Book Preface

April 22, 2019 — Leave a comment

DSCN0303

This preface opens the sample chapters for Long-Distance Dad.
Full book proposal available for agent review.

We sat in the warm morning sun of a Johannesburg sidewalk cafe. I looked across the table at this kid, a young man really, who was a complete stranger not so long ago.

I’d been looking forward to this trip for weeks. We both had been. But now something felt off. The person I had journeyed to see for the first time, who greeted me with a high-wattage grin, had become increasingly quiet, almost sullen.

It had been a week filled with new experiences. For me: the first time south of the equator, first time in Africa, first time seeing abject poverty up close. For him: the first time on a plane, seeing the ocean, eating in restaurants.

I watched my companion devour his breakfast, and knew it would be a long time before he had a good healthy meal again. I fretted about what he would have for dinner that night.

His resolute silence made me uncomfortable. Old insecurities were triggered. Sparks of resentment flashed. I felt confused, concerned, and a little sad. In a short while, I would get on a plane for the 17-hour flight home. Our conversations would go back to texting, emails, and occasional phone calls. I had to know what was going on; I didn’t want this tension hanging over us from afar.

Direct, emotional conversations are not my strength. Nobody in the history of my family has ever engaged in one. But I had already stretched myself in a hundred different ways for him. With the slightest quiver in my voice, I haltingly plowed ahead.

“So… buddy. I want to talk about something. You’ve been so quiet the last few days. It makes me feel bad. Are you upset about something? Do you not like me? This was supposed to be a great trip. I thought you were having a good time. What’s the matter?”

His jaw worked as he thought of a response. His posture was usually so proud and poised, but now he seemed shrunken, his head down. I knew that he didn’t like to be put on the spot. And he knew the mumbling grunts I’d been hearing lately weren’t going to cut it.

He stole a glance at me and quickly looked back his plate. “Sometimes I fear you.”

I was shocked. Nobody in the world meant more to me. “What!? You know how much I care for you. Why would you think that?”

“Well…” His eyes stayed focused on the table. “I stay quiet because I’m afraid I might say the wrong thing and anger you. And then you’ll leave me, and my life would crumble.”

My breath caught. Tears welled. The immense significance of this relationship hit me full on. At that moment, I truly understood.

The Thin Wire

April 6, 2019 — Leave a comment

Mtuseni huhI’ve always been enthralled with Mtuseni’s use of spoken language. I don’t know if it’s just him or is distinct to South African English. Maybe it reflects a way of thinking and translating from his native Zulu language. But in regular conversation his word choice can feel downright poetic.

I remember years ago when he was in school and was having money problems — bigger than the usual money problems he copes with. It was one of the rare times he specifically asked me for more money, in addition to the monthly allowance I gave him. In making his case, he said he was “living on a thin wire.” The phrase evoked a striking image, and was an effective way to communicate his predicament.

 

I was reminded of this image when I woke up the other day and saw his WhatsApp status on my phone:

Meter Mate status crop

Mtuseni works at Meter Mate in a dead end, low paying admin job. He hates it. He was set to have his monthly review this past week. He’d gotten several written warnings about being late for work recently. He told me that Joburg traffic was getting worse, and the rolling blackouts from the failing electric utility adds to the gridlock when traffic signals are out. After three years in the job, leaving home at 6 a.m. to make it to work on time at 8:30, suddenly he’s being hounded for being a few minutes late.

The company treats employees like children. Mtuseni has told me stories of things that management does there that would never be allowed in the US. But in an economy where people are desperate for work, you put your head down and just hope you can hold on to your crappy job. And Mtuseni finally realizes that he’s disposable; there are fifty people who would take his job in a heartbeat, and the company knows it.

Seeing his status message I immediately thought, “Uh-oh.” Surely he’d been fired. My mind went into solution mode… thinking about work alternatives and connections and how I could cover his lost salary for however long it might take him to find another job, which could be months.

And I realized then how much I live on a thin wire with Mtuseni. There’s always something to worry about with him… either a long-term risk in the background or more pressing crises that pop up on a regular basis. Something that can knock him — knock us — off the wire into the abyss.

It’s a hard way to live. It wears on me sometimes, but I only deal with it secondhand; I’m far removed from any direct consequences. I’ve seen how the struggle has affected Mtuseni; his youthful idealism has eroded into a sense of dark resignation.

I’m working on some big plans to relight that magical spark he once had. Mtuseni has always wanted more, has had higher aspirations. Like me, he wants his life to have meaning and a positive impact; that’s something I’ve loved about him from the start.

But life in poverty tends to be lived in shorter time frames, with survival as the goal.

Back to this latest episode on the high wire…

I texted Mtuseni and asked what happened at Meter Mate. There was no response for over an hour, and in that time the wheels turned in my head, thinking of how to help him find a new job, how to make sure he had enough money. Worrying about how his lost income would impact the family, and the blowback from his overstressed mom who blames everything on him. Figuring out how to put a positive spin on the situation so Mtuseni wouldn’t slide into an even darker place.

Then I heard the little WhatsApp chime and thought, “Okay, this is it.” Turns out his boss had died suddenly the night before. That’s what created the “saddest day at Meter Mate.”

His job — at least for now — was safe. But there’s no real sense of relief. Mtuseni’s still walking on the thin wire. And the wind is blowing in every direction. And as always, I’ll be there to catch him.


⇒⇒ You can also see this story — and follow all of my writing, here on Medium.

 

mtuseni photo-walletTen years ago this spring, Mtuseni’s father packed up and left. I don’t know much about the situation, and I’ve never written about him before. Truth be told, Samuel Mdletshe doesn’t figure highly in my mind.

But every now and then I think, “What kind of man does that to his son?” My response tends to be that he’s not a man at all.

For Samuel didn’t just abandon 16-year-old Mtuseni. He left his wife and two younger kids under age five. An older son, Moses, left with Samuel. I’ve seen photos of Mtuseni and Moses together as kids; they looked like typical, boisterous, happy, close brothers.

Mtuseni told me that he wanted to go with Samuel, but his father refused. Maybe he could only manage one kid. Or maybe he thought Mtuseni could help his mom with the little ones. To this day, Mtuseni doesn’t really know what happened. His parents fought a lot. One day Samuel left and took his brother, but not him. It’s rejection, pure and simple. Mtuseni doesn’t talk or think about it anymore, but I know he still hurts somewhere deep inside.

But where one door closes…

Several months after Samuel left, Mtuseni and I were introduced and began our mentoring sessions. And ten years later, he calls me dad. It’s been a decade of absolute joy — and hard work. Through every minute with him, all the highs and lows, I feel incredibly blessed and lucky.

17309850926_f42a780529_zFor Mtuseni is truly special — and I’m not someone who’s easily impressed. He’s curious, articulate, spirited, funny, caring, responsible, driven, and sweet. I adore him. I will say that my attention and support have helped Mtuseni become the fine person he is today, but much of it is just innate qualities he has, a spark he was born with.

When Mtuseni wows me with some insight on life … or talks about making a difference in the world … or cackles with his infectious laugh, I sometimes think about what Samuel is missing out on. So I circle back again to wonder… “How does a father walk away from an amazing kid like this?”

The idealist in me wants to find some way to give Samuel the benefit of the doubt. That maybe he figured his family would fare better without him. After all, I’ve been able to offer Mtuseni many beneficial experiences that were beyond his family’s reach. By comparison, Moses died a few years after he left with Samuel — hit by a car while crossing a highway, drunk and unemployed and adrift, yet another tragic South African statistic.

But Samuel couldn’t foresee the divergent paths for his sons. Their lives were not a factor in his decision. Samuel didn’t walk away to give his kids a better shot. He just walked away.

So I feel no sympathy when I have some heart-filling experience with Mtuseni. Samuel’s selfishness is his loss… and my profound gain.

Mtuseni was a boy when his father left. Today, he’s a better man than his father. That’s one thing that I do understand.

Mtu Fathers Day-rev-crop

 

 

On Being “Always” Happy

January 27, 2019 — 9 Comments

Last year will not go down in the history books as one of my favorites. Marked by unplanned upheaval and seemingly nonstop distress… it sucked, plain and simple. Admittedly, I had been wanting to get out of my comfort zone and make some changes in my life. I just didn’t think when it happened it would be so, well, uncomfortable!

I’m a sucker for inspirational quotes — the pithier the better. One of my favorites is “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.” Thankfully, after taking some time to get my bearings, the first shoots of growth and change are beginning for me, and momentum is building.

In October, Mtuseni sent me a lovely birthday note outlining the qualities associated with my name. I’m always touched by how loving he is and how lucky I am to have him in my life. At the time, I’d been exiled to a hotel for a month after my neighborhood was rocked by gas explosions (just part of the upheaval and distress theme). I posted the note on the wall, savoring the sentiment and basking in the many positive attributes of “Michael.”

Last week I made a point to read it again, and this line jumped out at me…

“I hope you reach a level one day where you are always happy.”

“I hope you are happy.” Sounds pretty straightforward. But what caught my eye this time was the word “always.” Indeed, I’m striving for more happiness in my life across the board. I want to craft my ideal, multifaceted career. Find the perfect husband. Live in an area that nurtures and inspires me. Have friends and community that “get” me and feed my soul.

mtuseni photo-walletYet even if all those boxes were checked, it wouldn’t be enough. Because that word “always” made me realize that I’ll never be fully happy until Mtuseni is safe, secure, and thriving. Until that megawatt smile and inner spark I fell in love with almost a decade ago returns to its full brightness — and stays that way. I may have had a tough year, but even my worst day is a luxury compared to his life in a South African shack.

I heard someone say recently that having a kid is like taking a piece of your heart out and letting it walk around on its own in the world. Funny, for decades I always thought that getting the perfect career, mate, and home would bring me total joy and contentment. But the equation has changed. For me to be “always happy” … my best boy, that piece of my heart, has to be happy.

I made a promise early on to Mtuseni — and to myself — that he would live a much better life, one that reflected his dreams and aspirations. That promise was already built into my plans as I emerge from the muck of last year. But it’s an eye opener to realize just how much my happiness and life satisfaction are linked to his.

I guess that’s what happens when someone finishes your birthday note with “I love you Dad.”