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tv   European Journal  PBS  February 27, 2011 1:00pm-1:31pm PST

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- hi, this is bob scully, and welcome to another edition of the world show, the authors series. you've heard of the un security council, the national security council, but have you heard of the council of dads? it catches the attention, doesn't it? it's the title of a book by well-known best- selling author bruce feiler, but the concept itself is fascinating. it's a humanistic initiative that i think only he can fully explain, and he does it very well. here he is. bruce feiler, welcome back. you'll recall that when we did your book abraham, we started with a quote. let's do it again this time with the council of dads. i'm going to go to chapter 18 and string together three different quotes. here we go. first quote: "bonaventure cemetery, just east of savannah, has two side-by- side stone gates at its
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trance. the gate on the left has two chiselled stone pillars capped with female figures cradling crosses. it is known as 'the christian gate'. the gate on the right has similar stone pillars topped with stars of david. it's called 'the jewish gate'". now i'm going to skip a bit to the next page: "i gave the attendant my surname. she disappeared into a musty back room, then returned momentarily with six worn yellowed cards. each contained the name of someone interred at the cemetery, the date nd place of the person's death, along with date, style, and location of bial. the names were my great-grandparents daisy and melvin feiler, my great- great-uncle edwin cohen, my grandparents alene and edwin feiler, and my uncle stanley feiler". final quote: "i thanked her, returned the cards, and stood up to leave. 'are you going to visit your family?' she asked. 'sort of', i said. really, i came to visit my own gravesite". now, that scene would make a lot
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of sense if somebody were 65 or 70, but here you are a young man born in 1964 in that situation. how did that scene come to be, and what does it mean? - well, there's a lot into that scene, actually. first of all, i come from savannah, georgia, and it's a place that i love and am very attached to, and in june of 2008--for no particular reason other than my wife and i were just approaching our fifth wedding anniversary; we had three-year-old identical twin girls--we had a conversation in which we discussed where we might be buried someday, and my wife, linda, chose that we would buried in savannah, because we were married there, one of our daughters is named tybee, which is an island not far from bonaventure cemetery. unbeknownst to us, or perhaps beknownst in ways we didn't really understand, two weeks later i had a routine blood test which showed that i had an elevated alkaline phosphatase
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number, which is a strange enzyme in your blood that none of us had ever heard of, that sent me down a series of scans and tests and mris and x-rays, and about a few weeks later, in early july of 2008, i got a call from my doctor one day. i knew i had something at that point growing in my leg, and she said, "the tumour in your leg is not consistent with a benign tumour". and so suddenly i stopped walking, and it took my mind a second to convert that double negative into a much more horrifying negative: "i have cancer". and one of the things that... sort of the rich ironies or painful truths of this story is that that cancer that they found in my left femur--an osteosarcoma that at that point took up half my femur--took me back to savannah, which is a place that i'm from and so connected to, because when i was five, i was hit by a car and broke my left leg in that same place, and for whatever set of reasons, 38 years later, it cancerfied. - and have you ever wondered
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about the coincidence? have you given any thought to that? do you think it's a coincidence or not? - i don't think it's a coincidence. none of the doctors think it's exactly a coincidence either, but the reality is that an osteosarcoma is a very rare cancer. only 650 americans, for example, get one a year, 85% under 21, so only 100 adults a year get one of these cancers. as a result, we don't know that much about it. compare it with breast cancer--200,000 women get it a year; 190,000 men get prostate cancer. so it's very rare. we don't know that much about it, but it seems like too much of a coincidence, and just the location and the entire story, it does seem like there's a connection. - and at that point in the book comes a central, a crucial scene, which i could have quoted as well. you're in manhattan, you learn this news, you break down weeping, but later, two young human beings will pull you out of that funk. let's talk about that.
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- well, i got crutches. i stumbled home and lay down on my bed, and imagined all the ways my life would change. and then my identical twin daughters--as i said, they had just turned three--came running to meet me, and they kind of, um... they did this dance they had just made up when they turned three a few months earlier. they were kind of spinning faster and faster, kind of going in a circle until they tumbled to the ground, laughing with all the glee in the world, and i crumbled. i kept imagining all the walks i might not take with them, or the boyfriends i wouldn't get to scowl at, or the aisles i wouldn't walk down, and for me, bob, i have to say, came back to voice. maybe it is because i'm a writer. would they wonder who i was? would they lack for my approval, my discipline, my love, my voice? and a few days later, i woke up before dawn with, again, a voice kind of going in my head, and it was in this case a letter that i would eventually send to six friends from all parts of my life, asking them to be present in the lives of my daughters-- in effect, to be my voice if i wasn't there to speak
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to my gis or to answer their questions or to give them a piece of guidance. and i got out of bed--i was crying at that point; i didn't want to wake my wife--and i went and i sat on this couch and i wrapped myself in a blanket, and i said, i'll call this group of men the council of dads. - they would be "dad" if you're not there? - and the second i said it, i felt like the word kind of leapt from my head and kind of filled the room around me. it just felt like an old idea. you know how some kids are an old soul? this was somehow an old idea, and it was somehow... at that point i just wanted to live long enough to assemble it, and then ultimately when i started talking to them and asking them what was the advice they would give to my girls, i then realized i should write a book about this, and now here we are two year later where i'm actually doing well, but this council of dads has really transformed our lives, and, as i'm seeing now around the world, transforming the lives of people who have read the book and been
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touched by the story. - and this is such an imaginative, creative solution, but at the same time it seems to me so hard to do in reality. you began to set down rules right away. two of the rules are intriguing: no family, and only men. - well, what happened was, i mean, you know... i initially thought it was kind of sad, and like you said, it was sort of an overwhelming thing, like i shouldn't tell me wife that... you know, there's this idea in the culture these days that we should "happy" our way through a problem, but i didn't want to do that, and i couldn't control myself, really, so i told my wife, and she loved the idea, but she quickly started rejecting my nominees. so she would say, "well, i love him, but i would never ask him for advice". so it turns out that starting a council of dads was a very efficient way to find out what my wife really thought of my friends. - and you have lots of good friends, and most of them are life-long. - yeah, well i have a lot of...
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i don't have colleagues, right, so i friends. my joke is that my wife has colleagues and no friends, and i have no colleagues and i have friends. so we started knocking heads, so i said, "look, we need a set of rules". and so the rules we settled on were, like you said, no family, only friends. we figured our family would already be there, and in a certain sense, your friends know you differently from your family. we said only men--we were trying to fill the dad space. and then we also said kind of a dad or every side. there were some dads who were always going to be there, but there were some we were bickering over. so it was sort of like, "okay, what are different aspects of my personality?" and i think this ended up being a key thing, as i see other people doing it, i think one of the great pieces of advice i can give is to give each dad a role, right. so we had "travel dad", there's "cooking dad", there's "values dad". it turns out--we didn't do this intentionally-- it turns out there's also "rebellion dad", right. so most of my dads are dads themselves but one isn't. he's my kind of tortured romantic poet friend,
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like he's going to teach them to love beauty and... - in new mexico. - exactly. he takes me to new mexico and talks about learning to love beauty. and he came over recently to go trick-or-treating with the girls, and, hello, like, i'm a parent of young kids. it's like, okay, girls, let's go. upstairs. enough is enough. time to go to bed. brush your teeth. and i look back, and he's, like, stealing chocolate bars from the bag and giving them to them behind their backs. so it's like he's "irresponsibility dad". we can't leave him alone with the girls. - and this is like--i mean, now that you're well--this is actually like the un security council--you're stuck with it. you can't actually disband it just because you're well. they're there to stay. - exactly. i can't kick off the soviet union even though they don't have as much power as they used to. right. i mean, in fact, it's funny that you say that about the un--it's the first time someone's made that analogy--because i actually debated a lot whether i should have a president of the council of dads. and i like this idea of rotating seats, like the un security council. but the truth
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is--and i think this is one of the things that's been so powerful about it--is that linda's really the president. she's sort of the conductor who will be there to guide them if they need it. and i think that one of the things that's been interesting that actually postdates the book is that we had the dads all together for the first time a few months ago when our girls turned five. first of all, they're guys, right, so they're competitive, so each one walks in with a bigger and bigger present. and i was like, "no wonder the girls love the council of dads; they have scored entirely". but that night we sat around and each person talked about what the experience meant to them, and i have to say, i mean, they all said-- a few of them said--well, actually all of them said that i'm a little bit of a control freak, but the thing that i've least tried to control in my life has been the council of dads. it's been entirely organic, and what they have done is really about this relationship with the girls. and one of my friends, who's like the inquisitor--he's like
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kind of "think daddy", teaches them how to ask questions--he's the one who, when i invited him to be in the council of dads rejected the premise, said i'd get better, and we wouldn't need it, said, "you know what, i realized that i'm wrong"-- and he's not a guy who says he's wrong a lot--"because", he said, "i realize that whether we're healthy or sick, or male or female, we all need this group. we cannot have too many adults who love our kids, and i realize we all need our own council". - and one thing that struck me too is the kids, of course, are very young, and sometimes they're unsettled and unsure, but they always find a way-- whether you've got one crutch, two crutches--they find tricks, games, ways to get along and ensure that it doesn't affect the family and the family feelings around it. - well, i think that-- a lot of people do wonder about this--we were honest with them, but not too honest. "daddy has a boo-boo leg; daddy has a better leg; he's working with the doctors to get better." in fact, the only problems
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we had, i would say, were when we weren't honest enough. like, i would go to the hospital a couple of times when i had bad response to the chemo, and we didn't really tell them. they don't have younger siblings, so they've never really seen mommy in the hospital, and that was really a problem, and one of the chapters i'm actually most fond of in the council of dads is the one called "use your words". that's what we would tell the kids all the time. "use your words!" right? "stop screaming, use your words!" well, we had to learn that same lesson; we had to use our words and explain to them. but i think that, in the end, i think perhaps we could see they did become an ounce more compassionate or a dose more caring. we would see them run to embrace the child with the amputated leg at the playground, or we had a kids' book with pictures of-- - yeah, and they spotted that character, the rabbit with the crutches. - yeah, the rabbit with the crutches and the back, and i think that there was this wonderful... and i think that also it kind of reminded them of what their parents mean. tybee, one of my daughters, had
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this wonderful line. she said, "daddy, i have so much love in my body for you, i can't stop giving you hugs and kisses, and when i have no more love left, i just drink milk, because that's where love comes from". and eden came to my bed--this is the story you just, i think, were alluding to from the book. eden came to my bed one night. it was 4:30 in the morning and she had some nightmare or something, and i went to take her back to her bed, and i had to lift my leg out of the bed at that point, and she reached for my crutches and handed them to me, and if i could cling to one memory from that year, it would be and my four-year-old daughter walking down a darkened hallway at night with these five little fingers grasping the spongy handle underneath my hand, because at that point, i didn't need the crutch, because i was walking on air. - yeah, i can believe it; i can see it. they had a kind of effortless optimism, whereas the adults have to work themselves into optimism, but i was also intrigued that you got a lot into the story of your grandparents, and you did that right after you got this news.
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now, what was the reasoning there? - well, i think it was a couple of things. i think on the one hand, i really was trying to reflect back on my life, and since this book in so many ways was about voice, and kind of capturing my voice, i thought this was a compelling opportunity to go back through my life and try to figure out what voices had really shaped mine. i would say that was one reason. and as you're saying, i mean, the book itself unfolds with a series of letters that chronicle the journey--portraits of each of these dads and the life lesson i want them to embody, and then portraits of the various men in my life-- my father, my two grandfathers, father figures--and i think that really gets to the other reason, which is that this book became-- though i didn't set out to it-- it became really an exploration of being male today, and how fatherhood has changed over time. i would say this is the thing that women in particular have responded to with this book, and what they say, that they've learned so much--
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even indirectly about their own husbands--about how men communicate with one another. and i think a classic example of this is my paternal grandfather. he grew up--i grew up in savannah, georgia, as we were saying earlier--he grew up in the house immediately behind us. it was like right out of faulkner. and he got sick late in his life, and had a hard time dealing with it. he had parkinson's, and it was a time when men--this is a kind of a fourth-generation southerner-- didn't talk about these things. and one day he took his own life. it was a month before i was going to graduate from high school, and i think for a long time i believed that that really grew out of the fact that he couldn't express his feelings in any meaningful way. he left-- - his suicide note is very terse. - yeah, very terse. "i cannot live a sick man". but he had left behind at the time of his death 28 cassette tapes in which he chronicled his rise from dirt
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poverty in mississippi to a small-town lawyer in savannah, georgia, and my father had them transcribed, but no one had really read them, and when i got sick i went back and read them. and what was striking was that in these 28 cassette tapes, he never mentioned his mother by name, he never mentioned his wife by name, or their courtship, or their marriage; my dad, his brother, only in passing; the grandchildren, not at all. so i think that in a way he was really longing to tell his story, but his whole life he had no one to tell his story to. maybe in a kind of fundamental way, he was alone. now, compare that to the men of my generation. you know, i was having these six conversations with these men in the council of dads-- - it's the opposite. it's the polar opposite. - oh, my gosh, and all we're doing is talking about our friends, our feelings, our fears--even our weight. i mean, linda was like, "the things you guys are talking about are what the moms talk about at school drop-off". and so i think that that does... i think women are just kind of shocked by this in particular,
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a little bit relieved, like, "oh, that's what you guys talk about at the locker room door or when you're out fishing?" perhaps it's awkward, perhapsy-- it's not always smooth--in which men are trying to learn how to talk to other men. - and just to end on your ancestors, the collection of epitaphs. let's talk about that. - well, i learned that my mother's father, whom i never knew in some ways--his name was benjamin samuel--b.s.; my name is bruce steven feiler, and the b.s. is there--that it turned out that at the time of his death in 1961, he had left behind the world's largest collection of epitaphs: 9,000 epitaphs, which he had collected over 31 years. he would collect them every night. his wife would type them up, and he had them incredibly organized. they were donated to the smithsonian institution, the museum in washington, dc, and, again, i don't think anybody had seen them since 1960--i mean, who had the time to flip through-- so i went, i actually took
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my mother, and we went again-- i was on crutches at this time-- and i read every one. so here this is the year in which i'm thinking about death and in some ways trying to leave behind the story of my life if that's what was going to happen. and it turned out thamy grandfather collected death epitaphs. it was an astonishing discovery. and then i went after this to baltimore, maryland to look at his gravesite where... he had no epitaph! - that's the punch line. - my brother was, like, "it's the greatest example of writer's block you can think of". but for me it was, again, a way to connect to him, kind of doing these big projects, sort of like all-consuming, words and stories, and thinking about dying, and i think that one of the points that he makes--and there's a little introduction to this book--is about the value of this kind of experience of thinking about epitaphs because it takes you out of your everyday experience. and i think this is one of the things that i've learned
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from the entire episode of the council of dads in my life-- is that the act of thinking about dying doesn't sit on my shoulders as a burden. it feels to me not a weight on my shoulders, but like an engine at the back. like get out of bed, get out of the house, take your kids, take a walk, make a memory. it's this thg that kind of has propelled us all to live our lives. - it's what makes you say that your lost year was also your jubilee year. - you know, the idea of jubilee goes back to the first time you and i talked about the bible, and i've written a lot of books about the bible, and there's a quote on the liberty bell in philadelphia proclaiming "liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof", and that comes from the book of leviticus and from a passage in which it talks about how every seven years you're supposed to let the land lay fallow; every seven sets of seven years, the land gets an extra year of rest. now, what does it say
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we should do during that year? be reunited with our family


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