March 27, 2015 — 3 Comments

bedThe past six weeks have been rather grueling for me – and not just due to Boston’s epic winter. A nagging abdominal pain turned out to be a “complicated and serious” situation that put me on IV meds in the hospital. Having faced nothing more than workout injuries up to now, I was stunned. A week later at a follow-up with the surgeon, he scheduled a test for late March to check things out and “make sure it’s not cancer.” That floored me.

Nobody ever wants to hear the C word. I put on a brave, stoic face — but inside all sorts of hidden trapdoor mindfucks were opening. I was both shocked and fascinated by how one’s body can just up and betray you. I railed against fate’s cruel hand when I’d come into this year so full of uncharacteristic confidence and optimism. I cursed myself for drunken, drug-addled, 20-something boasts that I’d probably die in my 50s – an age which at the time seemed so far away as to feel like an abstract concept that would take a century to reach. In this brutal winter there was nothing to do but sit inside with a thick stew of thoughts and emotions: fear, denial, bitterness.

But more than anything I felt deep worry over how Mtuseni would fare if I died – and a profound sadness that I wouldn’t see all the wonderful things that will happen for him, to see him finally rise out of poverty and live a happy and fulfilling life.

My concerns for him took precedence over any other responses to this health challenge, and I was completely taken aback by that. I’ve always been pretty independent in life, and figured that when I died it would suck – but then I’d be dead and oblivious. But now I’m responsible for someone else. Mtuseni depends on me – whether it’s for some extra cash or for real, trusted understanding of the doubts and dreams that he only shares with me. Faced with my own mortality, I thought not of myself but of my long-distance son. That adds a whole new layer to the meaning of parenthood for me.

This week was my follow-up test and thankfully there’s no cancer, though I’m still facing surgery. Coming out of this dark tunnel, I’m finally able to breathe again. I feel lucky – not only to not be facing cancer but to have gained such existential clarity without having to fight a life-threatening illness. There are things I’ve needed to change in my life for a very long time – and they were all shelved when a South African kid came into the picture. Now it’s time to act on those things, and more. Because I understand now that the clock can stop much sooner than expected. It sounds trite and cliché in a way … everyone knows to live for today and blah blah blah – but an experience like this makes you sit up and really get it.

In December I adopted a mantra for this year, which seems even more fitting now. It’s a quote from the genius Lily Tomlin: “May I have the envelope please, so I can push it.”

Watch out. The pushing begins.

GoFundMe widgetHelp support Mtuseni’s expenses during his tenure as a service leader at City Year. His stipend only covers commute costs from his remote settlement shack to a township school where he will tutor young children. Help me give him a robust allowance so he can buy breakfast and lunch — and maybe treat himself to a movie now and then — as this young man with so little already begins to pay it forward. Click the GoFundMe campaign icon to learn more, donate, and share. Thanks!



iPhones in the ‘Hood

March 17, 2015 — 3 Comments

IMG_1656I will always remember my freshman sociology professor in the late 70s talking about why blacks in the ghetto often drove fancy Cadillacs: because they wanted to look important out in the world. (It was part of a lecture on how we present ourselves in society.) The liberal but somewhat naive middle class suburbanite in me winced — intellectually accepting the concept yet still thinking it was ultimately racist. But over the years I had friends from the black community who validated that thinking. Basically, being in a nice car out in the world, nobody knows how deprived your home life is.

Today, that “Caddy in the ‘hood” concept seems to have been replaced by technology. Or at least that’s the case in South Africa. Mtuseni is always raving about Apple this and Apple that. Although I have an iPhone (mainly because the antennas are better … and I still use the phone to actually make calls), I think Apple products are overpriced and over-precious — and I was a huge Mac person from the mid-80s. But Mtuseni can’t resist the company’s endless hype — or, lately, the peer pressure.

This kid goes through phones like potato chips. In the five years I’ve known him, I’ve had to buy him three. (I’m on my third phone in 12 years.) Though I balk every time and threaten “never again,” he can’t be without a phone because it’s our lifeline. So I always buy him a new phone.

Last fall his Blackberry was dying and their cheap data plan was being phased out, so he had to get a non-Berry phone. With almost zero wifi in the country and no more easy Internet access at college, he needed to upgrade to a smart phone to answer emails. Mtuseni can’t afford a monthly contract plan, and I couldn’t cover it because South Africa no longer takes credit card numbers from out of country — and god knows how much data he’d burn through with an open contract anyway! So I had to buy Mtuseni a full-price phone. He did some research and found an inexpensive Samsung model. And he loved it — for a while. But now all his new friends at City Year, who are better off financially, have iPhones. So he’s been griping about how bad his phone is and dropping not-so-subtle hints about an iPhone. His Samsung is barely six months old!

Yesterday he texted me some new Apple program offering “discounted” old iPhones in South Africa. I snapped and told him I’m sick and tired of hearing about phones. He got pissy and went to sleep — and I felt terrible. We hit these impasses sometimes, and they’re always resolved. One of the greatest things I’ve learned through Mtuseni is that it’s possible to have conflict and maintain a relationship. Coming from a family where people haven’t spoken to each other for years over long-forgotten slights, that realization is a game changer for me.

But it doesn’t change my mind on the phone issue. Like most parents, it’s a constant juggling act for me to cover my own bills, pay off Mtuseni’s tuition debt, and contribute to his expenses. But my main concern is that he has enough money to eat nutritious meals during the day and have warm clothes in his unheated shack during the coming South African winter. Whether he has a sexy bells-and-whistles phone for all to see is probably at the very bottom of my list. I bought him more clothes last week than I’ve bought myself in five years. He’ll survive with a lowly Android phone.

Fortunately Mtuseni is not particularly materialistic; he’s much more interested in helping others and his values are in the right place. Still, he’s not completely immune from the desire to keep up with the Johannesburg Joneses.

GoFundMe widgetHelp support Mtuseni’s expenses during his tenure as a service leader at City Year. His stipend only covers commute costs from his remote settlement shack to a township school where he will tutor young children. Help me give him a robust allowance so he can buy breakfast and lunch — and maybe treat himself to a movie now and then — as this young man with so little already begins to pay it forward. Click the GoFundMe campaign icon to learn more, donate, and share. Thanks!


The Book: An Update

March 15, 2015 — 5 Comments

ocean+Cape Town+ Cliffs BeachAs people have listened to me talk about parenting Mtuseni from 8,000 miles away and putting him through college, many suggested I write a book about the experience. Now that he’s graduated and on to new adventures, here’s an update on the book project.

But first, thanks to Renee at unpackedwriter for tagging me on this book “blog tour.” She’s working on a memoir of her time as a young teacher in Alaska. From the synopsis, it sounds like it has movie potential! Do check out her blog tour post.

My original plan for a book about Mtuseni was to focus on whether he would actually finish college. Things were touch-and-go as we navigated issues that I never anticipated; it required far more than writing tuition checks and being an occasional cheerleader!

But over time our relationship grew from formal mentoring to father and son – something else I never anticipated. Having survived cold, critical parents and lackluster relationships, I finally came to understand what love is through Mtuseni. And as I helped him become a man, in many ways he did the same for me. That story of transformation is the focus of Long-Distance Dad: A Journey of Two Hearts.

Currently the project is a 50-page detailed proposal with sample chapters, and is making the rounds of literary agents. A sample e-book can be viewed on Creatavist; with bits of the various media the final book will contain – because I’ve saved everything! Text chat and social media snippets with Mtuseni’s perspective. Pictures of his small shack and family. Video from our trip to Cape Town and his first time in America. All woven into a narrative storyline, with brief thematic chapters offering my perceptions on issues ranging from resilience and poverty to sacrifice and love.

Mtu Fathers Day-rev-cropThe book is designed to immerse readers in the story as a middle-aged, middle-class, gay, white American man and a poor, black, Christian, South African Zulu teenager grow from total strangers into a deep loving bond. Laughter, grief, celebration, failure, respect, rebellion – it’s all there. From an insecure “shack boy” with vague hopes of a better life to a college graduate and now the captain of his City Year 2015 service corps.

The story still amazes me … and I lived it. I’m eager to tell it and hopefully inspire others to help a young person in need. Here’s a few excerpts from the first two chapters. Enjoy – and please share it on your social media channels. Thanks!

goodnight much love-crop


As the shock of turning fifty approached, I felt adrift, ambivalent, unfulfilled. None of the cylinders in my existential engine were firing. My life desperately needed meaning. Purpose. Excitement. Change! I considered tossing a dart at a map and moving wherever it landed. I embraced cliché and looked into grad schools.

But these “solutions” wouldn’t pay off for some time, if at all. My miserable mind needed a booster shot immediately. I’d done some volunteering in the past and always enjoyed it. I’d been a companion to a bitter old shut-in who was a nurse in WWII, reviewed vowel sounds with illiterate prisoners, and served food at luncheons for natty gay seniors. Maybe I’d find something similar, just to tide me over until I started grad school or set out for new pastures.


The organization’s video chats were hosted on software that included an electronic white board and other bells and whistles for me to wow Mtuseni with my mentoring capabilities. I imagined myself as Sidney Poitier in “To Sir, With Love” or Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society”—imparting knowledge and life lessons and becoming beloved.

This starry-eyed scenario accounted for half of my thinking. The other part of my brain was grappling with my general disdain for kids. I don’t find their self-absorbed chatter particularly interesting, and they don’t share my opinions on politics, alternative rock, or craft cocktails. My mindset before the first session with Mtuseni boiled down to one point: “What the hell were we going to talk about?”


Mtuseni was working so hard; I was truly impressed. But what if his matric scores qualified him for college? Could I really take on the responsibility of paying his tuition? Every night I tossed and turned, the debate raging in my head. I didn’t seek advice from anyone, certain they’d reject the idea for pragmatic reasons. And they would be right. I’d made decisions based more on my heart than my head before, and most hadn’t turned out well. And so much was unclear. I knew little about South Africa or Mtuseni’s situation. I still couldn’t figure out how to pronounce his last name! Was I going to shell out thousands of dollars for him?

It finally came down to one point: A year earlier I had been desperate for some meaning in my life and to have an impact on the world. With Mtuseni, the universe was offering me a challenge and an opportunity. I couldn’t walk away from it. And I couldn’t turn my back on him. The decision was made. My head was still nervous about it, but my heart felt good.


The following week was our final video chat. Mtuseni was alone in the computer lab and our time stretched past the usual thirty minutes, then past an hour. All the while I tried to keep my emotions in check.

Finally, Mtuseni said he had to go home and study; his first matric exam was the next day. As we waved goodbye I said, “Okay, buddy. Good luck tomorrow. You’ll do great. We’ll text later. I love you.” I hadn’t expected to say those last three words; I had rarely said them in my life. They just came from somewhere inside, easily and honestly.

Then the screen went blank. And I let my emotions flow.

We were ready to start a new chapter, but what exactly did I sign up for? And when, if ever, would I see Mtuseni again?

GoFundMe widgetHelp support Mtuseni’s expenses during his tenure as a service leader at City Year. His stipend only covers commute costs from his remote settlement shack to a township school where he will tutor young children. Help me give him a robust allowance so he can buy breakfast and lunch — and maybe treat himself to a movie now and then — as this young man with so little already begins tro pay it forward. Click the GoFundMe campaign icon to learn more, donate, and share. Thanks!


NewburyportThe Internet and social media can be amazing tools for connection. It brought Mtuseni and me together — having a profound impact on two lives. And as he gets ramped up for City Year, this will be paid forward through his work with a township school, changing even more lives. Good stuff!

But this week the latest viral buzz is about some guy who was shamed online for his dance moves. The ‘Net rumbled and suddenly there’s a crowdfund with tens of thousands of dollars to host a party for the guy…with celebrities piling on the bandwagon. Yes, bullies suck, but the guy’s a grownup; he’d get over it. Why are thousands of dollars being dedicated to this cause of the moment?

Months ago, a fund was started to buy a car for some guy who walks to work. It raised about ten times what the guy would need for a car. I saw a fund that raked in huge sums for an abandoned dog. Why all the extra cash, when there are so many real needs to be met around the world?

Crowdfunding is great for raising money, but it can be distressingly uneven and unfair. I’ve looked at crowdfund sites and felt heartbroken at people seeking support for medical care or school programs who raise almost nothing.

Yes, I ran a fund for Mtuseni’s tuition a couple years ago. It earned a little bit of cash, but 99% of his tuition came from my pocket. Am I bitter it failed? No, Mtuseni is worth every cent. Watching him grow and thrive pays me back tenfold. But seeing astronomical sums raised for so many “soft” viral causes sticks in my craw. It would regardless.

GoFundMe widgetMeanwhile, Mtuseni’s financial needs continue. His City Year stipend barely covers his transportation — over two hours each way. I send him some cash so he can eat, but my main focus is paying down those tuition debts. He has no money for anything else. Think of that when plunking down five bucks for a latte.

So I’ve started a new GoFundMe campaign. Maybe it will be another dud. Or maybe viral lightning will strike. If it’s successful, Mtuseni will be able to stay fed, strong, and healthy for his year of service. If it’s exceeds the $2500 goal, I can buy clothes and books for his young siblings who have nothing in the shack. And if it takes off, I can get started on my dream to provide computer access to poor kids in South Africa. So click the image to visit the campaign, donate if you can — and share it on every social media platform around.

Let’s see if together we can ignite the Internet to make a real difference in the lives of people in real need. Thanks!