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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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Distance

December 4, 2013 — 3 Comments

Things have been a bit rocky with Mtuseni since he finished classes a couple weeks ago. While he’s always done well when tasks are mapped out for him, as in a school situation, the process of getting an internship — which is all on him — has been marked by epic stumbles and inaction. He’s having difficulty with the transition from 15 years of school and familiar routine to the “lion’s den” of the real world, where he needs to begin charting his own course and sailing the ship. I can only do so much from this side of the world, and even if I could do more it is critical that he become focused, proactive, and self-reliant.

So we butted heads last week and — as happens with us now and then — went off to neutral corners to take a breather from each other. This transition process, this letting go, is also difficult for me. Mtuseni said last week that it feels like I’m pushing him off a cliff. No… I’m pushing him out of the nest, and I expect him to begin flapping his wings and taking flight. And of course I’ll be on the ground to catch him if he falls. But damn it, stop whining and start flapping!

Days ticked by with no communication between us. While my head appreciated having a little more space to focus on my own life, radio silence from him is always a bit unsettling. There are just so many risks he faces on a regular basis — from health issues and violence to unsafe minibus taxis and house fires — that having a daily check-in helps alleviate my worries.

mtuseni nov 2013So early yesterday morning Mtuseni sent me a text asking for my Skype number, because he was online. We had talked before about Skyping via his little USB laptop modem, but with a pay-as-you-go data plan and no money, he really didn’t have the bandwidth. Maybe enough for a voice call, but certainly not a video call. So after some back and forth getting set up, I heard the familiar Skype ring tone and answered his call. He said, “I can’t see you.” I was surprised he was doing a video call, so I clicked the camera button and suddenly there he was.

As always, there’s that brief sense of “wow” when you do a video call with people far away. It’s still not Jetsons quality, but actually our connection was pretty crisp. Mtuseni said he was in a community center a short walk from home, using their new wifi. This is a promising development, not only for him but for people — especially kids — in the settlement to have Internet access. The digital divide there is a serious impediment. I want to know more about who is sponsoring the center’s technology.

Unfortunately the center was closing for the day and Mtuseni had to sign-off. That’s one drawback of South Africa now being seven hours ahead of US time. Our call lasted only three minutes, so there was no real substance. Just that sense of closeness and connection you get from face-to-face contact, much more than can be achieved through text, emails or phone calls.

I realized after we hung up that it was the first time I had seen Mtuseni “live” since we said goodbye at the airport in New York, when he went back home after his trip here in July. Those three minutes on Skype reminded me how much I miss that kid. And that no matter how many bumps we hit on this journey together, the “distance” factor of being a long-distance dad is sometimes the hardest part.


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I’m coming to grips with the sad reality that summer is over — and my early September melancholy will soon give way to reveling in the Norman Rockwell autumns we have in New England. It was a good summer, punctuated of course by Mtuseni’s visit, something we had been working to make happen for three years.

Although the extent of his culture shock and reactions to it — and the twists and turns of teenage moods — caught me off guard, it was amazing to have Mtuseni here. The speed bumps we encountered only provided more insights that will help me guide him through new experiences and challenges as he transitions into the post-school real world. As a friend told me, courtesy of John Steinbeck, “What good is warmth without cold to give it sweetness?”

Indeed it was a very sweet trip. So herewith a random sampling of moments and memories of Mtuseni’s visit that make me smile:

New York+Times Square

Watching Mtuseni’s post-15-hour flight jet lag begin to lift as we walked into Times Square and he began to realize, “I’m in New York!” The first of many times I heard, “Take my picture!”

Dinner at an outdoor cafe after our first day in Boston -- where he had to buy a "B" cap so he could fit in. A Facebook post where he gloated to friends back in the SA winter about eating outdoors on a summer evening.

Dinner at an outdoor cafe after our first day in Boston — where he had to buy a “B” cap so he could fit in. A Facebook post gloating to friends enduring the SA winter.

Boston+ Charles River

Biking along the Charles River — watching him speed off and do tricks to “impress” me (and being thankful that I forced him to wear a helmet when he pushed the limits a few times).

Boston+Public Garden+fountain

Sitting with my radio student at the Public Garden fountain where my professor held our radio class on a warm September afternoon — shortly after Marconi invented the technology. A circle I had wanted to complete for some time once I knew Mtuseni would study media in college like I had.

Watching Mtuseni become an excited kid at the aquarium, just like when we were in Cape Town. He loves penguins (and sharks). In another life maybe should have been a marine biologist, though we need to get him over his fear of the sea.

Watching Mtuseni become an excited kid at the aquarium, just like when we were in Cape Town. He loves penguins (and sharks). In another life maybe he should have been a marine biologist, though we need to get him over his fear of the sea.

Boston+Public Garden

Having Mtuseni meet and connect with good friends — who were excited to meet him and who know his story and have celebrated with and supported me through the ups and downs of my four years with him.

Taking him to the top of the Pru and pointing out all the places we had been to. You forget how amazing it is to be in a skyscraper for the first time.

Taking him to the top of the Pru and pointing out all the places we had been to. You forget how amazing it is to be in a skyscraper for the first time.

Watching the Fourth of July fireworks along the Esplanade on a perfect summer night, tinged with an atmosphere of healing and strength and pride as the first large event following the marathon bombings.

Watching the Fourth of July fireworks along the Esplanade on a perfect summer night, tinged with an atmosphere of healing and strength and pride as the first large event following the marathon bombings.

Taking Mtuseni to the gym and watching him try to bulk up his skinny self in two weeks -- followed by his ongoing quest to try every crazy energy drink flavor not sold in South Africa.

Taking Mtuseni to the gym and watching him try to bulk up his skinny self in two weeks — followed by his ongoing quest to try every crazy energy drink flavor not sold in South Africa.

Bowing to his obsession and taking him to a huge classic car show -- and seeing the '75 Camaro that was the joy of my early 20s and the '66 Impala that took our family to the beach.

Bowing to his obsession and taking him to a huge classic car show — and pointing out the ’75 Camaro that was the joy of my early 20s and the ’66 Impala that took our family to the beach…

Bugatti

…and his crazy thrill at seeing a Bugatti parked outside the Mandarin Oriental hotel. This one went on his Facebook immediately (where he claimed the car was his!)

Fenway Park+Boston

Taking a Fenway Park tour and watching the obsessed Kaizer Chiefs soccer fan listen intently to the guide’s stories of “the Curse” and other Red Sox lore…

Fenway Park

…and seeing this hopeful radio announcer and budding journalist experience sitting in the press box high above home plate.

Hampton Beach

As when we were in Cape Town, watching Mtuseni’s love-hate game with the ocean. Some day I’ll get him fully in. If not for cell phones in our pockets, I would have thrown him in — it was 98 degrees!

__________

Aside from these “events” — some of my favorite times during Mtuseni’s visit were just simple things. Indeed, when I asked him a couple weeks ago what he missed about being in the US, one thing he said was “having breakfast with you.”

The things that resonated for me are taking him clothes shopping to create the new “grown up” look he wants. His daily ironing (because at home the iron is a plain metal one that heats up on the stove). Hearing his laugh and squeaky “excited” voice over Sheldon’s antics on The Big Bang Theory (“That guy is crazy, man!”) Seeing how much a guy his age can eat (and knowing that anytime access to food doesn’t happen at home). Untangling the mess that he made of his laptop and lecturing him about it (and him actually listening!). And watching him sleep in the morning — marveling that this kid from Africa who I encountered online by chance through a nonprofit is in my house…and at the center of my heart and mind at all times. Crazy how the world works sometimes.

So yes, in the final analysis Mtuseni’s visit was amazing — a blend of fun and frustration, laughter and anger, closeness and conflict that is a microcosm of real-life parenthood. And yes, with his visitor visa in place for the next ten years, I’m already figuring out how to get him here next year.

Chillaxing on a boat in Newburyport Harbor.

Chillaxing on a boat in Newburyport Harbor.


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Shock and Awe

August 16, 2013 — Leave a comment

Times+Square+New York

Mtuseni’s been home from his US trip for over a month now, and I’m still trying to put the pieces together. It’s a little bit like the aftermath of a tornado — not only from the nonstop energy of activities during his visit, but also the mental chaos it caused. The kid I saw here was in some ways the inquisitive, funny, sweet young man I know from years of long-form texting. Yet I was also surprised and a bit dismayed to see a moody, sour, sullen, insolent teenager — an alien being I’ve never experienced in four years of digital and phone communication. To say it caught me off guard is an understatement.

Part of Mtuseni’s darker persona is a product of an emotional immaturity: developmentally on many levels he is more like a 15-year-old than someone turning 21 next month. I was not prepared to handle the psychological roulette wheel of an adolescent boy. Props (and sympathy) to any parents who deal with that stuff on a daily basis.

But I discovered in a long talk with Mtuseni towards the mid-point of the visit — after things had come to a head and my capacity for patience was exhausted — that part of his mood and ‘tude were the by-product of profound culture shock.

Before Mtuseni arrived, friends noted that visiting the US from a poor South African settlement would be a culture shock to him. And I completely agreed. Yet what does that mean? What is culture? How do people living in a particular culture understand it — or do they even recognize it? For residents of a culture, it’s just life; you’re not aware of it as being a distinct through-line of daily experience. When I think of “American culture” today, it’s a mix of consumerism and marketing and obesity and violent movies and mindless reality TV. The higher values and principles of previous generations have been drowned out by crassness and banality — the Kardashian circus being the tipping point.

I don’t think that description fits all of America, but if someone asked me today to describe our culture in a nutshell that’s what I’d say, because the momentum seems to be heading in that direction. And given that Mtuseni experiences the eye-popping wealth and consumerism of Sandton at school every day (which shocked me on my trip to SA), and because he’s a student and consumer of mass media and marketing, I thought that any culture shock from visiting America would be limited.

Boy was I wrong.

When I finally sat Mtuseni down and asked him why he was being such a dick, his response was a profound eye opener for me. He said that, from the moment he stepped off the plane, everything seemed like a dream. Like he was here, but not here. Like he was watching himself in a movie, and thinking “This is my life? Am I really here in this place?” Everyone has had a similar out-of-body experience at some time. I remember feeling that in Venice — but having traveled before, it was wondrous and pleasant. For Mtuseni, that surreal feeling overwhelmed him — and he threw up defensive walls that at times made him miserable to be around.

But it wasn’t so much the cacophony of Times Square or the Boston subways or having electricity and a fully stocked kitchen that overwhelmed him. It was our American culture — experiences of life here that are so ingrained that I don’t even notice them. And having finally broken through his walls, they all came tumbling out of him in a list that stunned me. For example…

  • It felt “scary” to be hanging out with “older white people” here who treated him like a regular person and wanted to hear what he had to say. In South Africa, he says that whites look down on and talk down to blacks. There is mutual distrust, and he said that “apartheid will never be over in South Africa.” (My heart broke when he said that.)
  • People here are “very color blind,” with all types of diverse people all hanging out and comfortable together. (By contrast, seeing an episode of Family Feud at the gym — which happened to have a black family and a white family as contestants — Mtuseni said to me “Oh, so this show is black versus white?” That’s not the perception of a color-blind filter at work.)
  • Black teenagers here seem much more “confident” and comfortable and better dressed than his black peers in SA. (The realities of his deep poverty and limited farm-school education must have become more apparent to him here.)
  • It was “shocking” that Americans are so “open” and “talk about anything” and express opinions on everything. South Africans are much more cautious and oblique in their conversations. (I’d always heard that Americans are more forthright and direct than most cultures, but didn’t fully grasp it until hearing the perspective of an outsider like Mtuseni.)

Newbury+Street+cafe+Boston+TapeoBecause I live inside the American culture, these perceptions that Mtuseni shared were completely under my radar. Two “older” white folks and a college kid discussing a variety of topics at a Newbury Street cafe just seemed normal for me, but was on some level mind-blowing for him.

I now have a better understanding of “culture” and how it can affect someone who lives in a distinctly different one. I only wish I had somehow been more attuned to it with Mtuseni, and had checked in earlier with him. For after we spent over two hours talking about this stuff, he lost that sense of “being in a dream” and was more present here, more comfortable, more integrated into the experience. Don’t get me wrong, he still had his moments of sour faces and stony silence. But that wasn’t culture shock; it was merely a kid who has one foot in adulthood and one foot in ninth grade. And that’s going to take longer to resolve.

 


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