Monday, August 27, 2007

September Sneaks Up

While vicariously enjoying Sarastro's petition, investigation, and induction, I realized that my own petition will be voted on in just two and a half weeks.

While I'll be glad to be past this initial waiting phase, it's shocking how fast the last 2-3 months have gone. This summer was the first one in a long time where I got just a little bit of that childhood, end-of-school sense of The Whole Summer stretching endlessly in front of me, probably because I started a new job just as spring started giving way to summer. I've done plenty of summery stuff since mid-May, but with Labor Day coming right up I find myself wondering where it all went!

Autumn remains my favorite season, but it's been a pretty long time since I found myself wishing for just a little bit more summer! There are some other factors at work, too, but I will keep my own counsel on those for the time being.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Vacation, Ritual, and Change

I'm back from my all-too-brief trip to Maine, where my wife and I stayed at a motel my family has been going to on and off for thirty-plus years, at a beach my family has been visiting for sixty-plus years.

It was my wife's first visit to the area, so it was all new to her. For me, the whole Saco/Old Orchard Beach/Scarborough area holds many layers of some of the best memories of my life: There were all of the childhood visits when the adults guided the pace, indulgently providing all of the inflatable rafts, beach toys, and souvenirs a kid could want. For a few years there were teenage visits where my cousin and I walked down to Old Orchard Beach on our own, spending hours in the souvenir shops and arcades, trying to look cool but mostly just enjoying the independence. Finally, after an appalling ten year absence due to college and being stuck on the west coast, there have been my more recent adult visits. Trips to the beach are now viewed through the lens of having to worry about the return to "the real world", and being critically aware of how much a vacation actually costs... but despite all of that I feel like a kid again as soon as the car turns right onto Old Orchard avenue.

Over the years, my family has settled on a number of activities that are "must-do" when visiting the region: Walks to the breakwater at Pine Point, a trip to downtown Old Orchard Beach, Two Lights State Park, saltwater taffy from Len Libby, and perhaps a drive up to L.L. Bean in Freeport. The comfort of these familiar activities combined with the once-a-year circumstances elevates them to something special that you could go so far as to call ritual. Even as an adult, playing Skee-ball in the Palace Playland arcade at Old Orchard Beach is a significant event imbued with much more meaning and enjoyment than playing Skee-ball somewhere else would be.

Any time you talk about ritual and tradition, you have to assume a certain amount of consistency... in order to repeat these activities, the locations in which they take place need to be around when you return in the future. For the most part, our vacation stomping grounds have remained fairly consistent over the years, but there have definitely been casualties. I remember many trips to Cascade Mini Golf in Saco... when I drove past this weekend, I was greatly saddened to see that the mini-golf course is no more. All I could see was the old metal structure from the loop-the-loop hole sticking out of the weeds. Deering restaurants are long gone, as is Foley's Ice Cream. Similarly, there are many hotels and motels whose names and signs I remember all up and down Grand Avenue, or along route 5 going into Old Orchard Beach... they've disappeared over the years, being replaced either by more non-descript establishments or bulldozed to make way for mid-rise condominium buildings. Many of them still remain, however, and driving past them is always like seeing old friends. New friends have popped up over the years too. This year I noticed Governor William King Lodge #219 on Route 1 in Scarborough for the first time, and resolved to visit as a Master Mason someday.

Old Orchard Beach itself seems to be undergoing a bigger transformation than any I can remember. A five-story condominium building has replaced one of the arcades right next to the Pier and several new, somewhat upscale shops have moved in among the usual souvenir and beach supply shops. The developer of the aforementioned condominium wants to build another, eight-story building hotel right along Old Orchard Avenue.

Old Orchard has long had a reputation for being a honky-tonk seaside destination; occasional fights outside of raucous bars, lots of bikers, and general seediness. That was certainly true, but I never felt unsafe there, even as a kid old enough to recognize that aspect of the place. Those rough edges seem to be disappearing, and because I have so much emotional history invested in the place it scares the hell out of me. What if I go back next year and find that Hymie's and Harold's souvenir shops, remembered from my earliest visits to Old Orchard Beach, have been replaced by juice bars and artisan galleries? What happens if the upscale shops and condos squeeze out the arcade and the amusement park, and Old Orchard Beach becomes another Kennebunkport or Bar Harbor where I can't get fried dough or buy 3-for-$10 souvenir t-shirts, much less afford to spend a night?

Life will go on, of course, and I will always have my memories, but the fundamental shift in character of a place I've come to think of as "mine" would still be heartbreaking. Before I start to hyperventilate, though, I should try to experience Old Orchard through my wife's eyes... there is still plenty of honky-tonk, tourist-trappishness left in Old Orchard Beach, and she got to see it all without 33 years of tradition coloring her impressions, despite all of the fond tales I may have told her. I would say she had just as good a time as I did.

The popular joke among my family upon checking in to our beach-side accommodations is that the first order of business is to go straight down to the shore and "make sure the beach is still there." The beach always is, and of course it always will be in one form or another. As the years go by and more things change, it will be ever-more important for my siblings and I to find ways of accepting the change and celebrating what was lost... the loss of childhood landmarks is far less upsetting than the thought of spending every vacation obsessing over what has changed, and being miserable about it.

My wife and I also spent an afternoon trapsing around the Old Port area of Portland, which has seen quite a recovery in recent years. It's a charming area full of old buildings and cobble-stone streets, with lots of small boutiques of the sort you'd expect: galleries, restaurants, and clothing stores, but with enough comic book, souvenir, and toy shops thrown in to provide something for everyone.

Downtown Portland is not one of my family's rituals... probably because it didn't have nearly as much to offer 20 or 30 years ago. Having spent a very enjoyable afternoon there, though, it seems destined to become a ritual for my wife and I as we build our own history in Maine. It will be separate from my immediate family's but constructed on its foundations.

I had my copy of Solomon's Builders with me, and as I began to read I couldn't help but draw some parallels between my own attitude to changes in my vacation stomping grounds and questions about Freemasonry's relevance in today's society. Christopher Hodapp's description of Freemasonry in the 1700's as a remarkable fraternity that brought men of all different classes together for an unprecedented free exchange of ideas is heady stuff. When you read about all past noble ideals facilitated by the fraternity and the great deeds accomplished by its members, it's easy to see why people are so uncertain about Freemasonry's current relevance and future.

As for my little corner of southern Maine, my own sense of the place is so fixed in memory and idealized that changes over the years cause similar questions about relevance... will it still be the same place if all of the landmarks disappear? Will my spirits still soar as soon as I step out of the car and smell the salt air, or will I just spend my vacation lamenting all of the change?

The Maine question is one I have to struggle with on my own, but the Freemasonry question is one I know a lot of people are wrestling with. As I've said before, it serves little purpose to weigh in on the issue from outside the lodge room door, but if/when I am inducted I am going to try to maintain the same perspective my wife enjoyed this weekend... she had the benefit of my familiarity with the area, but it was all new to her.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Investigation follow-up

I've heard from all three of my references now that they were contacted by
the lodge. Interestingly, the committee representative didn't tell my references that I had applied to join the Freemasons, just that I had applied to join a "fraternal organization." Presumably this is to avoid any awkward, unexpected secret-satanic-cabal freakouts when a petitioner's friend finds out they're joining the Masons. In my case, I gave each of my references a heads-up and told them what I was applying for, just because it seemed like the courteous thing to do. Two of them have actually gotten rather intrigued with the idea themselves, and I think they're waiting to hear what my experience is like. If it's good, I may find myself on the receiving end of one of those phone calls! The third is in the Knights of Columbus, so he could appreciate my motivation for joining.

One thing that struck me during my meeting with the committee that I didn't mention in my previous post was the fact that they didn't ask any questions about things like hobbies. I felt a little bit better when I heard from one of my references that the telephone interview was very open ended. My friend was expecting a job reference type of conversation, where you get asked questions about specific skills and traits. Instead, what he got was more or less, "So tell me about A." In the course of answering this open-ended question, my friend said that my hobbies and work ethic (he's a former coworker) came up naturally.

An interesting way to find out about a petitioner. When communities were smaller and closer-knit, it was probably easier to get that kind of impression of a candidate by talking to his Masonic neighbors or business contacts, and in that context the questioning would probably have been similarly informal.

So, there you have it... one candidate's experience with the investigative phase. Your mileage may definitely vary depending on both your part of the country, your grand lodge and your local lodge.

Bannack, Montana Schoolhouse and Masonic Hall

According to Wikipedia, Bannack was the capital of Montana territory for a time... it's been a ghost town since the 1970's. If you view the larger version of the image available on Flickr, you can see an ornate chair still occupying the near end of the lodge room... presumably the Worshipful Master's chair, since you would have to enter that room from the other side.

I wish I had gone to Bannock and taken this photo, but I did not. Paul Cloutier did.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Beach Reading

You have to love modern commerce. Last month I won a $25 gift grocery store gift card in a raffle held at my town's Old Home Day celebration. Twenty five dollars is twenty five dollars, but let's face it: as long as you're gainfully employed, picking out free groceries doesn't exactly feel like a spree.

However, the grocery store does happen to have a fine selection of gift cards! I was able to transmogrify my winnings into a $25 Barnes & Noble card, with which I purchased a copy of Christopher Hodapp's Solomon's Builders. It promises to be a very enjoyable read, and I'm saving it for a long-overdue trip to the Maine coast this weekend.

The book is marketed quite heavily towards the hordes of Dan Brown fans eagerly awaiting the sequel to The Da Vinci Code, and it's nice to think that people who buy it for that reason will learn some actual facts about Freemasonry, the founding fathers, and Washington D.C. in spite of themselves.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Philistine Pig Ignorance

One thing I will say about scouring the internet for information about Freemasonry: It certainly opens your eyes to a whole lot of ignorant people who like to shoot their mouths off.

Not the tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy theorists, nor the right wing evangelicals... just folks who, for whatever reason, will tell you that Freemasonry is bad, for no particular reason other than that that's what they think.

For example, this comment on a harmless enough photo of the square and compass:

"I am hoping and wishing to see that sign crumble to the ground. F--- secret societies"


Um, okay. All secret societies, or just the ones that prominently display their symbols on the outsides of their buildings, and have listings in the yellow pages?

For more fun, read the comments of pretty much any video tagged with 'freemason' on YouTube.

It's one thing if, after learning a bit about the fraternity, you decide that the whole business is a little bit weird, or at odds with your religion, or something... but these comments on Flickr and YouTube seem to be wholly uninformed by anything. The bad spelling, grammar, and punctuation in most them don't help either.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Reflections on Fellowship

It's been about two months since I started looking into fraternal organizations. I zeroed right in on Freemasonry because of my impressions of its deeply personal aspects: The idea that the betterment of society starts with the betterment of yourself.

That notion is still one of the strongest attractions for me, but since my initial excitement and enthusiasm I have had plenty of opportunity to reflect further on why I felt so drawn to the fraternity. The personal/historic/esoteric aspects are certainly still a huge part of it, but having met and talked with a number of brothers at a couple of different lodges, I realize that I'm also quite excited about the fellowship.

I have made precious few friends since high school and college; once you find yourself out in the real world, you no longer have that unique social opportunity to meet people from all different backgrounds, with myriad individual interests but united by a common factor. Whereas college tends to blur the lines between work (classes) and free time, the "real world" gets much more complicated as peoples' time gets monopolized by work, children, and other commitments. With a couple of notable exceptions, I have gotten to know very few of my coworkers from the past 10 years outside of work... even the ones who I really enjoyed working with. When you have an outrageous commute or work outrageous hours, that extra hour or two for a drink after work starts to feel like a big sacrifice of one's time.

As I started looking into fraternal organizations, I think I had realized deep down that it was a way to recapture some of that "melting pot" social atmosphere I so enjoyed in school... and if the sampling of brothers I have met so far is any indication, I think I've chosen very well indeed. I don't mean to sound like I expect that I'll be 'best friends forever' with all of my new lodge brothers. Rather, I think the lodge and its related functions will provide me with a chance to meet a lot of good people I would never have crossed paths with otherwise, and that's almost always the way good friendships are made.

I've also had time to reflect on expectations versus reality. Early on in my research, I got very excited about Freemasonry as "a system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated with symbols." That was what really set the Freemasons apart from most of the other fraternal groups I read about. Over the last two months I've read a lot of hand-wringing about how Freemasonry has strayed from those intellectual tenets and is no longer "what it used to be" or "what it's supposed to be".

There are plenty of opinions at the opposite end of the spectrum, claiming that anyone who says anything even remotely critical of the fraternity or their experiences in it (and in public, no less) doesn't know what they're talking about, is a disgrace, and not "a true Mason."

I think the real experience will fall somewhere in between. As the last two months have worn on, I have grown more appreciative of the social aspect of the fraternity and look forward to the good fellowship I've already experienced brief glimpses of. This life-or-death outlook on the state of Freemasonry that's so prevalent online is something a petitioner such as myself must really withhold judgement on until they've been on the other side of the lodge room door for a while. In the meantime, we should enjoy the experience as it comes.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007


I met the investigative committee at the lodge tonight, and unfortunately I don't have a lot to report about the experience; the job interview I had with a large New England bank last summer was more nerve-wracking by far.

As it turned out, I already knew one of the brothers on the committee! I met him just a few weeks ago at a neighbor's house and we had a pleasant visit... unbeknownst to me that he was a Mason, and unbeknownst to him that I was petitioning. It also happened that one of the other brothers and I had grown up in neighboring central Massachusetts towns, and attended the same high school (although I don't believe we were there at the same time). Both pleasant and serendipitous surprises.

As has been reported by other "describing my Masonic journey" weblogs out there, the interview was very informal, and did not touch on anything nearly as deep as one might expect. I was asked if I was active in a local congregation... I am not, but I did clearly indicate my belief in a supreme being on my petition, so I think the question was aimed at getting me to elaborate a little bit, which I did.

Other familiar questions were, "Is your wife Ok with your joining the Freemasons?" and "Would joining the lodge cause you any kind of financial stress?" and "Are you aware of the time commitment that's expected of you for the degree work?" Yes, No, Yes.

I think the experience would have been very different had I not already done as much casual research as I have; if I didn't really know anything about Freemasonry I might not have answered most of their questions as succinctly as I did, and I certainly would have had a lot more questions to ask of the committee.

So, as far as I can tell all went very well... and now I wait another seven weeks before my petition is voted on. As quickly as the last seven weeks have gone, it should be a piece of cake.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

First Contact

I just received a phone call from the head of the Investigative Committee, who is in the process of finding a time convenient for everyone to meet, possibly as soon as this week. I'll be meeting the committee at the lodge as opposed to them coming here. A bit of a shame, really, since we just did some fairly extensive housekeeping a couple of days ago!

As with job interviews, I think I know the answer to this question, but I'm going to pose it to any Masons that happen to be reading this anyway: Will I be totally over-dressing if I show up in a sports jacket and tie? When I first went to the lodge back in June, my oxford shirt and khakis were dressy compared to what the brothers I met were wearing.

I'll go ahead and answer myself: although I might feel over-dressed, I can't imagine any interview situation where a person could be too overdressed, unless perhaps one showed up in a tuxedo.

This is exciting - I have gotten over the worst of the impatience I was feeling right after submitting my petition, but as the summer starts to wind down my thoughts have been returning to Freemasonry.

Addendum (2007-08-06)
Tomorrow evening it is! And to further answer my own question, I imagine that the formality of the investigative committee experience varies widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, just like the rest of the Freemasonry experience. Those vernacular variations are one of the most interesting things about Freemasonry... and I'm sure sometimes they're one of the most frustrating things too.

One thing that has occurred to me is that if the committee were coming to my house, I certainly wouldn't greet them in a jacket and tie. I will probably go the oxford-and-khakis route again.