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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?

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I’ve written before about the deplorable state of libraries and schools in South Africa. Although Mtuseni is out of the public school system, his little sister and brother still attend St. Ansgar’s — what he calls a “farm school” with no heat, computers, or library. Sadly this lack of resources is the norm, not the exception.

One of my LinkedIn contacts who runs an education-focused organization in South Africa recently posted this TV commercial for a business magazine. It’s short, powerful and to the point. Not to mention sad.

As Mtuseni transitions into more independence and a job, I hope to explore ways to address the needs of South African kids on a larger basis. Helping Mtuseni is fulfilling, but it’s not enough to make a dent in the larger problems that face the country and its people. I want — and need — to do more.


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Click to learn more about Room to Read’s work in South Africa.

I’ve lamented a few times here about the lack of good libraries both where Mtuseni goes to college and in the K-12 school that his brother and sister attend. However, I was unaware that the situation was as widespread as the statistic above.

Books open the door to knowledge and discovery and opportunity. Once my little buddy graduates, I hope to devote considerable effort to changing the situation in his community… and beyond. For now, you can help by supporting Room to Read. This nonprofit collaborates with communities and local governments in Africa and Asia to help primary school kids develop literacy skills and a habit of reading. It also helps support girls to complete secondary school.

Like me, Room to Read envisions a world in which all children can reach their full potential and contribute to their community and the world. Check out their website to learn more!

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Long-Distance Advocacy

September 10, 2012 — Leave a comment

Sandton-Library-in-Nelson-Mandela-Square-JohannesburgI’ve griped in the past about the state of the library in Sandton, the wealthy Johannesburg suburb where Mtuseni goes to college. Across a small plaza from a towering bronze statue of Nelson Mandela and steps away from a luxury mega-mall, the library cuts an impressive figure — from the outside. When I went inside with Mtuseni to see where he’s been hitting the books, I was surprised to see torn carpet, dying plants, and a woeful collection of dated books.

The biggest surprise was the lack of public access computers — only two! I finally understood why my badgering Mtuseni to “use the library computers” to do schoolwork during his first year got no traction. I’m accustomed to the main library in Boston having dozens of computers for public use; my suburban town library has about twenty. I find this lack of library computers shocking in what’s called “Africa’s Richest Square Mile” — and in the shadow of gleaming corporate headquarters. A library should be the pride of a city and a center of free learning for everyone.

Recently I did a Google search for the Sandton library website to see if the building has free WiFi for Mtuseni’s new laptop. (It doesn’t… and I can’t even find a website for the library.) But my search did turn up local newspaper articles about the poor state of the Sandton library. One article had a contact name and e-mail, so I sent a letter expressing my surprise at the library’s poor facilities, and asking why the corporate community doesn’t step up with monetary and in-kind donations.

Click to read article

I got a response from Keith Elliot, a member of the Friends of Sandton Library. He agreed with my assessment and sent a copy of a Sandton Chronicle newspaper article on the library conditions. He also acknowledged the irony of a subpar library surrounded by business wealth.

Why indeed do the inhabitants of the Ivory Towers in Sandton not help out with our Library! I wish I knew the answer!

Keith explained that the Friends recently met with the local business community to discuss the problems facing the library. One bookseller donated 1,000 books, which is certainly commendable. Keith also said another company is paying the library a stipend of R1500 a month… which sounds great until you realize that translates into about US $180 — not even enough to fill the water coolers!

Because I’m a firm believer in the broad social value of libraries, I sent Keith some links to US library web sites, listing the various levels of corporate and other donor support they receive as well as the fundraising activities of the libraries and their Friends organizations. I also suggested approaching Mtuseni’s school to ask students to create fundraising marketing campaigns — a great way for the library to get some free creative labor and for students to build their portfolios. Keith shared my ideas at a recent meeting and said one member is communicating with US library groups… and the Sandton Friends group has elected to pursue a student marketing project. Yay!

Norma Rae, c. 20th Century Fox

When I get into my Norma Rae mode, my advocacy isn’t limited by miles!

I’ll share progress updates as they come from Keith. And for South African readers, please donate to the Sandton Library — or to your local community library. Because as Benjamin Franklin, founder of America’s first lending library, once said,

“An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”


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