Archives For Boston

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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Top 5 Mentor Moments for 2013

December 31, 2013 — 1 Comment

It’s hard to believe that 2013 is coming to a close. This past year with Mtuseni has been marked by the usual ups and downs — and some sticky transitions. Despite the challenges of mentoring across many divides, life with my boy young man always offers more sweet than sour. And this year was marked by some pretty sweet experiences…

1. Becoming Big Man on Campus

Boston Media House 2013 Open Day Campus Team

Boston Media House 2013 Open Day Campus Team

Entering college from a small farm school was traumatic for Mtuseni; my shy little fish floundered in that big pond his first semester, what he called the “darkest days of life.” But with encouragement he came out of his shell, made friends, and was named to the Student Committee his second year. And he didn’t stop climbing the ladder. Over¬† summer break in January he worked as a campus representative — and was elected Vice President of the Student Committee for his final year. I still get choked up when I think how far he’s come.

Check out these posts for more…

Summer Fun, Winter Doldrums

Teen Roulette

2. Father’s Day Wishes

2013 fathers day email -cropI wear many hats with Mtuseni: mentor, coach, brother, friend, enforcer, teacher…and father. I never expected to have kids, so experiencing that crazy parental stew of pride, worry, responsibility, fear, frustration, and deep love with this knucklehead has been the biggest and best surprise of my life. It’s a delicate balance: a mentor is not a father, and the calculus between us shifts constantly. But for a sensitive kid whose father walked out when he was 12, Mtuseni craves that connection and anchor. And when he acknowledges me in that way, well it feels pretty damn good.

3. Mtuseni Comes to America

Public+Garden+BostonAfter three years and four attempts, this year Mtuseni finally got a (ten year!) US visitor visa. To see that jet-lagged kid walk into the arrival hall at Kennedy Airport was thrilling. Foreign travel is eye-opening and life-changing for anyone — and is even more so coming from a developing country to America. It was wonderful to have Mtuseni here, have him meet people in my life, show him places from my childhood, and to spoil the heck out of him. There were a few unanticipated bumps in the road, and it was a learning experience for both of us. But we’re both ready for him to come back.

Check out these posts for more…

Oh Happy Day

Places and Activities I Enjoyed in Boston

Last Words On the Trip … Maybe

4. Coursework Complete — Check.

Boston+Media+House+radioThree years ago at this time Mtuseni was waiting for the results of his national matric exams — which would determine his eligibility for college. He had already done well on the school entry exam, and just needed that final credential. A month later he began that first semester — and tanked his first exam with a grade of 20. I thought we might be looking at a fast flameout. But he bounced back, loving school even when griping about the workload and stress, and in November he finished his last semester of classes. Now all he needs is a 100-hour internship and the mortarboard and robe are his! (And tuition bills for me are over — woohoo!)

Check out these posts for more…

Rounding the Turn

One Chapter Closes

5. Letting Go…

This one is recent…and still a work in progress. Much as my heart clings to the quiet high school boy I first met, Mtuseni turned 21 this year — a milestone of adulthood in South Africa. He bucks and chafes and argues against me these days in a natural push for independence. Although he’s not fully prepared for the big world (are any of us ever really prepared?) I’ve begun to loosen the reins. To give him more responsibility for his life and accountability for his actions. To say ‘no’ and set limits. To let him sink or swim.

It’s hard; he still has so much to learn, and I’ve enjoyed this surprise experience of parenting in my grouchy middle age. Selfishly I want more nest-and-apron-string time, but that won’t do Mtuseni any favors. He needs to learn to fly on his own. And I need to trust that he — we — will be okay. I’ve just made that shift in mindset the past few weeks, and it’s been tough but good. And it’s funny how kids fight you to get free, then when you begin pushing them out of the nest they hold on for dear life. Is this last 2013 “moment” a sweet one? More bittersweet. But a positive and necessary milestone on the journey.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

And 2014 promises more successes, transitions, and celebrations. With all fingers and toes crossed, Mtuseni will get a radio internship early this year and graduate in April. He should also get his first real job. There will hopefully be a South Africa trip for me to see him and his family, and another US visit for Mtuseni. On the story front, the Long-Distance Dad blog will be revamped, a prototype interactive e-book will be released, and formal pitching to agents of book and media projects will get underway.

Thanks from Mtuseni and me for all your support, perspective, and encouragement over these past years. And keep following — and sharing — our story in 2014 and beyond!

Happy New Year!!

Times+Square+New York


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The Wall Street Journal recently posted a video feature on the Johannesburg suburb of Sandton, calling it Africa’s Manhattan. This is where Mtuseni went to school for the past three years, at Boston Media House.

WSJ Sandton video grab

Click to access the video report.

 

When I went to visit Mtuseni last year, I stayed in Sandton, partly because his school was there. I wanted to see where he spent his days. Also, I had been warned about high crime in downtown Johannesburg and was told that Sandton is clean and safe. And, finally, there were no hotels, restaurants, stores, or much of anything near Mtuseni’s settlement — aside from a regional airport. After paying to fly halfway around the world, with my primary goal getting to spend time with and bond with my newfound long-distance son, I wanted some measure of comfort and safety — as well as fun diversions for the two of us. So Sandton seemed a logical choice.

I hated Sandton. Living in Boston, the ultimate college town, I had pictured the home of Mtuseni’s college to be similar, with lively street life and art galleries and sidewalk cafes and coffeehouses. Instead, it felt like San Jose or any other office park-city in Silicon Valley: shiny and antiseptic. And it was far from Mtuseni’s settlement. With a private driver it took us a good half hour to get there; Mtuseni’s school commute often took about 90 minutes on the minibus taxis, with a changeover in Randburg.

But the difference in miles paled in comparison to the difference in experience and lifestyle. The streets of Sandton were lined with dealerships for ultra-premium car brands, some I never even heard of. The Sandton City Centre-Mandela Square-Galleria mega-mall was an enormous, dizzying labyrinth crammed with high-end designer stores. The wealth was eye-popping. Boston is a wealthy city, but Sandton felt like Beverly Hills wealth.

Annex roomBy comparison, Mtuseni’s settlement of Drummond is a collection of about 50 cinderblock and tin-roof shacks along a dirt road in the middle of a sweeping field near the highway and Lanseria airport. No electricity, no plumbing. No opportunities. Although it was wonderful to meet Mtuseni’s family and finally see where he was during our lengthy text chats and phone calls — inside it made me very sad. It’s one thing to see poverty like that on TV, it’s another to experience it firsthand — and then to know it’s the daily life of somebody you love and care for.

Mtuseni had been staying with me during my visit, but I returned to the hotel alone after visiting his family because he had a major church function the next day. Back in Sandton, my heart and mind couldn’t process the contrast of wealth and poverty I had experienced. It was jarring and I felt a hollow mixture of guilt and despair and grief. I always wondered how Mtuseni handled that dual life the past few years. It was like going from Dorothy’s black-and-white Kansas world to the Yellow Brick Road and Technicolor Oz — and back again. Day after day. I can see why Mtuseni always got grouchy and depressed on school breaks — and with classes over for good, I’m worried about his mood, which can go very dark very quickly. It’s completely understandable.

And yet, this contrast of rich and poor is not necessarily separated by great distances. Sandton’s luxe malls are only a couple miles away from Alexandra — a dense township of nearly 200,000 people in tightly packed shacks on narrow alleys. It’s been there a long time; I was surprised to read about it in Cry, the Beloved Country, which was published in 1948. My driver took me past Alex on the way to my hotel from the airport when I first arrived. It felt like it went on forever. Some of Mtuseni’s friends from school lived there — and they had electricity and even Internet access. I used to tell him to “borrow” some electricity and Internet from them for school work, but Mtuseni said his mother didn’t like him going there because of the crime. On times he did go there, he was made to feel like an intruder; being from a rural settlement, Mtuseni is viewed as lower class by some township folks. And from the streets of Alex you can see the gleaming towers of Africa’s Manhattan. They are not far-off … yet they are worlds away.

Being the Wall Street Journal, the report gushes about Sandton’s wealth and growth. Only toward the end is the topic of poverty in such close proximity raised, in an indirect reference to Alexandra. The white South African woman in the video matter-of-factly says “Oh, we’ve grown used to living amongst such conditions of poverty.” It didn’t seem to faze her. She doesn’t talk about fixing it. Maybe you have to turn your mind off to it, living there every day. I can’t seem to do that back here.


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One Chapter Closes

November 14, 2013 — Leave a comment

magnoliasEvery few years, in late spring when I’m marveling at the pink magnolia trees in Boston’s Back Bay, a vivid memory surfaces… It was my very last day at Emerson College, on the old Beacon Street campus in the stately brownstones. I had a meeting with my senior seminar professor, turned in some graduation paperwork, and was finished. My college days were done, and I enjoyed the sense of relief and accomplishment.

It was a sunny, warm afternoon. Spying an empty classroom, I sat in a big open window and looked down at the lively street scene that had been my life for three years. I loved Emerson and living in the city. At my father’s insistence, I’d started college at UMass Amherst, in the rural western part of the state. Aside from one semester in a high-rise dorm with a bunch of smart, funny, crazy friends, I hated my time there. I’m a city person; a college town in the woods felt like prison.

Transferring to Emerson — on my own dime — was the best decision I’d ever made. I learned a lot, felt validated for my creative talents, met some great people, and came into myself. So my feelings sitting in that window were bittersweet. A wonderful chapter in my life was coming to an end. Yes, I was young and had a whole future of possibilities ahead. But something in me wanted to sit in that spot and hold onto that moment forever, unwilling to close the book and walk away.

But I still lived in the city. And by the fall I would start my first job as a copywriter for a small agency. Emerson had been a big, bright spot in my life — but it wasn’t my everything.

____________________

This week Mtuseni’s on-campus chapter comes to an end. It’s amazing how fast the time went. It seems like just yesterday he visited the school for the first time and — against my instructions — took the entrance exam on the spot. I remember my complete joy when the administrator emailed to say he had done well and was accepted, and his excitement when I told him the news. For me, that moment began a three-year stretch of tuition bills, arguments with school staff, searching for extra resources, and intensive coaching with Mtuseni on many levels, including some I never anticipated.

Boston+Media+House+class+laptopFor Mtuseni, these three years have been nothing short of transformational. Although his first-term transition from a poor farm school to a college in South Africa’s wealthiest neighborhood was rough, we got him through those “darkest days” and he flourished. He has many friends on campus and loves being among a crowd of young, dynamic, ambitious peers.

I’ve always dreaded Mtuseni’s extended breaks from school, because within a day or two he becomes a bear. He’s bored out of his mind. Grouchy. Snappish. Miserable. Because unlike my college experience — where I went home to a vibrant life in Harvard Square, Mtuseni goes home to the settlement — where he is the first person to attend college. Where nobody understands him or feeds his mind or inspires him. Where, as he says, “people sit outside every day and just watch the sun cross the sky.” And where their main concern is not creating a professional radio demo tape, but putting food on the table and keeping their kids alive.

Boston Media House 2013 Open Day Campus Team

Boston Media House 2013 Open Day Campus Team

The closure of my Emerson chapter was sad for me, but the closing of Mtuseni’s Boston Media House chapter will be much harder on him. He’ll lose touch with many of his friends; daily face-to-face interaction supplanted by the emptiness of Facebook wall comments. The mutual peer support and friendly competition to succeed will vanish, with my custom blend of loving support and parental whip-cracking left to fill the gap. The busy street life of campus and Sandton’s corporate HQs and luxe malls will be replaced by the sullen atmosphere of poverty and dashed hope in Mtuseni’s settlement.

I’m a little worried. Going to college has been a rejuvenating elixir for Mtuseni. Without it, his community environment of despair can be a strong brew that pulls him backwards. Our work is not done; he still needs to find an internship — and I feel in some ways perhaps my toughest challenges lie ahead. Still, I will celebrate his — our — accomplishment this week. And try to keep his head and heart filled with a future of rich possibilities.


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