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DIGNITY PDF Print E-mail
Written by Richard Griffin   
Monday, July 02 2012 08:52

My friend, Kathleen, when I asked what dignity means to her, responds like this: “To act in a way that respects yourself.” This strikes me as a fine definition, one that can serve for ongoing inspiration.

It’s not enough, however, to respect yourself. We all want and deserve to be respected by others as well. 

When that does not happen, we are shocked, quite appropriately. Millions of people were horrified, recent weeks ago, by what they saw on YouTube. They watched a group of middle school students violating the dignity of a woman named Karen Klein.

A 68-year-old school bus monitor in the school district of Greece, near Rochester, New York, Karen was subjected to harassment shocking in its meanness and vulgarity. The students abused her verbally and even poked her physically.

The boys largely focused on Karen’s shape, repeatedly calling her “old ass” and “fat ass,” mixing the terms with other words I will not use here. By reason of these assaults on her dignity, she was reduced to tears.

Among gerontologists, abuse of old people has been long recognized as a widespread social evil. It can work subtly.

 One of the worst aspects of abuse is its power to make elders internalize the abuse, making it part of their own self-image.

Old age in itself, without external influence, makes some people come to doubt their own worth. This often develops as a side effect of illness. Being sick can easily make us doubt our human value.

When those who provide care for us fail to respect our dignity, this comes as a heavy blow to our self-worth. Sometimes that happens when medical professionals, consciously or unconsciously, talk down to us or otherwise belittle our stature.

My impression both from visiting hospitals and being a patient myself suggests this kind of treatment has become more rare than it used to.


The saga of Karen Klein’s abuse has an ending, in part happy. It even restores something of her dignity.

Following the brainstorm of a Canadian fellow who discovered her plight and organized a fund drive aimed at giving Karen a big-time vacation, large numbers of sympathizers have contributed.

For this purpose, the Canadian proposed a goal of five thousand dollars. At last count, more than five hundred thousand has been raised!

Perhaps the great majority cares about the dignity of old people after all.



MR.KLETZSCH ? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Richard Griffin   
Thursday, June 07 2012 08:48

“Are you Mr. Kletzsch?”  This question came suddenly from a man who was holding the locker room door open for me.

“No,” I answered, “but I knew Charlie very well.”

My questioner, it turned out, was attending his 25th reunion at Harvard College. He had come from his home in Portland, Oregon for this event and mistook me for an old friend and, perhaps, mentor.

For decades, Charles Kletzsch had been “composer-in-residence” and librarian in the undergraduate house where the former student had lived.  Now back after long absence, the visitor took me for a figure from his past, one whom he held in respect and affection.

If he had to be mistaken, I was the ideal person to encounter. That’s because I had considerable contact with Charles Kletzsch over the years. I even had the privilege of assisting him in his time of decline. I did so by helping arrange for him to transfer from an uncongenial  nursing home to one of the best in the Boston area. That is where he died several years ago.

Charlie and I shared much interest in the Catholic Church, which he had joined as a young man. We often talked about church music and the monastic life. In the summer he would often go to Europe and report back on the monasteries in which he stayed and the music they featured.

My most vivid memory comes from my former career as a Catholic priest. Sometime, probably in the early 1970s, Charlie proposed composing a Mass to be celebrated in one of the college’s squash courts. At first the idea struck me as rather bizarre, but I came to think it an inspired plan. Whether church authorities would agree seemed dubious but I resolved to go ahead with the proposal.

One evening at midnight, I did celebrate the Mass. Some students were in attendance along with Charlie and me. The event turned out to be a spiritual experience, but one that I never repeated. Charlie presumably kept the musical score among his possessions but he did not keep me informed of its location.

While composing this blog I discovered, to my amazement, a video of Charlie that was filmed in 1986. In addition to other sites, this YouTube film shows him in his suite at Dunster House; among the items in his living space was an 18th century clavichord. 

As I hope emerges here, Charles Kletzsch was a rich personality. No wonder the returning grad inquired for him. I feel gifted to be mistaken for such a friend.


On the Humanities PDF Print E-mail
Written by Richard Griffin   
Monday, May 07 2012 08:10

Writing about the value of the humanities as a field of study, Leslie Epstein offers important material for reflection. This Boston University professor has a reputation not only for his teaching but for several favorably received novels. Another of his credits comes from being the father of Theo Epstein, the erstwhile general manager of the Boston Red Sox.

Here I quote from three parts of a letter Leslie wrote to the New York Times:

“Everywhere, at every level of the American educational system, students have been cut off — or have cut themselves off — from the best that those who have come before them have thought and created.”

‘What the obsession with keeping one’s eyes on the prize has led to, I fear, is a certain coldness of heart.”

“In short, the lack of beauty in one’s life has consequences: the coarsening of one’s sensibility, the shrinking of imagination and the loss of feeling for what might be possible in the world. That is why, at bottom, one studies the humanities.”


Bringing Out the Hidden PDF Print E-mail
Written by Richard Griffin   
Tuesday, April 24 2012 09:01

Table talk over lunch with three friends turned, as it often does, to U.S. foreign policy. One of the friends had recently returned from a visit to Cuba. That stirred discussion of the continuing U. S. embargo and the Cubans who had left that country for Florida when Fidel Castro seized power.

This prompted me to think of friends from the island of Jamaica. When their government was taken over by leaders with Socialist principles, they also left home and, for some years, settled in Florida.

What impeded this discussion of Jamaica for me was my inability to remember the name of the then prime minister whom my Jamaican friends were fleeing. As so frequently in this situation, no matter my mental effort, I could not recall a name formerly easily available.

With some confidence, however, I announced to my friends that I would recover that name in not too long a time. And, mirabile dictu, that is exactly what happened. It took about ten minutes for me to extract, first the man’s first name, Michael, and then several minutes later, Manley.

To announce my finds and to express my delight, I broke into the general conversation with my news. A little later I topped this accomplishment by remembering that the first name of Michael’s father, who had also been prime minister, was Norman.

For me this accomplishment, not forgetting, rates the term Senior Moment. The recovery of mental data deserves positive recognition as one of the great feats of later life.

The negative use of the term, whereby many people accuse themselves of having lost their mental capacities deserves to be banished. Relish instead the precious occasions when we can reach back into the mental riches of our interior life!


Written by Richard Griffin   
Tuesday, April 10 2012 09:50

My friend, Emerson Stamps, three years ago wrote a letter to his father. At that time, November 2008, Emerson was 85 years old and his father had been dead since 1939.

As he explains, Emerson did not expect either to have his letter read by his father or receive a response from him. Nonetheless, he wanted to share in some way his excitement at an event of November fifth of 2008.

That, of course, was the day when Barack Obama won election. About this event Emerson wrote “I never thought I would see the day when a Black person would be elected President of the United States of America.”

Emerson is black himself, the son of a man who was born in 1865 to parents who, until that year, had been slaves. On June 6, 1944 my friend had landed on Omaha Beach along with the other troops who freed Europe from Nazi oppression.

When, at war’s end he returned home and went to the courthouse to get his discharge papers verified, while still wearing his army uniform, the judge made him give up his seat to a white person.

In his letter, Emerson went on to share with his father more of his feelings about the election. “Papa, we’ve never seen an election like this in any country in the world, where a people can go from the back of the bus to the front seat in the White House.”

He also tells his father about the day when Barack Obama was inaugurated. “Papa, I wanted to attend the inauguration in Washington, but the price of hotels was out of my range.   .  . I watched the inauguration on TV and I shared it with a friend who came from Mississippi and I cried with every word.”

Emerson also was deeply touched by Obama’s first speech as president. “In my mind he spoke for all whose shoulders he stood on to get there, the river of tears and blood they waded through for this day.”

In this often nasty election season, some relief might come from reflecting on the experience of my friend Emerson. 

Surprised By A Child's Name PDF Print E-mail
Written by Richard Griffin   
Wednesday, February 22 2012 10:05

Last Sunday morning, at the pool where I swim each day, my path took me toward a young child in the arms of his mother. When the woman smiled, I paused and asked the child's name. "Truman," the woman told me, a name that caught me by surprise because of my not having previously encountered anyone with that name. In reply, i muttered something about Harry S. Truman, the former president. She did not answer directly but looked accepting of my remark.

Later, having finished my swim, I walked past the same child. This time he was with his father so I paused and said how pleased I was to hear Truman's name. I added something about the pleasure of hearing the name of a Democratic president, here in Cambridge where almost all of us favor the party Harry belonged to. 

The father, however, promptly corrected me. His child was named, he said, not for Truman, the president, but rather for Truman Capote, the writer. Astonished, I could only express my enjoyment of the two major Hollywood films I had seen a few years ago about Capote. 

Old Voices Discovery PDF Print E-mail
Written by Richard Griffin   
Thursday, February 02 2012 09:29

Wax cylinder recordings found in Thomas Edison's laboratory have revealed the voices

of Otto von Bismarck and Helmuth von Moltke, two powerful figures of 19th century

Germany. In 1957 the box containing the cylinders had been found but no one knew their

contents till last year.


Now Bismarck, the longtime German chancellor, can be heard reciting parts of songs and poetry in various languages,

along with lines from the French national anthem.  


Von Moltke, the military hero of the Austro/Prussian War, and the Franco/Prussian War, was 89 when the

recording was made. Since he was born in 1800 his recordings are the only ones known from someone whose

birth date goes so far back. What this general says provokes interest: he quotes lines from Shakespeare

and Goethe's "Faust."


My interest, however, centers less on that von Moltke than on his descendant Helmut James von Moltke who was

executed by the Nazis in 1945. In my book he was the true hero of the family, a martyr who deserves to be remembered 

by Americans much more than he has been. I had the pleasure of acquaintance with his widow, Freya von Moltke, who

settled in New Hampshire and died last year after some 65 years of surviving him. She carried on the great vision of her husband of a

democratic Germany with lawful respect for human rights.  


The discovery of the these voices, along with others that feature great composers and performers of notable music

have stirred my interest in the history of the nineteenth century. And they increase my admiration of Edison, the

great inventor.  

NICE DIN-DIN? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Richard Griffin   
Friday, January 20 2012 09:09

In the current New Yorker, the celebrated poet and prose writer Donald Hall (my college classmate, though I did not know him) tells of a visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. At age 83, he is infirm enough to need a wheelchair and a companion, Linda, to push him along. On this occasion he admires a sculpture by Henry Moore, an artist whom Don had known well and written about.

A friendly museum guard, seemingly in his sixties, approaches and tells him the name of the sculptor. Don resists the temptation to announce his connection with Henry Moore. Then Don and his companion go off to the cafeteria for lunch. Some two hours later they remerge where †he same guard stands. Seeing Don and Linda, the guard asks her whether she enjoyed her lunch.

Then, in Don's words, "he bends over to address me, wags his finger, smiles a grotesque smile, and raises his voice to ask, 'Did we have a nice din-din?"

This patronizing way of speaking to an old person unfortunately is altogether too common. People think that because we may have physical disabilities we have lost our right to be addressed as adults. Don Hall happened to be on his way the White House to receive the National Medal of Arts but that is beside the point. No matter his social status, he deserved to be treated as a person of value, not as one to be talked down to because of his age. 





George in Afghanistan PDF Print E-mail
Written by Richard Griffin   
Thursday, December 29 2011 09:15

Dear Richard,

Thanks for the well wishes, I'm sorry I missed you as well. It is tough over here but I am doing well and my men are well. We are all tired, missions day and night and youngmen are still dying, six men were killed three days before Christmas, they were all Polish. I had to go and pick up the shattered bodies and destroyed vehicle. We are in their battle space. I will be very happy when this comes to an end. I should be back in Boston by mid-march. It seems an eternity away but I know it will arrive. I am truly tired of war I have seen to many horrible things and to many faces of the dead live in my head. The only good thing is that it has brought me closer to Jesus and his teaching. I miss my family, friends, and dear wife.



Written by Richard Griffin   
Saturday, November 05 2011 09:33

The last words of Steve Jobs, on his deathbed, were OH WOW, OH WOW, OH WOW. This is what his sister, Mona Simpson, reported in the eulogy she gave at his memorial service.

 Though she is a novelist and could possibly have shaped this phrase for its dramatic effect, still it rings true to the man. While living, he was prepared for wonder and, next to death, might well have called out in a kind of ecstasy.

 This way of dying fulfills what I once wrote long ago: “How can anyone on the brink of dying not be filled with an almost insane wonder?”



Written by Richard Griffin   
Wednesday, October 26 2011 15:51

As a site for the Sunday afternoon recital, an elegant Cambridge home served memorably. The music room was high-ceilinged and spacious. It comfortably held two grand pianos, back to back, and, around the walls, seating for some twenty invited guests. The host, Ruth, at 96 years of age, received us with grace (and later with wine and cookies.)

The music was splendid.  Soprano, Kasia Sadej, and piano accompanist, Mark McNeill, (both my friends by now) performed a program of songs by classical composers Handel, Bizet, and Paderewski among others. Kasia looked beautiful and charmed us all with her smiles and graceful moving around the room. Often, I was only six feet away from this singer, so could appreciate her performance at closer range than one usually can in a concert hall.

By way of a finale, Kasia sang and Mark played a medley of Cole Porter songs. The last of these was “Anything Goes” recalling the show that I saw last spring on Broadway. Kasia delivered it with the verve Cole’s writing demands. 

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