A Different Diagnosis

Sansaku: A Different Diagnosis


From my years as a training director, I have notebooks on most of the major clinical disorders. They’re filled with lecture notes and articles, along with a few case notes and evaluations. The one on bipolar disorder is definitely the fattest of the batch.

I don’t know when I first suspected my father had a bipolar condition. It seems obvious now. There’s a clear family history and as I go through the check-list, he fits them all; including that most confusing aspect, the long periods of seeming normality.

There’s an essay I’ve often copied and given away in Murray Stein’s anthology, Jungian Analysis, “Psychopathology and Analysis.” It’s written by Donald Sandner and John Beebe. This sentence caught my eye, “Mania often represents possession of the ego by an archetypal aspect of the shadow, aptly called the Trickster.”   Interesting.

“Characteristic of a manic episode is its disturbing impact on others in the manic patient’s life.” They go on to quote Janowsky’s “Playing the Manic Game,” which is the other article I frequently copy and give away. “No other psychiatric syndrome is characterized by as many disquieting and irritating qualities…”

Someone in the grip of a manic episode has a number of ways to drive those closest to him crazy. Janowsky describes how they create interpersonal havoc and discomfort.   Dad was a master game-player. He was highly skilled at using praise and deflation to manipulate the self-esteem of others. He was extremely perceptive of areas of vulnerability and conflict, and knew how to exploit them. He projected responsibility, usually onto the culture and system, and tested limits like a madman.

Needless to say, he alienated a lot of people along the way.

When Kay Redfield Jamison wrote Touched by Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, I found the key I’d been looking for. My father comes from a long line of eccentrics, which is easily traced to our grandmother’s side of the family.

All three of us siblings run a little hot and have that characteristic love of language. My brother needs precious little sleep and even seems to thrive on it. His mood is almost pathologically optimistic, and he has that genius spark our father possessed in such troubling abundance.

Mom said she first realized something was wrong with him in Leadville. This was just before the war, when they were a newly married couple and he’d begun his law practice with one of the more prominent attorneys in the state.

Gene Bond was a regent at the university and on the board of governors for the bar association. He was also a notorious drinker who found his equal in our father. Mom said, “Corder could drink a dozen martinis, get precious little sleep, and show up in court the next morning, not only prepared, but brilliant.”

Bipolar has a curious on-set, and his probably began during the war. He was in his mid-twenties, and volunteered the day after Pearl Harbor. It didn’t take long for the military to recognize his unique abilities, and he was channeled into counter-espionage and sent to New Orleans.

Since mom was with him and privy to the operations, I know the story from her side better than his. I do remember asking him once, “Did you trail suspects?” He stared at me like I was crazy. “Colin, look at me.”

He was a tall man with an unforgettable face and voice. He said, “I didn’t trail them, I befriended them.” I began to see why the instability of the war had been so hard on him.   Things started to unravel.


Two Sides

Sansaku: Two Sides


Once a week, he’d send me out to buy books. “Just pick out a dozen you might like to read.” He had always been a voracious reader and dad on the couch with a book is one of my earliest memories.

That day, I had brought back a number of Steinbeck books, and he immediately went at Sweet Thursday.   He loved it and gave it to me to read. He was more than a bit like Doc in Cannery Row. In fact, it’s what most people in both Tombstone and Prescott called him.

He had a show on the local radio station, where he took requests from the listening audience. The Pinecone Inn, which sponsored the show, would give a free dinner to anyone who could stump him.   Piano players were called Doc, back in the old days, and that’s what he went by. If he didn’t know the song, he was a master at faking it.

There was an old crappy piano at the home on Mt. Vernon, that Mary, my step-mom, had bought as a surprise for him.   He hated the thing, but I could con him into playing every now and again. I’d brought my guitar and wanted to learn some of his songs.

He was sneaky. He’d act like he didn’t remember the song, and would begin by picking out the melody with one finger. And just about the time you wondered if he could play, the bass hand would start to roll. “Colin, you can’t be too precise; it would ruin it.” And it’s true, there’s a certain turn-off to perfection. He was far from it.

He didn’t talk about his history very often, and few realized he actually did have a doctorate. Maybe his time as a spy during the war had taught him to keep a low profile. He said, “What I do is the opposite of exaggeration. I downplay.”

I frequently triangulated my parents. I would share what my father told me with mom, and then take that back to him and challenge him to go deeper. He rarely disappointed me.

I usually feel rushed when I write about my father, but our relationship was rushed.   We reconnected in 1974, just after I’d graduated from college, and he was dead by March of 1978, my first year as a teacher at Timberline. We had to pack it in.

Lawyers, like good shrinks, are very good story-tellers.   He also knew how to draw out the most interesting details of even ordinary people, and was loved for his intelligence in listening. I paid close attention.

My father preferred the word, escape, when I asked him about running away. He said, “I would have died if I stayed.” I knew this was true in any number of ways. He was a terrible alcoholic by the time we moved back to Boulder from Arizona.

Somehow, he could still practice law and defended those no one else would touch. They were the ones who had no money, no status, and many of them had committed murder. He explained, “These were the pre-Miranda days, when the police often denied suspects their rights.   My unforgiveable crime was this: I defended them well.”

“I remember one judge in Greeley who said, ‘Mr. Smith, it’s widely known you like to drink and gamble.’ So, I asked him, Is that an accusation or an invitation? He was so angry he blew the prosecution’s case. In the appeal, I easily overturned the conviction.”

Mother, of course, remembered it well and wasn’t impressed.   But she never really slandered him. In fact, when I was in high school and turned from sports to books and people, she said I reminded her of him. I was curious to know why, since I didn’t see myself that way.

She said, “He had a very good side, too.   I hope you never forget that.”


A Fatal Flaw

Sansaku: A Fatal Flaw


I’ve watched the way couples grill each other after a betrayal.   They want to know everything and will demand even graphic details. It usually deepens the trauma and doesn’t make it better. They’ll argue for hours how they need it to heal.

But silence doesn’t help either, and the lies make it worse.

I asked my father a very pointed question, and demanded my right to know. “Why did you leave?” He took his time in answering. Strange that I can’t remember exactly where it happened.

“I know you love your mother, and she deserves it. She’s a most remarkable woman. I wouldn’t do anything to change the way you feel about her. But you weren’t married to her, and you’re not me.”

That’s how he started. My empathy was switched on high, and I knew for a fact he wasn’t feeding me a line. I even knew what he was going to say next. I could feel the aura of synchronicity.

I can’t speak the same words my father used, but I’ll never forget the gist of what he said. After taking some time to explain how difficult it is to see into another person’s relationship. He said, “Surely you see how very different I am from your mother.”

In a number of fairy tales and myths, the devil sleeps with a virgin and the child is born conflicted.   It’s exactly how I felt. I had them both inside me and I struggled.

I learned about love from my mother. She took her joy in giving, and didn’t lace it with strings. She loved to hug, but didn’t clutch. She gave the benefit of the doubt, and credit when it wasn’t due.   She didn’t have many secrets, but forever held the secrets others told her.

She could see the good in people, and accepted their limitations. He saw the dark side clearly. He was like a highly perceptive child in that way. Kids are far more honest and blunt in their perceptions. They might believe in miracles and magic, but they won’t pretend a person is good when they aren’t. Refined manners won’t deceive them.

The adults believed they could see the royal clothes, until the child shouted out, “He’s naked.”

Sometimes the hero is given a cloaking device. He can go unseen into the shadow worlds. It allows him to perceive what others think they’re hiding. It’s a gift and a curse. Do you really want to know?

It’s also a metaphor for the dark side of empathy. It can be used as a weapon. I think my father was given one of those rings of power, and unlike Frodo or Gandalf, was unable to contain it.   It can be a fatal flaw.

When I asked mother about this “gift” he had. She was more insightful than I’d realized. She said, “I was really the only person he trusted. That bothered me, because I knew what it meant.”

If they had been living a fairy tale, it would have looked like the way evil tries to tempt us into betraying ourselves. He had done everything he could to break her will, but she had held and wouldn’t give in. And when he held a gun to her head, it wouldn’t fire.

It broke him instead. It’s like the way a magic spell can turn against itself. I was surprised he even survived. But those types are tough and he escaped in the night. No wonder he drank so much.

Sometimes I think the reason he could see so deeply into the darkness of others was because he had looked at his own. While he might be a master of the half-truth with others, he could be wickedly honest with himself. He wanted to teach me the same.













Drinking with the Devil

Sansaku: Drinking with the Devil and Playing in the Mud


Right after I asked my father if it bothered him how people thought he’d wasted his life, I asked another, “Does it bother you that I asked that question?” He looked at me and smiled. “How much time do you have?”

It is so easy to criticize and condemn what we do not understand. Anais Nin called this the arrogance of the ignorant. I should go looking for the passage. She said we’ll ridicule, mock, deride, and attempt to discredit what we do not understand. And it’s often done with a passionate intensity, as Yeats described it.

I’d grown up believing my father was a lawyer, a husband, and a father who ran away from his responsibilities.   Which he did, and there’s no denying.   But I didn’t understand he was also an artist and bohemian. Wolves and dolphins can make very good friends, but don’t try to leash or lock them up.

Can you imagine being married to Robin Williams or having him as a father? Do you think Robin would have made a good attorney?

When I asked him about the shame, he used the same answer I did with counseling. “It depends.” It’s always case by case. I could tell he was checking me out. He measured the limits of my understanding.   Most of us can’t handle very much truth.

The longer I lived with my dad, the more I understood and accepted him. He reminded me of the Taoist sage who quit his post and left for a life in the boonies. He sat all day on the edge of a river and fished.

When the emperor sent for him and offered many gifts, Chuang Tzu said, “I’ve heard there’s a sacramental turtle shell displayed in court.   Have you seen it?” The messenger said he had.   Then Chuang Tzu pointed toward the river.

“Do you see that turtle over there? Where do you think he’d rather be, playing in the mud or hung on the wall of some castle?”   The messenger knew the answer and Chuang Tzu said, “Good. Now go away and let me play in the mud.”

Talking to my father was a bit like drinking with the devil. He’s the one who called it that. He wanted to be sure, however, I didn’t get caught with the tab. I was not intended for a life like his.

In fact, he didn’t like the idea that I was dropping out of graduate school before I received my degree.   “You never want to buy your freedom too cheaply,” he said. “It’s good to finish things before you start on the next.” I’ve tried to remember that.

He didn’t have to say, “Do as I say and not as I do.” It was always implied. I needed to find my own path and practice. He liked the fact I journaled and would share my experiences with him. He had the trial lawyer’s skill of getting me to say more than I’d planned on.

But he never used it against me. He actually encouraged me to reflect on my reflections, and I was thinking about that yesterday when I wrote about him in the piece on postcards.

If my father learned the discipline of practice by way of music, I had learned the same through sports.   My brother suffered thousands and thousands of pitches and passes. Practice was play, and the preparation every bit as enjoyable as the game.

It’s been almost a year since I started this practice of writing a daily blog. I’m doing what my father did. I’m playing in the mud. He liked to quote the Chinese sage who said, “It takes courage to enjoy life.”




Sansaku: Postcards


When I retired, I wanted to travel. And I promised myself and a few others, I’d send postcards from my journeys along the way. It’s what sansaku means to me.

The vehicle I use doesn’t look like one. I appear to be going nowhere. I sit for hours each morning in the studio behind the garage, and I have stacks of old journals beside me.   I use them like a time machine.

In science fiction stories, you have to be very careful not to mess with the past. The structure of present day reality is completely dependent on things happening just as they did.   But conscious reality and experience is far different than physical reality. I get to go back and interact as much as I want.

And since I wanted to send a lot of postcards, I knew the writing needed to be effortless and easy.   I’ve been a lousy correspondent for most of my life, and I wanted that to change.

In Taoism, the practice is all about authenticity, being genuine, undiluted, real, and pure of character. The way of water is said to be effortless. It doesn’t have to decide where it’s going or what it wants to say. It just stays absolutely true to itself. I liked that.

It’s the same advice Carl Rogers gave to therapists in training.   He didn’t teach techniques, he taught a way of being. It’s an everyday practice that lasts a lifetime. He called it becoming a person.

Why is it so hard to be like water and follow our true nature?

When I started writing the journal, I had no idea.   I didn’t know I was slowly building a time machine and completely missed the way the journal would become a mirror that reflected my life and self.

I was a senior in college when I finally committed to writing the journal. And it was just about a year ago, to the day, I committed to writing this blog. I had bought my laptop and signed up to send my postcards via wordpress. I thought postcards would be easier than letters.

One thing I liked about journal writing was the freedom of expression. I didn’t have to worry what others would think, and knew no one would question, criticize or punish me.   I was learning the art of transparency. Letting go of impression management is hard, and I wanted to be real.

My father was outrageously real. When I graduated from college and got to know him, I hadn’t seen him in close to twelve years. My brother had and said, “You won’t believe the way he uses language.” That line had hooked me. I was just beginning.

I had lots of things to ask him. People from his past invariable said the same thing, “I have never known anyone with so much potential.   He could have been anything. What a waste.” It’s an interesting thing to hear about one’s father. I believed it was true.

And then I got to ask him. “Does it bother you, what they say?” I could tell it wasn’t the first time he’d been asked this question. It wasn’t going to be the last time I asked him.

My father began his life with a mother who had an eye for talent.   He was playing the violin on stage before he started school. His mother made sure he practiced daily, and she drove him to Boulder where he studied with a well-known professor at the college.

Musicians understand the need to rehearse and prepare. I’ve watched Chyako practice for hours before her choir practice. Good performers rehearse, and I should have guessed my father had.

He might have played piano by ear, but he usually knew the songs by heart. But I’ll have to continue later, the postcard is filled to the gills.







Love and Do As You Will

Sansaku: Love and Do As You Will


I’ve spent more Thanksgivings in Missoula with mother and the family than any other place by far.   We’d eat two large meals that day. The first was brunch where mother lived, and then Jane and the girls would head home to cook.   I stayed to talk with Mom.

She always reminded me to smell the roses along the way.   She did not link pleasure with sin, nor work with obligation. When she washed dishes the goal was not just to clean them, each dish was like a rose for her. She remembered them like loved ones, and they knew she cared.   She took the time to smell them.

Of course, she lived in a slightly different time dimension.   She said it was one of the great blessings of advanced age.   She could travel in her memory. To enter the light, it’s done by slowing down not speeding up.

Later that day, we were sitting around the table and someone asked this question, “What is the most important profession?”   The usual ones showed up, like healing and teaching.   We weren’t surprised when my sister’s husband said being an entrepreneur.

Mother rarely jumped into the conversational current. She liked to stay high and dry. She might have been time traveling to the ranch in Colorado, but she was also very present.

When pressed for an answer, she didn’t hesitate. “It’s being a mother.”   We all knew she was right.   Nothing would have happened without her.   I knew what she was thinking about.

She often told me stories about her own mother. She said, “She has been my greatest teacher in life.” I told her, “I’m lucky. I’ve had the same teacher.”   She looked at me and smiled. “Then you understand.” She was always easy to praise and I enjoyed telling her.

George no longer came for dinner.   He was suspended in time at a care facility not far away.   The dementia had progressed, but aspects of his character had survived.   We talked about him.

Jane says, “Busy the cat lives a life of waiting.” I say, “So does George, but he doesn’t know what he’s waiting for.” Mom says, “Yes, he does.   He wants it to be done. It didn’t matter what we did, he’d always say, ‘Glad that’s over.’”   He hadn’t learned to smell the roses.

When we go to see him, I say, “Do you know your bride is sitting next to you?” He’s mostly blind, but he can hear if he chooses.   “Really?” he says.   “Just reach out your hand and you’ll find her.”   He reaches out tentatively and finds her hand.

After mom gives him a kiss, I ask if he’d like to kiss me. “Hell, no.” He wasn’t that far gone. He still had some wit at times.   I fed him some lines. “How do you wiggle your ears?” He answered as I knew he would, “Any jackass can.”

We asked what he thought about, and he took some time to answer. Unlike mom, who knew how to travel inner space and time, he was lost. He said, “I wonder what comes next.”   I took that as my opportunity.

I told him he had done his work on this earth and was free to fly away.    He looked at me like a feral hawk.   He’d always had craggy granite features, and the steely blues eyes were fixed and hard. He said, “If you want me die, I’m not ready yet.”   Whoa.

We headed home for dinner. It was time to praise and enjoy.  I love that advice St. Augustine gave: “Love and do as you will.”





The Intensification of Life

Sansaku: The Intensification of Life


We gathered every Thanksgiving in Missoula. And twenty years ago, surrounded by the clan, Chyako and I were married. It’s an easy anniversary to remember.

There was also an intensification of life during those visits. We all lived in close proximity and spent long hours together. Shit was bound to happen and there were many stories to tell. Love and complexity go together, and we cared deeply for each other.

I’m grateful for the many small moments and details I recorded in my journal. We don’t gather in Montana now that mother has died.   Garon and Jane are in New Zealand, and tomorrow we’ll be sharing food with our Timberline family.

I like the word, intensification, because it’s a synonym for meaning.   When something is meaningful it’s symbolic and intense.   Few things have a stronger charge than family.

George, our stepdad, had mostly lost his mind. He was looking at his watch with an exaggerated expression. I had to ask. He said, “It’s broken.” I went over and looked at it.

I told him, “No, it works. It’s 4:30 right now, and that’s what it says.”

He held the wrist watch up to his right ear for a ridiculously long time and said, “You’re wrong. I know when a watch isn’t working.”

I looked at mom, who said in a quiet voice, “He goes through this routine fairly often. He can’t remember.” Time had stopped for him.   Nothing new would happen and he was slowly losing his past. Mom said, “I have to finish his stories for him. He gets lost.”

About this time, my sister and youngest niece showed up.   Sheryll needed to put on war paint and Amy confessed to being a virgin with respect to make-up.   I said, “Imagine that, untouched lips.” She smiled in a most mischievous way and said, “Well, not exactly untouched.” It sounded like a recent memory. I asked. She wouldn’t say.

Later that night, I snapped at someone and shot off my mouth. Amy turned to me and said, “Good going, Colin.” I was thinking the same thing and wondered why I had to play the lightning rod.

Mother, who had no need to apologize whatsoever, felt all of the tension and stress, and said, “I’m sorry we’re so much work, but I want you to know how thankful I am.” She could tell George was ready to go home. He was looking at his watch again.

My brother, ever chipper, was in the process of making ice cream with liquid nitrogen. The wizard only lacked his costume.

I loved it then, and I love it now. I’m giving thanks. I’m grateful for family and friends, and the various groups and communities I’ve lived in. It’s been real, and it’s still intense.   Maybe even more so now.

One thing for sure, we could say, “I see you. I know you. You have touched me. You matter.” We have been permitted the great good fortune to love each other. It’s why I visit them every morning.

Modern life has lost much of its intensification, we watch television and probably know the contestants on shows like American Idol and Survivor better than our neighbors. We have more to say about celebrities and their foibles than we do about each other.

It’s not like that in a tribe. Maybe because I felt the intensification in life growing up, I sought it in the communities I chose. Timberline and the Counseling Center at the college were like that.   So is Chyako.  It’s our anniversary and the words fall short.