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An Open Letter to Tiger Woods (and American Men): Crash & Learn

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Tiger is only the last, most painful, symptom of an underlying disease in the American male psyche. I should know. I lived it. Public success and private failure. Complete, utter, disaster. The question isn't about failing. Our heroes, at least the public ones, are doing it over and over. The real question is how Tiger, and the rest of us, can pick ourselves up? How can we beat the disease of fraud by starting over with brutal honesty to figure out what is really important?. I have no idea how Tiger, or anyone else, should do that. But this is how I did. Perhaps in my pain, and joy, you can find something that helps (Tiger and the other 150 million American men out there).

CRASH and LEARN
By Tom Matlack

I woke to the sound of metal scraping against pavement. Sparks brightened that otherwise gray winter day in 1991. I was hanging upside down inside my girlfriend's baby blue Ford Escort, suspended by a seat belt as the car hurtled 60 miles per hour down the westernmost section of the Massachusetts Turnpike.

I was 26 at time. I had been in New York City the night before, taking a break from my grad studies at Yale and drinking until dawn. My girlfriend took a train home from the city to Albany, but I had gone to class in New Haven, still drunk, and then set out for Albany myself. On the 30-mile stretch of the Mass Pike between Exit 3 in Westfield and Exit 2 in Lee you see nothing but pine trees and the occasional white-tailed deer. Somewhere along that span I drifted into a peaceful sleep.

I remained calm as the car slid along on its roof. There was nothing to do but wait and see. The sensation was familiar. I had long been a human missile with no guidance system. One summer evening, just for fun, I'd lifted a love seat over my head and tossed it out an eighth-floor window of a UCLA dormitory; One New Year's Eve, just before midnight, I was thrown through the plate-glass window of a midtown Manhattan restaurant, to the horror of the foursome whose dinner I landed on; I'd been accepted to the Tuck Business School at Dartmouth and then was thrown out before attending my first class for lying on my application; and I had developed a habit of blacking out from drinking.

I felt a searing pain as the roof of the car, slamming against the turnpike an inch from my head, crimped around a clump of my hair and yanked it from my scalp. The seat belt dug into my chest, drawing blood that stained my shirt. At last, the car stopped, leaving a wake of scrapes in the pavement. I unbuckled, fell on my head, and screamed, "Fuck!" After forcing the door open with my shoulder, I sprinted away from the car, afraid the gas tank was going to blow.

We have a remarkable ability to respond instinctively to life-threatening danger. The problem comes after that initial, instinctive response: The body shuts down. A state policeman found me shaking violently on the side of the highway. I still can't remember what happened after I got out of the car. I could have been standing on the side of the highway for 30 seconds or for 30 minutes.

"Son, you're one lucky son-of-a-bitch!" the trooper screamed while shaking his head in disgust. "I've seen plenty of Escorts flip, but I've never seen anyone survive. I don't like having to pull dead bodies out of wrecks, so how about being more careful?"
His words didn't register. I had beaten death again, and over the next few years my risk-taking only intensified.

***

In my budding business career, as the stakes grew bigger, I brought the same sense of invincibility and calm that I had felt hurtling along upside down in the Escort. At 29, I became chief financial officer of The Providence Journal Company, a huge and fiercely private media conglomerate. The company's other executives, most of them twice my age, thought I should be getting them cups of coffee and I used their naivete against them. I spoke only when spoken to. I sat attentively with my boss, the chairman of the board, as he drank scotch and smoked cigars, rarely saying a word except to nod my head in agreement. And yet, once I had become his most trusted advisor, I needed just 90 days to take the oldest newspaper company in the country public and then negotiate the sale of the business in an Atlanta hotel room for billions to a bunch of cowboys from Dallas. The chairman had initiated the contact but never thought I could negotiate such a good price. When I did, he had no choice but proceed, despite the fire storm it would cause amongst shareholders, employees, and the community. I stood to make several million dollars and be credited with pulling off the impossible.

My calculus at work had been flawless. After the sale, I appeared on the cover of the Wall Street Journal, a blond-haired wunderkind. What I had failed to calculate were the risks I was taking at home and how much I how much I had to lose. I had two baby children, and I was about to learn how precarious my relationship with them really was. It was as if the car crash had put me into some kind of suspended animation. I was fearless in my professional life but unable to feel anything in my personal life.

***

Christmas that year was agonizing. I had gotten kicked out of the house for good from being a drunk, among other things. My 9-month-old son, Seamus, and 2-year-old daughter, Kerry, went to Albany with their mom. I was not invited. I packed a huge red fire engine in my company car, got on I-95, and drove to my parents' house in Washington, D.C. On Christmas morning I gave my brother's oldest son the fire truck and tried to soak up his enthusiasm. It didn't work. All I could think about was my own children waking up without me, on Seamus's first Christmas. My brother and sister and parents all were understanding and overly friendly, but I couldn't stop thinking about how I would never have the chance to live with my kids.

The next day, on my way back to Providence, I stopped in Central Park to smoke cigars with some college buddies. I had been trying to stop drinking without much success. That night my friends and I ended up in a SoHo restaurant with a mirrored bar that let all the beautiful people enjoy good views of themselves. It wasn't my worst night of drinking--I didn't flip any cars or fly through any plate-glass windows--but I was rude and more than a little lecherous.

I woke up the following day with a pounding headache, the smell of cigarettes in my hair, and the taste of cigars on my tongue. I spent the morning contemplating how I could kill myself quickly and painlessly. But by the time I was driving back to Providence, I had convinced myself that neither Seamus nor Kerry deserved the shitty father I had been. They certainly didn't deserve a dead father who didn't have the guts to face his demons.

That was the last time I had a drink, but sobering up was just the start. I had to learn how to take care of my two babies by myself. Their mother had moved back to Boston, and I knew I had to follow. But I had trouble finding a place that felt right to me, because moving out of my week-to-week hovel in Providence would mean it was all true, that I really wasn't going to live with my kids.

I eventually found a penthouse on the corner of Commonwealth and Massachusetts avenues, a killer bachelor pad to be sure, but not the dream I had in mind, so it took quite a while for me to settle in. The bathroom had a sky-light over the tub, and often, when I couldn't sleep, I would take a bath and gaze up at the stars. The apartment faced east, back over the city. From the seventh floor bay window the views of brown-stones and parks made Boston look positively European. Each morning I meditated in the bay window until the sun hit the State House's gold dome in the distance and eventually made its way to warm my face. This perch became my monastery.

My ex-wife and I agreed that the kids would come to my apartment every Friday night. I put bunk beds and a matching wooden toy chest in what would become their room. Each week I'd pick up Seamus and Kerry, and all their gear, and drive around my city neighborhood looking for a parking spot. The kids were usually grumpy and hungry by the time I finally parked the car and loaded them into their double stroller. I'd put their bags on top and start pushing. I was driven by adrenaline, trying to make this all okay for them. By the time I had reached my building, unloaded the kids and got them through the door and into the lobby, I would feel as though I had climbed Mount Everest. I'd tell Kerry to hold Seamus's hand, and then I would go back outside, collapse the stroller, and lug it up the stairs and into the lobby before corralling the kids into the elevator. From the elevator, the kids would run ahead down the hall. I'd catch them just in time to open the door to my apartment and lead them up a final flight of stairs inside. Then it was time for me to make dinner.

The first night I had the kids on my own I gave the them baths, slipped them into matching footy pajamas, tucked Kerry into her bunk, and then warmed a bottle for Seamus. In my bedroom, I turned off the lights and rocked him gently while he drank. I inhaled deeply. It was the scent of my son that changed everything--his scent and the sound of him suckling his bottle, the softness of his skin and the sensation of holding him as his body gradually went limp with sleep. I looked down and realized that this had been my deepest desire, to be a father. Chasing Kerry around the house at five the next morning, catching her, and tickling her as she screamed with joy confirmed it. These tiny beings were indeed my flesh and blood. Nothing would ever change that.

***

In the days that followed my kids' first overnight visit, I realized just how much work I had to do as a Dad. I feared I would never be a decent parent no matter how hard I tried. When they were at my apartment, my childhood fear of heights returned. I often had nightmares of the kids falling out the bay window. Kerry didn't help matters. Even at 3, she loved to taunt me by standing on the ledge inside that window with her nose pressed against the glass, looking out at the city and giggling at my discomfort. To set my mind at ease, I nailed two-by-fours across the bottom of the window.

I didn't want to see my kids just on weekends. During the week I took them to a play group in one of the buildings on Newbury Street. I sat in a circle with the moms and their kids, singing, wrestling, and goofing around. As I rolled around on the floor, the moms didn't know what to make of me. But they gradually accepted me, and I got to be with my kids. On Saturdays I took them to the top of the Prudential Building, only a few blocks from my apartment. The carpeted floors and large, soft furniture were ideal for some safe rough-housing, and the observation deck was a large square track, where the kids could wear themselves out by running around and around. There were rainy days when we couldn't see a damn thing, but we still went up there, just to have something to do together.

Care objects were very important to the kids, as their little minds tried to manage all the moving around. Kerry had a blanket she slept with every night. Seamus became attached to a stuffed Pal Dog from the PBS show Arthur. Pal took on identifying textures and wear marks as he was beaten, barfed on and laundered. He was one of a kind and not replaceable. I became obsessed with knowing where Pal and "Blankie" were at all times. Early on, I kept a bag full of the kids' things in my room and doled out clothes and toys like gold bullion. As the end of each visit approached, I turned the apartment upside down with drill-sergeant precision to insure all the kids' stuff was accounted for.

Then one day Pal disappeared. I scoured under beds and behind furniture. The apartment wasn't that big, so coming up dry convinced me that the crisis was indeed serious. After several nights of listening to my teary son on the phone bemoaning the loss of Pal, I slunk over to F.A.O. Swartz and purchased a replacement.

I brought the replacement Pal to my office. In a single day I tried desperately to duplicate the wear marks of the original built up over the course years. I took a baseball bat to the pristine doggie. Then I threw The Handbook of Fixed Income Securities ,a six-inch-thick textbook on the intricacies of bond pricing, at him. My partners in our venture firm couldn't figure out what was going on. My door was shut and I didn't respond to any calls or emails all day. On the walk home, I took the now-limp dog and rolled him in sidewalk sand. When I got to my condo, I threw him in the washing machine for an extra-heavy spin cycle.

That night I stood apprehensively at my ex-wife's front door with the new, but suitably worn Pal. But before I could present him, I learned that the original Pal had been recovered: Kerry confessed to smuggling him home and hiding him inside the folds of her mother's curtains. When I returned to my apartment, I stored the spare dog in the back of my closet, just in case.

***

Six years to the day after my last drink, I remarried. Elena and I had a son named Cole.

The day they delivered the logs for Cole's bunk beds, I was in my car on my way to a business meeting. "The delivery truck arrived with a bunch of massive logs," my wife called on my cell phone to tell me. "The driver says his job is done. It's up to us to get them inside." I turned the car around and headed home.

Cole had outgrown his baby nursery, and to replace it, Elena had designed a cowboy-themed bedroom, one with a tepee and log cabin bunk beds. When I got home, the situation was worse than I expected. The 6-inch-thick logs were wrapped in plastic and bolted down to several crates in the back of the semi. The driver wasn't budging, and the truck was parked on my neighbor's lawn. A carpenter working at a neighbor's house came out to see what was happening and took pity on us, offering to let us use his tools to dislodge the lumber. An hour and a half later we had the beams piled inside.

When Cole's eyes are heavy after a long day of pretending to be a knight, I get his jammie-joes on, brush his teeth, and he gives Mommy a good-night kiss and hug before I carry him down the hall in my arms. We snuggle into the lower bunk and read three books--about lost penguins, monkeys toying with alligators, and dogs wearing strange hats and driving cars.
Often Cole starts snoring before I have finished the first story. But sometimes he goes the distance. Either way I turn the light out while still pinned between Cole and the wall. Even if he is already asleep, he stirs when he hears the switch and asks, "Daddy, will you stay with me for a little while?"

Holding my son as he slumbers on the bottom bunk of his cowboy beds, surrounded by big chunks of raw pine, is a cocoon I have to force myself to leave. I allow myself 20 minutes of forgetting what I was so anxious or mad or sad about before climbing in to read bedtime stories.

I listen to Cole snore and stare up in the dark at the bottom of top bunk, my mind empty of any thoughts. Every night some instinct eventually tells me its time to get up and walk back into my life. But I return nourished just enough to make it through another 24 hours, until it's time to get our jammie-joes on again and climb back into the cowboy bunk beds.

I've been married now six years and sober 12. Cole just turned 4, Kerry is a freshman in high school, and Seamus just started junior high. I've come to realize that no father is perfect and that, if I listen hard enough, each of my three children has something to teach me.

***

This essay is from THE GOOD MEN PROJECT, available HERE
We also have a documentary film available HERE
All proceeds go to our Foundation to help at-risk boys