The first time I met David Black he was sitting in a blue ultra-suede barrel chair in his office overlooking the Flatiron Building in Manhattan. Five-foot-three-and-a-half, on a good day, in cowboy boots, he rubbed his fingers together like a shaman and peered out eagerly, lovable but still capable of killing a cobra.
Six years into my writing career, I had hit a wall. I had three books published but had no visible path to earning a living. With a platoon of bestseller lists on his wall and a roster of rising stars he helped manage, David Black was recommended as a would-be savior. A sports fan and workout fiend, David also had something none of the other candidates on my list had: A penis.
David would push the girls to imagine some unimaginable goal, then pick themselves up when that goal proved elusive. David would teach them how to dream.
He soon started proving it. He took one look at my six-foot-two body and announced, “If I were your height I’d be in the NBA.”
Self-delusion is a beautiful thing, but bravado is even better.
Especially in an agent.
Within days he was peppering me with phone calls and telling me that my entire approach to fulfilling my dreams was wrong. To a dreamer flat against the bricks of disappointment, the words were magic. I signed on eagerly.
But still I wondered: How do I get over the wall?
One unexpected gift of the Council of Dads was that it forced me to formalize what otherwise would have gone unsaid. It obliged me to sit down with my closest friends, tell them what they meant to me, then ask them to play an important role for my daughters. As my chemotherapy ticked on and my surgery grew closer, the men in my Council would have been there already. But by inviting these men into the innermost space of our lives, we were cementing a new kind of bond.
And by forcing us to sit down and discuss our lives, I began to detect certain patterns among these men. First was a new kind of maleness, one that would have been completely alien to my father’s father, or even to my own father. For starters, we talk – and fairly regularly. More important, we talk about things that were once the exclusive domain of women’s magazines and daytime chat shows: Our children, our feelings, even our bodies.
For me, no friend represents this new vernacular of modern manhood more than David Black. David is both a classic man’s man and a modern woman’s man. On the manly front, he picks up the phone with, “Yo, motherfucker!,” he’s hyper-competitive, and he’s prone to giving endless paeans about obscure bottles of wine. He even bought a convertible sports car for his fiftieth birthday. (Actually, like many a true guy, he’s impatient: He bought it on his forty-ninth.)
On the new-man front, he leaves work early to coach Little League, he hugs, he’s the first person to call when distress breaks and the last one to check in at the end of a crummy day. And he bakes. Someone asked me if David cried when I invited him to join my Council of Dads. “David cries when you invite him for a walk,” I said.
Part of this personality mix comes from deep childhood insecurities about his size and weight. I asked him what he looked like when he was younger. “I was chunky as a kid,” he said. “What does chunky mean?” I asked. His answer came swift. “Fat.”
David was born in Jackson Heights, Queens, and later moved to New Jersey. His father was an editor at William Morrow.
“Because my father was an editor, he used to work from home on Fridays,” David said. “I would always ask him to come out and play, and he wouldn’t because he had to work. He would sit alongside one of those old tube radios, listening to opera. I grew up hating opera because he would never come and play. To this day, I don’t like opera.”
Did he romanticize books because of his father?
“I admired what my father did, but I never wanted to do it. I wanted to work for myself. When I was a kid, I wanted a stereo. My parents told me I could have one, but only if I earned the money to pay for it. So I got a paper route. I delivered the Bergen Record off the back of my bicycle. After a few weeks, my mother drove by in the car and said, ‘Your father and I have been talking, and we’ve decided we’ll buy you a stereo.’ I said, ‘Mom, you can keep driving. I have a paper route to do.’”
David’s self-reliance, which at times can be bullheadedness, became a hallmark of his personality. At 21, he finally applied it to the one arena that most plagued him as a child. “I was working at Macy’s,” David said, “and I had put on a lot of weight. So I started running. From April to October I dropped forty pounds and entered the New York City Marathon. It was the single most formative experience of my life. Hands down. Not even close. Because it taught me that I can do what I set out to do. It harkened back to that time delivering newspapers. I had a goal. I was going to realize that goal. And nothing was going to stand in my way.”
Not even his father.
“I ran the last half of the race half an hour faster than the first,” David said. “And as I came to the twenty-fifth mile, my father came out into the road, happy to see me. I looked up and said, ‘Fuck off.’ I felt terrible the moment I said it, but I realized what I was doing. This was my moment. Nobody was going to take it from me. It’s no accident that a week later I met my wife.”
“You credit the marathon with meeting Melissa?” I asked.
“I was feeling good about myself. I was ready. Most men don’t articulate concerns about their bodies, but I bet you most men think about them. How often do you see somebody in the street with his belly hanging out over his belt, and he walks with a sense of anger about himself? You don’t feel good about yourself, you’re not going to be happy. I would tell that to your girls.”
A literary agent is a broker of dreams in a world in which most dreams don’t come true. It’s this aspect of David—his finesse at handling aspirations and setbacks—that is his greatest skill, and the gift Linda and I most wanted him to share with our daughters. David would push the girls to imagine some unimaginable goal, then pick themselves up when that goal proved elusive.
David would teach them how to dream.
Later, after the tears and the fear, after the poison started ravaging my blood, I asked David what he learned from all these years as a curator of dreams. What’s the most important gift you can give to a dreamer?
“The belief in their ability to succeed,” he said without pause. “Because when you believe in them, you give them the strength to believe in themselves.”
“But at that moment when I first walked into your office,” I said. “I didn’t believe. I’d been working my dream for a decade, and I wasn’t making it. I was at a wall.”
“I don’t see the wall,” he said. “And I’m telling you to be the same way. ‘Don’t see the wall.’ Of course you may encounter a wall from time to time, but you tear it down, walk through it. You find a way to get over it, or around it, or under it. You acknowledge it but move beyond it. Whatever you do, don’t succumb to it. Don’t give in to the wall.”
“So it’s 20 years from now,” I said. “Tybee or Eden Feiler plops down in your barrel chair. She has a dream. She wants to open a restaurant, or climb a mountain, or run a marathon, or write a book. But she’s scared. I can’t. It’s too hard. I don’t have the money. What do you tell her?”
“I tell her, ‘Let’s sit down and figure out what’s possible,’” he said. “‘Let’s make a road map to the top of the mountain, or a business plan for the restaurant, or an outline for the book. Let’s make the awesome mundane.’”
At times like this, David’s voice loses its bravado and its bluster. It gives up its towel-snapping manliness altogether. It shrinks instead to a near whisper and swells with the empathy of that chunky little boy, alone in the backyard, just waiting for the opera to end, who knows what it’s like to not believe in yourself and to want what you cannot have.
“And if, for some reason, that dream should fail?” I asked.
“Then I tell her, ‘Let’s find a dream that can work,’” he said. “It may not be the first dream, or the dream of the moment. But you shift your dreams. You find a dream that might come true. And when it does, you focus on the joy of the success rather than the devastation of defeat. Because in my experience, anybody can dream an impossible dream. But only a few find a dream that’s possible.
“And those are the ones that are happy.”`
© 2010 by Bruce Feiler. Adapted from The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness, and the Men Who Could Be Me. For more information, to watch an interview with Bruce Feiler and David Black or to download tips to start your own Council of Moms or Council of Dads, please visit www.councilofdads.com.
Bruce Feiler is the bestselling author of Walking the Bible, Abraham, and America’s Prophet, and the host of Walking the Bible on PBS. His new book, The Council of Dads, describes how he responded to a cancer diagnosis by asking six friends to help father his daughters.