Castles and Foundations

April 6, 2014 — 1 Comment

After the chances for Mtuseni doing a radio internship in time to graduate in July were looking mighty grim, he got a surprise callback from a station manager after an interview that didn’t sound promising. Last week he started interning at Kasie FM, a community radio station south of Johannesburg. It’s a long haul from his home — requiring three minibus taxis and two hours each way. He spends more time commuting than he does at the station. Working the afternoon drive-time shift, he barely makes it back to catch the last taxi home, which means I’ll be worried every Monday through Friday for the next six weeks. It’s autumn in South Africa, it’s already dark by six o’clock, and the area is not very safe.

But Mtuseni is in a radio station! He’s still doing typical intern errand tasks but is asking lots of questions and soaking up knowledge. And thankfully he’s out of the house! After three years of school in bustling Sandton, he was going bonkers in the settlement. He gets so bored and cranky on breaks from school that I think he actually changes the local weather patterns! And with coursework all completed, this was a permanent break.

Meanwhile, I’ve been busy rewriting the proposal for the Long-Distance Dad book. It’s torturous and invigorating and stressful and fun all at the same time: the usual twisted experience for a writer. I do know the book is gonna be good; this blog has only captured a small portion of our adventure.

Venice+spires+quoteMtuseni and I have long talked about our hopes and dreams for the future: Him working in a major radio station and inspiring listeners to improve the world — and me sharing our story in books and media and inspiring others to somehow connect with kids who need a little love and support. While these goals aren’t impossible to achieve, they are somewhat lofty and a bit daunting. In situations like these, I always return to this Thoreau quote that resonated with me way back in college.

Individually and together Mtuseni and I have built our castles in the air. And as he grinds through a tough commute to his internship and I churn through endless revisions of my book proposal — we’re laying the foundations for them.

If you don’t aim high, you’ll never know how far you can go. Just be prepared to do the work to get there.

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Wake-Up Call

March 28, 2014 — Leave a comment

Boston+Fire+Dept+logoI was watching news coverage of the death of two Boston firefighters in the Back Bay this week. That’s always a sad situation; it can be easy to take for granted that putting your life on the line is part of their job description every day. My roommate in the 1980s dated a Boston firefighter for a while. We were amazed at the difficult things he was expected to do. I couldn’t even walk ten feet with the amount of equipment they carry and wear on the job — today or back then! Never mind entering a burning building.

During a profile of one firefighter, they said he’s been a Big Brother to a teen for seven years. They did an interview with the boy, and I kind of lost it. I know firsthand how special and meaningful that bond can be, especially to the kid. And it made me think about the impact on Mtuseni if anything happened to me.

I worked with a client a few years back who is an estate attorney, and casually asked about the process of making Mtuseni my beneficiary. His being a foreign national means it’s complex and costly. It wasn’t high on my radar, but even then I’d been feeling a larger sense of responsibility for him and his future. Still, getting him through college was the top priority so I never followed through on estate issues. Besides, who wants to think about that stuff?

Watching this 14-year-old kid talk about the loss of his Big Brother — and the love they shared — was a wake-up call for me. I may not be out fighting fires, but we all know anything can happen at any time. And seeing how Mtuseni depends on me, I would never want him to be left wanting if I was gone. So I’ll add estate planning to my schedule … because when someone calls you “dad,” that’s just what you do.

Thoughts and prayers for the firefighters, their families and that poor teenage boy. Boston Strong.

And if you want to help a kid who needs some support, check out the Big Brothers, Big Sisters organization. It will change two lives for the better.

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I’ve been writing a proposal for the Long-Distance Dad book — for which this blog has been a working diary and draft, along with hundreds of pages of chats, images and other stuff. I have plenty of resources, but to be useful in telling a story that information must rest on a strong thematic framework. Defining that critical element is a little more tricky.

In an earlier iteration of the proposal written a couple years ago — when I was deep in the day-to-day rollercoaster with Mtuseni — the framework was focused on how his life was changing with my help. But now that Mtuseni is more self-sufficient, my involvement is less intensive and consuming. While adjusting to this empty virtual nest has been tough, I now have enough distance to get a bird’s eye view of the experience. And what I am realizing is how much this has changed me… something that I never anticipated.

Just before connecting with Mtuseni, I had been unsatisfied with my life for some time — actually for a loooong time. Feeling adrift, bored, unfulfilled, disconnected, lost. I had finally succumbed (again) to the old standby of going back to school, but the two programs I started never lit my fire. At middle age, how do you transform yourself? I was close to throwing a dart at a world map and just moving wherever it landed; I needed a monster reset button.

To this day, I cannot recall exactly how I stumbled on the nonprofit that matched me with Mtuseni. Surely it was the result of hopscotching topics through the Internet, a favorite procrastination tactic. Existentially bored and craving some wildly new experiences, connecting online with a kid in South Africa sounded interesting… but not much more. Most of my brain was focused on choosing an MBA program.

And here we are, five years later. I have a long-distance son who’s months away from finishing college — and my single semester of MBA tedium is a distant and fading memory. And as my energies from shaping Mtuseni’s life path shift to crafting a new path for myself, I start that journey as a very different person. I am not who I was five years ago; being Mtuseni’s dad has changed me. The existential reset button has been pushed. And all because of something that caught my eye and I pursued on a whim.

LadySlipper-lgeThere are so many crazy, almost scary similarities and coincidences between me and Mtuseni that I often think that fate brought us together. On some energetic level our paths were destined to cross. And that makes me think of a quote from Rumi that I have on my office wall: “What you seek is seeking you.” It reminds me that when we desire something important in our life, the universe is waiting, ready to meet us halfway. Sometimes you don’t even need to try so hard to get what you want. You just have watch for when the universe cracks open a door — and be willing to walk through before it closes.

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Fingers Crossed

March 18, 2014 — 5 Comments

So Mtuseni has his first interview for an internship tomorrow. It’s at Kasie FM — a community radio station south of Johannesburg. They do a lot of informational programming, so he’s excited about possibly doing research for topics and assisting a producer. Mtuseni loves music, but he also wants to make a difference in people’s lives through radio.

According to Google Maps, the station is a 53-kilometer trip from his house in Lanseria, north of Joburg. Knowing how difficult transportation is for him, I told Mtuseni to try and get a mid- to late-morning appointment, but the station manager told him 9 AM. This means Mtuseni will need to take four minibus taxis… and will leave his house at 5 AM. He’s never done this route before, so he needs to figure out which taxis to take where: there are no published schedules or routes. I’m hoping he gets there on time; Johannesburg rush-hour traffic is pretty bad.

Then there’s the challenge of making it there if he does get an internship. He only needs 100 hours to graduate, so if he could do a 10-to-2 or 10-to-3 shift five days a week, he’d be done in four or five weeks… and could avoid traffic. They’d still be hellish weeks (and he’ll be tired and crabby — at least with me) but it’s doable. He says he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get an internship. And given that the YFM Academy he applied to last week announced their selections two days later, that’s another intern opportunity missed.

Boston+Media+House+radio+studioSo today he went back to school to polish up his demo in the studio for the interview. I think back to the end of 2012, when Mtuseni told me he was changing his major to journalism because he was intimidated by the radio software and thought he’d never learn it. I told him to reconsider — radio has been his dream since we first met — and to never make a life decision based on fear and avoidance, to always move toward something and not away from something. Luckily, he stuck with radio and is so damn happy (and confident!). Today he was “just chilling in the studio” working on the demo. Wow… how far we’ve come.

But this is only the beginning of a new phase. Hopefully he’ll get the gig tomorrow — but the South African economy is tight and super competitive. Send good vibes to Mtuseni today…. he’ll be interviewing at 3 AM east coast time tomorrow. He’s flashing a victory sign here, but I’ve got my fingers crossed…