Sunday, July 17, 2011

Of Mothers and Sons…. A Dedication

Mom and Dad on their Honeymoon
In my family, if you wanted to know how to do things right, you had to find my Dad. He was a perfectionist; some would say obsessive about getting the details right. His first jobs after leaving the Army Air Corps were draftsman, time and motion study and machinist. All of those jobs played to his strengths: attention to detail, focus on doing things the right way and pride in a great result. He could fell a tree, build a house or pilot a boat. In my life, I saw him do all of those things and more. (For the record, the only strand of his DNA that transferred to me was piloting a boat.)

On the other hand, if you wanted to know how to do the right thing, you had to find my Mom. Like most women of her day, her job was to raise children and run a household. Opportunities to become a doctor, lawyer, politician or captain of industry were limited. If you asked her what she did, she would say, “I raised three sons”. That was her life’s work.

She was easy to find. In a house with three boys, the only place she could be sure she would see us each day was the kitchen table. So, that is where she held court.

Mom taught us a set of values, mostly by her example. She taught us to “do the right thing”.

What does that mean?

It means treating people with respect no matter their station in life. It means being upfront with people. It means setting a good example as she always endeavored to do. It also means having the “courage of your convictions”. She said that often when I was a young child. It was engraved in my psyche a dozen years before I knew what it meant. What does it mean? It means always act on what you believe; never back down from that

More than anything, Mom taught me that I had the potential to do anything I wanted in life. All I had to do was work hard and stay focused. She even had a little ditty to remind me. It went like this:

Good, better, best.
Never let it rest.
Until your good is better and your better best.

There was a corollary to this concept. It was a rule actually. A ‘B’ is not an acceptable grade.

Married at 18 and a mother at 20, Mom was still growing up herself when I was a young boy. Yet, she had the wisdom to know that sons are not like daughters.

There has been much written about mothers and daughters. The best of it is captured in a famous poem by Julia Kasdorf titled "What I Learned from my Mother". But, the relationship between mothers and sons is different. While women of my mother’s generation prepared their daughters for a lifelong relationship, they prepared their sons to fly the coop. There is a process of letting go that begins in the teen years and culminates in the departure for college. Sons must be ready to take on the world.

My two brothers and I needed to be independent… strong enough to weather any storm and to take care of a family of our own. By the time I left home at 18, I had the courage of my convictions. I was confident I could handle anything. She believed I could pursue any path with success and so did I. I have her to thank for that.

American society – our freedoms, our Constitution, the free enterprise system – was based upon a shift in the teachings of philosophers. In his best-selling book, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?, Michael Sandel contrasts the teachings of eighteenth century philosophers like Immanuel Kant with the ancient Greeks such as Aristotle. Kant argued that “principles of justice that define our rights should not rest on any particular concept of virtue. A just society respects each person’s freedom to choose his own conception of what is just”. It was a perfect anti-dote to the abuses of European kings who ruled during the preceding era.

Over the last couple of centuries, our freedom has fostered a diverse society where the norms of behavior that I grew up with have split apart. It is often said that we are “a nation of laws”. So, if we are to tolerate diversity of behavioral norms, we then must rely upon our elected representatives to set forth what behavior is legal and what behavior is punishable.

A good friend of mine often asks the philosophical question, “When did we go from being a principle based society to a rules based society?” It’s a good question. But, the timing doesn’t really matter. What matters is that’s where we are: a society whose standards of behavior are set by what is legal not what is principled. That’s a much lower standard.

The ancient Greeks, like Aristotle, taught that society should reflect the virtue of its people. A virtuous society therefore is created by people who agree on standards of virtue. Although she never studied the philosophy of the ancient Greeks, Mom would agree with Aristotle. She was a principled woman who could not influence societal outcomes on a grand scale. Her contribution would be to raise three sons who understand virtue or principled behavior and demonstrated it in the way we dealt with the world around us.

Mothers' Day 2011
My brothers and I are very different people. Despite our different personalities, I know I can rely on them. I know we share her values. I know they will always do what’s right and, moreover, that we three all know instinctively what that means. In the vernacular of Mom’s time, she raised us to be “stand up guys”. In today’s vernacular, no one has to tell us to “man up”.

The values I learned from Mom – respect for others, the courage of my convictions, pursuing your own path own life – were learned by them as well.

Though we are all different, we are also the same.

We are her life’s work -- her three sons.

Angelina “Lee” Calia passed away on July 10, 2011. We loved her very much.


  1. I enjoy reading your posts. I think one of the reasons your comments resonate with me so much may be because of a bit of a "deja vu" experience going on. You see, your ‘Class of 1971’ were "firsties" when I was a "plebe". Your class ran my "plebe summer". Your class was my first exposure to the military mentality. Your class was the product of an incredibly divisive period pinning the "establishment" of our parents against the counterculture of our generation. Your class was NOT a typical USNA class.

    I always tell people my greatest experience at the Naval Academy was that when I first went there, I had long hair and the girls loved me and the fathers hated me. In less than one minute a guy named Tracy cut off my hair and suddenly the girls hated me and the fathers loved me.

    I was only 17 when I realized people are too often lemmings and that it is imperative to derive my own opinions and conclusions and not just follow the "traveled road" or embrace the "popular trend". The leaders of the Naval Academy taught me to be independent. And your inherently, introspective class of 1971 were my leaders. Looking back at the guys in my company who graduated in 1971, they were for the most part an exceptional were most of the guys I met from your class after I graduated and entered the Fleet.
    You guys from ’71 were instrumental in the development of my character. I thank you for your leadership and perspective. It was not an easy time to be young and in the military. It certainly was not an easy time to go to the Naval Academy or to be an officer in the Navy. I hope you guys have a great reunion this year. You deserve it.

  2. John,

    Don't even THINK about skipping Florence. In my view, Venice is sort of like Disneyland - a really nice place to visit but not a "real" place. Case in point: Venice has been catering to the eyes of tourists for so long that it forgot how to engage their taste buds. I've never had a bad meal anywhere in Italy - EXCEPT in Venice.

    Florence engages all the senses. Go there, find a hotel with a rooftop restaurant or breakfast area, soak in the scene and eat your heart out.

    OK, let's not write off Obama's Stimulus Package as a failed experiment in "Keynesian" economics. Keynesian economics still holds. The SP DID work. It kept us from plunging into an even deeper recession, flattened job losses and helped usher in a rebound in the stock market. That it didn't pull us out of the depression tells me it didn't go far enough.

    Let's remember that job losses were being measured in the hundreds of thousands a month from Auguest 2008 to August 2009. Today, unemployment figures, though not rosy, aren't abysmal.

    While you're in Italy, try to rent a Fiat 500. I checked one out at the LA Auto Show last fall and thought I felt pretty good in it - sort of like how a comfortable shoe feels. Certainly, it's about the size of a shoe...

    Speaking of shoes...going down Italy's boot to Brindisi? Naples? Sicily?

  3. As Ralph Kramden said to Alice when she was carrying heavy groceries, "Honey, you are going to hurt yourself carrying those heavy bags. I've told you before; Make two trips."

    If you go north, don't miss Lake Cuomo or Lake Lugano (just over the Swiss border). The Italian Lake District is paradise and good enough for George Clooney too. If Suzanne is interested, I will send her the address of the famed Prada outlet just outside of Florence. Just try and get there before the tour buses. Oh and if you are interested in renting an apartment in Florence, last summer we stayed at a lovey and very reasonably-priced apartmen-hotel right in the center of the city.

    If you go south, what could be better than the Almalfi Coast? or Pompeii and Herculenium? or Capri? It is possible to take a ferry boat from Naples to Sicily or of course fly. If you plan to go to Sicily, I'll send you the address of Grandpa Calia's father's home in Castelvetrano. I recently found it on Grandma came from Selinunte and we have pictures of her house but no address. From time to time, Erica and I have talked about taking our families to Sicily and we have tried to persuade Uncle Vinny and Aunt Sandy into joining us. Perhaps next summer will be the year the Calias find their roots.

    In either case, north or south, it is a simple solution. Go twice. I wish solving the econimic crisis was so easy.