The Seventeen Traditionsby Ralph Nader, David Wolf, David Wolf
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… See more details below
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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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The Seventeen Traditions
By Ralph Nader
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Ralph Nader
All right reserved.
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.
We learned to listen when guests were in the living room conversing with our parents. We learned to listen in school, which helped us avoid the restlessness of our schoolmates and enabled us to be more contemplative. We learned to listen to the evening radio network news, which sometimes had real relevance to our family--most memorably with the Pearl Harbor attacks of December 7, 1941, since my brother Shaf was nearing draft age. And we learned to listen to the spirited debates at the local town meetings and other public gatherings, instead of fidgeting and distracting our parents from their focus on the matters at hand.
My inclination for listening was a boon during the tens of thousands of miles I covered while hitchhiking. Half a century ago, hitchhiking was far more common--and safer--than it is today, and plenty of cars and trucks stopped to pick me up as I thumbed my way around the country. After a few introductory words, their drivers probably expected me to doze off for the balance of the trip. Instead, I saw every driver as an expert on some subject in his own right--whether he was a bricklayer, teacher, tree surgeon, factory worker, waiter, salesman, or a rug cleaner--and after asking an opening question or two, I just sat back, listened closely, and got a dose of enlightenment about each driver's life's skill or passion. My only regret is that I didn't carry a diary to write down some of the things I heard on these trips; still, what I did learn added up to a free extracurricular education--one that helped me interact with and understand a far broader selection of people than I would ordinarily have encountered as a high school, college, or law student.
Listening didn't always mean remaining silent. I learned early that good listening meant asking leading questions, and inserting verbal nudges that would tease out what you were really interested in learning. That early training helped me develop both my interviewing skills, which helped me throughout my career, and my patience in the long, often contentious, question-and-answer periods following my lectures and speeches. After sitting through one of these sessions, some reporters have written about what they call my "remarkable endurance." To me it has never been a matter of endurance, but rather the fruit of my family's tradition of listening in an effort to understand where other people were coming from.
Excerpted from The Seventeen Traditions by Ralph Nader Copyright © 2007 by Ralph Nader. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Ralph Nader was recently named by the Atlantic as one of the 100 most influential figures in American history, one of only four living people to be so honored. The son of immigrants from Lebanon, he has launched two major presidential campaigns and founded or organized more than one hundred civic organizations. His groups have made an impact on tax reform, atomic power regulation, the tobacco industry, clean air and water, food safety, access to health care, civil rights, congressional ethics, and much more.
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