The Seventeen Traditions, by Ralph Nader

When I was 14 years old, I heard Ralph Nader say that box cereal was less nutritious than the box it came in, and you'd get more nutrition out of tearing up the box and pouring sugar and milk over it, and eating that for breakfast. That's the kind of genius that Ralph Nader produces constantly, and why his ideas changed the world for Americans more than perhaps any political thinker of the late 20th century. He remains more relevant than virtually every other political thinker currently on the scene.

The Seventeen Traditions, by Ralph Nader

Postby admin » Wed Oct 30, 2013 2:17 am

by Ralph Nader
© 2007 by Ralph Nader
Designed by Kris Tobiassen
Illustrations by David Wolf




To My Parents, Nathra Nader and Rose Bouziane Nader
To Shafeek, Claire, and Laura
And to Young Parents

"Turn your back on the pack," I remember my mother telling me more than once during early childhood. Simple words, but they carried a few meanings in a very concise way. If we wanted to be leaders, we were taught -- if we wanted to think boldly, and to excel at what we did -- that we would have to be willing to be different.

Table of Contents:

Introduction: The Landscape of My Boyhood
1. The Tradition of Listening
2. The Tradition of the Family Table
3. The Tradition of Health
4. The Tradition of History
5. The Tradition of Scarcity
6. The Tradition of Sibling Equality
7. The Tradition of Education and Argument
8. The Tradition of Discipline
9. The Tradition of Simple Enjoyments
10. The Tradition of Reciprocity
11. The Tradition of Independent Thinking
12. The Tradition of Charity
13. The Tradition of Work
14. The Tradition of Business
15. The Tradition of Patriotism
16. The Tradition of Solitude
17. The Tradition of Civics
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Postby admin » Wed Oct 30, 2013 2:19 am

Introduction: The Landscape of My Boyhood


The bell rang at Central School one early autumn day, signaling that our eighth-grade classes were over. The other schoolboys and I headed boisterously for the exit doors. As we passed a girl in our class, one of the boys cocked his head toward her, looked at us, and said pointedly, "What a pig."

She heard him, of course, and as I looked back I saw her shattered expression before she walked away. The boys just laughed loudly. "Ugh," one of them added, seconding the remark. I was stunned. This girl was one of our friendliest, and most helpful, classmates. We'd all been in the same class with her since the first grade. Everyone liked her. As I walked home, I found myself unable to shake off this sudden episode. What was her crime, I asked myself? She wasn't one of the beauties in our class, but was that her fault? Did she deserve this boy's casual cruelty? Nothing of this kind had happened when we were in the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, or seventh grades. Why now?

For the rest of that day and into the evening, I couldn't stop thinking about that girl's crestfallen expression, and the sneering, insensitive look on the boy's face. The fellow who'd made the comment wasn't a class bully or a loudmouth. But that afternoon, glancing at an innocent thirteen-year-old girl, he was hurtful to her. She was just another girl in the class, perhaps a little plain-faced and pale. What had she done to warrant his verbal fury? Was his real goal to impress us, by demonstrating that he knew who was attractive and who wasn't? Whatever the explanation, I suspected that the onset of puberty had taken over the boy's mind -- that the lower half of his growing body was taking over his top half, where his brain lived, displacing years of looking at the girl for who she was and not how she looked. In this respect, that boy had been a better person at nine or ten than he was that day.

I'd like to think that my siblings and I weren't guilty of such behavior. But when we did act up, my mother had a standard response. Whenever she felt we'd let our baser instincts stop us from thinking for ourselves, she'd say, "I believe it's you." There's nothing wrong with that girl, she'd have told that thoughtless boy. But there is something wrong with you, for prejudging her that way. That always set us straight.

As an adult, I've often noticed how common it is for people to accept conventional, commercially driven definitions of human beauty -- indeed, to accept conventional ideas of all kinds. And I've always been grateful to my childhood, in all its fullness, for teaching me to challenge preconceptions and reject conformity or coercion, those influences that inflict so much pain, deprivation, and tragedy upon our communities and societies today. Despite all my years of higher education at Princeton University and Harvard Law School, I might never have learned to think this way without the guidance of my parents, my family, and the small-town community where I grew up.

In these times of widespread conformity and self-censorship, I find myself thinking back upon my childhood, recalling what made it special for me and for my brother and sisters. Recently I've found myself thinking that I should share these memories with others, in the hope that they might offer guidance and inspiration for the parents, children, and grandchildren of today. And what I hope will be especially helpful, in this very different world we inhabit, are my memories of the traditions in which my childhood was immersed -- traditions that remain vivid in my mind, and that guide me to this day.


I am often asked what forces shaped me. Rather than trying to give a full answer to that question -- which would take longer than a limited interview would allow -- I often reply simply, "I had a lucky choice of parents." My brother, two sisters, and 1 had a remarkable father and mother, who cared for us in both direct and subtle ways. The examples of their lives set us on the solid paths we have explored ever since.

Among other things, my parents were responsible for passing down the traditions they had learned from the generations before them -- traditions they refined and adapted to the unfamiliar country and culture to which they had emigrated early in the twentieth century. These traditions arose from the received wisdom and customs they had learned during their own childhoods in Lebanon, elaborated by their own judgments, sensibilities, and changing circumstances. In turn, they were nourished by regular feedback from their acculturating children, which they encouraged.

Mother and Father each lived to be just short of a century old; we benefited from their seasoned perspectives and wisdom for many, many years. They were forever young, exemplifying my mother's strong belief in the importance of remaining "interested and interesting." And they succeeded in doing this throughout their lives, attracting ever-younger friends to visit, whether we children were home or not. They created the strong family base from which my siblings and I sallied forth into the wider world, full of new experiences and high expectations.

That base was, in part, a matter of locale. My parents made a conscious choice to move to Winsted, a small town nestled in the Litchfield Hills of northwestern Connecticut, where I was born in the middle of the Depression.

Winsted was, and wasn't a typical New England town. Through it ran the Mad River and the Still River, named by the settlers who arrived in those dense woods in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Connecticut is dotted with such mill towns, which depended on the rivers to power their factories. Most of these towns were small, dominated by one or two large factories. Winsted. on the other hand, had spawned a hundred factories and fabrication shops by 1900, and these factories in turn gave rise to homes, shops, and other businesses -- including probably more drinking bars per square yard than any town east of the Mississippi. The town of Winchester, which includes Winsted. is shaped like a lopsided rectangle that angles from the southwest to the northeast. The land is very hilly with ridges, upland lakes, and the valley where most of the factories, stores, schools, and homes were located. When my father opened his restaurant-bakery along the town's mile-long Main Street, the local population was ten thousand, in an area roughly the size of Manhattan.

It was a walking town. In those days, youngsters didn't have to rely on Mama or Papa to drive them around. Nor were there school buses, except for the really distant rural homes. You walked. I walked. It was a good town for walking, with its tree-shaded streets, well-kept sidewalks, and access to just about everything for our needs, wants, and whims. Just a brisk walk away -- no more than fifteen to twenty minutes -- were the schools, the playgrounds, most of the homes, the town hall, the movie theater, the shops, the factories, the daily newspaper offices, the library, the historical society, the hospital and churches, police and fire departments, dentists, doctors, lawyers, the railroad station, the post office, the electric and telephone companies, and the county courtroom.

Winstedites could walk up nearby hills to visit the dairy farms where their milk came from, to relax at Highland Lake (the second largest natural lake in Connecticut), or to explore any number of quieter meadows, woods, and streams. It was a good community for families raising children, with no cement, asphalt, or skyscrapers sealing the people off from the land, the water, their beloved gardens, or the sky, with its breezes and horizons. Nature, unsequestered, inspired my mother to sing so often, "Oh, what a beautiful morning!"

My mother and father had both grown up in small communities themselves. My paternal grandfather died when my father was an infant. Dad grew up with his mother, sister, and brother in the little village of Arsoon, in the mountains of Lebanon. The swimming hole in Arsoon provided an inviting setting, and my father impressed the neighborhood boys with his diving skills every year. As children, we never tired of his stories about daring jumps into the cold mountain waters. Mother grew up in Zahle, a foothill town above Lebanon's fertile Bekaa Valley, the country's breadbasket. She was the fourth daughter in a family of eight girls. My grandparents took four cousins under their wing and raised them along with their own children.

Our parents' families preserved both their own traditions, passed down by their ancestors, and newer traditions learned from their experiences with foreign occupation -- first the Ottoman Turks, then the French. Our parents always stressed that the best from the old should be merged with the best from the new. Winsted's other immigrant families -- Irish, Italian, Polish, and other Eastern Europeans, who worked in the textile, hardware, and clock factories and shops -- seemed to feel the same way. Grown-ups and children spent far more time with each other than is the case today, and the wisdom flowed freely between them.


Winsted was a true community, known for its frequent parades and lively public life. The sidewalks of Main Street were often bustling with townspeople shopping and doing their errands. Neighbors knew each other well and visited regularly, for television had not yet arrived. Most of the national service clubs and associations of those years, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Rotary, the Kiwanis, the Lions, the Elks, the Knights of Columbus, the Red Cross, the Masons, the Salvation Army, the YMCA, had chapters in town. Most factory workers were able to afford a mortgage on a modest house and a secondhand car, if not a new one, and after World War II federal housing assistance programs helped the returning veterans make their way. Situated snugly in the picturesque Litchfield Hills, Winsted -- then the seat of Litchfield County -- enjoyed the status of being the last stop on the railroad line from New York City. Until the 1940s, seven trains left Winsted for the Big City each day. It was like being at the headwaters of a mighty river -- one that flowed both ways.

Winsted also had the reputation of a town where argument flourished. It was known for its noisy town meetings, and for the heady conversations that erupted constantly in its bars, restaurants, and grocery stores, not to mention the post office and the town hall. The town still followed the New England town meeting tradition, in which residents voted each year to approve -- or disapprove -- the budget. The people of Winsted weren't inclined to delegate their fights to elected representatives. Instead they aired their concerns in a constant stream of public debate, much of which found its way into the local newspaper, the Winsted Evening Citizen. Our town was one of the smallest in the country with its own daily newspaper, and the residents took full advantage of the megaphone it afforded them.

Winsted had the misfortune of enduring a recurrent natural disaster, courtesy of the Mad River, whose waterpower encouraged the construction of several factories on its banks. Again and again, though, the Mad Rivet overflowed those banks, giving rise to three generations of catastrophic floods that culminated in a devastating hurricane-fed wall of water that socked the town in August 1955. Each new flood led to innumerable problems, and innumerable questions for the townspeople to grapple with -- a veritable reservoir of municipal conflict, resolution, or procrastination.

Yet Winsted never seemed cowed by the regular assaults of the Mad River. For a town of its size, it produced an impressive array of long-lasting philanthropic institutions, including the Litchfield County Hospital, the Beardsley and Memorial Library, the Gilbert School, and the grassroots charity known as the Volunteer Winsted Fire Department.

The towns givers were matched, of course, by its takers -- led by the industrial factories, which were low-paying and vigorously anti-union. The older companies were always vigilant about keeping new union factories out of the area. They seemed equally determined to keep fresh air and water at bay, using those two resources as their pollution sinks and sewers. The original factories were not very charitable institutions. And in the 1950s many of their founders' descendants lost their competitive spirit and sold out to absentee owners, who soon moved or closed down their acquisitions. By the time my siblings and I were off at college, Winsted was evolving from a diverse, self-contained mill town to a bedroom town, full of workers who commuted to jobs in Hartford, Torrington, and Waterbury. The air and water became cleaner after the factories closed, but the toxic soils and hollowed-out buildings remained, economic tripwires to any prospects of new development in the area.

As with many such communities, Winsted in those years was marked by ethnic and religious divisions, and these in turn were linked to economic hierarchies. In those years, the town was 99 percent white. There was a calm, though by no means complete, social self-segregation between the Protestant and Catholic families, preserved by the memberships of the town's large Catholic church and the four Protestant churches. There was little bitter overt hostility between the groups; for better or worse, people knew their social place. Civically, on the other hand, all bets were off. The first generation of immigrants knew that the old-line Yankees ran the town and controlled the economy, but with each decade their children and grandchildren asserted more and more political power, and by the 1950s the Yankee industrialists' children were leaving town for more affluent communities.

My boyhood in this small town 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 those storms that came from nowhere to disrupt everything. All these things defined my mental landscape. Yet childhood in any family is a mysterious experience, one that transcends its most obvious parts. What are the elements that influence human development? Water, air, and nutrition interact with genetic material to develop the body, including the brain. But what shapes the mind, the personality, the character? Try explaining why one sister or brother comes out so differently from the others when they all were raised in the same household, by the same parents, under the same economic, social, educational, and recreational circumstances. Mysterious it is, but that only makes the process more fascinating.

Years later, I came to realize that my own experience as a child had been touched very deeply by certain objects that were part of my natural surroundings -- objects that stimulated my senses and mind in a lasting way. As a little boy I embraced their presence, and allowed them to usher me into an intimate world of imagination, curiosity, reverie, wonder, and awe. They afforded me a sense of solitude, quietude, and comfort; they served as speechless hosts for my childhood communion.

During my early teens, my older brother, Shafeek, gave me a book by James Harvey Robinson, the noted social and intellectual historian. Much of the book was beyond my years, but one thing in this slim volume remained with me -- Robinson's emphasis on the importance of reverie in daily life. As I entered adulthood, I found that reverie became harder and harder to achieve in any given day, in our society of instant communication, fast food, fast commuting, and ever faster ways for everything.

By the early 1970s, we were well on our way to the total immersion experience of the television age, in which most children watched thirty to forty hours of TV a week. They read less and their vocabulary decreased. The decades that followed saw the arrival of twenty-four-hour cable television, VCRs, home computer games, and the Internet -- each in turn cementing the place of the TV screen in our children's lives. In those years I remember reading about the Fresh Air Fund, a program that offers New York City's poor children a chance to spend a few summer weeks in the countryside. For many of these children it was the first time that they had ever walked on soil, on earth! It was the first time they smelled fresh cut grass and hay. For some, it was the first time they'd seen an authentic sunset, not just the televised variety. Today, children everywhere are deprived of exposure to nature in the same way; they grow up with their eyes, ears, tastes, and other senses trained on a corporate world of sensual virtual reality -- removed, as no other generation in human history, from the daily flow and rhythm of nature.

How very different were my early years, lived so close to nature's bounty. When I reflect back on the importance of my family and my childhood, I find that my mind often floods with imagery from these natural surroundings that stirred my imagination in those years. What became a little world to me, as an adult, was a very large world to me as a child. Nature has its own power, drawing us into its magical ambience. And I remember it vividly:


A child does not take sounds for granted. Especially nature's sounds, emanating from unseen or mysterious sources. Repetition never dulls their music.

An old-timer down at the school ball yard once told me that no creature in the animal or insect kingdoms makes a sound without a purpose. As a child, I challenged myself to separate one sound from the next, distinguishing them as birdwatchers do. On summer nights, it was nearly impossible to pick out the strands of the cacophony that drifted in from the fields, bushes, and trees -- so many creatures were engaged in their ritualistic recitals. But I listened as the peepers and crickets talked with one another. I even tried to hear the lightning bugs, the fireflies, though they remained silent in their inscrutable luminosity.

Other sounds were harder to ignore. I never enjoyed the barking of the neighborhood dogs, the neurotic domesticated canines whose incessant yelping interrupted the feral sounds of the outdoors. But the most perceptibly urgent and haunting sounds were the high-pitched snarls of the cats at mating time. Before the birds and bees were explained to me, I knew what these tomcats were up to. They kept me awake more than a few nights. I much preferred the sounds of the primeval woods and fields, especially the long howling winds as they swirled through hills and valleys, swaying the trees and bending the tall grasses.

There were other songs that rang true to my ears. The daily mooing of cows on the hilly outskirts of town reminded us that soon the dairy farmers would deliver their fresh milk. The splashing and gurgling of nearby brooks and streams seemed as though it had been ongoing for thousands of years. As I sat by these flowing waters, waiting to see a fish here and a tadpole or frog there, my schoolboy's patience paled in comparison with those eternal waves.


Directly in front of the stairs leading to our house stood a magnificent maple, more than sixty-five feet tall. Its branches spread before my bedroom window, and they were my four distinct seasons, my wildlife menagerie, and my mystery forest, all in one. In the springtime its leaves sprouted and matured quickly, inviting squirrels to climb and leap around with abandon. Its interior spaces hosted birds of every variety-- imperious crows, friendly chickadees, stately blue jays, motherly robins, hardheaded woodpeckers, frequent sparrows, even the occasional cardinal. I watched them flitting about on the smaller branches and twigs, and wondered about the meaning of their calls to one another. The effusive crows would wake me up with their insistent territorial sparring. When it got too loud, I would slam the window shut.


With the coming of the New England autumn, the leaves turned dazzling colors, and when they fell, they turned the road, lawns, and sidewalks into a carpet of leafy beauty. I loved walking through their ankle-deep drifts, kicking the fragrant, starchy leaves into the air or collecting the best ones to place in my schoolbooks. Our street was full of large maple trees, so the fall produced a canopy of brilliant hues high above the street where the trees meshed with one another across both sides of the road to form their protective ceiling. Even today, just the crunch or rustle of fallen leaves underfoot kindles within me a nostalgia for those days of bonding with the ebb and flow of the seasons.

Yet nothing could quite match the beauty of this maple a few weeks later, when wet snowflakes clung to its bark in the early morning hours after the season's first snowfall. The maple in wintertime became a sound runnel for the symphony of wind, as it fluttered and whistled, then growled and howled. It synchronized nature's forces into a veritable orchestra for my young ears. The maple was so strong and deeply rooted that no winter wind or hurricane gust ever stripped anything more than an exposed twig from its mooring. We never named the tree, but for me it had a personality nonetheless; I associated it with a cluster of mysteries I imagined while lying in bed next to my outdoor companion. In my eleventh year we grew closer, once I was tall and strong enough to latch on to the lowest sturdy branch and swing back and forth. The following year, still taller, I learned how to climb this giant, scrambling ever higher into its skyward reaches -- while my mother stood below, reminding me to respect the law of gravity.


The maple was only the largest of the many trees in my childhood landscape. The green apple tree in our yard was easy to climb, easier to sit on, but the apples bordered on mangled. Worms got them, bugs got to them. Only a few apples at a time were good enough to eat, but the scarcity had its own appeal. To find an apple that was edible was a treat, all the more enjoyable because it was a surprise.

The pear tree, just a few feet from our kitchen, was something else. This wasn't a tree for climbing. It had more serious business, which was to produce a regular crop of delicious pears every year. To this day I can taste the juices of the pears I plucked from its reachable branches or picked up from the ground. During the winter, my mother let us savor the preserves from the tree's overflowing harvest. It was such a sweetie of a tree, demanding nothing but some sun and rain and producing in return its wondrous fruit for some forty years before it gave out. As a young Yankee fan, I couldn't help likening it to the "old faithful" of my team, the clutch-hitting first baseman Tommy Henrich.

We even had a Concord grape arbor. Its output was erratic, but when it ripened, the large purple grapes were both very juicy and very sour -- far better to look at than to devour.


Near the large field behind our street was our garden, where my parents planted an assortment of vegetables in our very rocky New England soil. The pebbles and stones were countless; I knew this firsthand, because one of my chores was to clear them out to make room for the tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, string beans, rhubarbs, radishes, parsley, and squash. I learned to admire farmers whose families had to care for so many acres of planted furrows and orchards when I realized how much work it took to manage our plot, which was the size of a large living room.

One summer, when I was nine or ten, a mysterious unseen creature took a keen liking to the lettuce plants in our garden. I was appointed the lookout for whatever omnivorous beast was raiding our crop. Soon enough I spotted a rabbit happily chewing away in our little plot, and I gave chase. The rabbit took off, but I gamboled off after him, holding a large rock in my hand. When I finally overtook him, the trespassing herbivore suddenly froze and looked frightfully at his towering assailant. I lofted the stone in the air, aiming at him from less than four feet away. For a few seconds I just stood there, breathing hard from the run, my hand suspended overhead. I saw those wide open eyes, and the crouching bunny to whom they belonged. But something held me back.

Finally, I put down the rock and turned back. The rabbit scampered, then hopped away. I could not explain what had happened in my mind, except that it had a lot to do with the image of a dead rabbit, its eyes closed. Looking back on that moment today, I know that that's when I realized I would never be a hunter -- perhaps seeding my interests in safety, health, and conservation. I learned something about myself on that day of no regrets -- among other things, that there were ways to defend a lettuce patch without destroying an innocent rabbit nibbling its meal.


Not every friend I made in childhood could be found in my yard. One unlikely companion was just a few minutes' walk away -- a boulder I came to think of as "the rock."

I discovered the rock as a boy of four, and immediately felt a kinship with it. Sometime in the late nineteenth century, it had been placed within the spacious grounds of the Soldier's Monument in the town of Winchester, where Winsted was located. Built to memorialize three hundred soldiers, including several dozen who died in the Civil War, the monument was an imposing, three-story, sixty-three-foot Gothic Revival structure on a two-acre hilltop spread donated by a local benefactor.

The rock sat near the circular dirt road that rounded the monument. More times than I can remember, my mother would give me a sandwich or an apple, and off I would scamper to eat it on my rock. It was some four feet high and about as wide; to a boy of four it seemed larger. But clambering up to the side of the rock was easy, and at the top was a comfortable seat. All kinds of insects seemed to love to crawl over the rock, and I took great joy in following their trails, noting their amazing variety and knack for coexistence. On a clear evening I could look up at the stars from that perch, wondering what was out there. When it was cool on a sunshiny day, I would hug the rock for warmth.


As a ten-year-old, I flew kites from the rock, unleashing hundreds of feet of string as my brightly colored kites soared in the brisk breeze high above the woods and houses in the eastern part of town. Sometimes I couldn't control the pull on the kite, and the string would leap from my grasp or break clean off. When I finally got it stabilized as high as it would go, though, I would tie the string to an iron tether ring -- driven into the rock during the horse-and-buggy days -- and watch it fly.

I never attributed any mystical or animistic qualities to the old rock. In its mute solidity it was simply a place to be, a place to rest, a place to play, a place to dream.


In colonial times, the woods of northwestern Connecticut were considered nearly impenetrable. In my youth they were still plenty dense, but negotiable in our daily walk to school. Half the fun was getting there, whether I went alone or with a school chum or two. Once we were out the back door, we headed up a flight of steps, through a field, across a pair of small roads, past the monument, and then we plunged into the woods. Downhill we went, over old stone walls, past a small but intriguing cave, through a thicket of trees and bushes, until we reached the residential street that led to the Central School. Wet, dry, snow drifts, butterflies, birds, rodents, birch trees, high grasses, ledges, trails, shafts of sunshine, gusts of wind -- it all took a few minutes, but the woods were never tiresome and always engrossing. There was always a piece of wood to whittle, a dead branch to strip and to turn into a staff, a smooth stone to hurl high through the trees, mica to astonish, a snake to slither away at the sound of our footsteps, or a granite foothold to leap from as we hurtled down the wooded slope. It was fun, liberating, and when the snows turned into drifts just a little perilous, our school day was made a little more adventuresome.



The fields and the meadows were for romping, just romping, jumping, skipping, and rolling in the grass. They were for inspecting beetles and chasing grasshoppers, marveling at butterflies and plant-circling bumblebees and other pollinators, and staring at the incredible hovering hummingbirds. Meadows were for pulling out blades of stiff grass and humming tunes with them. They were for spotting ants and anthills and crawling closer to watch their amazing, selfless work instincts and drive to bring food or their fallen kin back to their underground lairs. Ants never seemed to get discouraged, no matter how many times they were thwarted -- a trait that did not escape my notice, even at the age of seven.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once defined a weed as a plant whose virtues were yet to be discovered, and in those days before herbicides and lawncare firms, we never gave a thought to the difference between grasses and weeds. Dandelions were beautiful to me, as were a large variety of flowers -- daisies, black-eyed Susans, day lilies, jack-in-the-pulpits, whether they were in vogue or not. I made a study of their petals and stems, and of the busy, focused insects that were attracted to them.


Near our home were two lakes -- the recreational Highland Lake, and Crystal Lake, a smaller lake, on even higher ground, that served as our precious drinking water reservoir. Crystal Lake was just to be seen -- no fishing or swimming. The town officials wanted to keep it as pure as possible. Highland Lake was another matter, and it was crowded with boats and swimmers, cottages and year-round homes. Polio was the great fear for many mothers of that period; doctors weren't yet completely sure of how the disease was spread, and many gave stern instructions to keep children away from crowded beaches. So I didn't swim very often in our lake, but we did motor or, with my two sisters and brother, walk around some of its seven miles of circumference. What excited me most as a little fellow were the spillways. The lake would spill over the road at two points, cascading down to the fast-moving Mad River a quarter mile below. My father would drive through the spillway waters, and to me, those five seconds of spraying water made it feel like we were on a brief ocean voyage.


Things sure look big when you're small.


The two rivers that crisscrossed our town's valley, the Still River and the Mad River, were troubled waters of different kinds. The appropriately named Mad River was the longtime source of several Main Street-destroying floods. But for decades it had also been receiving the bulk of the sewage from the towns and factories on its banks. The Still River, in like fashion, seethed with such an assortment of chemical dyes from the bordering textile and other factories that it looked at times like a botched rainbow.

As a result, there was no fishing to be had in these rivers, no swimming or picnics by their banks. The industries there and upstream had long since taken control, using these rivers as their sewers and dumping grounds, stealing the watery arteries from generations of Winstedites. Back then, most townspeople assumed that rivers were primarily for receiving waste -- so much so that few of us seemed to feel robbed of our rivers. Without them, we were told, the plants would have never been built there. Worse yet, the standing pollution from the factories gave the town government little incentive to process its own municipal sewage. The rise of the environmental movement, and the cries of "Hey, these are our rivers," were still years away.

We still had many lessons to learn.


When I say snow, I mean huge snowfalls -- twenty to thirty inches at a time, sometimes piled on top of earlier drifts. I can still feel the swirls of wind-drenched snow filling my ears, neck, nose (I never liked hats, gloves, or scarves), the huge drifts we would plunge into with squealing bravado, and the endless shoveling of walks, stairs, and driveways. Sleds we used in order to go down moderate or steeper hills. But nothing could match up with what we called the "huge jump." The portal to the Soldier's Monument was a structure that was made of stone and looked like a giant quadrangular chess rook. It was probably about fifteen feet high. When the snow drifts reached six or seven feet, we would climb up to the top and jump into the drifts, our little bodies nearly disappearing into the deep pits our momentum created. Then we would go back and do it again. Snow, for us, was never something to be avoided. It was to be relished, battled, tackled, and deployed for sliding, plunging, and molding into different forms and shapes.

Our New England schools almost never closed. Except for the few who came from miles away, most of the students walked to school. Whatever the weather, we were expected to tough it out. Today, two- or three-inch dustings commonly close some urban and suburban schools. But when I was a boy, a good snowfall still brought out the best in us -- among the children, who weren't afraid to trudge through a snowbank to get to school and among the adults, who felt more obliged as neighbors to shovel their sidewalks -- sidewalks that were used back then far more than now. It was a matter of pride.


Today the sight of stars has been abolished from city skies, debauched as they are by pollution, neon, and streetlights. From Winsted's hills, during the early 1940s, we could see the stars with a clarity that allowed us to identify many of them without difficulty. The North Star, the Big Dipper, and the Little Dipper were familiar sights in our sky throughout the year.

For me, the stars were replete with fantasy, wish, wonder, with a sense of awe at the vastness, even eeriness, of the unknown. They stirred sentiments that exhilarated me as surely as many people are moved by great music. As I reclined on the rock, lay half-asleep outside on our porch, or just stood on our lawn, I found the stars nearly overwhelming. Are those stars or planets? I wondered. How far away are they? Do people live on them? Do they really spin around or move at incredible speeds? Could they ever smash into the Earth? Everything around me seemed to melt away at the sight of the stars. Though I was too little to put it into words, I was already feeling a sense of fascination with the idea of infinity, and with the ultimate secrets of the universe. And those ideas were real -- not something that could be turned on and off with a remote control, no screen to keep me at a distance from nature's reality.

Did living this way -- embedded not within a cacophony of electronic visualization and flashy advertisements, but within the natural world -- make a difference?

It did for one little boy growing up in northwestern Connecticut.


Of course, I didn't have this landscape all to myself. In fact, as the baby of the family, I was sometimes the last in line to appreciate nature's wonders. But the embrace of my family, and my status as the youngest, gave me many advantages. I was following a path already traveled by my parents Rose and Nathra, my older brother, Shafeek, and my two sisters, Claire and Laura. As the last in line, I took a lot of ribbing. But somehow that only made me more observant and responsive to my elders.

My father had come to this country by steamship in 1912, at the age of nineteen. He had twenty dollars in his pocket, but he had confidence in his abilities, and a willingness to work hard. His first job was in Detroit, doing piecework at an automobile factory. From there he worked in one of the large textile mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a short time after the historic labor upheavals of those years. Then he moved to Newark, New Jersey, where he became a small distributor of groceries in that kinetic multiethnic melting pot. He had always intended to start his own business, and finally started a grocery store in Danbury, Connecticut. But he wanted to live in a smaller town, for he believed that a family would be best served by a place where people knew each other and life was more stable, less chaotic and disruptive.

In the early 1920s, my father returned to Lebanon. When he came back to Connecticut in 1925, with his nineteen-year-old bride, he found just the kind of place he wanted in the town of Winchester, which includes the town of Winsted. Winchester fit the measurements of the polis, the ideal small city-state outlined by the ancient Greeks. Pop found a building he liked on Main Street in Winsted, a building with upstairs apartments and a storefront on the ground level. He rented out the apartments, and below he opened up the Highland Sweet Shop, which eventually became a full-service restaurant and bakery he called the Highland Arms.

My mother was a standout student. After graduation she quickly became a teacher, first in her hometown and then in a nearby town -- already an adventurous move for those times, when single women were to remain under their family's roof until they married. At that time village school boards tested a teacher's knowledge publicly before hiring, an event mother recalled with amusement over how she handled the challenge. Within months influenza struck that community and many of her students were stricken. Against all advice, mother insisted on visiting each of her students at home. She attributed some of her immunity to huge doses of raw garlic and fresh oranges daily. In her adopted country she gave birth to four children in her first nine years of marriage, and assumed the twin role of mother and active community-minded citizen.

Her first born, Shafeek (which means "the compassionate one" in Arabic), was wise beyond his years as a youngster. He took responsibility as a family duty. He loved exploring Winsted and the surrounding towns, farms, forests, and lakes with map in hand. He was the unusual big brother who took a continual interest in his younger siblings -- in our well-being, our education, and our horizons. When he went off to the Navy in World War II, we felt like we were losing our coach -- our source of curiosity and adventure, the older brother who taught us to dream about unusual futures.

Claire was the classic big sister. She filled in when my mother was preoccupied with other family or community matters, making sure I ate my food and did my chores. A selfless child, she regularly tended to the needs of others. During the war we raised chickens for their eggs and meat, and Claire disliked -- indeed abhorred -- plucking the feathers off a chicken we were preparing to have for dinner. But she found other joys in life, among them playing the piano.

Laura was an independent, mischievous child. When she was about two years old, she wriggled out of her carriage when no one was looking; my mother found her calmly trying to pet an unusually sociable black garden snake in the backyard. She was a runner, and very independent; she liked going where no one in the family had yet gone. But she also loved her sleep, and her piano lessons, and the banana split sundaes her big brother made for her in the restaurant.

Together we made a nicely balanced family, a mutually enriching group who enjoyed and benefited from each moment we spent together. Like nature itself, a family has certain built-in purposes: to protect its members, to nurture its children, to propagate itself so that it survives and thrives from generation to generation. Historically, the family is also the channel through which traditions are conveyed. In the distant past, traditions were shaped and enforced by larger groups -- tribes, clans, and sects -- from the top down, gradually trickling down through the extended family and then the nuclear family. Often this was done through social sanctions, sometimes with an iron fist. Today, except for some extended first-generation immigrant families, the job of passing down traditions is left to the nuclear family, and to many broken two-parent collaborations. Without the support of a strong community, the family is on its own, often forced to handle its regenerative and comforting functions while dealing with everything from economic insecurity and long work hours to the omnipresent commercialization of childhood.

Family, in short, is a gift. If you tried to put a value on all the functions American families perform, as though they were being purchased in the commercial marketplace, their total cost would compare favorably with the gross national product. Indeed, outsourcing family services to the market is already a formidable industry. And it will become more common unless we take to heart the intangible, noncommercial role that functional families play in the spiritual and material lives of our children. As helpful as many family services are, they can no more substitute for the real thing than the purchase of infant formula can replace the gift of natural mother's milk.

In our fast-moving contemporary society, the mounting external pressures felt by most families are eroding their ability to protect and nourish their children -- to offer the guidance that helps children to face the world around them. Still, I believe this tide can be turned. The most devastated families in our history -- those who survived the serial brutality of slavery -- managed in many heroic instances to pass their traditions from one generation to the next, even as their oppressors tried every means they had to stop them. This resilience, under horrendous conditions, is a testament to the primordial, universal human need to invest the raising of our children with meaning, and with a sense of connectedness to the world around them.

As I look back on my own childhood, I realize how fortunate we were that our parents understood their own familial pasts, and that the traditions they observed in their own families would offer them an important framework as they tried to give their children healthy roots and prepare them for stable, well-directed lives in their new country. And so, in these pages, I have tried to capture some of my family's traditions as I experienced them in childhood and recall them today. I share them not as recipes or prescriptions, but as stimuli for your own thoughts and recollections -- as an occasion to revisit lessons passed on within your own family. Such family traditions challenge the notion that the fads, technologies, how-to manuals, and addictions of modern life have somehow taken the place of the time-tested wisdom fashioned in the crucibles of earlier generations.

The garb may change, after all, but the wearer does not.
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Postby admin » Wed Oct 30, 2013 2:27 am

1. 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 counter-intuitively, 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 patents 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.

As we grew older, we learned to listen and respond to the arguments of others who disagreed with us. Especially when we were young, Mother and Father made it clear that incessant talking obstructed the mind from receiving new information and improving itself. She encouraged us, in the fullest sense of the phrase, to keep an open mind. "The more you talk, the less you'll have to say," she would remind us. "The more you listen, the more sensible will be what you say."
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Postby admin » Wed Oct 30, 2013 2:29 am

2. The Tradition of the Family Table


The Wall Street Journal once devoted an entire editorial to the subject of my mother. After another paper ran a story noting that she sometimes sent us off to school with a handful of chickpeas -- instead of candy, presumably -- and scraped the sugary frosting off of birthday cakes, the Journal took my mother to task for her "puritanical" ways. We did not take exception to my mother's attitudes toward food; in fact, the cake-scraping eventually became a family joke. For some bizarre reason, though, she evidently got under the skin of the hidebound reactionaries at the Journal. (Maybe they'd just run out of complaints against me.)

My mother was highly amused by the screed. She was so far ahead of them and their adherents regarding what food is all about. And what it's all about is not just food. For Mother, the family table was a mosaic of sights, scents, and tastes, of talking and teaching, of health, culture, beauty, history, stimulation, and delight. For Dad, it was a time to pepper us with questions, never thinking for a moment that they might have been over our heads. So what about the leader theory of history? he would ask. Do leaders make changes, or do they largely reflect dynamic pressures on the ground? Or: How did the Treaty of Versailles affect the economic conditions facing a devastated Germany after World War I? Much of our upbringing happened in our compact kitchen -- tucked between two pantries in our Winsted home and at our family table.

Mother invented a wide variety of recipes, using her own intuition and judgment, the way her forebears did. Our diet was heavy with different kinds of fresh beans, vegetables, fruits, grains, lamb, and fish. Among my favorite dishes was Shaykh il Mihshee ("the king of stuffed food"), a baked eggplant stuffed with minced lamb, pine nuts, and onions, garnished with tomatoes and served on long-grain rice with a tossed salad. Mother did not like fatty foods. She never fed us hot dogs, not because she knew they were bad, but because she just didn't know what was in them. She believed in serving a healthful variety of simple foods, and didn't like to fuss over food. She cooked quickly, washing her utensils as she went along, preparing food from scratch -- no canned foods or processed meats and grains. And she held to the rule -- everything in moderation -- even our morning cod liver oil (yikes!).

In the Arabic language, words of endearment are derived from the world of food. "How delicious you are," parents tell their children, or "How tasty," or "How tender." Sounds funny in English, but in Arabic such comments are ancient, routine, and heartfelt. As much as she loved us, though, my mother never asked her young children what we wanted to eat. Why? Because "young children don't know what is good for them," she observed after we were grown. "They don't have to like what they eat; they just have to eat it." We were expected to eat everything on our plates. "If children find out that not eating will bring lots of attention, men they will frustrate their parents by making a scene again and again at the kitchen table," she said. "Parents must not lose control here, or else they will have a scene often at dinnertime." But she knew that children also have an acute sense of fair play. "Parents should eat the same food as their children," she believed. "No double standard."

I think of those words of hers whenever I'm in an airplane or a restaurant and I hear parents ask their young children what they want to eat or drink. We've all heard the worst possible responses to these questions: "I don't want soup," or "No, I hate carrots!" or, far worse, "How many times do I have to tell you, I want a Coke for breakfast! Or a cupcake! Or donuts!" Many parents seem unable to put an end to such officious rejections, and all too often surrender to their children's demands. The kiddie-food marketers have taken control of these children, and there seems to be no level of reasoning capable of breaking their hold.

Even those moms and dads mindful enough to mouth a few nutrition-is-good-for-your-body platitudes are easily defeated by a few choruses of Why? from their kids. The intensity of contemporary mass merchandising, aimed directly at children, has dampened their respect for the adults around them, weakening their sense of parental authority. Our family table wasn't without the occasional bout of resistance, of course; after all, kids are kids. But my mother always had a response at the ready. She knew how much we were interested in history, for instance, so if we balked at a dish that was rich in vitamin C, she would tell the story of how the sailors of olden days grew sick from scurvy until someone discovered that sucking lemons on board ship brought salvation from the disease. Or how desert Bedouins could survive for a long time on a diet made up largely of dates or figs. Most of the time, though, she would lean over us intently, looking into our eyes, and answer our Whys with a firm "Because it is good for you." The underlying message, of course, was: I'm your nurturer and I want the best for you.

And when that didn't work, Mother was capable of cutting right to the point: "What does your tongue have against your heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys?"

The family table was an ideal place to teach us manners and respect, a task for which my mother drew on her endless supply of food-related proverbs and sayings. Some of them were simple rhymes, easy to remember: As the ship goes out to sea, I shovel my food away from me. Others were Arabic proverbs that applied to more than table manners, like He who takes too big a mouthful shall find it difficult to swallow (it sounds much more melodic in the original). She preferred not to reprimand us directly, which would have been humiliating. Sometimes a lift of her eyebrows conveyed her message eloquently. But we also knew that if we ignored her signals, she would make herself clear. We learned not to take food before the guests were served, and to respect our elders by behaving ourselves at the dinner table.

Mother paid attention to the flavor of food, and to its taste, texture, aroma, and appearance -- attributes that, to her, added up to its "bouquet." Her blend of tasty nutrition calmed us down and made us more receptive to the challenging conversations and stories that garnished our dinner table. Years later, when we persuaded her to write down some of her thoughts about family and child rearing -- along with some nuggets of wisdom and insight from my father, and a selection of recipes from our childhood -- the result was a volume called It Happened in the Kitchen. Phil Donahue invited Mother and me to talk about the book on his show in 1991, and we were pleasantly surprised by the response, both in the studio audience and from around the country. They loved the show's old-fashioned tempo, its plain talk, and the authentic common sense born of the experience of generations. Within days, the book had sold fifty thousand copies.

This connection was further strengthened when Aunt Angele, my mother's younger sister, immigrated to this country shortly after World War II. She brought with her the history of the twenty-five years since my mother had left Lebanon, and shared it with us at her new home near ours in Connecticut. Her hospitality and sumptuous tables were a centerpiece of our lives throughout the thirty-four years she lived there; it was there that we witnessed her love of the Arabic language, and the fondness for Arabic poetry, songs, and proverbs that she shared with her sister. At family occasions, such as weddings and birthdays, she demonstrated a distinctive talent for poetic expression herself, and further enriched our appreciation for the beauty of language.

It occurred to us that families all over our country could do the same thing we had done -- to collect the stories and wisdom of their parents, grandparents, and even their great-grandparents before they are lost forever. The resource of generational history is accorded little attention in our society, which seems ever more obsessed with making "new" and "better" synonymous. From my family I became aware of the importance of passing along wisdom from one generation to the next. Yet despite the increasing proliferation of digital recording and other communication technologies, we're passing on less knowledge today than our parents did through the oral tradition alone. We're drowning in photographs and videos, capturing every mundane moment of our birthdays, holidays, and vacations. Yet these can be no more than pleasant distractions, only scratching the surface of our real relationships.

I'm reminded of all of this when I think back on our maternal grandparents in Lebanon. My siblings and I have only a few pictures of them. But the times we shared on our memorable visit there -- harvesting fruit from their small orchard and garden, sharing stories around their large dinner table -- gave us a lasting sense of connection to them, and to each other.
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Postby admin » Wed Oct 30, 2013 2:30 am

3. The Tradition of Health


Years after we finished our formal education, we asked Mother how she'd approached the challenge of teaching us about health, which most children don't take too seriously. "There are key moments when raising you," she said, and she knew how to strike when the iron was hot. "When you were sick, I gave you your lessons on health. There was no more receptive time than when you were in the middle of chicken pox, mumps, whooping cough, and measles." As we struggled to fight off our childhood ailments, Mother's gentle admonitions about the importance of eating well and getting enough rest and exercise -- and "not doing anything foolish that would damage your health" -- fell on receptive ears.

Taking care of one's health from an early age was one of my mother's passions. "If you have your health, you have everything," she told us. "Without it, you have nothing." Mother had seen many health-related tragedies during her childhood in Lebanon, and she knew that the effects of neglecting one's health could appear with a vengeance years later, so she didn't believe in taking chances. Besides, we grew up in pre-antibiotic times, and our heightened awareness of the contagion of polio -- then seen widely as more fearsome than cancer -- made her health advice more acute and urgent. We wouldn't think of drinking out of other people's glasses, even within the family.

"Better than practicing what you preach," Mother always said, "is preaching what you practice." So she did. She ate what we ate, exercised and played ball with us, and made sure to get her daily rest, preferably in the form of an afternoon nap. But she worked hard to earn those naps: Mother used to clean her house on her hands and knees, and when she was done she would go to work in the yard and garden. We got the idea, all right. We all did our chores alongside her.

Mother had an intuitive sense of when not to rush to the doctor. Our parents always paid attention to which physicians in town were most skillful -- not just the ones who were more friendly or charming, but the ones who kept learning and which ones stopped learning, which ones encouraged questions and which took queries as mistrustful of their doctoring. She had a general practitioner, Dr. Roy Sanderson, who seemed to know which parents had enough common sense to handle their children's well-being on their own and which ones needed his closer attention. You can guess in which category he placed our mother.

Though my father owned a bar as part of his restaurant, alcohol was never a staple in our household. When guests came over my parents might serve wine, and my father liked an occasional taste of arak with his food, but that was about it. I don't recall any beer in the refrigerator until my brother came home from the navy. Smoking, too, was a generic taboo, except for Dad, who often held a cigarette between his lips while managing the restaurant -- although he didn't inhale, much to the amusement of his smoking friends. Nonetheless, he favored heavier taxes on tobacco products, and believed that doctors didn't focus enough on prevention. Society doesn't use doctors wisely, he contended, paying them merely to treat sickness, not to help people improve their health or prevent future illness. Doctors should be urging patients to eat healthier foods and conquer their addictions, he said over and over again. When he retired, he quit smoking, cold turkey.

Dad's most instructive lesson to us was his avoidance of extremes in his daily life. No matter how hungry he was, for example, or how delicious the meal my mother prepared, I can't remember a time when he said he overate. He used to tell us, especially at Thanksgiving, that the difference between a great dinner and a failed dinner was perhaps two or three mouthfuls too many. He didn't sleep too much or too little, didn't walk too much or too little, didn't try to shovel the snow too rapidly, drive too quickly, or spend too rapidly. He was the soul of moderation, and we could not help but notice.

My parents had a thousand little ways of bringing home the importance of nurturing our health. Even in this they made an example of the birds and squirrels around us, pointing out how they took care of their own. Once Pop made us laugh by reminding us that these animals were more careful with their health than the irresponsible teenagers of our area, who swaggered around as if asking one another, "Hi! Here's how I'm damaging my health. How are you damaging yours?"

Mother and Father were rewarded for their lifelong healthy habits by living into their late nineties. We never heard them make the merest complaint about aging. And when they could no longer be completely self-reliant, they received our assistance with ease and grace. For them, as well as for us, it was in the natural course of events.
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Postby admin » Wed Oct 30, 2013 2:32 am

4. The Tradition of History


Our childhoods were livelier because my parents always put a premium on the lessons of history. Learning from the past, they taught us, was crucial for understanding the present and shaping the future. It was a rich journey Mom and Dad took us on -- worldwide, nationally, regionally, and locally. We relished their stories of the heroes of history, though not so much for what side they were on as for the stories of what they did or said -- the wise phrases of Lincoln, the gallantry of Saladin in his twelfth-century victory over the European crusaders, the liberational voices of Arab patriots against the French and British rulers, the frugal sayings of Benjamin Franklin, and, of course, the poetry of several long- forgotten poets. Mother often shared such stories at lunchtime, when we rushed home from school -- not just for the food but also for the next installment of her latest historical saga. And this storytelling approach to history whetted our appetite to read more on our own, including historical novels from the Revolutionary and Civil War to the tales of Genghis Khan.

When we children were respectively eleven, nine, seven, and three years old, my mother set sail with us for a year-long trip to visit her family in Lebanon just before World War II. While my father stayed home to tend to the restaurant, we made a voyage into history -- both our own family history and the history of our ancestral home. We took in the archaeological ruins of Baalbek, and the history of the Levant under the Ottoman Empire and then under the French colonial mandate. We learned of the struggles of my great- grandparents' generation, and absorbed the cultural history of custom, myth, folklore, festivities, food, humor, and religion. We learned to see history as geography, its contours mapped in the cities and villages and terraced countryside of our ancestors, and chronicled in the ancient lore of the luscious vineyards and orchards and the very rare small rivers. Along the banks of these small rivers people still sat together, sharing food and stories. Their conversations were sometimes delicate and nuanced, sometimes uproarious, and often full of reminiscences, tapping into the past for insight into the present. Even the local small talk here drew on larger spheres of reference, including colonialism and the rebellions of earlier periods. Even chronic Lebanese gossipers talked politics.

Back in Connecticut, we paid similar attention to our local history. With the imposing Civil War Veterans Monument nearby, and a wonderful library full of history books and materials around the corner, our part of northwest Connecticut came alive with the tales of its dairy, apple, and other farms, of its many factories, and of how the great natural disasters, floods, and gigantic blizzards were overcome. It was the time of the great U.S. melting pot, a time when immigrants came here to become Americans.

As is the case today, hometown history rarely came up in our elementary and high schools. We learned it from the old-timers around us, who shared their stories in town meetings and impromptu street-corner gatherings, in sandwich shops and bars. The bustling sidewalks and the local restaurants -- my father's included -- were places for talk and eating; their counters and booths lent themselves to passing conversations far better than today's fast-food restaurants.

Sometimes knowledge of the town's history got me into trouble. In the third grade, when my teacher referred to the "Beardsley Public Library," I corrected my teacher in front of the class. "Miss Franklin," I said, "The Beardsley and Memorial Library isn't a public library, it's a memorial library." My parents had always stressed the importance of charity, and I knew that our library had been established in the nineteenth century through the generosity of the well-off Beardsley family and other donors. My correction got me a trip to the dunce chair in the corner. It was a valuable memory for me, but not in the way Miss Franklin intended it. It taught me the difference between instructional obedience and critical education, though I did not quite phrase it that way at the time.

The local daily newspaper, the Winsted Evening Citizen, was another conveyor of local history. I was a delivery boy for a time, carrying a weighty 120 copies in a sack I flung over my shoulder. Needless to say, I read what I peddled from door-to-door, and as I did I began to marvel at all the parts of this town that escaped most townspeople's awareness. Mother once wrote a short article called "Touring Your Own Home Town," in which she suggested that residents visit our numerous factories, schools, town departments, farms, our reservoir and purification plant, the rivers, streams, lakes and woods, the country courtroom and local hospital, firehouses and local landmarks, and of course, the Winchester Historical Society. Just seeing how all the various products that fueled our local economy -- from clothing to clocks, from the common pin to electrical devices and household appliances -- were made would be an eye-opener for most residents.

My father, who had a bottomless appetite for political news, viewed the events of history in cause-and-effect terms. To him, wars, tragedies, and elections were the result of preexisting social and historical conditions, and their consequences were all too often ignored by greedy powerful interests in favor of their immediate lust for domination and profits. This mindset led him to a political perspective that ran counter to nearly any prevailing party line. He also saw how the appeal of communism in Third World countries was nourished by callous and colonial corporate capitalism, whose political allies propped up dictatorships while the very rich oppressed the rest of the population. If the governing officials would only give a thought to the workers' desire for a decent life, he would say, "communism wouldn't have a chance." Having been born under the rule of foreign occupiers who wrote the self-serving history books the students in Lebanon had to study, he came to believe that history was written -- and revised -- by those whose interest it was revised to serve. Whenever he heard people say that Columbus discovered America, he would laugh and ask, "Didn't the people who greeted him on the shore arrive before he did?"

My father had an interesting take on how to accelerate the retirement of cruel dictators. As usual he started by asking me a question:

"Why don't dictators ever retire voluntarily, except to let a family member take over?"

"Because they like the power and the wealth and the adulation," I replied.

He countered by suggesting another reason: fear. Once those dictators were no longer protected by the military cordons that shielded them, they would be vulnerable to the many enemies their rule had created. Their years of brutal domination would make it difficult for them to have a second act.

But obviously there was an advantage to luring such figures out of office. So my father proposed an unorthodox solution. "Why not have the international community establish a retirement island for former dictators?" In exchange for agreeing to release the reins of power, they would get guaranteed security on an island somewhere in the South Seas or South Indian Ocean, where they and their extended families could tend their gardens or write their autobiographies. They would be forbidden to travel except for exceptional situations, and their communications with the outside world would be monitored. Since most dictators are already of an advanced age, the opportunity to escape the constant fear of reprisal might prove incentive enough to accept the invitation. Perhaps most important, scholars would be given access to them, interviewing them to learn just how they had maintained their totalitarian hold over millions of people -- a subject my father found critical if mankind were to forestall the emergence of future dictatorships.

Of course, Dad's idea raised all kinds of questions: Would exile on an island paradise really be sufficient punishment for these once-murderous rulers? How could security be ensured? Who would pay to maintain the facility? But when I tried to poke holes in his "solution," he waved them away, arguing that such details could be worked out once the general plan was accepted by the proper authorities in the nondictatorial community of nations. Besides, he had to get back to work. Easy for him to say -- but such conversations conditioned us to think in unusual ways.

My brother, Shafeek, shared my father's interest in history, which dovetailed with his own affection for geography. Shaf was convinced of the importance of having a sense of place -- so much so that he collected U.S. Geological Survey maps of our county and its towns, which he kept rolled up on his bookshelves ready to use on his regular tours. He read deeply in American history, and like my father he enjoyed pointing out its sugarcoated versions. One day, after prevailing on our parents to buy us a brand-new set of the Encyclopedia Americana (the 1947 edition), Shaf pulled me aside and read a passage from the entry on Hawaii. The article referred vaguely to "external influence" that had caused tumult for "the Kingdom of Hawaii" in the late nineteenth century. "These influences finally caused a revolution in 1893, deposed the reigning queen, Liliuokalani, and established a provisional government. A republic was formed the following year with Sanford B. Dole as President. Pursuant to the request of the people of Hawaii, as expressed through the legislation of the republic, and a resolution of the United States Congress approved July 7, 1898, the islands were formally annexed to the United States on August 12, 1898 as a territory."

Shaf looked up at me when he finished reading. "Do you know what really happened? The Dole family, other Anglo planters, and some missionaries engineered a coup to overthrow the indigenous Hawaiian monarchy. This was no 'request of the people.' it was simple colonial imperialism, secured by the U.S. Marines. The encyclopedia is whitewashing history." At the age of thirteen, I found this an invaluable lesson in skepticism: Even an established encyclopedia, I had learned, could contain a political agenda. By the time I arrived in college and law school, my critical faculties had been honed by years of such exchanges with my perceptive family.
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Postby admin » Wed Oct 30, 2013 2:33 am

5. The Tradition of Scarcity


Waste was anathema in our household. Despite their comfortable middle-class income, my patents followed a policy of scarcity that went beyond even the calls for sacrifice that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made during World War II. My parents took wartime measures like rationing and recycling in stride -- and found that they provided an occasion to teach us the value of scarcity. My parents planted their Victory Garden and raised chickens during those years of food rationing, and during the war my father kept up his long-standing practice of saving string, winding it into ever-larger balls for reuse. He recycled paper and walked instead of driving, so that he could save his gasoline coupons for more necessary purposes. Mother could get more out of a bag of groceries than nature seemed to permit; she was a very imaginative kitchen manager. My parents kept the indoor temperature in our house between sixty and sixty-five degrees during the winter, to save on heating oil. Father wasn't shy about saying he didn't mind denying the oil companies a few pennies. The fact that we lived among thrift-conscious New Englanders didn't hurt.

We children learned early to shop for bargains. We watched our parents, who were both careful shoppers, and when it came time to spend our own nickels and dimes, we tried to follow suit. Of course, we did have one advantage over other children: Since Dad sold ice cream and candies at his restaurant, we never had to spend our own money on such things. When Dad opened up the spigot of his ice cream machine and let the freshly mixed chocolate or strawberry ice cream (made with fresh strawberries) spill onto our dishes, it gave off an aroma and taste I can still recall today.

Our parents taught us, in countless little ways, to control our cravings -- from children's toys to household utilities. We learned to keep the lights off unless they were needed. That way, they told us, we could have brighter bulbs when the lights were on. Careful use of resources was the rule even when it wouldn't have cost us to use more. Our town's municipal water system was abundant and cheap. There was a water bill, of course, but (in those days) no meter on the amount that a home uses; we could have let the faucet run while we brushed our teeth, or used a gallon of water to wash a dish or two -- but we avoided such waste as a matter of family habit.

A new toy was a special occasion, and most of them were the kind that could be used again and again -- tops, crayons, picture books, puzzles, and dolls. Today's homes are often overflowing with dozens of complex, often violent electronic plastic toys, and yet children soon grow bored with them and demand the latest upgrade or fad. Bombarded with dazzling advertisements and irresistible messages, they nag their parents to buy. The result -- to say nothing of what it does to our children's behavior and character -- is this avalanche of things, of stuff that's soon discarded or left to clutter basements, attics, and garages.

That was the point of my parents' emphasis on deliberate scarcity: It taught us to value things, to preserve things, to attach our imaginations to what we had rather than to the unquenchable obsession with more, more, more. Our tradition of scarcity encouraged us to be creative. My sisters busied themselves knitting some of their own clothes, and sewed other pieces of their wardrobe with my mother. In this they were following the tradition of our aunts in Lebanon, whose skills at sewing and embroidery showed such exquisite artistry that today they might make a modest fortune as clothing and linen designers. Scarcity is far less time-consuming than abundance. Saving time for creative pursuits is a continual dividend of not owning so many things that they eventually own you. More, we learned, was really less.

One day after he retired in the early 1970s, Dad observed that "thrift" and "thrifty" were words he used to hear all the time, but that he was hearing them less and less. Thrift and other related principles -- frugality, economy, scarcity -- were once a part of America's shared value system, and they were certainly part of our family's frame of mind. Today, however, millions of children are growing up with the opposite attitude, with a diminished sense of the work that goes into material things. And with such feelings grows a tolerance for wasteful economic systems, for wasteful technologies, for gas-guzzling SUVs, designer cell phones, and disposable products of all kinds.

Such designed-in waste may be profitable for manufacturers, for fuel and electric companies, and for retailers. But it hardly benefits our families, who every year hand over more of their money to the disposable economy, even as their children grow more distracted and more demanding.

As the household goes, so goes the nation.
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Postby admin » Wed Oct 30, 2013 2:35 am

6. The Tradition of Sibling Equality


During our appearance on Donahue in 1991, Phil asked Mother how she responded when her children asked, "Which of us do you like best?" Mother replied by recalling how Bedouin mothers answered that question: "I like the one who is farthest until they are near, the youngest until they grow older, and the sick until they are well." In other words, It depends on the situation. Children understand that, in any given circumstance, their parents might need to show one of their siblings special treatment. What they can't accept -- what can scar them for years -- is when a parent shows repeated favoritism. This can lead to terrible consequences -- withdrawal, chronic sadness, shattered self-confidence, and bitter resentment.

As the fourth of eight sisters in Lebanon, my mother learned from childhood the importance of treating every child equally. When the eighth sister was born, some neighbors and friends came to commiserate with her parents for having all girls and no boys. My grandfather was having none of it; before the Turkish coffee and sweets were served, he shooed them away with a friendly "scatter from here, scatter from here!" He would not entertain such regrets for a moment. Both of my mother's parents were champions of equal treatment for their children, and for them having eight girls was no less a blessing than having eight boys.

Children early on do sense unequal treatment by their parents. Not surprisingly, this was one of my first awarenesses as a little boy -- my mother especially went to great lengths to ensure that her four children never felt they were being treated or spoken to as inferior (or superior) to one another. How did I discover this? Simple: Whether she was admonishing or praising me, she never measured me against my sisters or brother. Not once do I recall her saying, "Look how much better behaved they are," or "He's so much smarter than you." Nor did she set rules based on the idea that one of us was more or less capable or deserving than another. The only exception had to do with age: Mother did insist that the younger children should show respect toward their older siblings. As the younger brother she very much wanted me to learn from my older brother and sisters. That sibling hand-me-down learning process, she believed, would be an important source of nurturing during our upbringing. It also saved her time. Mom and Dad even welcomed my eight-year-old brother Shaf's offer to name me himself, saying that I would be his new companion.

This equality of rearing extended to the level of daily detail. That was what made it routine and therefore normal. None of us received special gifts denied others without understanding why. Similarly, at a time when more boys than girls went on to college from immigrant families, my father and mother expected us all to obtain a higher education; my two sisters each obtained a Ph.D., and the boys went on to law school after college.

As a result of this equitable treatment, we children grew up with little envy or egocentricity to come between us. The older ones helped the younger ones when we needed it -- and, oh, do I remember one time when I needed it.

For my eighth-grade graduation, I was chosen to make a speech before several hundred parents and friends in the school auditorium. But as I sat in the living room a few hours before the evening festivities, I developed a terrific case of stage fright. I had planned a presentation on the life of John Muir, the great American naturalist responsible for the creation of Yosemite National Park in California. My brother, Shaf, had recently returned from the navy, and he came over and asked what was wrong. When I explained, he sat down next to me on the sofa, and put his arm around my shoulder.

"Have you ever heard of Stravinsky?" he asked.

"Who?" I replied.

"Igor Stravinsky, the Russian composer. He wrote The Rite of Spring," he added. This piqued my curiosity, so I perked up, and he continued.

"The Rite of Spring was a very unusual composition. It opened in Paris in 1913, before a large and skeptical audience. Three or four minutes into the symphony, the crowd was grumbling; some of them started expressing their revulsion out loud. Soon there were catcalls, and that led to shouting, and then a few people even started throwing debris onstage. Others rose and stormed out of the hall. The orchestra found it impossible to continue.

"Now, Ralph, when you stand up and start describing the work of John Muir before your classmates' families and their friends and neighbors, no one is going to grumble. No one is going to speak against you. There'll be no catcalls, no shouting, no throwing tomatoes. And, certainly, no one is going to march out of the room. So what are you worrying about?" With that he rustled my hair and left the room.

Was I nervous when I finally spoke that evening? Sure. But Shaf was right: There were no catcalls, no jeering, nothing but a respectful audience and one relieved speaker when it was all over.

Was it all harmony between us? Not for a day. We argued and kidded and cajoled each other all the time. But our parents had taught us to respect each other, and we did -- every day.
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Postby admin » Wed Oct 30, 2013 2:37 am

7. The Tradition of Education and Argument


One day, when I was about ten, I came home from grade school. When my father saw me, he asked a simple question: "What did you learn today, Ralph? Did you learn how to believe or did you learn how to think?"

For some reason, that question was like a bolt from the blue. It has stayed with me ever since as a yardstick and a guide. In my adult life, I have thought back on it countless times: Is this new movement or politician trying to make us believe, by using abstractions and slogans or advertising gimmicks, or inviting us to think through the issues, using facts, experience, and judgment? It has helped me to interpret people's styles of persuasion in normal conversation -- whether they are sharing how they think, or merely what they believe. And it has helped me find weak spots in countless arguments I've entertained through the years -- whether in real-time debates on radio or television, or in the more thoughtful forum of the printed word.

This is not to discount the importance of belief, without which, after all, we couldn't hold to the principles and ethics that shape our daily lives. Rather, my father's point was that we should reach our beliefs by thinking them through. In public school we received instruction, which was largely a matter of belief; it was at home that we received our real education, which had more to do with thought. There was nothing wrong with this combination: Both instruction and education were the better for it.

For one thing, our parents did not draw strong boundaries between the two spheres. Over dinner, they often asked us how school had gone that day, challenging what we were learning by posing broad, open-ended questions, rather than quizzing us on matters of fact. Once, my mother and father were in the backyard with my two sisters and me. When Mother asked us how much a dozen eggs cost, or a bushel of apples, a dozen bananas, a head of lettuce, a pound of butter, and so on, we knew the answers -- as children of a restaurateur and former grocer, we had a head start. For my mother, though, that was merely the foreground for her next set of questions: What is the price for the clean air today? she asked. What about the sunshine? The cool breeze? The songs of the birds and the shade of the trees? Each new question was greeted with silence, driving home her lesson -- which was that what is so valuable in nature has no price, and therefore is not for sale. Later we were to learn the importance of ensuring that other elements of a just society -- such as politicians, elections, and even teachers -- should never be for sale either.

Such exchanges, however brief, honed our minds to be more mentally alert, to go beyond the ordinary challenges of our rote learning in school. From time to time, though, my teachers reinforced my parents' lessons. For instance, our parents were always warning us about procrastination, putting off chores that should be done on time. Then one day I walked into my fifth-grade classroom and saw my teacher, Ms. Thompson, writing something on the blackboard in her big, bold chalk letters:


Wow! That's about the most memorable episode of my entire fifth-grade education -- and of my sixth-grade education, for that matter. Though I surely lost many sixty-second periods in the years that followed, never to recover them again, those words on the blackboard never left me.

My parents put a premium on our education, both at school and at home. One of the reasons my father moved us to Winsted was that the schools and library were just a few minutes' walk from home. My mother, who'd been a teacher before she married, knew full well that the likelihood of getting in trouble increased with the distance from school and home. She also liked being near our teachers. If they ever complained about our schools, their concerns focused on how much progress we were making and what our teachers thought about our performance. Were we attentive in class or distracted? Helpful or unruly? Our parents were not interested in putting us under undue pressure, or in monitoring us too closely, but they were keen to be kept informed about more than just our grades. As my father once said, "One reason so few educators pay attention to the quality of our children's education is that quality doesn't cost enough." In other words, money alone can't ensure a quality education; only deep care taken by the teachers themselves can make the difference. (Those were the days before constant multiple-choice standardized testing began restricting teachers' judgment, forcing them to "teach to the test.")

The Beardsley and Memorial Library was the perfect complement to the educational encouragement we received at home. We almost devoured that library, with its enticing variety of books, its so-appealing open stacks with their musty smell, and its helpful librarians. We could borrow three books at a time and they were treated with something close to reverence until we finished reading them and returned them for another lot. "Imagine what a bargain books are for readers," father once observed. "The author spends months or years writing a book. You reap the benefit of all that effort in just a few hours." I liked books about the Wild West and the struggles between colonizers (the pioneers, as they were called) and the Indians (whom even our esteemed Declaration of Independence referred to as "savages"). History books, books on geography, on the great inventors (Whitney, Fulton, Bell, Edison) and explorers, ancient plays from Greece and Rome and modern classics by the legendary American muckrakers (Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, George Seldes, and Ferdinand Lunberg). These books weren't assigned by our teachers; Shaf read them all on his own (at fifteen, Tarbell's book on Standard Oil was tough going), and I followed suit. There was school time and there was library time, and not until high school, when we went to the library to research our papers and work on class projects, did the two come together.

We were not shy about bringing our newfound knowledge home, including the difficulties we had with some authors. Our father had a different take on things. If we ever came home saying we couldn't understand a certain writer or philosopher, he would respond by suggesting that perhaps the authors themselves weren't writing clearly. He was not making excuses for us, he was merely making a perfectly plausible observation that our teachers never mentioned. Excuses were a subject of passionate aversion for my mother, who was always bothered by the sight of parents trying to explain away their children's misbehavior. She always advised her friends not to make excuses for their children, for she felt that making excuses deprived children of the incentive to improve. My father used to say, "Your best teacher is your last mistake." This was a bundle of wisdom we took to heart: Like all children, we made plenty of mistakes, so therefore we had lots of teachers.

We were never able to impress our parents with the number of books we read. They were interested in what we derived from their pages, not just how many pages we turned over. They were too busy to dote on trivial benchmarks or childish academic bragging. When it came to teaching us, Mother preferred indirection to lecturing, but she wasn't above issuing a direct riposte when needed. The moment one of us began showing signs of overconfidence, she was ready with her response: "You better be a genius, because you've clearly decided to stop learning."

Many of our dinner-table arguments concerned matters of social justice at home and abroad. Often these conversations were kindled by our parents, and we were usually eager to take the bait, raising some controversial issue for discussion -- such as, were unions paying as much attention to consumer prices as they did to wages? Some of these points of contention were evergreens, none more so than my father's idiosyncratic proposal for a just society based on what he called the "limitation of wealth."

For many years my father wrestled with the tension in American society between greed and need. To address the problem, he proposed a system of unlimited income with limited wealth. Under his proposal, anyone could make and spend as much money as he or she was able, but whatever money they accumulated in savings, above a threshold of $1 million per person (in 1950 dollars), would be taxed, after a reasonable homestead exemption. To my father, this system was a reasonable way to maintain a prudent balance between economic incentives and economic justice. The very wealthy would become more interested in donating their money to community betterment (after all, how much could they consume?) or spreading the wealth among more people. Together with a progressive sales tax (with exemptions for the poorer classes) to fund governmental services, my father's wealth-limitation plan would have redirected people away from accumulating wealth toward community generosity.

Whatever their actual merits, my father's ideas had one inestimable side benefit: They kept us debating. We children spent years challenging him on its particulars, speculating out loud about how it might be made to work or why it was doomed to fail. Isn't it too idealistic, Dad? we would ask. Couldn't rich people avoid the taxes by taking their wealth abroad? How could such an idea ever get through Congress? What would the limitation of wealth contribute to the resurgence of communities? Would it cause people to have warmer feelings toward one another? There would be fewer spoiled-rotten descendants of wealth, we felt sure. Would this increase private investment? Savings? How much would the surge in private community giving reduce public spending? If it's so logical, why hasn't this idea caught on with some honest politicians? Or national citizen groups? And how do you define wealth, anyway -- sure, it should go beyond cash savings to include land, buildings, stocks and bonds, but what about jewelry, rare collectibles, insurance policies? How would the progressive sales tax work?

Dad always took our responses seriously, and we would respond to his answers with new questions. But he always focused on the bigger picture -- that history shows that economies with more equitable distribution of wealth were far more prosperous, with bigger markets. They were more prone to deal with the needs of tomorrow, not just today, like healthful surroundings and a better future for our children and grandchildren. "Either we spread the wealth in a country where millions of humans go without," he would say, "or we spread the misery."

In retrospect, it was like arguing with an ever-resilient law professor. He took great enjoyment from these tangos of minds. Father's limitation-of-wealth idea offered us a constant flow of discourse; like Aladdin's lamp, it needed only to be rubbed to work its educational magic. And it wasn't just at home that he would put forth these ideas, but in the workplace and anywhere he thought there was a possibility for discussion.

You may be wondering: Was there any plain old small talk in our family? Sure, there was plenty. But it was put on hold whenever we got into one of these serious discussions. At home we had the sense that there was a time and place for everything. Somehow we were never bored. When my parents had guests over, we would sit on the rug on the side of the living room and listen; every so often one of the grown-ups might make a passing reference to us, but these adult gatherings never centered on us preteen children, who were usually to be seen and not heard. By the same token, we never expected to perform or preen for the guests; instead, we listened and learned a lot about worldly matters. Looking back on these get-togethers, I marvel at how wide-ranging and informed the conversation always was: My parents and their friends traded political opinions on world and national news events, historical allusions, proverbs, and even poetry.

That was the way our "education" went: Our work at school was supported by what we learned at home, and vice versa. When I got deeply interested in stamp collecting, it was because it helped me remember the names of countries all over the world. And when I got deeply interested in my classes, it was because of a special teacher who valued spontaneous discussion over rote memorization. Many of our teachers were from Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, and they took their lifetime work quire seriously. There was no "gifted students" category then that allowed advanced students to take their own courses. All the students were in the same category, which in retrospect only helped our socialization as a group, while still allowing the more energetic students to excel. (On the other hand, our school buildings had no accommodations for students with disabilities, who were thus prevented from attending their area public schools. In some ways, those were years of low institutional expectations.)

Many years later, the prize-winning journalist David Halberstam, who lived in Winsted as a youngster, wrote a feature article about these teachers for the Boston Globe; his piece did not reflect well on contemporary urban schools by comparison. Around the same time, I was rereading John Dewey on moral education. Eureka, I thought: That's what my parents had given us at home. At school, we had learned facts. At home, my parents had taught us "character," which the ancient philosopher Heracleitus called "destiny." For us, they gave new meaning to the word "homework."
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Postby admin » Wed Oct 30, 2013 2:40 am

8. The Tradition of Discipline


My siblings and I were raised to have respect for our mother and father -- a respect born of our generations of family tradition, but also earned on a daily basis by their example. Yet of course we got into mischief, as all children do. And when we did, there were consequences.

Mother and Father followed a finely calibrated series of parental reprimands, a system that we learned early and became accustomed to heeding. It started with a sudden stern look -- and often that was enough to change our young minds before things went any further. When the look alone didn't work, they relied on a sequence of three Arabic reprimands. The mildest was skoot or skiti (male or female), the next stage was sidd neeyak or siddi neeyik, and the third level was sakru neekoon. Translated loosely, these meant "hush your mouth" in varying degrees. If that didn't work, we might be told to leave the dinner table and/or go to stand in the corner by the sewing machine. Or we might be assigned a chore, to drive the point home in another way. Our parents rarely spanked us, and when they did, it was no more than a gentle smack on the rear. Then as now, too many children have been picked up and shaken -- as toddlers, even infants -- or beaten by parents losing their self-control and abandoning themselves to rage. My parents were horrified by such behavior.

But they knew the importance of enforcing their commands around the house. As my mother was known to say, "If parents don't discipline, or they're indecisive about it, their children won't respect them." It wasn't enough to issue a reprimand, in other words -- not if the parent merely unravels it a few minutes later by apologizing (even tacitly) and fawning all over the child. Any child who's treated that way is being trained in the ways of manipulative behavior. "Children are clever," Mother said, "they watch their parents and can take advantage where they see weakness."

Instead, my parents chose to show us where we had gone wrong, and they often did so by relying on traditional proverbs. The supply of proverbs at their disposal was countless, and they wielded them effortlessly. These sayings, which came from a rich oral tradition, drew on the imagery of the past to reframe all manner of human behavior for the generations of the present and future. The villagers and peasants of their Lebanese mountain towns would have known hundreds of these proverbs; our Aunt Adma knew more than a thousand. (Think a moment: How many proverbs can you call to mind, beyond Benjamin Franklin's homilies -- ''A penny saved is a penny earned" or ''A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush"?)

My dad, who worked seven days a week at the restaurant, used proverbs constantly. To a child talking silly, he would say (in Arabic), "Jokes are to words as salt is to food" -- that is, don't overdo it. To a child who'd put off his chores too long, the apt and famous proverb was, "Wait, oh mule, until the grass grows up." When generosity was called for, he would say, "Empty hands are dirty hands." Such proverbs were admonishments, to be sure. But they also managed to teach and uplift our horizons at the same time -- far more than the staccato barking of parents who shout, "Stop it! I said stop it!" or "Cut it out, now, or you'll be sorry," and then have to repeat themselves over and over while the child ignores them. Dad was a devotee of the Socratic method; he loved nothing more than to pose a provocative question and then let it hang in the air. Once, when he noticed a bunch of teenagers in his restaurant laughingly pouring pepper in the sugar bowl, he came over to them and quietly asked, "Why are you insulting your parents?" as he took away the sugar bowl. Instead of asking them to leave, he merely walked away, leaving them to ponder over his words.

Both my father and my mother were highly sensitive to the weakening of parent-child relationship in modern society -- to the threat the marketplace posed to the concept of parental authority. Even back in the 1930s and 1940s, my mother noticed that some caring parents were afraid of their children, afraid of how they might react if they were disciplined. She noticed even more fear as she grew older, and often commented that ''Americans are afraid of their children." She believed that children who see that their parents are afraid of them will try to control their parents, who will then begin to lose their parental moorings as a result. We were always astonished to heat a classmate slinging harsh words at his parents. To be sure, we weren't always privy to what provoked such outbursts; we just knew that in our family there were lines you never crossed. (Only later did we realize that such behavior could be symptomatic of child abuse behind closed doors -- though the parents we observed never treated their children brutally, at least in public.)

When we ran afoul of our own parents, did we get a chance to argue our case? Not in trivial, run-of-the-mill situations, but when there was a meaningful disagreement at stake, yes. "When my children would explain [themselves] to me," my mother once said, "I would sometimes find that they were tight, but I also explained my position." Mother believed that a child should understand why he's being told no, or yes. She always valued a good argument on a worthwhile subject. But she also believed that a child shouldn't be allowed to argue for argument's sake.

As we grew into our teenage years, our parents were more willing to engage us in back-and-forth dialogues on our little domestic controversies. But they also had subtle ways of reminding us how much they labored for our well-being, and how many years of knowledge had gone into their positions. We often, if not always, gave them the benefit of the doubt. We respected their authority, never calling them by their first names no matter what our age. But we never became overly dependent on them, either. Their unassuming confidence only enhanced our own self-confidence -- until we began to seem overconfident, in which case they were quick to reply, "So, since you've got all the answers, you don't have any more questions, eh?"

There was one respect in which Mother and Father showed absolutely critical self-discipline, and that was in their interactions with each other. As children, we were aware of occasional friction between our parents. We could sense the mood changing when that occurred. But the conflict never spilled out in our presence, for our parents believed that any such display would have reduced our respect for them. They were able to keep their differences very private from us and from their friends, in part because the differences between them were mostly ordinary tensions that worked themselves out in the course of daily life. For them, the well-being of their children, which took priority over petty disagreements, served as a kind of universal solvent, dissipating any lingering tensions.

This mutual self-respect came home to us whenever we were at our friends' homes and witnessed sharp exchanges and vitriol between their parents. Sometimes, just walking the residential streets, we would hear shouting from one home or another. Once, as I was walking downtown to do an errand for my mother, I saw a door fly open, and a husband rushed out shouting curses, with his wife right behind him throwing miscellaneous pots and utensils at him along with a stream of invective. There was nothing like that kind of spectacle to help a boy appreciate his parents' efforts to preserve their emotional self-control.

As my mother often said: "If you make something bigger, it becomes bigger; if you make it smaller, it becomes smaller."
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