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Two Sides of 50

January 19, 2014 — 2 Comments
Michelle+Obama+birithday+AARP

Source: whitehouse.gov

An ongoing item in the news this month has been Michelle Obama’s birthday — noteworthy because she turns 50. She celebrated with an extra week of me-time in Hawaii after Christmas when Barack and the kids left. And she had a posh cocktail-and-dessert party in the White House. Happy, sad, or scary — it’s a milestone; might as well celebrate in style if you can.

I saw an article about celebrities turning 50 this year. It’s weird to think of people who in your mind are frozen in a certain younger time hitting the half-century mark. If they’re that old, how old am I? Rob Lowe is turning 50. I hated his smarmy character and Peter Pan pretty-boy face in St. Elmo’s Fire — and I still hate him. Sandra Bullock is gonna be 50. Wasn’t she just a young ingenue driving an out-of-control bus a couple months ago with Keanu Reeves (also 50 this year)? Add to the list Courteney Cox, Matt Dillon, Melissa Gilbert (isn’t she still in pigtails running across the prairie?!). Even Brad Pitt is hitting the Big 5-0 this year. Lately I’ve noticed his face looks as lined and tired as mine — and I’m four years older. Sweet!!

And in all this birthday talk of celebrities — and us regular people, too — is the idea that 50 is the new 30. It’s just the beginning of a wonderful new chapter in our amazing, privileged American lives, and we have decades ahead of us to fulfill dreams and create new ones. Hell, some guy in California just went skydiving for the first time on his 100 birthday! Maybe 50 is the new 15!

Mtuseni's FamilySomeone else turned 50 this month — Mtuseni’s mom, Nester. She’s a pretty, petite, gracious woman. I can’t wait to spend more time with her on my next visit to Johannesburg. She has probably asked god to bless me 10,000 times for all I’ve done for Mtuseni; she could not offer him the same on her meager salary. She has a hard life, raising three kids alone in a brick shack with no electricity or plumbing. Her oldest son Moses was killed by a car a few years ago. She’s had a few health scares lately — I think from stress and exhaustion — but there’s little money for doctors and certainly none for regular checkups. And of course the first 30 years of her life were spent under apartheid.

If 50 is the new 30 in the US, the calculus is a little different in South Africa. The average life span for a black woman in South Africa is 49. Does this mean Nester is living on borrowed time now, at age 50? When I pass the US male life expectancy of 77, I’m sure it’ll feel like the rest are lucky bonus years. How many bonus years does Nester have left? The number of people in Mtuseni’s community and circles who have died in the four years I’ve known him is shocking — and I haven’t heard about everyone, I’m sure.

So in addition to worrying about Mtuseni getting an internship, getting a job, and staying healthy — there’s always a small knot in the back of my mind worrying about Nester’s health. Because that precious family depends on her — and 50 has a different meaning in their corner of the world.


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Top 5 Mentor Moments for 2013

December 31, 2013 — 1 Comment

It’s hard to believe that 2013 is coming to a close. This past year with Mtuseni has been marked by the usual ups and downs — and some sticky transitions. Despite the challenges of mentoring across many divides, life with my boy young man always offers more sweet than sour. And this year was marked by some pretty sweet experiences…

1. Becoming Big Man on Campus

Boston Media House 2013 Open Day Campus Team

Boston Media House 2013 Open Day Campus Team

Entering college from a small farm school was traumatic for Mtuseni; my shy little fish floundered in that big pond his first semester, what he called the “darkest days of life.” But with encouragement he came out of his shell, made friends, and was named to the Student Committee his second year. And he didn’t stop climbing the ladder. Over  summer break in January he worked as a campus representative — and was elected Vice President of the Student Committee for his final year. I still get choked up when I think how far he’s come.

Check out these posts for more…

Summer Fun, Winter Doldrums

Teen Roulette

2. Father’s Day Wishes

2013 fathers day email -cropI wear many hats with Mtuseni: mentor, coach, brother, friend, enforcer, teacher…and father. I never expected to have kids, so experiencing that crazy parental stew of pride, worry, responsibility, fear, frustration, and deep love with this knucklehead has been the biggest and best surprise of my life. It’s a delicate balance: a mentor is not a father, and the calculus between us shifts constantly. But for a sensitive kid whose father walked out when he was 12, Mtuseni craves that connection and anchor. And when he acknowledges me in that way, well it feels pretty damn good.

3. Mtuseni Comes to America

Public+Garden+BostonAfter three years and four attempts, this year Mtuseni finally got a (ten year!) US visitor visa. To see that jet-lagged kid walk into the arrival hall at Kennedy Airport was thrilling. Foreign travel is eye-opening and life-changing for anyone — and is even more so coming from a developing country to America. It was wonderful to have Mtuseni here, have him meet people in my life, show him places from my childhood, and to spoil the heck out of him. There were a few unanticipated bumps in the road, and it was a learning experience for both of us. But we’re both ready for him to come back.

Check out these posts for more…

Oh Happy Day

Places and Activities I Enjoyed in Boston

Last Words On the Trip … Maybe

4. Coursework Complete — Check.

Boston+Media+House+radioThree years ago at this time Mtuseni was waiting for the results of his national matric exams — which would determine his eligibility for college. He had already done well on the school entry exam, and just needed that final credential. A month later he began that first semester — and tanked his first exam with a grade of 20. I thought we might be looking at a fast flameout. But he bounced back, loving school even when griping about the workload and stress, and in November he finished his last semester of classes. Now all he needs is a 100-hour internship and the mortarboard and robe are his! (And tuition bills for me are over — woohoo!)

Check out these posts for more…

Rounding the Turn

One Chapter Closes

5. Letting Go…

This one is recent…and still a work in progress. Much as my heart clings to the quiet high school boy I first met, Mtuseni turned 21 this year — a milestone of adulthood in South Africa. He bucks and chafes and argues against me these days in a natural push for independence. Although he’s not fully prepared for the big world (are any of us ever really prepared?) I’ve begun to loosen the reins. To give him more responsibility for his life and accountability for his actions. To say ‘no’ and set limits. To let him sink or swim.

It’s hard; he still has so much to learn, and I’ve enjoyed this surprise experience of parenting in my grouchy middle age. Selfishly I want more nest-and-apron-string time, but that won’t do Mtuseni any favors. He needs to learn to fly on his own. And I need to trust that he — we — will be okay. I’ve just made that shift in mindset the past few weeks, and it’s been tough but good. And it’s funny how kids fight you to get free, then when you begin pushing them out of the nest they hold on for dear life. Is this last 2013 “moment” a sweet one? More bittersweet. But a positive and necessary milestone on the journey.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

And 2014 promises more successes, transitions, and celebrations. With all fingers and toes crossed, Mtuseni will get a radio internship early this year and graduate in April. He should also get his first real job. There will hopefully be a South Africa trip for me to see him and his family, and another US visit for Mtuseni. On the story front, the Long-Distance Dad blog will be revamped, a prototype interactive e-book will be released, and formal pitching to agents of book and media projects will get underway.

Thanks from Mtuseni and me for all your support, perspective, and encouragement over these past years. And keep following — and sharing — our story in 2014 and beyond!

Happy New Year!!

Times+Square+New York


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Distance

December 4, 2013 — 3 Comments

Things have been a bit rocky with Mtuseni since he finished classes a couple weeks ago. While he’s always done well when tasks are mapped out for him, as in a school situation, the process of getting an internship — which is all on him — has been marked by epic stumbles and inaction. He’s having difficulty with the transition from 15 years of school and familiar routine to the “lion’s den” of the real world, where he needs to begin charting his own course and sailing the ship. I can only do so much from this side of the world, and even if I could do more it is critical that he become focused, proactive, and self-reliant.

So we butted heads last week and — as happens with us now and then — went off to neutral corners to take a breather from each other. This transition process, this letting go, is also difficult for me. Mtuseni said last week that it feels like I’m pushing him off a cliff. No… I’m pushing him out of the nest, and I expect him to begin flapping his wings and taking flight. And of course I’ll be on the ground to catch him if he falls. But damn it, stop whining and start flapping!

Days ticked by with no communication between us. While my head appreciated having a little more space to focus on my own life, radio silence from him is always a bit unsettling. There are just so many risks he faces on a regular basis — from health issues and violence to unsafe minibus taxis and house fires — that having a daily check-in helps alleviate my worries.

mtuseni nov 2013So early yesterday morning Mtuseni sent me a text asking for my Skype number, because he was online. We had talked before about Skyping via his little USB laptop modem, but with a pay-as-you-go data plan and no money, he really didn’t have the bandwidth. Maybe enough for a voice call, but certainly not a video call. So after some back and forth getting set up, I heard the familiar Skype ring tone and answered his call. He said, “I can’t see you.” I was surprised he was doing a video call, so I clicked the camera button and suddenly there he was.

As always, there’s that brief sense of “wow” when you do a video call with people far away. It’s still not Jetsons quality, but actually our connection was pretty crisp. Mtuseni said he was in a community center a short walk from home, using their new wifi. This is a promising development, not only for him but for people — especially kids — in the settlement to have Internet access. The digital divide there is a serious impediment. I want to know more about who is sponsoring the center’s technology.

Unfortunately the center was closing for the day and Mtuseni had to sign-off. That’s one drawback of South Africa now being seven hours ahead of US time. Our call lasted only three minutes, so there was no real substance. Just that sense of closeness and connection you get from face-to-face contact, much more than can be achieved through text, emails or phone calls.

I realized after we hung up that it was the first time I had seen Mtuseni “live” since we said goodbye at the airport in New York, when he went back home after his trip here in July. Those three minutes on Skype reminded me how much I miss that kid. And that no matter how many bumps we hit on this journey together, the “distance” factor of being a long-distance dad is sometimes the hardest part.


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The Wall Street Journal recently posted a video feature on the Johannesburg suburb of Sandton, calling it Africa’s Manhattan. This is where Mtuseni went to school for the past three years, at Boston Media House.

WSJ Sandton video grab

Click to access the video report.

 

When I went to visit Mtuseni last year, I stayed in Sandton, partly because his school was there. I wanted to see where he spent his days. Also, I had been warned about high crime in downtown Johannesburg and was told that Sandton is clean and safe. And, finally, there were no hotels, restaurants, stores, or much of anything near Mtuseni’s settlement — aside from a regional airport. After paying to fly halfway around the world, with my primary goal getting to spend time with and bond with my newfound long-distance son, I wanted some measure of comfort and safety — as well as fun diversions for the two of us. So Sandton seemed a logical choice.

I hated Sandton. Living in Boston, the ultimate college town, I had pictured the home of Mtuseni’s college to be similar, with lively street life and art galleries and sidewalk cafes and coffeehouses. Instead, it felt like San Jose or any other office park-city in Silicon Valley: shiny and antiseptic. And it was far from Mtuseni’s settlement. With a private driver it took us a good half hour to get there; Mtuseni’s school commute often took about 90 minutes on the minibus taxis, with a changeover in Randburg.

But the difference in miles paled in comparison to the difference in experience and lifestyle. The streets of Sandton were lined with dealerships for ultra-premium car brands, some I never even heard of. The Sandton City Centre-Mandela Square-Galleria mega-mall was an enormous, dizzying labyrinth crammed with high-end designer stores. The wealth was eye-popping. Boston is a wealthy city, but Sandton felt like Beverly Hills wealth.

Annex roomBy comparison, Mtuseni’s settlement of Drummond is a collection of about 50 cinderblock and tin-roof shacks along a dirt road in the middle of a sweeping field near the highway and Lanseria airport. No electricity, no plumbing. No opportunities. Although it was wonderful to meet Mtuseni’s family and finally see where he was during our lengthy text chats and phone calls — inside it made me very sad. It’s one thing to see poverty like that on TV, it’s another to experience it firsthand — and then to know it’s the daily life of somebody you love and care for.

Mtuseni had been staying with me during my visit, but I returned to the hotel alone after visiting his family because he had a major church function the next day. Back in Sandton, my heart and mind couldn’t process the contrast of wealth and poverty I had experienced. It was jarring and I felt a hollow mixture of guilt and despair and grief. I always wondered how Mtuseni handled that dual life the past few years. It was like going from Dorothy’s black-and-white Kansas world to the Yellow Brick Road and Technicolor Oz — and back again. Day after day. I can see why Mtuseni always got grouchy and depressed on school breaks — and with classes over for good, I’m worried about his mood, which can go very dark very quickly. It’s completely understandable.

And yet, this contrast of rich and poor is not necessarily separated by great distances. Sandton’s luxe malls are only a couple miles away from Alexandra — a dense township of nearly 200,000 people in tightly packed shacks on narrow alleys. It’s been there a long time; I was surprised to read about it in Cry, the Beloved Country, which was published in 1948. My driver took me past Alex on the way to my hotel from the airport when I first arrived. It felt like it went on forever. Some of Mtuseni’s friends from school lived there — and they had electricity and even Internet access. I used to tell him to “borrow” some electricity and Internet from them for school work, but Mtuseni said his mother didn’t like him going there because of the crime. On times he did go there, he was made to feel like an intruder; being from a rural settlement, Mtuseni is viewed as lower class by some township folks. And from the streets of Alex you can see the gleaming towers of Africa’s Manhattan. They are not far-off … yet they are worlds away.

Being the Wall Street Journal, the report gushes about Sandton’s wealth and growth. Only toward the end is the topic of poverty in such close proximity raised, in an indirect reference to Alexandra. The white South African woman in the video matter-of-factly says “Oh, we’ve grown used to living amongst such conditions of poverty.” It didn’t seem to faze her. She doesn’t talk about fixing it. Maybe you have to turn your mind off to it, living there every day. I can’t seem to do that back here.


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