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Tom Matlack

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A Man in a Boat

Posted: 03/08/11 03:52 PM ET


Looking at my grandfather, I'm reminded of how much of a successful life is about swimming with the current, wherever that takes you.


A black-and-white image. It had been tucked away in an album for years before I snuck it out of our family camp on an island in a lake in Maine. "Megunticook" is the name of the venture capital firm I started and ran for a decade before shutting our doors last week. It's also the name of that lake in Camden. When I first started Megunticook Management, a secretary blew up the image to an 8 x 10 and put it in a silver frame. I've brought the picture with me as we moved offices over the years. Saturday morning, a truck delivered boxes of files to my home office -- a garret in the third-floor corner of our home in Brookline, Mass. -- and the picture was the first thing I unpacked.

The man in the picture is wearing a fedora, dress slacks, and a collared windbreaker. It's my grandfather, just after the Second World War, when he bought the postage-stamp-sized property for a few thousand dollars. His legs are spread, left foot forward, and knees bent, almost in a sprinter's stance. His right arm is caught in motion as if he were trying to propel the wooden boat forward. A thicket of branches graze the water behind him and jagged rocks protrude from the surface in front of him. The bow of the boat is caught on a sand spit. Grandfather Bob's body is lit up in bright sunshine but his face is stuck in the shadow of his hat. In my mind's eye, I can just make out the look of intense concentration as he drops his head slightly to stare at that bow.

What he might do if he got the boat free of dry land, I don't know. There are no oars in the craft. But it doesn't much matter, since he isn't going anywhere. 

Perhaps the reason I have carried this picture around is to continually ask myself how much different I am than my grandfather. While I don't know the exact date of the picture, I think the man in the boat is roughly the same age I am now (46).

♦◊♦


Robert Matlack was first involved in the paint industry at George D. Wetherill and Co. in Moorestown, N.J., and then as the president of the Federation of Societies for Coatings Technology. He had three kids, lived in a large house, and didn't seem to have much use for people. He spent a lot of time in his study by himself, reading the paper, watching sports, and smoking his pipe. He also smoked cigarettes and drank Scotch. My sense, though I could be wrong, was that he was fighting his demons and that his study was where he went to soothe himself. My most vivid memories of him as a small boy were of him yelling at my grandmother when she interrupted his peace and quiet.

Grandpa lived longer than he probably should have, given all the drinking and smoking. He refused to go to the doctor, I imagine because he knew the news wouldn't be good, and he died of lung cancer at age 79 in 1990.

 In my 30s, I judged my grandfather harshly; I judged myself harshly, too. I had helped run a big media company, drank too much, and found myself shattered. I had had two kids whom I barely knew; I had made the mistake of infidelity. When I was younger, I was told that my grandfather had once become infatuated with a secretary, but stayed with my grandmother to the very end, despite what could best be described as a challenging marriage.

Since my grandfather bought that little piece of land in Camden, Maine, his three sons, nine grandchildren, and gaggle of great-grandchildren have all grown deeply attached to the area. One son moved to Portland and then retired to Owl's Head, the next town over. A grandson went to the Maine Maritime Academy to become a ship captain and built a house nearby. Another grandson moved into downtown Camden. A couple of years ago, my parents moved to within a few miles of the island.

Grandfather left the property to the nine grandchildren, of which I am one, in a trust that mandates that if we ever can't reach consensus (my family is Quaker), the property goes to the State of Maine. Every other year, we get together as an extended family, some 40 strong now, to discuss the upkeep of the island in Maine. It's not about the water glasses or the need for a new box spring, but about renewing the human connections that bond all of us together as descendants of the man in the boat. 

In the years since I first put that picture on my desk, my perspective on my grandfather has changed. At first, I thought, I would do better and be better than him. I'd get sober and dedicate myself to being a fully present father. I'd get out of my bad marriage and dedicate myself to a new one. I'd write and think about being a good man.

But now I am staring at that picture, the determined look on my grandfather's face as he tried to get that flat-bottomed boat off that sand bar and wondering: To what extent have I outrun my genetic heritage? 

I still suffer from a variety of forms of obsessive behavior. My study is my sanctuary. I joke that I don't like people. I do hope that I have a substantive relationship with my now three kids and am a good husband, but that is a day-to-day challenge. The demons are still there, as is the desire to control the uncontrollable.

♦◊♦


A friend once said that he feels like a kid in the back seat of a car with a plastic steering wheel, thinking that he is driving, when in actuality all he is turning is a toy wheel while the world zooms by. Looking at my grandfather, I'm reminded of how much of a successful life is about swimming with the current, wherever that takes you. I still have a bad habit of thrashing upstream, tiring myself out before I finally let go and float downstream.


Gratitude also is something I try to remember. I am lucky to be sober, to have three healthy kids, a loving wife, and good health. Like my grandfather, too often I take all that for granted, as if those are just the things I am owed by the universe, and snarl at those I care about most when they come to my study door to ask me for help with even the most mundane household task.

 None of this is meant to diminish the importance of the question, discussed daily at the Good Men Project Magazine among men and women I respect, and which I ask myself in the dark of night: What does it mean to be a good man? I am admitting here, for my grandfather's sake, that the answer is not as straightforward as I'd once imagined.

It requires admitting what I don't know, can't change, and likely never will.

We're all men standing in a boat, trying in vain to slip it off a sand bar. None of us can know today the impact of the simplest of actions 50 years in the future, when our grandchildren stare at a picture and wonder how it was for us to try to be good.

Read this and more from Tom Matlack at the Good Men Project Magazine.

Like this? You might also enjoy Memories of Dad on Christmas.

 

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