The Last Lessons of Dr. David T. MasonPermalink +
Sat, Mar 21, 2015, 11:16 am // Guest writer
Kamalla Kaur has written this personal testimony to WWU and Fairhaven College professor David Mason who died this week on Tuesday, March 17.
“I want to send postcards from the edges of your life to fellow lovers of the Pacific Northwest.” I inform David when he inquires into my motivations and goals for this project, Fall 2004. "I want to write your last lessons."
“What to do at the edges of life? Change your sex. Get a wife.” David sings to me softly, with a puckish twinkle.
Talking with David Mason is a creative process. He's thought provoking, often puzzling, and mischievous. I observe David teaching himself, and everyone around him, how to be a better student; passionately merging art and science, work and play, mystery and mastery and humility, into new pursuits and accomplishments.
I'm grateful to be one of the people who understands David periodically. David word paints. He says things that cause vivid pictures to suddenly form in my mind. But lately it gets harder and harder to talk with David because he has been caught by the Puget Sound Parkinson’s epidemic and the disease challenges his ability to communicate more and more each day.
Lesson 1: Deja Vu
Land Of Cedar, Eagle and Salmon
"Beware, beware, of things in the air
that we can't see, like mercury!" - David Mason
"David, back in the early 60s, when environmental science was new and you and your peers started looking at the damage already done, you knew that oil was going to peak, that the forest industry was headed for trouble, that the salmon were in danger and that global warming was going to cause huge climatic changes; right?"
"Yes, actually we expected the things we are experiencing now to happen much sooner - by the end of the 60s.” David tells me.
I feel a crackle of electricity, and I am surprised by an attack of goosebumps, as David says slowly, “It is deja vu; remembering the pronouncements we made then, while we watch events now.”
"People are moving to the Pacific Northwest so quickly.” I murmur, “You predicted the population explosion too."
"Yes, and we understood how the Pacific Northwest is, by it's very 'nature', the land of the cedar, the eagle, the salmon.” David flashes me a 1950's style, all American happy grin, and declares, “Visitors love it here. They dream of moving here.”
Then, intent and serious again, David asserts, “And when they do move here, they unwittingly promote a terrible terrible tragedy...the 'Los Angelizing' of the Pacific Northwest ecosystem."
“The 'Los Angelizing' of the Pacific Northwest ecosystem." I repeat back to David slowly, suddenly feeling frightened and sad..
"Is it too late, David? How can we save our regional habitat, culture and identity, when we are experiencing overpopulation and economic upheaval? Is it even possible to preserve our forests, air, waters and save the diversity of Pacific Northwest species?”
“We predicted 40 years ago what we are experiencing today,” David comments as he turns and gazes out of his picture window over Bellingham Bay. “But I have no knowledge of the future now.”
David hands are shaking to the Parkinson's beat. I watch him contemplating the view, which includes the ugly, now vacant, Georgia Pacific pulp mill complex. I know that David is fully aware of the mercury in the waters stretched out before him. He knows the way that mercury rises into the air, and how it poisons organisms. David turns to me and quietly concludes:
“I can only see how desperate the present has become while we wait, wondering what we have already lost.”
Lesson 2: Practice Lucidity
Land Where Our Dreams Come True.
“May I do theater?” David asked when I inquired about what he wished to share with fellow Pacific Northwesterners today.
A swirling array of memories caught me, throwing me back into my childhood and subsequent lifelong awe of David Mason, the actor and theater director.
Playing the role of the late German director, Bertolt Brecht, embodying his spirit and teachings, David explained to a WWU theater class recently:
“...the actor (also the teacher) has to discard whatever means he has learned of persuading the audience to identify itself with the characters which he plays. Aiming not to put his audience into a trance, he must not go into a trance himself.” - Bertolt Brecht
“Practice lucidity.” David challenges us.
“David, what trance do Pacific Northwesterners need to awaken from?” I asked him one day.
There was this strange empty pause. David didn't say anything. Then suddenly David was falling. I threw myself between David and the floor to break his fall; twisting to stare up into his face, ready to respond to whatever raw truth I might find there.
But David stopped his fall before touching me.
Crouched low, looking around frightened, he whispered to me with alarm, “Sing 3 times fast!”
And then David demonstrated:
“To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,
In a pestilential prison, with a life-long lock,
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,
From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!” - 3x
(from The Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan)
I fell over, onto my back, relieved that David was OK, soon clapping my hands and drumming my feet, celebrating his - now intermittent, but legendary - skills at performing tongue twisting patter raps.
The scenery lights slowly faded, and the spotlight around us brightened. I relaxed my body, intensified my awareness; reaching into the lucidity of the moment., that sweet-spot, that space of perfect timing and accord.
“It is a dangerous teaching.” I commented dryly, supine at his feet.
Rolling away and jumping up, I became Maude.
“What a glorious view. Look at the islands!” Maude exclaimed.
“I thought you would like it.” Claud replied, reaching to hold her hand, and then he added softly, “Shall we build our house here, Maude?”
“Oh Claud, yes, yes! I can't get enough of this view! We will be so happy here!”
“We have worked our whole lives, and now we can retire with enough money to make our dreams come true.” Claud declared contentedly.
I turned back to the spectacular view and studied it again. “It is too bad about the refinery being over there.” I mused wistfully
“Now, Maude, we need factories and industry,” Claud reminded me, patiently, “You know that.”
“Yes, of course. Of course, I know that.” I repeated dutifully.
The scene faded. I shook my head and suddenly remembered to remember to ask David again:
“David, what trance do Pacific Northwesterners need to awaken from?”
David's contented snores sputtered to a stop. He muttered and grumbled and didn't look too happy to have his nap disturbed.
“David, what trance do Pacific Northwesterners need to awaken from?” I insisted.
“OK,” David said, “OK!”
He explained it to me slowly, “We are genetic and cultural products of a past which has made us fit to do well something we no longer can, nor wish, to do. We are prize students of a history which has taught us to make mental metaphoric models of the world, models that once worked well and were good. Our intellect, our conceptual and sensory filters, our whole mind-mechanism was evolved and coached by a past which has taught us the wrong things. So we find that what we thought was good is now, and will in the future be, bad.”
“You mean the human species has evolved so far to destroy ourselves and take everyone else with us?” I ventured, eyes widening in dawning comprehension.
“Now Maude, don't go upsetting yourself unduly. We are building our dream house after all. We deserve that our dreams come true, we have worked so hard.”
Lesson 3: Body, Breath, and Awareness
Land of the River Otter
Yesterday David and I explored the top of Sehome Hill Arboretum, deep in the icy clutch of winter. David was underdressed, forgetting that his body is dying (Parkinson's disease) and that he chills faster now. Yet he still moves beautifully. He can balance perfectly on one foot, slide down hills on his butt...no, that was how I got down the hill. David scrambled on his feet.
Point is, David inhabits his body well.
I had decided we would keep silent on our walk. I talk too much and I was feeling burdened, and it takes energy for David to speak.
Pacific Northwesterners are comforted by nature. For me, the trees call to me, and I do so like lichen. For David, it appears that a million small things attract his attention.; a little plant, an explosion of moss, fungi, a strange bug, a slimy place on the wall, petroglyphs and graffiti, a beer can.
Breaking the silence slightly, David encouraged me to perceive the palette of colors.
I looked and saw browns and grays mostly. The forest was lit with silver light. I noted the dark winter greens - the ferns , evergreen boughs, ivy, holly, and oregon grape. I delighted in the soft silvery green lichens. I enjoyed the lacey gray twigs, with the white berries, and the occasional flash of neon colored fungi, bright moss, strange litter. I opened my eyes.
Soon I admitted that I habitually shut my ears, as well, to the sounds of Bellingham while visiting our parks. Not David. He was quietly imitating the sounds as he walked; the bass booms and strange screeches, and he hummed the note at the core of the urban roar.
I once asked David what his favorite Pacific Northwest creature was and he told me, “The river otter.”*
“They don't have to think about getting from here to there. You don't have to find them, they find you. They make great designers. Their costume is their body; it is river mud brown, and it slithers .”
From the internet I learned that:
“Otters are expert swimmers and divers, swimming at an average speed of seven miles per hour and staying underwater for up to 2 minutes. Unlike muskrats or beavers, the otter barely makes a ripple when swimming or splash when diving.” **
“Do they pose? You know, like cats pose. Do otters pose?” I wanted to know.
“They noses and poses.” David replied. He leaned close and peered calmly into my eyes with pure curiosity, alert for any possibility of fun in me. He wiggled his nose, sniffing happily.
“Otters communicate with their noses, mainly by smelling marked territories.”**
“They have fun.” I added, stating the obvious.
“Yes.” David affirmed quietly.
Towards the end of our walk, David picked up a leaf and put it on top of an old cement post. The leaf was soft brown on one side, silver on the other. Then he placed two small specimens of lichen beside it - one was fine spun, the other leafier, both were silvery green. Completing this arrangement David added a small, neon bright, carnelian orange, mushroom.
* River otters are an endangered species.
Lesson 4: Our Nature
Land of Green
I am jealous of Dr. David T. Mason. He has had more fun than I have. He was gifted with amazing parents, wonderful circumstances, superior intelligence and copious talents. He has never been without resources and opportunities. David has traveled everywhere, studied everything and met all the coolest people; or so it seems to me at times.
I am jealous of David, but this is a good thing. Because I have experienced oppression and poverty in my life. I am a Mom and a woman, and they don't pay Moms and women as much as other people. I have been forced to endure many dehumanizing jobs, and challenging service roles. At times I have been depressed and stuck; a zombie, a robot.
Were it not for my hot flashes of jealousy over the years, I might not have discovered what I really want, what I truly desire. I don't want to be David. I just want to be myself; a singer, a writer, a theater director. I am not resentful of David, or others I envy. Quite the contrary, I obviously desire something for myself that I see shining brightly in the people I admire so intensely.
Unfortunately, these pea-green awakenings of my core longings have often threatened my life-as-usual. I may again break out, drop out, or drop in unexpectedly, have a change of heart, of mind, and do something odd, shocking, scandalous and/or political!
Meanwhile, those strange people who we are madly jealous of - yet we can't admit it, not to anyone, much less ourselves - “those people” are deeply threatening to the world as we know it, and they should be destroyed. They have too much fun while the rest of us suffer. It is rumored that artists, and all sorts of other passionate people, especially the most liberally liberal of liberals (and homosexuals, of course), have more sex too. Better sex as well. They are egotists and braggarts, clearly.
David bores easily when he becomes the subject of conversation, and also when forced to listen to my stories or opinions (or other primate's stories or opinions) again and again. He generally wishes to distract himself, and those around him, from ourselves; throw us off of the scripts we have been enacting. He invokes deeper and wider, sillier and wiser, topics to catch our fancies - hook us, drill us and thrill us.
Suddenly David hits a symbol with a hefty fuzzy-headed mallet. He hits it hard, causing a teeth trembling, hair bristling, bone buzzing, sub-woofing, “ONNNNnnGGGGggggggnnnggg!!!” to happen.
“We were speaking of Mother Nature.” David reminds me as soon as there is silence available..
“Were we?” I reply archly, my eyebrows soaring high. My hair is suddenly horrific dreads of wiggling snakes and my eyes beam rock-hard resistance at him.
“Don't mess with the Mother Nature metaphor, David.” I warn him icily.
“Uh...I've never met a metaphor, a-fore, I didn't like.” David quips, not quite meeting my eyes. Then he asks meekly, “May I play with the Father God metaphor instead?” His beard is whitening and lengthening.
“No!” I snap, “There is no time!”
“Please David, just tell us what metaphor you use, if any, when you ponder Creation.”
“It will still be a mere metaphor attempting to explain a pure mystery.”
“We understand.” I assure him.
“May we also dispense with the use of snake metaphors?” David inquires, warily eyeing my helmet of coiling, roiling reptiles. He hands me a mirror.
“Oh sure.” I say primly, patting my, magically restored, homosapien hair-do with relief. “I have had so many snakes on my mind recently.”
“Indeed, we all have.” David sympathizes. “How about instead of Mother Nature, or Father Nature, or Sister or Brother Nature, we simply call it Our Nature?” David suggests.
“Our Nature?” I repeat.
“Yes, our most intimate and infinite, Natures.”
Land of Adventure and Discovery
“How are Maude and Claude faring?” David asked me recently.
“They are happy to be retired and to have finally moved to the Pacific Northwest. They purchased a gorgeous island view property and they are going to build their dream home - so they are busy with an architect and with permits, plans and potential contractors. They are renting a condo while they wait for their home to be constructed.” I reported to him and then I added, “But mostly Claude and Maude are enjoying themselves; exploring the region, seeing the sights, and taking hikes.”
“Whew!” Maude puffed, plopping down on a bench beside the trail.
Claude sat down beside her with a deep contented sigh. “This bench was put here just for us, Maude. Ah, this is the life. Take a look at this forest.”
“Beautiful. It is simply beautiful.” Maude marveled..
“Let's see now if I've got this right - that tree right there is a Douglas Fir, with the rough bark,” Claude declared, “and that one, with the broad base and soft bark is a Cedar tree.”
“They look like they are dancing together, don't they? See? The Douglas Fir looks like a tall strong man, and the Cedar tree is a beautiful lady, wearing a lovely swirling skirt.” Maude mused.
“Are all the trees dancing?” Claude whispered to Maude suggestively, sidling close and draping his arm around her shoulders..
“Yes, they are all dancing. Can't you see?” Maude teased.
“Yes, I see!” said Claude, and he felt a bit bemused because he found that he DID see.
“How about those two?” Claude inquired, pointing towards a Douglas Fir and Cedar that were completely joined at their base.
“Oh my! They are dancing very close together, aren't they?” gasped Maude in mock shock, and then she giggled girlishly and pointed, “Claude, look at those two Douglas Fir over there? And what about those three Cedar trees! How scandalous!”
“Scandalous. Shocking.” Claude murmured huskily, as he nibbled softly on Maude's neck.
Elizabeth Daugert was 12 and I was 11 on the day, in 1966, that we discovered Dr. David Mason. Elizabeth and her family practically lived on Western's campus here in Bellingham, in a big old house that got removed when they connected Garden Street to Highland Drive.
Elizabeth and I were always snooping around Western Washington State College, seeking adventures and treasure - but strangely we didn't have to roam to discover David Mason. He just suddenly appeared that day in a building that was nextdoor to the Daugert's house. It was a little, old, wooden house, bought up by Western, which would also soon get torn down to make way for that new street. The sign on the building read: “The Fresh Water Institute.”
I have had many best women friends in my life. I seem to practice serial monogamy in my best girlfriends. Back then, in that era, Elizabeth was my best friend, which left me at a profound disadvantage. For one thing Beth had another bester friend, and Beth was a year older than I, age 12, and thus more womanly. Beth was also smarter than I, more talented, articulate and poised. Elizabeth got better grades than I got. She was tall, willowy, striking and lovely. I adored her.
I also had a vast love and devotional respect for Beth's Mom, Barbara Daugert. Barbara was brilliant and wise and kind and, among other talents, she was gifted with children. I can see that now. But at age 11 all I remember is trying to get myself invited to dinner at the Daugert's as much as possible, and then pushing to spend the night at Beth's house as well.
I can't say if Elizabeth fell in love with David Mason at first sight, but I know I did. Meanwhile David was in his early thirties, already renowned for his accomplishments, busy, and brand new to Western. When two girl children waltzed into his laboratory, David introduced himself politely, handed us test tubes, and put us to work. He talked more to Beth than to me, because she could talk. I could only stammer. I remember David made us laugh, he made us think, he let us help and he treated us like his equals.
David doesn't remember being discovered by Elizabeth and me; though he says he vaguely recalls my red hair.
When we told Beth's mom how we had discovered David Mason, Barbara exclaimed, “You met David Mason? What is he like?”
When we told my mother how we had discovered David Mason she also said,
“You have met David Mason? What is he like?”
Maybe we told our fathers and others as well, I don't remember. In any case, Elizabeth did the talking. .
I didn't know then what no one could have known; that Barbara and Elizabeth would both die young of breast cancer, or how much I would mourn them.
And, Elizabeth and I had no concept, back in 1966, no inkling of what our parents, and others at Western Washington State College, all knew - that David Mason was a homosexual and “out” at a time in USA history when no one was yet fully “out”.
Lesson 6. I'm Willing To Die For Other Species
Land of Ghosts
It was a glorious sunny warm afternoon in the community garden. The families of former students and professors of Fairhaven College placed doors on saw horses. We built a very long table in the middle of It All. Around us the veggies soared, crowds of flowers lazed about, and dedicated butterflies slaved to lap up gold dust.
We covered our table with formal white sheets. We set 20 places with care and elegance, goblets and napkins, and we positioned folding chairs. Then we heaped the table with salads and hot dishes. There was wine and cold juices and fresh ice water with lemon slices in it.
I guided a very crippled David through the garden and helped him sit.
"Twitterpated." I said.
"Bucolic." David replied, struggling to speak.
With great difficulty, David responded, "Halcyon."
We all wore gem tones that day - shorts, flowered shirts and skirts and t-shirts. We feasted and laughed, relaxed and rejoiced, for an entrancing long spell - like fresh dyed prayer flags flapping slowly in a subtle, soft, warm breeze
Suddenly, David bellowed at ear splitting volume, leaping up out of his chair – a sonic boom that popped painfully.
The potluckers were so startled some fell out of their chairs. We clamp hands over ears, and a few of us shrieked in terror. David's deafening boom made adrenalin squirt into our bloodstreams. Instantly, a community united - in emergency mode – our first concern was for David.
But David only made the sound once and then stood quietly.
It took total concentration for David to explain. He managed to slowly say five words.
"Navy. Murdered. Porpoises. Puget Sound."
"Sonar." we whispered.
"Seen - it - today." David affirmed, touching his eyes with rhythmically beating fingertips. "Sucked in - bleeding - eyes."
"Orcas too? Whales?"
Jan 3, 2008 - Seattle Post Intelliencer:
A federal judge in California today forbade the U.S. Navy to use sonar in training exercises off the California coast. The judge noted that by the Navy's own estimate, it would transgress the bounds of the Endangered Species Act 170,000 times; would temporarily deafen whales 8,000 times and would permanently injure certain species of whales.
Jan 18 2008 - Seattle Post Intelligencer:
Bush allows Navy sonar use despite fears for whales...
Dr. David T. Mason, known for his willingness to die for other species...
If only we could have died, right then and there, on that beautiful sunny day, not them. If only we could have died, not them.
The Last, and Lost, Bow
It is 2008 and I can no longer access David Mason. I can't cope with the shifting forces of his advanced Parkinson's disease. Often he is all there, and he speaks. Or he can't speak. So he mimes. Soon disorientation arrives. It comes often now, visits several times daily, and stays longer and longer. Naps help, and the pills. Mustn't forget. Where? What?
I over-stimulate him. My red hair? My loss of him? His loss of him? Our loss of him? Our loss of ourselves? Our world's loss and our loss of our world?
Cry sooner. I need to cry sooner.
David, the young “Savior of Mono Lake”, sperm of Fairhaven College, womb of Huxley College, limnologist, radical-environmental-scientist, mathematically adept biologist, expert on woody debris piles, and the opera; singer, composer, writer, best actor ever - mind-boggling, soul-sizzling, theater director - teacher, researcher, painter...
Me? An uppity nobody.
I elected David my deprogrammer and theater mentor. I studied his life and teaching methods. We didn't have much time. He accepted me. He could have said “no”. We aren't jolly old friends. He teacher, me student. He cook, me eat.
The audience? The audience that David was playing to? The one and only crowd David pushed me to please?
The ghost of Bertolt Brecht.
Now David is my ghost; my new phantom audience - the only crowd I wish to please - but can't find.
Related Links:-> Short bio at Center For Pacific NW Studies website
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Tue, Oct 02, 2012, 12:07 am // Guest writerHarriet Spanel and Ken Hertz on why we should vote YES to increase the Port of Bellingham to 5 commissioners.
3 comments; last on Oct 05, 2012
Fri, Sep 28, 2012, 9:45 am // Guest writerJack Petree, guest writer, points out serious flaws in Bellingham Prop 1, the Home Fund, that is intended to help the poor get housing.
18 comments; last on Dec 02, 2012
Mon, Aug 20, 2012, 7:24 pm // Guest writerDavid Maas, a retired college prof, asks why the city of Bellingham is supposedly powerless to stop the development of a private project that will reshape our community?
5 comments; last on Aug 26, 2012
Fri, Aug 17, 2012, 10:21 am // Guest writerSuzanne Ravet, a member of Coal-Free Bellingham, explains why she supports the Bellingham Community Bill of Rights
2 comments; last on Aug 22, 2012
Tue, Apr 24, 2012, 1:02 am // Guest writerDevelopers are gaming the system with help from the county government - and big changes are made in multiple small changes.
1 comments; last on Apr 27, 2012
Fri, Apr 06, 2012, 8:16 am // Guest writerKen Mann writes a guest article of his personal support for the Padden Trails development inside the Bellingham city limits.
3 comments; last on Apr 07, 2012
Mon, Mar 19, 2012, 1:07 am // Guest writerGuest writer Bill Geyer, who is the consultant for the Padden Trails Development, presents facts and perspective on the development.
34 comments; last on Apr 16, 2012
Thu, Mar 15, 2012, 2:11 pm // Guest writerBy guest writer Mike Rostron. Sunnyland residents support infill but not overfill. The old Department of Transportation site on Sunset is the development site.
40 comments; last on Mar 19, 2012
Wed, Feb 22, 2012, 2:04 am // Guest writerYet another neighborhood wants the Planning Department to protect public health, safety, and general welfare
6 comments; last on Feb 24, 2012
Sat, Feb 18, 2012, 4:03 pm // Guest writerNo EIS - no real county planning concern about developing Squalicum Mountain and degrading Lake Whatcom water even further.
Wed, Feb 08, 2012, 10:14 am // Guest writerThere’s no profit in searching for causes, and we know there's no real cure. But there's big money in the detection and treatment of breast cancer.
2 comments; last on Feb 11, 2012
Mon, Nov 21, 2011, 2:00 am // Guest writerWith budget woes, Bellingham passes on safety in favor of cash. Starting in 2008, Bellingham officials were coached by ATS on how to get Red Light cameras through…
26 comments; last on Nov 30, 2011
Sun, Nov 13, 2011, 4:45 pm // Guest writerGuest writer, Stephen K. Schuck, a citizen elections observer, explains the processes and problems with vote counting
4 comments; last on Nov 14, 2011
Mon, Oct 31, 2011, 4:07 pm // Guest writerBob Ferris of Re-Sources takes a values based perspective on our community and a possible coal port.
9 comments; last on Nov 02, 2011
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