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Learning life lessons from ‘The Council of Dads’

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05/10/2011

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When Jewish author Bruce Feiler was five years old, he was struck by a car while riding his Schwinn bike, breaking his left femur. More than 30 years later, he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in that same femur. Whether the accident and his illness were related or mere coincidence, he will never know. Recognizing that his cancer could be life-threatening, he feared that he may not watch his 3-year-old twin daughters grow up, that he wouldn’t be there to guide them through the twists and turns of life. That sparked in Feiler the idea of “The Council of Dads,” where he invited six men from all passages in his life to convey important life lessons to his daughters in the event that he didn’t survive.

Thankfully, Feiler has triumphed over his cancer and been in remission for two years. He writes about his experience and the lessons the men taught his daughters—and ultimately Feiler—in his book The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness, and the Men Who Could be Me (William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers). The author spoke in Chicago in March and returns to Chicago on Wednesday, June 15 to speak at Ravinia Green Country Club Day in Riverwoods. Oy!Chicago conducted a phone interview with the author at his home in Brooklyn this spring.

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Oy!Chicago: Why did you want to write the book?
Bruce Feiler: I wanted the experience of asking each one of these men the one piece of advice they would give to my girls. I was so inspired by their answers that I wanted to gather it in one place so that my girls could have it some day. [I wrote a letter to my girls] that appears at the end of Council of Dads with all of the wisdom there in one place: Approach the cow, pack your flip-flops, don’t see the wall, tend your tadpoles, live the questions, harvest miracles. This advice was meant for the girls but I’m the one who really needed it.

What were the criteria you used for picking your council of dads?
When I first had the idea, I didn’t want to tell my wife. She’s a very upbeat person and I thought we should focus on the positive. But then, the next day I told her and she loved it, but she quickly began rejecting my nominees. It was an unexpected way to learn what my wife thought of my friends. Then, we made a set of rules to guide us such as no family, only friends—family would already be there—and your friends know you differently. Next, only men because we were trying to fill the male space. Then, intimacy over longevity because some of the newer friends would capture the dad I wanted to be.

You mention that one of the unexpected gifts is telling each of these men what they mean to you. Have you made a practice of this even now that you’re healthy?
This is one of the biggest pieces of advice that I give to people—sit down with your closest friends and tell them what they mean to you. It’s an incredibly rare thing that we do and yet it’s very powerful. Anybody who has ever touched illness or been through a difficult circumstance in life is so moved by the people who come swarming around you in this time of difficulty. I try to use direct emotion and communication with my [loved ones every day].

You talk in the book about this more enlightened type of males who talk about their feelings and their kids. Do you think men are evolving?
Are you suggesting that we’re getting closer to what you women are already? Memo to women: Men have feelings too. We just happen to express them in different ways. In fact, watching sports, fishing, or towel-snapping can be emotional. It’s not that men are evolving, but that men have more permission to speak openly about their feelings today, especially with other men.

What have you learned from this experience?
I don’t wear the experience as a burden on my shoulders. I wear it as an engine on my back that propels me to get out of bed, take a hand, take a walk, make a memory every day.

If you were asked to be in a Council of Dads, what is the most important “daddyism”—as you call it—that you would advise?
I was a walking guy, who had written the book Walking the Bible. But [when I was sick] I didn’t walk for almost two years. I just came to love the idea that in Paris 200 years ago, men of leisure would take turtles for walks and let turtles set the pace…take a walk with a turtle, behold the world and pause.

For more information on The Council of Dads or to learn how you can start your own council of dads or moms, visit www.councilofdads.com. 

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