Thursday, December 11, 2014

Remembering Dad

I wrote and published this two years ago, on the tenth anniversary of my father's death. It's becoming an annual tradition to repost. His memory gives him life. I miss him.

Roger L. Miller as a boy, 1920s.
My Dad and Airplanes

by G. Wayne Miller

I live near an airport. Depending on wind direction and other variables, planes sometimes pass directly over my house as they climb into the sky. If I’m outside, I always look up, marveling at the wonder of flight. I’ve witnessed many amazing developments -- the end of the Cold War, the advent of the digital world, for example -- but except perhaps for space travel, which of course is rooted at Kitty Hawk, none can compare.

I also always think of my father, Roger L. Miller, who died ten years ago today.

Dad was a boy on May 20, 1927, when Charles Lindbergh took off in a single-engine plane from a field near New York City. Thirty-three-and-a-half hours later, he landed in Paris. That boy from a small Massachusetts town who became my father was astounded, like people all over the world. Lindbergh’s pioneering Atlantic crossing inspired him to get into aviation, and he wanted to do big things, maybe captain a plane or even head an airline. But the Great Depression, which forced him from college, diminished that dream. He drove a school bus to pay for trade school, where he became an airplane mechanic, which was his job as a wartime Navy enlisted man and during his entire civilian career. On this modest salary, he and my mother raised a family, sacrificing material things they surely desired.

My father was a smart and gentle man, not prone to harsh judgment, fond of a joke, a lover of newspapers and gardening and birds, chickadees especially. He was robust until a stroke in his 80s sent him to a nursing home, but I never heard him complain during those final, decrepit years. The last time I saw him conscious, he was reading his beloved Boston Globe, his old reading glasses uneven on his nose, from a hospital bed. The morning sun was shining through the window and for a moment, I held the unrealistic hope that he would make it through this latest distress. He died four days later, quietly, I am told. I was not there.

Like others who have lost loved ones, there are conversations I never had with my Dad that I probably should have. But near the end, we did say we loved each other, which was rare (he was, after all, a Yankee). I smoothed his brow and kissed him goodbye.

So on this 10th anniversary, I have no deep regrets. But I do have two impossible wishes.

My first is that Dad could have heard my eulogy, which I began writing that morning by his hospital bed. It spoke of quiet wisdom he imparted to his children, and of the respect and affection family and others held for him. In his modest way, he would have liked to hear it, I bet, for such praise was scarce when he was alive. But that is not how the story goes. We die and leave only memories, a strictly one-way experience.

My second wish would be to tell Dad how his only son has fared in the last decade. I know he would have empathy for some bad times I went through and be proud that I made it. He would be happy that I found a woman I love: someone, like him, who loves gardening and birds. He would be pleased that my three children are making their way in the world, and that he now has two great-granddaughters, wonderful little girls both. In his humble way, he would be honored to know how frequently I, my sisters and my children remember and miss him. But that is not how the story goes, either. We send thoughts to the dead, but the experience is one-way. We treasure photographs, but they do not speak.

Lately, I have been poring through boxes of black-and-white prints handed down from Dad’s side of my family. I am lucky to have them, more so that they were taken in the pre-digital age -- for I can touch them, as the people captured in them surely themselves did so long ago. I can imagine what they might say, if in fact they could speak.

Some of the scenes are unfamiliar to me: sailboats on a bay, a stream in winter, a couple posing on a hill, the woman dressed in fur-trimmed coat. But I recognize the house, which my grandfather, for whom I am named, built with his farmer’s hands; the coal stove that still heated the kitchen when I visited as a child; the birdhouses and flower gardens, which my sweet grandmother lovingly tended. I recognize my father, my uncle and my aunts, just children then in the 1920s. I peer at Dad in these portraits (he seems always to be smiling!), and the resemblance to photos of me at that age is startling, though I suppose it should not be.

A plane will fly over my house today, I am certain. When it does, I will go outside and think of young Dad, amazed that someone had taken the controls of an airplane in America and stepped out in France. A boy with a smile, his life all ahead of him.

A version of this essay appeared on the op-ed page of The Providence Journal on Dec.12, 2012.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Providence Journal publishes ongoing series on mental health

Readers of The Providence Journal and this blog know that the newspaper has counted stories about mental health and people living with mental illness among its highest public-service efforts since the 1930s. The Journal's long devotion to these issues has included print and photographic exposes of inhumane conditions at a Rhode Island public psychiatric hospital (the old Institute of Mental Health); extensive coverage and editorial-page support of the creation of the state's community mental health system, once held as a national model; and many profiles of people with mental illness that have emphasized individuals' humanity.

I have been privileged to have played a role in these efforts for many years. And so I was pleased and honored when the paper this fall -- at my urging, and with the full support of executive editor Karen Bordeleau, deputy executive editor Sue Areson and project editor John Kostrzewa -- began a new series: Mental Health in Rhode Island.

-- The series launched on Oct. 26 with a look at problems in today's public system.

Jim McNulty, national authority, lives with bipolar disorder.

-- It continued on Oct. 27 with a history of the community effort, and funding, gaps in service, statewide fragmentation and other contemporary issues. Readers were offered a poll and superb interactive graphics by my colleague Paul Edward Parker.

Susan Jacobsen, head of the Mental Health Association of R.I.

-- Part 3 of the series was published on Nov. 2 -- an outstanding look at homeless people with mental illness by my partner on the series, Paul Davis.

Homeless people behind Kentucky Fried Chicken, Broad Street, Providence.

-- A record crowd attended The Journal's Nov. 6 Publick Occurrences forum, “Rhode Island’s Mental Health System: Condition Critical?”

Publick Occurrences, Nov. 6, 2014, Rhode Island College.

-- The language of mental health and mental illness was explored in a Nov. 23 story.

Dr. Gabor Keitner, R.I. and Miriam Hospitals, Brown Med. 

-- The Criminalization of Mental Illness, a forum at Butler Hospital, sponsored by the Mental Health Association of Rhode Island, story published Dec. 9. 

Madelon Baranoski, associate professor of psychiatry at Yale

-- Survey shows high incidence of mental illness, trauma among Rhode Island's homeless, story by Paul Davis, Dec. 10.

Dr. Craig Kaufmann, RI Homeless Coalition's Megan Smith, with man at bus stop.

-- Hundreds of people who need mental-health care forced wrongly into prison, Dec. 14.

Clinical Chief Louis Cerbo, Correctional Officer Wm. Galligan.

-- ‘Did I belong somewhere? Yes. Was prison the place? … Absolutely not,’ Dec. 14.

John Vitale: homeless, and a person living with mental illness.

-- R.I. prison system lacks resources to care for mentally ill inmates, Dec. 15.

D-Mod, High Security, R.I. state prison.

-- With new Governor Raimondo's support, and new Department of Behavioral Health, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals chief Maria Montanaro set to take office after former head Craig Stenning was not reappointed, consensus builds for reform in 2015, Jan. 25, 2015.

New BHDDH chief Montanaro, replacing Stenning

-- PeaceLove Studios, based in Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket,

Stay tuned. Much more to come...

All photos courtesy of The Providence Journal. Thanks, guys!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Rhode Island's community mental health system is born

 Thirty years ago, I wrote a six-part series for The Providence Journal (The Journal-Bulletin then) about the creation of Rhode Island's community system. This is one of the stories from that "Building New Lives" series.

R.I. praised for its care of mentally disabled


Publication Date: November 28, 1984  Page: A-01  Section: NEWS  Edition: ALL 

Part four of six parts.

[NOTE: The "Building New Lives" series examined both the mental health system and the system for care of the developmentally disabled, people who in 1984 were labeled "retarded" -- and many of whom lived in the now-closed  Dr. Joseph H. Ladd Center in Exeter.]

This is how the mentally ill were treated in RI 50 years ago. Courtesy: Providence Journal. For more on the institutional era, click here.
A sun-drenched afternoon in August. The streets of Manhattan's Bowery stink of garbage and urine and cheap booze, and flies are buzzing everywhere, and everything's moving slow, and it's steamy hot, dog-day hot.

For eight years, since his discharge from a public psychiatric hospital, William J. Moody has lived on these streets. For eight years, he has carried his earthly possessions in a valise, a shopping bag and a tattered gym bag. For eight years, he has been unable to find a job, or an apartment he can afford.

"A Bohemian," he fancies himself. "You know, more or less in a clean, bummy fashion."

When he has the money, Moody eats sardines and mayonnaise, or treats himself to Chinese food or a bowl of noodle soup. When he doesn't, he picks through dumpsters. At night, when the weather is fair, he sleeps in parks. When it isn't, he rides the subway until dawn or finds a steam grate or a warm tunnel.

Moody shuffles along East Third Street, a once respectable neighborhood gone to seed. Most of the buildings are boarded, run down, covered with unintelligible graffiti, revolutionary slogans, posters for new-wave bands named "Live Skull," "Brooklyn Dead" and "Alien Love."

Around the corner, men congregate near the Palace Hotel, a tumble-down flophouse. The men are young, middle-aged, old. Some snooze. Others drink, play cards, swap stories in gravelly voices. Their faces are tired and dirty. Their clothes are grimy. There is no dignity on these streets, only survival.

Moody gives his age as "60s." He is a tall, slim, toothless man with a crazy, crackling laugh and a fondness for clean clothes and porkpie hats.

Moody also is a schizophrenic. During his years on the streets, he has been spit on, beaten, stabbed, robbed, arrested. He has been thrown out of rooming houses, kicked off buses, denied medical care.

He is a victim - a victim of deinstitutionalization. In contrast to Rhode Island, where the movement has succeeded, New York is a national disgrace.

Like thousands of New York City's estimated 40,000 street people, Moody, a onetime drummer in a big band, spent years in an institution. Like the others, he was discharged without an apartment or a job, without psychiatric care, without much concern for what would happen to him.

"These people aren't getting shelter, food or clothing. Some are dying," says Dr. Frank R. Lipton, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at New York University Medical Center. "For this group of people, we aren't even at square one. For these people, it's a mess."

NATIONALLY, deinstitutionalization has a mixed record. One of the most successful states has been Rhode Island, a national leader in the movement.

Other states, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Vermont among them, also have spent the time and money to care for people who have left institutions. A few, including Oklahoma and Arkansas, have rejected the movement and continue to operate large, overcrowded, unsafe institutions.

Still others, such as New York and California, rushed to empty institutions without putting in place all of the programs longtime patients must have to live decently in the community. In New York, 60,000 patients of state psychiatric hospitals have been released since 1965; estimates of those who need community help, but don't get it, run to 25 percent or more.

One result was predictable: a mounting cry to turn back the clock a half-century to when severely disabled people were routinely packed off to asylums.

"Attempts since the 1960s to 'deinstitutionalize' these patients and treat them in the community have succeeded only partially, and the failures are increasingly visible on the grates and gutters of urban America," the Wall Street Journal reported in August.

A Massachusetts Senate committee, in a report released two months ago, faulted that state's mental health department for being too zealous in its deinstitutionalization. The committee urged officials to consider reopening mental hospitals.

"The committee's investigation has uncovered sound evidence that hundreds upon hundreds of former patients are winding up in jail cells, emergency rooms, emergency shelters and walking the streets . . ." the report stated.

"One need only to walk the streets of Boston, Worcester or Springfield, or any other urban center, to see real-life examples of deinstitutionalization gone sour."

And in California, a nine-month state commission study concluded this year that group homes in the state were plagued by "abusive, unhealthful, unsafe and uncaring conditions . . . some residents are actually killed in facilities each year."

RHODE ISLAND places near the top among states that have done the job of deinstitutionalization well.

Yes, there are gaps in service, and there are some homeless mentally disabled people, but experts agree Rhode Island has spent the time and money to ensure that most people who leave the Institute of Mental Health and the Dr. Joseph H. Ladd Center will be able to live at something better than survival level.

Experts in mental health and retardation with national perspectives speak highly of how well Rhode Island has managed deinstitutionalization, and many have come here for firsthand looks. Not coincidentally, the first legislation encouraging national deinstitutionalization was introduced by a Rhode Island senator, John H. Chafee.

"You can see in a comparison of similar states with similar size how one can do a better job," says Neal B. Brown, director of the National Institute of Mental Health's community support program. "Rhode Island is doing a better job. A tremendous amount has been done in the last few years."

Harry C. Schnibbe, executive director of the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, agrees. "It's working a hell of a lot better than in other places, I can say that," he remarks. "People are being taken care of when they get out of the facilities."

"There are only about three places in the country where there has been dramatic and consistent and persistent community development," says Thomas Nerney, a consultant to the U.S. Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. "Rhode Island is one of them."

One recent survey by the National Institute of Mental Health, for example, shows that Rhode Island annually spends $61.56 per capita for private and public mental health services. Only three states spent more.

Another survey, by the University of Illinois at Chicago, showed that Rhode Island spent about $26 per capita for community services for the retarded. Only two of the 50 states spent more.

"Before you left the hospital, did anyone give you advice on how you were going to get by?"

Moody: "I was inquirin' while I was there but I couldn't make heads or tails out of what the people were sayin'."

"Do you have an income?"

"Yeah, I'm gettin' Social Security and an Army pension. About $450 per month. Four hundred fifty in 30 days. That's not much money in this city."

"Would you like to work?"

"Sure. Yeah. But you can't get anything these days. Everything seems to be filled. Then, on top of that, like I say, I don't have any identification. I can't tell them I belong to the union."

"What about an apartment?"

"Well, now, if I could afford it, and it more or less fitted my particular curricula, yeah, I'd go for it. I found a couple of places like that, but they're particular. You just can't get in there."

"What if someone found you a place. A state or city agency, say?"

"I'd love it. I'd go stark ravin' insane over it. Knowin' that I'd have my own private apartment? Would I like it? I'd end up paintin' the whole place in nothin' flat] Sure] I'd be crazy about that]"

RHODE ISLAND'S secret has been a combination
of money, leadership, and a consensus that moving people out of institutions is cost-effective and humane. In few states has there been such agreement among legislators, the public and experts in the field.

These are among the ingredients of Rhode Island's success:

* Time.

Unlike other states, which rushed to empty institutions in the 1960s, Rhode Island didn't get into high gear until a decade later. That comparatively late start gave the state the chance to learn from others' mistakes.

Says Leona Bachrach, professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine: "I think it's probably okay to suggest that you overcame some of the errors of some of the other states that proceeded very rapidly."

The majority of people leaving institutions were adequately prepared for new lives outside; people who had trouble outside were returned to the institutions until they were ready to try again. That was crucial. Large numbers of obviously disturbed people acting strangely or offensively would have created great public pressures to slow, or reverse, the movement.

* Size.

Rhode Island is a small state with only one public psychiatric hospital and a single public institution for the retarded - a built-in advantage to the architects of the movement. Many of the problems of larger states, including New York, have been related to the sheer magnitude of the task.

"New York inherited a terrible problem of numbers," says Joseph J. Bevilacqua, former director of the Rhode Island Department of Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals. "New York had literally 40, 50 institutions. The calculus to move that number into community services is horrendously complicated. It's a gargantuan problem."

* Administrative leadership.

Both Bevilacqua and his successor, MHRH director Thomas D. Romeo, have made deinstitutionalization a top priority, fighting to channel money and resources away from Ladd and the IMH into community programs. They also brought on board, or promoted, division-level bureaucrats who shared their vision.

* Dedicated professionals.

Without competent front-line staff, quality services cannot be consistently provided. Although a few public and private workers have little interest in the people they serve, Rhode Island has been able to attract primarily qualified, dedicated professionals willing to work long hours at low pay in what is acknowledged to be a high "burnout" field.

* Community advocates.

One of the driving forces behind the movement has been the Rhode Island Association for Retarded Citizens. Less powerful, but still important, have been the Mental Health Association of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Council of Community Mental Health Centers.

* Public support.

Although many group homes were met with stiff opposition in neighborhoods around the state, Rhode Island voters have never turned down a bond issue for development of community programs. Since 1967, 10 bonds totalling $90 million (including money for the IMH and Ladd) have been approved. The latest was an $8-million bond passed on Nov. 6.

Says Schnibbe: "That is one distinction that Rhode Island has that is substantially different from the rest of the country. Everybody wishes they could use it."

* Political leadership.

Many states have been frustrated by legislative squabbles over cost and purpose. For the last decade, the General Assembly and the governor have been committed to the program. In particular, Governor Garrahy and former Senate Majority Leader Rocco A. Quattrocchi have been key figures in mustering support.

* Federal money.

Unlike some states, Rhode Island has been unusually successful in attracting federal dollars. Even under the Reagan administration, the state has managed to get millions annually for community programs.

* Monitoring and control.

Although local providers administer many programs, allowing for flexibility and innovation state bureaucracies often lack, Rhode Island has kept control of overall programs through their financing. In those few instances where community workers have been found negligent, the state has moved quickly to discipline them or bring court charges.

* Legal action.

A 1977 federal suit by RIARC against the state accelerated the movement of people from Ladd and led to improvements at the institution.

* Media attention.

Investigations in the 1970s by the Rhode Island media, notably the Journal-Bulletin, focused attention on deplorable conditions at the IMH and Ladd. That attention made it impossible for legislators and MHRH administrators to ignore the problems of the state's mentally disabled, in or out of institutions.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A few words about humor (actually, more than a few!)

From Jonathan Swift to Saturday Night Live and The Onion -- and now, absrdCOMEDY -- writers have used satire to offer what Wikipedia (see below) describes as “constructive social criticism.” In other words, food for thought, served with humor. Parody -- a close, if lighter, cousin -- aims less to be constructive than to get laughs (and perhaps provide a degree of insight) by revealing ironies, inconsistencies and contradictions, often with the use of mockery and ridicule.

Since first discovering these two genres, in high-school freshman English, I have savored both for their potential to make people laugh and their power to prompt serious thought about real-life social, cultural, political and international issues. I began writing satire and parody myself while editor of my high school newspaper and I continued in college, after which I got a “real” writing job. 

So imagine my delight earlier this year when I discovered absrdCOMEDY, a flourishing home for parody and satire. Actually, I discovered Michigan comedian Jeff Dwoskin’s absrdNEWS Twitter account first. Open-sourced, anyone could contribute. I started to. Jeff was already thinking web site when I and others encouraged him to take the plunge. He did. I wrote some of the earliest entries for absrdCOMEDY -- specifically, The Cave Times and Real Putin News, which I continue to write, along with posts under my own name. I also wrote part of the site's disclaimer, which I still think is kinda, sorta, maybe funny: Individual opinions expressed are those of the individual authors, not necessarily of absrdComedy, and may not even be those of the individual authors.

Jonathan Swift. Read his famous "A Modest Proposal"

Some people spend their few spare moments in the busy day playing Angry Birds or Candy Crush, or noodling around on Facebook or Twitter, or arranging their spice shelves, or whatever. In my leisurely moments, I write snippets of satire and parody, and stuff without higher purpose beyond a smile or a laugh. Whether they’re funny and thought-provoking or not -- well, you be the judge.

Under Jeff’s stewardship -- he calls himself Chief Creative Officer (I like that one!) -- absrdCOMEDY has continued to grow and grow. I am happy to be a part-time part of things -- and I like how it brings me down Memory Lane. One of my acquaintances in college was the great humorist Jim Downey, who went from Harvard and the Harvard Lampoon to become one of the legendary writers (and occasional actor) for Saturday Night Live. And two of my college friends were the late Mark O’Donnell and his Emmy-winning twin brother Steve, marvelous comedians and satirists/parodists themselves. I am hardly in their league, of course, nor in the rarefied place held by New York Times satirist Gail Collins, whose columns never fail to hit the mark. 

But in and around my "real" writing (mostly at 5 or 6 a.m.), I am having fun, with my modest little contributions to two genres of literature whose roots are in ancient Greece -- but which have never been more relevant than in today’s crazy world.

Satire is a genre of literature, and sometimes graphic and performing arts, in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement.[1] Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.
Read more about satire's long history here.

And if you are really into wasting time (that's parody, folks... or is it satire?), read about parody here.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Along Michigan Avenue, Detroit: Part One

A drive along the main boulevard of Michigan Avenue from Dearborn, Michigan, world headquarters of Ford, into downtown Detroit tells many stories: of decay, abandonment, life continuing among the ruins, hope for the rebirth one day of this once-mighty city. During my recent stay, I met only the most friendly and helpful people. May the city rise again.

First of two parts of a photo essay. Click here for Part Two.

Michigan and 35th: a child's playground, a boarded-up building.

Michigan Animal Hospital. As I watched, a man with a poodle emerged.

Derelict storefronts, a new cell tower.

Senate Theater: They show old movies here.

A young couple and their kid.

Mother and son.

Beyond salvation.

A man hidden by bushes.

Falling down.

A stronger America.

Truck, maybe built here.

A drive-through, once upon a time.

The goldenrod grows.

Fire-engine red.

Motown motorcycles.

Along Michigan Avenue, Detroit: Part Two

A drive along the main boulevard of Michigan Avenue from Dearborn, Michigan, world headquarters of Ford, into downtown Detroit tells many stories: of decay, abandonment, life continuing among the ruins, hope for the rebirth one day of this once-mighty city. During my recent stay, I met only the most friendly and helpful people. May the city rise again!

Second of two parts of a photo essay. Click here for Part One.

Zion, rotting home beyond.
A house.
Another house.
Dollar store.
Hair cuts.
Golden arches, CVS.
Liquor, lotto, WIC.
Open for business.
Also open.
Once-grand Michigan Central Station, long closed.
Upper stories of Michigan Central
Industrial legacy.
Almost into downtown.
Heart of downtown, a beautiful summer afternoon.
Hope for a storied city!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Middle Class Squeeze

Here we are in August already, the summer flying by. What with vacation and all, I have been absent for a few weeks from here (though not @gwaynemiller and Facebook!)

Readers of The Providence Journal have been reading our latest year-long series: Middle Class Squeeze, about the economic ground that the middle class has lost over the last two decades. This is a look the economy through the prism of personal stories and an election year and it follows Reinvent Rhode Island, our 2012 year-long look at the overall Rhode Island economy, which remains sluggish in 2014. As with all of our major efforts, this one has been expertly illustrated and designed, and supported online with innovative interactive graphics, polls, photos and video.

I wrote the lead-off story in the series: FRACTURED, a profile, supported with data and great graphics, about Cumberland's Danielle and Josh Maziarz and their three young sons and and their struggles to get by on Josh's blue-collar salary. The Maziarzes are illustrative of so many families today.

Josh and Danielle Maziarz and their sons.

I have written several more stories already published (with more to come), among them:

-- A mix of empathy, anger and frustration: readers speak out, May 24.

-- As incomes slide, voters check out, June 7.

-- Millennial flight, Aug. 3.

John DosSantos: Native Rhode Islander, now in Vermont

Several colleagues, including Kate Bramson, Paul Grimaldi and Paul Parker have also written stories and supplied other support, all under the leadership of project editor John Kostrzewa, and Karen Bordeleau and Sue Areson. And as always, the online and visuals people have pitched in nicely. For the full series, visit the Middle Class Squeeze page. For all of our recent special reports and series, visit the special reports page.

Stay tuned for more #MiddleClassSqueeze as the election season heats up...