Friday, June 29, 2007

Mason's Apron

I just came across an Irish fiddle tune called Mason's Apron, which I will clearly have to learn how to play.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Toxic Attitudes

A week or two ago I began using a small, spiral-bound pocket memo book for jotting down shopping lists, books to look up later, phone numbers, notes, and so on. This was an evolution of my previous Hipster PDA methodology of tearing used letter-sized paper into quarters and binding it together with clips. That was OK, and I always felt good about pre-recycling all that paper, but it always felt kind of ghetto and wasn't really a thing you could slip into your pocket. The clip would dig into your thigh, and the whole thing would fall apart when trying to pull it out.

I have been loving the memo book, but as I began to embrace it enthusiastically it too began to feel a little bit shabby and flimsy. The spiral binding was none too comfortable in a hip pocket, either.

Last night I decided to upgrade, and purchased a Moleskine plain pocket notebook.

Right about now you're probably either silently welcoming me into the Moleskine fold as a Lodge welcomes a newly Entered Apprentice, or you're rolling your eyes and writing me off as another hipster geek, appalled that I would spend that kind of money on a lousy old notebook, and convinced that I only did so because of its popularity.

It's true that some (probably a lot) of people out there have purchased these little black books just because all the other cool people use them. I sought out the Moleskine brand specifically because of all the good word of mouth I had heard... fad or not, there's got to be a seed of truth in there somewhere.

I was not disappointed... and, much like the first time I got my hands on Mac OS X, I have become an instant convert and unpaid salesperson for the Modo E Modo company. Yes, this simple 192 page book cost several hundred percent more than the Mead spiral-bound equivalent, but it is quality. Nice cream-colored paper, thread-binding, sturdy and attractive cover, cloth bookmark, elastic cover band, and a pocket inside the back cover. The thing just sits there and screams at me to pick it up and write in it. It is stylish and functional in the way that pushes my aesthetics button repeatedly. It's a dreadfully tired saying, but you do get what you pay for... and while you might classify Moleskines as a luxury, as luxuries go they're a darn sight more affordable than, say, designer handbags or handmade italian shoes.

And write in my new notebook I have! I can't help but think of it as "offline blogging," which is a perverse way of looking at things considering how many thousands of years humans have been writing things on paper or papyrus. It has been 15 years since I kept a written journal of "deep thoughts" for my high school Humanities class. Journals were to be turned in once a week, at which point the teacher (the best I ever had) would read them and write responsive comments in the margins. After the course ended I continued the paper journal exercise for a while and then migrated to electronic entries on my state of the art Amiga 500, but I ultimately gave it up... without my audience of one, it felt strange to be writing into the void.

I started blogging about 6 years ago, but until I began The Examined Life I rarely ventured into the deep-thinking territory of my humanities journal. There is something about this kind of thinking that lends itself to real, physical writing, and I think I may be headed in that direction. Somebody else out there must be writing a weblog by hand and then posting scans of it online - I haven't gone looking yet, but I'm kind of intrigued/amused by the idea. I would of course include transcripts to keep search engine bots happy.

I am sidetracking myself! About toxic attitudes: When I went searching for Moleskine organizational tips (some people add tabs to divide the book into sections, some people number the pages for future easy reference, some people keep post-it notes in the pocket, et cetera,) I encountered a great deal of backlash against the whole Moleskine phenomenon. The eye-rolling I can take... but the pat dismissal of the notebooks AND anyone who uses them as trendy/shallow/wanna-be/impostors/et cetera goes beyond that. Under the surface there seems to be a deeply entrenched attitude in a lot of people around my age, which is to immediately dismiss the notion of anyone taking anything seriously, or having a real passion for something in life.

Oh, you like wine? Probably jumped on the bandwagon after that Sideways movie.

Oh, you play the banjo? Yee-haw! Banjo = Hillbilly rape! Play that song from Deliverance!

Oh, you collect bladed weapons? What, do you still play Dungeons & Dragons in your parents' basement?

Freedom of religion? Freedom from religion, I say! I'm an atheist and anyone who's not an atheist is a small-minded sheep!

(Examples chosen arbitrarily and don't have much to do with me specifically. Except the banjo part - trust me, if you want to tick off a banjo player, start stomping your feet and slapping your knee, or ask them to play Foggy Mountain Breakdown or Dueling Banjos.)

Nothing is ever genuine enough, everyone's a poser, and nothing seems to really matter to anyone. Mine is the generation that turns its back on their favorite musical acts once they make it big, because if you become wildly successful from pursuing your passion, you've "sold out."

If you're incapable of being inspired or passionate about anything, damned if you're going to validate my inspirations or passions. So in the end, life is just one big negative snarkfest. This is not a new phenomenon, either; one of my favorite Simpsons moments ever is from an episode that aired in 1996:

Teen 1: Oh, here comes that cannonball guy. *He's* cool.
Teen 2: Are you being sarcastic, dude?
Teen 1: I don't even know anymore.
(Episode: 3F21 Homerpalooza)

I assume this attitude is an invention of my generation... but maybe it's more of a societal shift. Or maybe it's becoming a societal shift as my generation matures and comes into greater positions of influence in business and society.

Whatever it is, I'm tired of it, and discovering the many articulate, passionate voices of Freemasonry online has been a breath of fresh air. It's not just about Freemasonry itself. After much reading over the last month or so I have a better understanding about why brothers like to talk so much about how great it is to be a Mason, but I still think that ultimately turns into a feedback loop if it's all you talk about. It is encouraging to see some of the Masonic weblogs I'm reading touch on other personal interests with that same passion and enthusiasm.

Next step, procuring a fountain pen - another thing I used in high school and then abandoned as most of my written school work went digital. I would also like to improve my handwriting so that my scribblings look like those of a 32 year old, not a 12 year old.

Pancake Breakfast Ho!

I finally received a response from the other lodge I tried to contact nearly three weeks ago - the one in a vibrant college town. It turns out they're hosting a pancake breakfast this weekend, and I was invited to come meet some of the brothers and ask questions.

I will certainly take them up on that offer! I'm looking forward to seeing the inside of a lodge building that was built as a lodge building, about 100 years ago. I will also be interested to see if I see any familiar faces there.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Better Get Used to It

I watched an episode of Cities of the Underworld last night called Freemason Underworld. Normally the show spends an entire episode in a given city, but this one covered points of interest in both Philadelphia and Boston, using the Freemasons as a tenuous link between all of the sites that they visited.

I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from the 30 second ad... spooky half-truths and American revolution conspiracies. (A bunch of Freemasons were key figures in the revolution, ergo the revolution was PLANNED BY THE FREEMASONS.)

I wasn't disappointed! I should have turned the thing off about a minute in, when the host/narrator said something to the effect of "Little is known about the mysterious secret society." If my copy of Freemasons for Dummies had been handy I probably would have thrown it at the TV.

They did go to the trouble of interviewing Right Worshipful Ronald Aungst, Grand Master of Pennsylvania, but only used enough footage of him explaining why the degree rituals are kept secret to make it seem like the Masons must still be hiding something.


If I'm going to be a Mason I had better get used to such claptrap. Fortunately, I developed good claptrap-putting-up-with skills as an elementary and junior high school nerd.

Monday, June 25, 2007

An Amused Observation

If the 32nd degree of the Scottish Rite is not any "higher" than the three blue lodge degrees, or even the other degrees of the Rite, and since it's usually not representative of the achievement of having received all of the previous 31 degrees (in the U.S. anyway,) why are people so quick to tack that "32°" at the end of their name, or stick it into the blurbs that follow their Masonic Essays?

For example, I don't think I've ever read a biographic blurb that says "John Smith is an 11th degree Mason of the Scottish Rite."

Of course I know why people like to point out their 32°, it sounds cool and definitely impresses your non-Masonic neighbors, or other Masons who don't know much about the Scottish Rite. If I become a Master Mason and pursue the Scottish Rite I doubt I'll be much different. As you can see from my profile picture, I'm all about cool hats.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Reexamining Assumptions

I play several instruments of the stringed, fretted variety. Last fall I decided to set the predominant one aside for a while to concentrate on mandolin, with a couple of goals in mind:

* Improve my technique and repertoire
* Relearn how to read music
* Solidify my grasp of music theory

While you'll find few arguments against tablature when it comes to the banjo, plenty of mandolin players sniff disapprovingly if someone should come around looking for a tab arrangement of a tune.

I think part of it is the mandolin's classical heritage, and there's also the fact that it shares the same approximate scale length and tuning as a violin (GDAE), and therefore being able to read standard musical notation opens up a whole world of music which will work on your instrument more or less the same it does on its bowed cousin. There's a great deal to be said for this, of course, and if you can read standard notation and map it mentally to your instrument then you needn't limit yourself to violin music, either.

After seven months (some of it admittedly on-again, off-again) I would say that I've gotten somewhat better at reading music, but nowhere near the place where I can sit down with a new piece of sheet music and pluck a tune out on the first try. I find that it's hard to learn a tune when reading it from standard notation if most of your energy goes to decoding the written information as opposed to figuring out how to play it smoothly.

I've been adrift, really; it's hard to learn an instrument on your own, when you don't know what goals to set and have no external pressure to meet them. Realizing this, I recently began taking some mandolin lessons. At my last lesson my teacher showed me how to play an old-time fiddle tune called Salt Creek. (A quick aside: I just came across that clip by doing a quick search for 'Salt Creek' on YouTube. It's an example of the sort of virtuosity that makes me want to put my instruments in the closet and just give up. Those are two super-talented kids.) No tab was involved in the knowledge transfer: My teacher played a couple of bars at time, and I followed along, repeating each phrase until I could string them together. In the course of about 20 minutes, I was able to play the tune haltingly from start to finish solely by example.

It helped that I was somewhat familiar with the tune already, but I think what proved an even bigger help was the emphasis on picking the tune off of the fretboard, as opposed to picking it off of a staff of notes. Upon reflection, tablature is much closer to that experience of learning by example. Tonight I went looking for some mandolin tabs online, and started fiddling around with Rickett's Hornpipe... there is no doubt that, for me, it is much, much easier to learn a tune from tab, and it has caused me to reevaluate what I've been doing with regards to learning music from standard notation.

There is still a lot of value to being able to read sheet music and apply it to any given instrument, but for learning basic fiddle tunes and developing a repertoire it seems like an unnecessary obstacle. In terms of learning the mandolin fretboard and general music theory, that also is less about reading notation than it is about applying general knowledge to a specific instrument.

So, to heck with laboriously decoding notes off of the staff and putting them onto the fretboard, even if it's the "right" way to do it. I may try a dual-pronged approach where I learn a tune from tab, then use notation to reinforce it, and I will try to make myself continue to work from standard notation (maybe one tune out of every 5 or 10), but my course seems clearer now than it has in some time.

What does this have to do with Freemasonry? I would hold it up as an example of the sort of constant self-evaluation that I understand to be central to the Craft. I'm still excited to think that there's a whole group of people who think critically about things a little bit deeper than who to vote for on American Idol.

I'm Not A Dummy

I finally picked up a copy of the very good Freemasons for Dummies by Chris Hodapp. I had read nothing but good things about it, and I paged through it briefly in a bookstore when I was first getting interested (casually, so I thought) in Freemasonry a few weeks ago. I'm looking forward to getting a fairly complete overview.

It always pains me to buy any "For Dummies" book, though. I appreciate the fact that there's a publisher out there who is trying to put out gentle introductory material in a form that's easy to digest, but why did they have to choose that unfortunate name? The implication is that if you're not an expert, you're a dummy.

When I re-read Kurt Vonnegut's Bluebeard recently, one passage leapt right off of the page at me:
"A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but world's champions."
The "For Dummies" titles bug me in the same way that the word hobby does. Most people are not lucky enough to make a living doing what they would really like to be doing, so they pursue those passions as their spare time and money allow. But if you're talking to someone at a party, the first thing they're going to ask is what you do for a living... and if it later slips out that you really enjoy playing music, or researching your family's history and genealogy, or building furniture in your spare time, well, that's "just a hobby." Way to trivialize what makes a person tick!

I certainly don't mean to speak ill of Chris Hodapp's fine work on Freemasons for Dummies... I just bought a copy, didn't I? I just wish the Dummies people had chosen a more encouraging catch phrase, perhaps something like for the Curious. I'm curious about lots of stuff. I'd buy a lot of books from a series with a title like that, which didn't imply some kind of deficiency on my part.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Heebie Jeebies

While I await further communication from the lodge, I've been passing the time by continuing to poke around online for information and different perspectives on Freemasonry. I tried searching for 'Freemasonry' on, and the majority of the results are of the "Those Freemasons are up to no good" variety, from the relatively casual ("Their buildings always look like no one's in them and all the windows are bricked up, what's up with that") to the extreme ("They're Satanists! If you're a Mason and you deny my statements, it's because you're not at a high enough level to know the TRUTH that I somehow know!").

I inadvertently followed a link to one such conspiracy site, and stayed long enough to read about how Kelly Clarkson is suspect because her logo looks like the Shriners' logo turned on its side (And the Shriners are a "higher level" of Masons, don'tcha know), and the Simpsons is full of hidden Masonic messages. (Why? Because Grampa buys a Fez in one episode. And don't let the Stonecutters parody fool you, it's all very sinister and suspicious too). Real tinfoil hat stuff -- you can practically feel the flecks of feverish spittle hitting your face as you read it. It's so over the top that it could conceivably be a parody, but if so the author is keeping an awfully straight face.

Just now, as I went to find a link to an article about the recent murder of a Milwaukee man by his paranoid neighbor, I came across another flecks-of-spittle weblog, this one by a self-proclaimed fundamentalist Freemason. It makes my skin crawl in equal measure.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Father's Day

Not much has ever been made of Father's Day in my family... patriarchs going back to my great-grandfather (and probably before) have been men of few and carefully chosen words. Chit-chat has never been a strong suit, so an arbitrary Father's Day phone call would go something like,

"Hi Dad, happy Father's Day!"

"Thank you!"



Whereas a call to ask my dad a question about carpentry would be much more engaged and satisfying for both parties.

That being said, I really appreciate all of the values and wisdom my dad imparted upon me growing up and all of the things he continues to do for me, and I try to make sure he knows it. Like most sons who love and admire their fathers, I've always wondered how I could possibly measure up to the things mine has done in his lifetime. I don't mean that in the "nothing I do is ever good enough for him" sense; he has always been tremendously supportive of anything I take an interest in. When I think about measuring up, I'm asking myself the question, "What are you doing with your life?"

I often think about measuring up to my grandfather, too. He passed away a little over three years ago after a battle with Alzheimer's disease, and one of my life's few regrets is that I never got to have a meaningful conversation with him as an adult; his last six good years happened to be the ones that I was living on the other side of the country, and so that opportunity slipped away. My grandfather was a minister of the United Church of Christ, author of a couple of books and a generally well-respected man. Although my father has remained active in the church, singing in choir and sometimes serving on the board, I have drifted away from organized congregation. I have never really abandoned my faith, but it just hasn't manifested itself in a way that compels me to observe it in a church. I really wish I could talk with Grandpa about that. I never had a religious conversation with him that I can recall, which may sound strange... he was a minister, but while his calling may have defined much of his life, it did not usurp it. The time he spent with his grandchildren was not used evangelically.

I spent Saturday afternoon with most of my family at our summer cottage. It's been in my family for about 100 years... my grandfather spent entire summers there both as a boy and as an adult, and his spirit is everywhere. I don't mean to suggest he is haunting it. Since he passed away, though, it usually feels like he's there too, enjoying the company... and when the breeze set one of the empty porch chairs rocking a little bit it was that much easier to imagine.

I told my dad I had applied to join the Masons, and although he was surprised, he was not as dismissive as I remembered him being years ago. When I told him a little bit about Freemasonry, he was in fact pretty interested. It will be interesting talking to him about my experiences over the next year or so.

In Freemasonry, I feel as though I might have found part of the answer to the question, "What are you doing with your life?" Not the entire answer - but maybe a lens to help bring the rest of the picture into focus. I hope to make my father and my grandfather proud.

Excitement, not Impatience

I had a great conversation with the Junior Deacon of the lodge last night. I had come across his name while searching around online for info about the lodge, and from there it was only a hop, skip and a jump to his MySpace profile. He's in his 20's, and it was great to talk with a younger Mason who's really engaged and involved.

My petition was indeed read in lodge this past week. I asked in what I hoped was a casual tone how long it typically is between a reading and the formation of the investigative committee. While his guess was about as good as mine (either over the summer, or first thing in September) he did mention the occasional one day class that might happen, along with an "accelerated degree" program that raises a person to Master Mason in the span of a single month.

I stated emphatically that while I am excited and eager to get started, I'm not in a rush to become a Master Mason. I'm glad to have put that feeling into words, so that I can remind myself of it as the summer wears on. A build-up of excitement and enthusiasm can be channeled a lot more constructively than a build-up of impatience.

I think it's too bad that American Freemasonry seems to marginalize the two degrees leading up to Master Mason. I know part of that is the fact that U.S. lodges only open meetings in the 3rd degree, which leaves the first two degrees out in the cold a lot of the time. From that perspective it does make sense to get people up to speed as quickly as possible so they don't get bored or frustrated and walk away, but I like the suggestion in A Laudable Pursuit of updating charters to allow U.S. lodges to open in the first degree again. Accounts I'm reading of British lodges indicate that the journey takes a minimum of a year... but over the course of that year there seems to be a lot involvement for first and second degree Masons.

Comparing the process to Boy Scouts, as I continually do, the American 1-2-3 approach is like making a Scout a Tenderfoot at his first Troop meeting and then making him earn his First Class the next month, and his Eagle the month after that. (For those unfamiliar, the BSA ranking system goes: Tenderfoot, Second Class, First Class, Star, Life, Eagle. For scouts who go all the way to Eagle it can be a 6 year journey, with a lot of cumulative work --mental and physical-- along the way.)

I never made it to Eagle, but I have an appreciation for that kind of long-term achievement. I know Freemasonry has plenty to offer along those lines, but that initial "get one and two out of the way" custom is unfortunate.

I should amend the scope of 'American Freemasonry' in my statements above to 'Massachusetts Freemasonry'... accounts from other parts of the country would seem to indicate that becoming a Master Mason is a much slower affair in some places. I suppose it may even be a lodge-by-lodge thing, but I wouldn't know.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Good Old Days That Never Were

In his two-part X-Oriente podcast about fundamentalism in Freemasonry, Eric Diamond mentions A Laudable Pursuit, which I just mentioned as containing some of the ideas that led me to petition a lodge.

He agrees with a lot of the things said in that pamphlet, but he does raise an eyebrow at this passage:
"A few decades after Smith, Nelson King, former president of the Philalethes
Society, editor of that organization’s magazine, and a respected Masonic
scholar, announced that after years of having a liberal view of change within
the Craft, he had become a “Born Again Fundamentalist Freemason,” or
B.A.F.F. He defined it as having a conservative, traditional view as set down
by Dwight Smith. Since King’s coining of the term B.A.F.F., a movement
has started to grow within Freemasonry, suggesting that a Fundamentalist
approach may be the answer to the perceived ills that face us on a national
and international level. "

Not sure how I skimmed over that part on my first read-through - consider my own eyebrow raised as well. I don't think it's a serious call for a fundie movement (as Mr. Diamond points out, fundamentalist thinking is completely at odds with my understanding of Freemasonry,) but it's a strong statement nevertheless.

Considering I have not even met with an investigative committee yet, it does me little good to speculate on what Freemasonry is like these days versus what it was like 100 or 200 years ago, but I can't help it. The best I can do is remind myself that the "good old days" were rarely as good as peoples' collective, selective memory make them out to be.

For example: when I was a kid, we would often hit the small flea market held every Saturday in the town where my family has a summer cottage... it was the high point of many a summer weekend, and I have this idealized childhood memory of there always being lots of cool stuff to peruse.

Contrast that with the last 10 years or so, where flea markets have become increasingly disappointing: nothing but 20-30 year old household appliances with rusty metal and yellowing plastic as far as the eye can see, with a few microwave cookbooks thrown in for good measure. I encountered one such flea market this morning, and as I drove home I pondered why they have become such a let-down.

I know that idealized childhood memory has to be part of it... but it occurred to me that the other part of it is that the flea markets of yore had the same selection of 20-30 year old household crap from the 50's and 60's, which was (and and still is) a lot more interesting to me than looking at junk I grew up with in the 70's and 80's. Collectability being what it is, most of that cool stuff from the 50's and 60's is harder to come by these days.

Give it another 30 years, and I'll probably love pawing through crap I grew up with in the 70's and 80's.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Stars Upon Thars

It's pretty remarkable how strong one's convictions can become in the course of a week. Just last Tuesday I was still echoing my dad's skepticism of the Masons as a group that doesn't do much collectively other than discuss among one another (in "secret") how great it is to be a Mason.

I am sure there is plenty of that to be encountered, especially the more time and energy one invests in their lodge. Any time there is a group that is in someway exclusive, you're going to get the star-bellied sneetches effect; some people in the group may be a bit smug, while some people on the outside may be envious or resentful.

What makes me think there's something deeper going on are documents like A Laudable Pursuit (PDF) - That pamphlet's description of what Freemasonry once was, and could be again, is an excellent summary of the ideals that got me to petition my local lodge. (I hadn't actually come across A Laudable Pursuit until this evening.)

Will I be walking into the stale, mid-late 20th century-world of bean suppers and fish fries? Probably, to some extent. Will my degree work be rushed? Almost certainly, if the assumption is that I'll go from Entered Apprentice to Master Mason in two months. I can already foresee some stubborn confrontations about the lodge's web site, should I take the initiative to overhaul and promote it. Will all of that be frustrating, even disheartening? Sure... but if I can come together with all of these smart fellows online, then maybe that mutual, national support will be enough to affect real local change by small increments.

Chronology Clarified

After poking around hither and yon online, I believe I've found a bit more clarity on the orders of the next steps regarding my application. I was confused by different accounts in different regions, and perhaps also by terms being either mixed up, or having different meanings in different places.
  1. Tonight (the lodge's stated meeting): My petition will be read
  2. Later this month, or first thing in September: I'll talk with the investigative committee
  3. September's stated meeting: The committee's findings will be presented, and my petition will be voted on.
So, that's looking like October before I will actually be initiated, assuming the committee's findings are good and nobody's agin me.

4 months will be past before I know it, although I'll be much less distracted once I find out when I'll be meeting with the committee. Basically, once anything I can participate in between now and my Entered Apprentice degree is done, I will be able to set the whole business aside much more easily. My participation here will probably drop off for a while, though.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

First Exposure

I've been wondering when I first was made aware of the existence of Freemasonry. As far as I can remember, I've always known of the Masons... I just never knew much of anything about them until these last couple of weeks. I learned vaguely about the aprons in high school courtesy of the Architect sketch, and I remember finding a pamphlet at Jay's Diner (of all places!) maybe 12 years ago that dispelled my long-held assumption that you had to be the son of a Mason to join.

Today I realized that my first exposure was probably in The Cask of Amontillado, a short story by Edgar Allen Poe. I was probably 9 or 10 when I first read that story, and the narrator's wry joke about Masonry would have been confusing enough for me to ask one of my parents for an explanation:
I broke and reached him a flaçon of De Grâve. He emptied it at a breath. His eyes flashed with a fierce light. He laughed and threw the bottle upwards with a gesticulation I did not understand.

I looked at him in surprise. He repeated the movement — a grotesque one.

"You do not comprehend ?" he said.

"Not I," I replied.

"Then you are not of the brotherhood."

"How ?"

"You are not of the masons."

"Yes, yes," I said; "yes, yes."

"You ? Impossible ! A mason ?"

"A mason," I replied.

"A sign," he said, "a sign."

"It is this," I answered, producing from beneath the folds of my roquelaire a trowel.

"You jest," he exclaimed, recoiling a few paces. "But let us proceed to the Amontillado."

A great story, that one. Hmmm, I'm off to bed with a quaint and curious volume of Poe.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Lukewarm Feet

Now that the ball is rolling, I've been beset by a fresh wave of self-doubt. Most of it can be attributed to the defense mechanisms I developed as a public school nerd; both suspicion of any large and chummy group of people and worry about having my personal interests marginalized and/or ridiculed. I'm less worried about misinformed friends thinking I'm getting involved in something sinister than I am about friends laughing at the idea.

Anyway, I know that's all baggage that I just have to work through. The other thing bothering me is the voice in the back of my head that keeps asking "Why are you doing this, really?" Is it a lark? Is it the secret handshakes? Is it because I'm lonely? Do I really expect this to fill the socio-communal and spiritual voids I've been feeling the last few years?

I know I am totally over-thinking at this point. This is me, who had a similar, silly identity crisis when I admitted to myself about 6 years ago that I like watching sports-- the popular pastime of my high school nemeses, The Jocks. I felt conflicted and defensive, but the rest of the world didn't even blink.

Pragmatically speaking, if my petition is accepted and I work through the degrees only to decide this is totally not for me, I'm only out 50 dollars (50 bucks? How can lodges survive on dues like that? I was glad to hear the Secretary say they're probably going up next year) and a few evenings and weekend days of my time. Under it all, I think all this doubt and over-analysis is just a hedge against disappointment if this turns out not to be what I expect or hope.

My references are off to the Secretary, and I think all of my small doubts went with them. Now the only foible I have to battle is impatience.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Close to Home - Postscript

I don't exactly apologize for the mundane nature of many of these posts, but I do acknowledge that some of it might be about as interesting as the back of a cereal box.

I'm writing it down mostly for posterity (won't all of this breathless speculation and anticipation be fun to read 12 months from now!) but also in hopes that other people wondering about the process of joining, or questioning their own reasons for being interested, come across it - I know that reading other peoples' accounts gave me a good sense of what this is all about (I think as good a sense as one can get until one actually joins), so I'm happy to contribute if I can.

Close to Home

Well, I am now officially petitioning my local lodge - or I will be as soon as I get my references off to the Secretary.

I was encouraged to hear that membership attrition seems to be stabilizing, and that there are a couple of members in their early twenties, as well as an increasing number in their 30's. We Gen-Xers must be looking for something, eh?

I was equally encouraged to see that the lodge, which occupies a former post office building from the early 1900s, is well-maintained. The lodge room itself is wonderful, and it's clear that much pride is taken in its upkeep. The utilitarian areas of the lodge, as one might expect, feel more or less like every church or town hall basement I've ever been in; oft-used but not lived in, a little bit dusty and musty but comfortable and familiar nonetheless.

I obviously felt enough of the passion I alluded to earlier that I decided to go ahead and submit an application without visiting the other lodge I was considering. Close by is really better; the last thing I need is to wind up driving all the time again, and it's high time I got to know some folks in my backyard, not 3 or 4 towns removed. Assuming I eventually become a Master Mason, I will be able to visit other lodges around the region anyway, which seems to be a common practice hereabout.

It's a good thing I got this bee in my bonnet when I did, because after meeting this week the lodge is breaking for July and August (apparently a common thing in New England.) My petition will be read at the meeting this week, and assuming nobody drops a black ball I assume the investigative committee will be formed either by the end of the month, or first thing in September. (Interesting-- I would have expected the vote to happen after the investigative committee completes its findings and that indeed seems to be the case in other accounts I've read.)

I will be asking a few more questions about the Fellowcraft and Master degree work - it sounds like the typical progression at this lodge is one degree per meeting; so assuming I become an Entered Apprentice in September, by November I would be a Master Mason. I'm wondering if the one-month period is arbitrary (is the work somewhat perfunctory?) or if that's just how long it takes most people. (Update: I just found a description of the process by a New Hampshire Mason that describes a similar one-two-three progression, but goes into a little more detail about the requirements... I guess as long as you can memorize the work within that one month period, you're good.)

So now the waiting begins! It will be an interesting two or three months of further contemplation, and plenty of time to do further reading and research. Having set first foot on this path, hopefully this will cease to be the huge distraction it has been over the last week or so.

Here's Hoping for Passion

Keeping those aforementioned grains of salt in mind, my impression is that there is a fundamental tension in Freemasonry - at its heart it can be summed up with two words: generation gap. What I find interesting about this conflict, though, is the reversal of the roles you expect whenever tensions arise between youth and their elders.

If the online voices of passionate, younger Freemasons are a somewhat accurate indicator, it is the new Masons who are lamenting the loss of "the old ways" while charging the current guard with wandering off the path. Usually it's the codgers complaining about the "kids these days."

The implications to this potential candidate are clear: As the fraternity loses more and more of its elder members, it's going to up to the younger ones to re-shape it into what they want, while continuing to find new members... nobody's going to do it for them. That's a pretty tall order, and although I'm trying not to think too far ahead, the thought of rising to meet that challenge is daunting.

However, given a larger and more objective sample I am sure you can find as many deep-thinking, philosophical elder Masons as you can absentee, only-in-it-for-the-networking young ones.

Here's hoping that I see some of that philosophical passion alive at my local lodge this evening.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Well Begun is Half Done

After trying another e-mail address I found on the site of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts and then playing a bit of telephone tag, I had a brief but pleasant conversation this evening with the Masonic ambassador of the closer of the two lodges in which I am interested. How's that for a run-on sentence?

Just like that, I find myself meeting him and the Secretary at the lodge tomorrow night for introductions and a Q & A session.

No word yet from the other lodge, but it is still the weekend.

"It's a dangerous business going out your front door." - J.R.R. Tolkien


One of the things I need to be prepared for is the inevitable question of "Why?" when close friends and family learn that I'm pursuing Freemasonry. I don't foresee anyone having a "secret cabal freakout", but I would certainly be the first Mason in my family in many, many years. My maternal grandfather's father was a Mason as was a paternal ancestor, but those factoids have never had any real significance attached to them within my immediate family.

Of course, I can only give partially-informed answers at this point. I will trot out the usual "Making good men better" tagline, but I will also not shy away from the fraternal appeal. What has gotten me excited and interested enough to pursue this are the many excellent voices I have found online: Intelligent men who clearly spend a lot of time thinking, who are courteous, civil, and well-spoken.

Where else can a person find that these days?

Saturday, June 9, 2007

How Quick Geeks are to Judge

About 10 minutes ago I sent an e-mail to the closer of the two lodges near me. I got the address from their web site, which is a hand-built affair. About 5 minutes later my message bounced back due to a full mailbox.

My inner geek cries, "It's 2007! How can there not be somebody answering e-mail! That's all I need to know about this lodge, I'm moving on!"

My inner Boy Scout taps my inner geek on the shoulder and says, "Spam happens. Also, if you joined that lodge you could provide a lot of help with the web site."

Tomorrow I shall endeavor to contact them by means of that infernal telephone contraption, if I can still remember how to operate it.


I'm looking forward to finding out about my local lodges. I am hopeful that I will have a chance to meet several members from each, to try and get a feel for the groups as a whole.

It is not unlike preparing for a job interview; it is as important for me to ask questions and make sure I feel good about a lodge as it is for that lodge to feel good about me.

Meaning is something that is important to me. I don't know yet what the membership situation is at either lodge, but I know that membership in Freemasonry is generally down across the country. I know this has led to lax standards and/or the adoption of one day classes at some loedges. Declining membership must be a tough problem to solve and a frightening one to face, but from my current perspective I don't quite see how lowering standards or simplifying the initiation process could be a good thing in the long run. Personally, I'm not all that interested in becoming a Master Mason if all I have to do is show up for a day and hand somebody a check.


I just spent about fifteen minutes trying to write a few sentences describing what I think "meaning" is, and failed miserably.

Easier perhaps to describe what I think it is not:
  • In junior high school my English class has a program called "Great Books", wherein we would have to read a short story and then spend a week writing an essay about what it "meant." After that, the whole class would reconvene to discuss the story. The thing was, there was a prescribed list of meanings for each story, and you would score poorly on your essay or the discussion if you couldn't guess what it was you were supposed to be reading into everything. It was a fruitless and frustrating exercise, because there was really nothing to be inferred; it was all predetermined, so instead of reading a story and finding your own meaning in its words, you spent all of your energy trying to guess what the teacher wanted to hear.
  • It is not a form of ostentation such as buying a Hummer or a big ugly pinky ring. All that means to anybody is that you have a lot of money, and apparently nothing meaningful to spend it on.
  • It is not arguing over the replacement of a galvanized pipe coat rack.
That last link speaks again to my previous consternation over taking the bad with the good. Here's the interesting thing, though: If the sentiments of all the younger Masons writing weblogs and podcasting are representative of younger Masons as a whole, then that kind of inertia may be a relatively short-term problem as younger members continue to focus on "the educated, studied, and philsophical side of Freemasonry."

Friday, June 8, 2007

The Good and the Bad

The Burning Taper is one of the numerous weblogs I have been reading over the past week, but I hadn't yet come across WS's account of Small Town Masonry, which unfortunately reinforces many of my preconceptions of what goings on in a small-town lodge could be like.

But I'm tremendously thankful to have been able to read about it, and weigh it in my deliberations.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Grains of Salt

When researching anything on the web, it's always important to step back and remind yourself that the most prominent voices are going to be the most passionate ones... it has been easy to dismiss the anti-masonry voices as the complete nutjobs they clearly are. I've gotten caught up in the weblogs of people for whom Freemasonry is a passion and major part of their lives - of course that passion has the potential to be off-putting, in the same way that a hard-core Star Wars nerd can take the fun out of those movies you grew up watching.

There are some more objective posts on The Straight Dope forums that provide some more measured opinions and observations on the subject (a couple of trolls notwithstanding):

They contain plenty of non-plussed "Just another club for guys to shoot the shit and get away from their wives" opinions, and an excellent summary from a former member:

"What do they teach the new brother? I'll paraphrase and condense a bit.

Be a good man, because it's the right thing to do.

Help other people, especially widows and orphans.

Have faith in your religion, whatever that may be.

There are some things a good man should know. If you aren't hip to geometry, architecture, math, and ethics, study them.

If you see somebody in dire trouble, try to help, unless the effort will cause your death.

That's really about it. No magic, no Illuminati, no location of the Templars' gold. You get to meet regularly with other guys who are also good men.

As for the 33rd° guys, they're mostly men who have served the lodge for years in various offices. I know a few of them, including one who is a past Master of the Grand Lodge of Indiana. He's an ordinary guy, and when I last spoke with him he was still working for a living. Now, if he ruled the world, do you think he'd still be working?

How come the Moose lodge never got attached to all this mystery? Nobody thinks the Odd Fellows run everything."
So, you get out of it what you put into it. I am seeing a lot of internal parallels to my experience with the Boy Scouts, and the brief window when I was old enough to take some of the oaths, mottoes, and general "being a good young man" stuff seriously, but not old enough to be distracted by girls.

I remember feeling very solemn and proud of some of my accomplishments and some of the time-honored, historical stuff like hiking the Isaac Davis trail. At the same time, I remember having a hell of a lot of typical bullshit adolescent male fun at campouts, patrol, and troop meetings. That stuff was an integral part of Scouting, but it was not a part of any ritual associated with the Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, Reverent recitations. There were other guys who doggedly worked towards their Eagle badge, not out of any inner drive but just because their parents demanded it. I was never pressured to go for my Eagle nor did I ever pursue it on my own, but that didn't keep me from learning a lot and becoming a better person along the way.

Foregone Conclusion?

As conflicted as I have sounded these last couple of posts, I am starting to feel as though I have made up my mind to try and join the Masons, and that it's now a matter of working up the nerve to talk to my neighbor and contact a lodge. Or two lodges.

There is a lodge about 7 miles away that would be the logical one to join, in terms of convenience and community... my only reservation is that it is in a classic Massachusetts mill town fallen on hard times, and furthermore I understand that it has just merged with the lodge from a neighboring town - If numbers are that far down in that neck of the woods, I have to wonder how vital of an institution it is. While I am prepared to be among the youngest members of a lodge, I don't think I want to be the only young member. This is all of course neither here nor there, just a scenario I'm inventing to psych myself out of taking the next step. I may very well meet members of that lodge and discover like-minded, young people breathing new life into the institution.

The next closest lodge is twice as far away, but in a vibrant college town... and I can't help but think the membership might be more lively, younger, and progressive (whatever I think that means. I really don't know.)

No reason not to approach both.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Busy, Busy, Busy

I find that I am really quite preoccupied with Freemasonry these last couple of days. I feel drawn and skeptical in equal measures, and the tension between those two viewpoints is probably why I find myself taking too-frequent work breaks to Google this, that, and the other topic related to the Masons.

On the one hand, I still have this lingering notion that the Masons, Elks, Odd Fellows, Jaycees, Kiwanis, Lions, et cetera are all just granfalloons. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, "proud and meaningless associations of human beings." (See also: bokononism.)

On the other hand, the core values the Masons espouse seem to be rather more genuine and profound than the ones that bring most college frats together... so maybe they are a true karass after all.

Interestingly enough, just today my wife found out that one of the few neighbors with whom we're acquainted is a Mason. I think perhaps she asked him if he belonged to the any of the common fraternal groups.

He pays his dues, but he's not very active with the lodge. He's a good man and, as someone who maintains membership without being heavily involved, seems like a relatively objective person to talk to.
Busy, busy, busy is what a Bokononist whispers "whenever [he] thinks about how complicated and unpredictable the machinery of life really is."

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Bowling Alone

It's a great title, isn't it? I have yet to read the book, but the title completely captures the increasing sense I've had over the last several years of being detached from any kind of healthy community involvement.

Some of the reasons for this are obvious:
  • I live in a tiny town. When I say tiny, I mean tiny but rural and spread out, without a real vibrant center.
  • I have no children. No meeting parents of friends, no boy or girl scouts, no sports, et cetera.
  • I don't go to church. I am not an atheist, and I was fortunate enough to grow up in the UCC... so what religious indoctrination I had was more about being a good person than about going to hell. Enough on that for now.
  • For nearly four years now I've commuted some 25 miles to work, effectively cleaving my work life from my personal life (or at least from my home life.) This has recently changed, thankfully.
Other reasons might be less obvious, at least to other people. First and foremost, I am not particularly a joiner. Negative social experiences during elementary, junior, and high school have left me predisposed to be wary around cliques of any kind, and experiences as a docent at an architectural landmark in the 1990's reinforced my aversion.

The docent gig was fun at first, but eventually the demands outpaced the rewards and I lost interest in donating my time to an organization that didn't seem to appreciate it, and just kept asking for more and more of it. That has really stuck with me, along with my memories of being conscripted by my parents to the youth soccer program for a number of years; while I do remember having fun, I also remember there being a lot of weekends where I would much rather have sat in front of my Commodore 64 than drive three towns over to lose a game while zealous parents screamed from the sidelines.

That knowledge that involvement in any organized, socially functioning group is occasionally going to demand my precious time when I'd rather not give it has steered me away from joining any kind of group that meets regularly and schedules weekend activities. It's a selfish attitude that I'm not very happy about, and I am optimistic that I won't be so fiercely protective of my time now that I am not spending 1.5-2 hours a day driving to and from work. As I keep telling people, "I'm going to be looking for excuses to get out of the house!"

So how do I get involved? There was a brief period of time when I thought about getting involved in the Boy Scouts again, this time as an adult leader in some capacity. Certainly not a Scoutmaster, but maybe an assistant or something. That still has some attraction to me, although I do have a bit of a problem with the religious discrimination of the BSA, and then there would also be the perceived weirdness of a grown man with no children hanging around the boys.

That idea of "Boy Scouts for grown-ups" has gotten me thinking pretty seriously about old-fashioned fraternal organizations like the Elks, Odd Fellows, and of course the Masons. I need to do a lot of comparative research... Like most people my age and younger, I have a stereotypical mental picture of these groups: old guys smoking cheap cigars and throwing the occaisional spaghetti supper. My impression of the Masons is a little bit different. Thankfully, I never got any conspiracy-laden, baphomet-worshipping-satanist-world-domination-theory anti-masonry laid on me growing up... rather, my stereotypical mental picture of the Masons comes from my dad's dismissal of the group as a bunch of guys with their silly little secret rituals, who don't really do much of anything other than talk about how great their secret rituals are.

I guess you could say I've started my research with the Masons, having become somewhat fascinated over the last few days. I have to say, the various forum and weblog posts I've read from members don't do a whole lot to dispel my "Isn't being a Mason great?" stereotype. Everyone talks about how great the sense of fraternity is and how great it is to be a Mason, but they don't really say why. Of course, part of the reason for that is that they're not allowed to talk about some of the "whys", but it still sets off my bullshit detector a little bit.

Having gone through a lot of Cub Scout and Boy Scout ritual (Arrow of Light, merit badge ceremonies, honor courts, weather beads, and other stuff I probably don't even remember now) and always having secretly wished I'd gotten into the Order of the Arrow (I never did, and always felt a little ashamed that by fellow scouts never thought of me as a model scout, or someone they could count on in an emergency, which is how the anonymous elections were framed in my troop), I can easily imagine geeking out on Freemasonry's rich symbolism, language, and ritual. I mean, you can't read the phrase "32nd degree Mason of the Scottish Rite" without being at least a little curious.

I find the Masons' mission of personal betterment (and the resulting betterment of the community) through symbolic teaching very attractive. The Odd Fellows and the Elks do plenty of good community work, of course, but I don't necessarily want to just be the guy flipping hamburgers in the fundraising booth at the carnival, or making a dutiful monthly hospital or nursing home visit. Both of those things are certainly worthy pursuits that can't help but make a man a better person, but it's almost like the betterment is a side product. The Masonic message (as I understand it so far) of making society better by starting with yourself feels more correct to me.

So the question about Freemasonry is: Would I be willing to turn down my bullshit detector a little bit for the sake of the rituals, recognizing that they have their place and hopefully finding a lodge that doesn't overdo it? There's no way to know what exactly the "moral teachings" are and if I buy into them without actually joining, so I'm not going to worry about that at this point. I have this sense that there must be something to the whole thing beyond the ritual, but then again, who knows? Belonging to an exclusive group with a mysterious air about it could be enough to keep it going for a long, long time.

Then the other question about Freemasonry is: What would my dear wife think? I've bounced the "I wish there was Boy Scouts for Grownups" lament off of her a couple of times, and it was actually she who mentioned looking into the Elks or a similar group... so while she may do a certain amount of eye-rolling when it comes to boys and their clubs, she recognizes the social and spiritual value of that sense of community I've been missing. Would she be weirded out if I pursued Freemasonry? Would she think it was a silly idea? Maybe a little of both. Maybe not! While we are entirely open and honest with one another, we don't often venture into deep personal territory when it comes to religion or philosophy. I certainly haven't gotten this far into any discussion about the Masons with her, or let on that I'm anywhere near as interested as I am.

We can both be fairly cynical when it comes to other people, their motives, and their behaviors. For me to take seriously the pageant and secrecy surrounding the Masons would be a bit of a departure. I don't think it would be a drastic one, but it could definitely be one of those, "Oh! I didn't know that about you" moments that become increasingly rare as the years go by.

Whys and Wherefores

(Edited ex post facto)

I created this account as a separate entity from my main Blogger account and various personal web spaces. I began writing with a pseudonym, because at the time I wasn't quite sure where I was going with it; I thought I might be writing some sensitive/private things that I might not care for friends, colleagues, and relatives to see. Very quickly, it turned into a place to think out loud about becoming a Freemason - that was really the issue that prompted me to start this up, but I didn't think it was going to be the dominating one.

Still, using a fake name didn't feel quite right... For the time being I have settled on using my real first initials, which happened to be the first initials of my pseudonym. It is not about having something to hide or being ashamed/embarrassed, it's about being sensitive to the fact that I will be writing about interactions with other people and organizations, and I would rather be vague about the identities of the people involved than self-censor.

Here is most of what I wrote originally:

At age 32, the realities of adulthood are starting to set in. I'm not talking about the music getting too loud, lamenting my high school or college glory days, or agonizing over the couple of grey hairs that have shown up in my beard. I'm talking about finding oneself removed from the built-in support networks of a place like college or high school, and close enough to middle age that horizons don't seem quite as wide-open as they did in my twenties.

Not that I'm preoccupied with death - just that I've had a growing sense over the last couple of years that it's time to stop screwing around. I don't rightly know what that entails, but I have some ideas, and it is here that I intend to explore some of them.