Tuck Business School before attending my first class for lying on my application, put holes in any number of walls in frustration over relationships with random women-and still woke in the middle of the night in the prison of my own making.

One time after college, when I was living in Central Square in Cambridge, I called my dad at one in the morning. I needed to tell him something important, that my body had succumbed to my repeated abuse by waving the white flag of a mysterious chronic fatigue syndrome. I had woken in panic but knew Dad would be up. I needed to tell him how much I loved him because I was sure I was about to die.

After regaining my strength, I found heroin of a non-pharmaceutical sort. I discovered that I had an aptitude with numbers. I also began to see that in business, most people are afraid to lose-they run from risk. But since I was going to die, losing didn't matter. Losing at business was much less scary than flipping a car. I took huge personal risks with my professional career. If I won, I won. If I lost, I'd just roll the dice again and again and again until something worked. The result of this suicidal fearlessness, combined with a mathematical gift for which I take no credit, was more power and money than I could handle. By 29, I was the chief financial officer of a major media company whose assets included television stations and cable television networks as well as a daily newspaper.

My outside success only served to heighten my interior agony. One Saturday morning, just days after being on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, I found myself in a church parking lot. My wife had kicked me out of the house and told me in no uncertain terms that I shouldn't expect to ever see my two-year-old daughter Kerry or three-month-old son Seamus again.

I called my mom and then drove to Dorchester to sleep on my brother's couch that night. He came down to check on me every hour or so to make sure I didn't do anything stupid.

That's when I remembered just how much I had always wanted to be a dad. I had seen how beautiful my daughter was when she was born and how I'd drunk Budweiser in the hospital room to numb her out. My son had been a miracle of equal proportion. He'd been born on a Sunday afternoon and I'd gone back to work the next morning-only to show up at his christening green with alcohol poisoning, having spent the previous night booting my guts out.

I wasn't given the privilege of spending Christmas with my children that year. Instead, I bought my nephew a big red fire truck with a cool extension ladder to try to make up for the emptiness I felt. But it only worked for an hour or two; soon I was in New York City getting drunk. The next morning I stared with a very different kind of desperation beyond the skyline at the faint blue winter sky. As I tried to scrape the cigar smoke off my tongue and wash the cigarette smell out of my hair, it finally came to me that a good man seeks the truth about himself rather than covering up one lie with another one.

I sneaked into my first AA meeting in downtown Providence. The guy at the front of the room told a story remarkably like my own. I heard enough to convince me that addiction was at least part of my problem. I spent a year in a weekly-lease apartment overlooking Route 95 and going to meetings every day.

A year later, I got a permanent apartment in Boston and took the first shaky steps toward actually learning how to be a dad. I fed Seamus, just over a year old, a bottle in my darkened bedroom. The world stopped as I listened to the sound of my boy suckling in my arms, spent time in Mommy and Me classes and logged countless hours at the local playgrounds. Over the course of the next six year I learned how to care for my children, even though I realized they would always live with their mom.

I met Elena, who met my superficial criterion-beautiful, smart and warm-but there was one thing that mattered way more than any of that, the thing that had kept me from remarrying: I trusted her with my heart from the start. She had lost a husband and I sensed both a non-verbal understanding of my hardships and an inner calm that set me at ease. Equally important, though, Elena was the first woman I trusted with Kerry and Seamus. Soon, Cole was born and he sealed our family unit. Kerry and Seamus fell in love with their little brother and he worshipped them in return.

A decade after my crash, I had learned how to be a good dad and loving husband-yet some part of my manhood was still missing. I'd still wake up in a cold sweat. Elena complained that more than once I delivered a sharp elbow to her forehead, thrown as I fought some imaginary enemy in my sleep.

The dreams began to re-invade my waking hours, too. Elena and I built a house on a peninsula in Westport, Mass. On a beautiful summer day three years ago the three kids, plus their cousins and neighborhood friends, were playing happily in the yard, running back and forth through the field that separated our house from a white-sand beach. But I couldn't get out of bed. I pulled the blinds to block the sun: The beauty outside the window was too much.

A visit to Sing Sing last October filled in the last gap. I had spoken at several prisons before, but this time was different. I got there early and found my way to the visitors' parking lot on top of the ridge. I watched the sun rise over the Hudson River as a heavy mist covered big chunks of blue water. I looked past the guard towers and directly into the prison, and shot a short video of myself. I looked not like an author at the first stop on his book tour, which I was, but a man still haunted by his demons.

I walked down hall after cement hall and was buzzed through locked gate after locked gate until I finally entered a room in the bowels of the prison, where 13 men waited for me. As I sat down, one touched my shoulder as he offered me a cup of coffee.

"We're so glad you are here," he said.

My fear melted in that one human touch. The inmates went around the room and introduced themselves: The minimum time served in the room was 16 years; the longest, 32.

I told my story, including the part about talking to my mom in that church parking lot. My hands had been shaking uncontrollably, I told the men, as I tried to explain to her how I had gone from wunderkind to homeless in a matter of hours. When I was done, I asked each man to describe a moment that defined his manhood.

An older African-American man explained that inside, when your parent is dying, you have to choose whether to go to the deathbed or the funeral-you cannot do both-and when you do go, you are shackled and escorted by four armed guards. When his mom was dying, he wanted to see her alive to say goodbye. As he shuffled down the hall of the hospital, the nurses pleaded with the guards to remove the shackles. They would not. "The nurses wrapped a towel around my wrist," he explained, his eyes trained on me and forming tears. "I couldn't even hug her goodbye," he whispered as his body began to shake with sobs.

Tears rolled down my cheeks in recognition. I was in my nightmare now. But there was no fire. I was no longer afraid. The noise that had plagued me all my life was gone. Looking into the eyes of a man who'd been dressed in the same green jumpsuit for the last two decades and would probably never know the feeling of a worn pair of jeans again, all I could hear was music-the sound of one man's heart breaking for another's. Before leaving, I hugged the men to thank them for showing me once and for all that I didn't have to be afraid of the dark.

The digital clock read 4:47 when I woke up this morning. Four-year-old Cole was nestled in his mom's arms. My arms wrapped around her in a three-way spoon. My little boy laughed in his sleep. I wondered what storyline in his unconscious could possibly cause him to make a sound so sweet-and how I could have lived without such grace for 45 years. I wondered whether my struggles might serve as a beacon to my Cole and Seamus of how easy it is to be distracted by false gods when looking for goodness in one's own maleness.

Then Cole laughed in his sleep again. A street lamp provided just enough light for me to make out his blond hair and angelic face squeezed into a joyful contortion. And in that moment it wasn't one man's heart breaking for another's. But one man's heart simply beating for another's. My son's.

Questioning My Faith

Admit something:
Everyone you see, you say to them, "Love me."
Of course you do not do this out loud, or someone would call the cops.
Still, though, think about this, the great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one who lives with a full moon in each eye
that is always saying,
with that sweet moon language,
what every other eye in this world is dying to hear? ~ Hafiz
(Poems thanks to Julianna Parker)



"What religion are you?" my thirteen-year-old son, Seamus, asked me the other night, as we were driving home from an ice cream shop. His mother and I have been divorced since he was six months old. He’s grown up a strict Catholic, serving as an altar boy, going on a mission to Haiti, and now attending a Jesuit high school under his mom’s watchful, Irish Catholic eye.

"Buddhist," I quipped in response to his question, as Moose Tracks dripped from our cones onto our fingers.

"Really?" he asked.

"Nah, I just have read a lot about it and done my share of meditation. So it’s the best answer I have at the moment."

Seamus was satisfied enough with my answer to finish his cone. But his question stayed with me.

The next morning I got up early and looked out my bathroom window. A cold front had come through overnight, and after days of soupy fog and humidity, the air had finally turned clear and cool. A full moon, shining a vibrant white over the Atlantic Ocean, hung perfectly in the frame of the window. A couple hours later I took Penny, our four-month-old yellow lab, for a walk. She sniffed clumps of grass, chased small birds, and tried to lick a toddler who ambled by, while I thought more about Seamus’s question.

I was born a Quaker, tenth generation on my Dad’s side going all the way back to Timothy Matlack, who is said to have been the scribe who put the words to the Declaration of Independence on paper. But Timothy wasn’t much of a Quaker. He was kicked out of meeting for betting on cock fights, bear baiting (where, just for sport, you chain a bear to a stake and then unleash waves of dogs to attack it), and participating in the Revolutionary War, against the protests of his pacifist relatives.

My parents were hyper-intellectual hippies whose Quaker faith was more about protesting the Vietnam War than finding God. At least that’s how it seemed to me as a young child. While I respect what Quakers stand for, I wouldn’t call myself a Quaker.

I am more of a Timothy type of Matlack. I became CFO of a big company and then a venture capitalist as my own form of rebellion against my do-good parents. In the process I got myself into a heap of trouble participating in my own version of bear baiting as a drunk with an emphasis on bad behavior. I eventually wound up on my knees, pleading for God’s—any God’s—intervention. Throughout history, Muslims, Jews, Christians have died for their faith, but even in my most desperate moments, when I was ready to embrace religion, I still couldn’t figure out what I was.

But now I know.

I have Seamus, with whom I share a secret handshake ending in a father-son, jumping chest bump. I also have a four-year-old son, Cole, who climbs into bed with me before my eyes are even open and spews whole paragraphs about Batman without stopping for air. And I have a teenage daughter, Kerry, who, despite her shy temperament, performs in her schools plays with so much ease and pleasure that she moves the audience to tears and laughter every time. My wife, the most beautiful woman I know, tickles me when she thinks I am being arrogant and rubs my feet after particularly long days. I can ride my bike down the huge hill near our house and scream at the top of my lungs, not caring if anyone hears me. And some mornings, the moon appears in the frame of my window just for me.

This is what I am. I have no idea what you call it. But I believe in all of this. None of it is an accident. This is my religion.

Some Kiss We Want
There is some kiss we want with
our whole lives, the touch of
spirit on the body.

begs the pearl to break its shell.

And the lily, how passionately
it needs some wild darling!

At night, I open the window and ask
the moon to come and press
its face against mine.

Breathe into me.

Close the language-door and
open the love window.
The moon
won't use the door, only the window.

-- Rumi, translated by Coleman

Male Bonding

There's a gash under my left eye. My right thumb throbs like a sonofabitch. I keep seeing stars. My whole body hurts. “I'm 46; I’m too old for this shit,” I think on the flight back to Boston from Florida, where I had been sucked into an all-out basketball war by Seamus, the one person who can do that to me.

My strategy during the games was to pick my spots—look for a momentary lull in his defense and go Kamikaze through that opening before returning to my slumped-over, hands-on-knees defensive posture. The court was slick after a tropical shower, making the ball heavy and footing tricky. Halfway through the contest I felt sure I was going to have a heart attack.

As we do whenever we play, Seamus and I agreed to complex rules of engagement: best two out of three games to 15, and you have to win each by two; loser's outs; use of profanity is a one-point deduction (I lost more points than I care to admit); shots made from beyond the arc are worth three if you are down by six, otherwise they are worth two; one timeout per game for me (I spent each lying on my back with a shirt over my eyes.)

I have four inches and 50 pounds on my opponent. I’m right-handed, but I’ve developed a behind-the-back move to my left. I can't shoot lefty, but if I get good enough position going left I can get the ball to the rack. And I've been working on a pull-up jumper as well as a reverse layup to the left. Seamus is worried enough about my ability to go left that once in a while I can glance that way and burst right for an easy bucket.

But I don't have the legs to win in a three-game match. I have to win in two or its lights out for me. So I always work hard to win the first game and then settle in for a slugfest in game two. Our game-two scores usually go into the 20s. If the score is tied late, I launch balls from behind the arc. More often than not pure desperation provides the motivation for me to try delivering the dagger shot.

On this day, I won the first game, 15-13, on a couple of hard drives right. I was ahead in the second game, moving to the hoop with relative ease until one time, as I tried to make a layup, Seamus pushed me in the back. And then on another layup, he did it again.

"Don't do that again," I warned him. .

The next time I got the ball, I set up sideways with my left shoulder forward, dribbling the ball low to the ground in a posture faintly reminiscent of Magic at his peak. I glanced left found a clear path to the right, and then…another push in the back.

I waited until Seamus had the ball before retaliating. He has a better shot than I do and 10 times the energy. But he still seemed afraid. He doesn't quite know what it means to play hard, really hard, when it counts.

I let him go past, and as he approached the basket and jumped for his layup, I pushed him—hard, maybe a little too hard. As he landed on his back, I heard the ugly sound of shorts and sneakers and flesh scraping against pavement.

He bounced up with rage in his eyes. If I were anyone else he would have punched me in the nose. Instead, he looked down and muttered to himself. He called the foul and took the ball.

From there, the game was like skiing downhill; it was over quickly. I couldn’t score another basket. Game three was closer. I got a little run going, but he put me away with a bomb that I didn't have the legs to get out and contest.

His defense was smothering. He had found a different gear, and I couldn't keep up.

We didn't talk on the walk home, until finally he noted that I should expect to get older and fatter every day for the rest of my life, while he, at 13 years old, was expecting to grow taller and stronger. That night, I heard my son tell people that he not only beat his dad, but that he beat him up.

He was right. My body, wedged into the airplane seat, is aching. But I smile anyway. Getting beaten up hurts, but getting beaten by my son felt good.

©2011, Tom Matlack

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While all complain of our ignorance and error,
everyone exempts himself. - John Glanville


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