My boyhood in a small town in Connecticut was shaped by my family, my friends, our neighbors, my chores and hobbies, the town's culture and environment, its schools, libraries, factories, and businesses, their workers, and by storms that came from nowhere to disrupt everything. . . . Yet childhood in any family is a mysterious experience. . . . What shapes the mind, the personality, the character? So begins this unexpected and extraordinary book by Ralph Nader. Known for his lifetime of selfless activism, Nader now looks back to the earliest days of his own life, to his serene and enriching childhood in bucolic Winsted, Connecticut. From listening to learning, from patriotism to argument, from work to simple enjoyment, Nader revisits seventeen key traditions he absorbed from his parents, his siblings, and the people in his community, and draws from them inspiring lessons for today's society. Warmly human, rich with sensory memories and lasting wisdom, it offers a kind of modern-day parable of how we grow from children into responsible adults-a reminder of a time when nature and community were central to the way we all learned and lived.
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January 31, 2007
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Excerpt from The Seventeen Traditions by Ralph Nader
The Tradition of Listening
One day, when she was in her mid-eighties, my mother and I were flying to California. Seated behind us was a young man. He started speaking with his seatmates before the doors to the airplane closed; kept talking as the plane took off; and was heard chatting over the Alleghenies, the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the fertile California valleys, and into San Francisco. He never stopped talking, except to gulp down a meal and visit the restroom. When we landed, Mother turned to me.
"He didn't learn much in the past five hours, did he?" she said.
Listen more than you speak, and think before you speak my mother told us from the time we were old enough to do either, and over time we heard her until it was no longer necessary. To our parents, other children seemed to talk too much, and much of it was sheer nonsense and mischief that went well beyond the normal exuberance of youth. That wasn't going to happen with their offspring. My mother was determined to make sure all her children knew how to listen--not because she wanted to discipline us, or because she put a premium on peace and quiet, but because she wanted us to learn.
Learning how to listen was a core, if subtle, part of our early education. Mother gave us endless opportunities to listen, as she poured history, insight, advice, neighborhood events, and family stories from her ancestors into our absorbing minds. She also reenacted in installments celebrated sagas such as the story of Joan of Arc, and drew on her memories of dramatic historical events and their meaning for the present.
Both my mother and my father grew up in the folk culture of Lebanon, before the era of radio and television, before even electricity had arrived in their midst. There were no distant voices channeled into their living rooms or headphones. Instead their listening came from two sources: other human beings and nature itself, all of it obviously nearby. For example, one ever-present sound in their lives was the braying of donkeys, found trudging everywhere, carrying their masters and all kinds of loads. An entire folklore embracing donkey stories and jokes--often featuring a peasant foil named Jeha, along with the classic fables of Bidpai--was part of the storytelling inheritance they absorbed daily. If you didn't listen, how could you remember these jokes to share with your friends? It wasn't as if there were donkey joke websites to refresh their memories. The ear sharpens the memory, and my parents' generation had a trained capacity for listening during the interactions of daily life, if only because they had no alternatives.
Our father's emphasis on listening came from another direction--from his interest in politics and justice. He knew the importance of seeing things counterintuitively, of skeptical observation, and he taught us to follow his example by subjecting us to Socratic questioning in any given setting. Even his passing conversation made us want to listen; his remarks were so interesting. He was especially piquant on matters of money and charity. "Far more people know how to make big money than know how to spend it in useful ways," he once told us. "After they pile it up, they hardly know what to do with it, except spoil their descendants." Learning how to listen became a form of discipline that was rewarding in itself. It was not inhibiting; we still talked quite a bit. Our parents still listened quite a bit. But we four children never overwhelmed the conversation.