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Two Sides of 50

January 19, 2014 — 2 Comments


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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Rounding the Turn

November 1, 2013 — Leave a comment

South Africa matric resultsIt’s hard to believe that three years ago this week Mtuseni was starting his national matric exams to graduate from high school and hopefully score high enough to qualify for tertiary school. We had also just ended our weekly webcam sessions as his nonprofit program was shut down — and were entering the uncharted waters of a mentoring relationship conducted mainly through phone texts. I’d told him a few weeks earlier that I would pay for his college and was in it for the long haul, but in the back of my mind lurked an understanding that it could all be a lot shorter than my idealistic visions. If he failed his matrics, it could be over in a few weeks.

And now here we are — in the closing days of Mtuseni’s final semester.

We’ve weathered many storms along the way. Like the grade of 20 on his first college test, which shocked him and made me think “Uh-oh.” The lonesome first semester that Mtuseni called “the darkest days of life,” when my shy little man had no friends in school and wanted to quit. The meltdown failure in his Excel class, which led to the out-of-the-blue savior of Jacquie’s weekend class and her continuing support for both him and me. And the ongoing money challenges, health scares, and family tragedies which I’ve learned come with the territory of Mtuseni’s life in poverty.

When you live in an environment that has little understanding of your experience and aspirations, it can lead to self-doubt, insecurity, and second-guessing. Mtuseni’s mom doesn’t ask about school, only whether he passes each semester. People in his settlement community seem to resent his new life experiences and wider circle. And the complex dynamics of racism — which are slowly being revealed to me as layers peel back — take a toll on him. I’ve given him so many pep talks there should be a varsity sweater and set of pom-poms in my closet. Still, I was surprised when early this year Mtuseni said he wanted to switch majors to journalism for his last year. He’s a good writer (when he applies himself — ahem!) and writing can be a valuable skill in so many career paths. But his dream since our early webcam sessions was to work in radio.

When I asked why he wanted to switch, Mtuseni said he was nervous about learning the Pro Tools and Logic sound editing software, and felt more comfortable and safe doing writing. I acknowledged his writing ability, but assured him he could learn the software; it was no different from his early confusion learning PowerPoint. I told Mtuseni that the decision on a major was entirely his to make, and I’d support him either way. But that the important thing was to not make a decision based on fear and doubt. To ask himself honestly what his dream was — not his fear — and to act on that. A couple days later he decided to stay on track with radio.

He’s been a busy bee this semester — resulting in almost total “radio silence” with me the past few weeks. His class did a Hell Week assignment where they “ran” a live radio station within the school. This week Mtuseni was assessed by his instructor as he worked in the booth. Today he did a group presentation, “applying” for a new radio station license from ICASA — South Africa’s version of the FCC. The group just needs to record the application’s sample programs and they’re finished. Then I think he takes his Entrepreneurship exam in a week or so, and is all done with classes.

We still have a lot of work ahead. Mtuseni needs to do an internship before graduating in June. (Anyone with leads in the Johannesburg radio industry is free to review Mtuseni’s LinkedIn profile and make contact.)

But most of the hard work is finished. And Mtuseni, of course, did the vast majority of it. I just paid the bills, cracked the whip, and shook those pom-poms. He sent me some pics a few weeks ago taken during Hell Week. Whenever I see Mtuseni’s bright smile in any photo, my heart simultaneously swells and melts. But given our journey these past few years, this smile just feels a bit more special.




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September 16, 2013 — Leave a comment

Mtuseni turns 21 today. He claims to not get excited about birthdays, always brushing off talk of them in the past. Raising three kids in poverty, his mom doesn’t tend to do much for holidays. He had been typically chill about it the past month or so. But seeing his WhatsApp status line this morning, I was glad to see the flash of humor and ego from my sometimes over-serious and insecure kid:

bday whatsapp status

In South African culture — or at least in Mtuseni’s Zulu culture — turning 21 is a milestone and rite of passage. As he explained to me back when his brother Moses reached that age, the family holds a big party to celebrate becoming a man. Mtuseni’s party is in a couple of weeks; his mother invited me when I talked to her in July while he was here. I wish there was a magic carpet that could carry me there in an hour so I could help celebrate; I’m not jumping on a plane for 16 hours for a birthday party. But Mtuseni is getting excited; his Facebook invite claims the bash will run from 8 pm to 7 am — and asks people to “bring beer, but no weapons.” I hope mom knows about the power of Facebook party invites!

mtuseni photo-walletOn my end, I can’t believe it’s been almost four years since I had my first webcam chat with Mtuseni — shortly after he had turned 17 and was finishing his junior year in high school. We were both nervous — and I sort of botched it with a stiff PowerPoint showing him my home state (a suggestion in the mentor training). Still, it was my first interaction with the boy I knew only from a two-sentence description and photo provided by the nonprofit that matched us. I was captivated by that sweet smile on a kid half a world away wearing a school uniform… and wondered how this mentoring thing would all play out.

And although it truly seems like yesterday, I can’t believe it was three years ago that we “shared” a birthday cupcake on a web chat and I played Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” for him. His face lit up as he bounced to the music in his honor, knowing he would go home to no celebration. He was finishing high school and prepping for the month-long matric exams that would determine the next phase of his life. And I was beginning to think about offering to pay his tuition if by chance his exam scores qualified him for college. I can remember that half-hour birthday chat so clearly — neither of us could have imagined then the roller coaster ride that was to come.

Moses is gone now, and Mtuseni is the man of the family. He’s weeks away from finishing his last semester of school and ready to pound the Johannesburg pavement in search of an internship so he can graduate next June. When he was here, Mtuseni said that wearing a tie for his US visa interview (at my insistence) had inspired him to create a new look. “No more t-shirts,” he told me. “No more kid stuff.” So we passed by the tables of hip tees that I usually send to him and looked at chinos and button-down Oxfords and dressy shoes. We came home and he tried everything on, reveling in his own personal fashion show and sartorial upgrade. It was cool to see the transformation and his enthusiasm, though I will admit to some mixed emotions.

IMG_0298Despite his not-so-subtle hints the past few weeks, Mtuseni knows there’s no birthday present from me this year. The $250 to replace his third phone in June was his early gift, not to mention a trip to the US and a new duffle bag full of new clothes to take back. But I never let his birthday go unnoticed. Because sending mail to South Africa can be problematic — and I’m holding off until a Christmas package — I scanned and emailed a couple of birthday cards, telling him how proud I am of him — and how much I love him.

And as I’ve told Mtuseni many times before, no matter how old he is, deep down he’ll always be “my little yellow polo shirt boy” from the picture that started this remarkable journey for both of us. And he’s fine with that — even if he is a man now.


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Source: New York Times

I hate carnival rides. I’ve always said that my life keeps me off balance enough without having to pay for the privilege. So I haven’t been to a theme park in 25 years. Instead, I do things like mentoring a teenager living in abject poverty in a society that often seems determined to drag its feet on the path to progress. Disney and Six Flags ain’t got nothin’ on the hair-raising turns and dizzying drops in this ride.

Take the current loop… Mtuseni told me today that he got a job as a campus assistant at school. This is another high-profile gig that likely was made possible by his good work on the student committee this past year. (And it pays!)

When I went to Boston Media House in January, a group of campus assistants were helping new registrants, and one brought me in for my meeting with the school administrator. Back then I thought to myself, “Mtuseni’s gotta get one of these jobs.” A year later, mission accomplished. He said it’s for January and February, so he “still has to hustle for December,” as he put it. It’s good to see that he’s pressing to get work. Plus, the campus job is another feather in his cap, for his CV and for his LinkedIn profile. And he did this all on his own. I didn’t even know interviews were coming up!

So that’s the easy, breezy, giddy part of the carnival ride this week — but it’s only a flicker of light in what’s been a dark, unsettling tunnel…

Because Nester, Mtuseni’s mom, has been in hospital for a week. She was taken by ambulance from work last Wednesday. All Mtuseni told me is that she feels weak and is vomiting. He doesn’t seem to know much more; he hasn’t been aggressive in talking with the doctors. I think it’s partly a cultural thing, partly his own issues with authority. And fear and mistrust of doctors. Regardless, being in hospital days on end is never good — and it’s really not good in South Africa, where the system doesn’t roll out the red carpet for the poor. It makes me nervous that something’s really wrong. Nester’s had a rough year healthwise since June, and she’s at the age of average mortality for a woman in South Africa — and living near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

I try not to think about worst case scenarios, but it’s in the back of my mind this week. When I told Mtuseni he needs to be more proactive getting information from the doctors so he can plan, he snapped, “Plan what? Ain’t nobody dyin never, not my mom.” I had never mentioned the idea of death — only meant planning child care and finances for the week — but Mtuseni’s response clearly shows that it’s somewhere in his mind too.

A sweet campus ambassador gig.
Mom in hospital for a week, with no answers.
Up. Down. Around and around.

But I’m super proud of Mtuseni today, and how far my boy has come in three years. I’ll keep my mind focused on that for now… and pray for more light and love on this epic ride.

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