Monday, April 28, 2008

The More Noble and Glorious Purpose

I haven't been using my 24 inch gauge very effectively lately, and the rhythm of my day-to-day life has gotten a bit out of whack. This is not surprising, with the pressures of my day job, a house that needs to be move-in ready within the next month and a half, and overly optimistic voluntary commitments I'm trying to fulfill so that I can then extricate myself therefrom.

In an effort to right the ship, so to speak, I'm trying to make a conscious effort to avoid blatant time-sinks like surfing the internets or blathering on and on here. (A tough thing to do when you build web sites and applications for a living.) Nevertheless, with discipline I hope to get back on track.

So, I may be going quiet here for a while, but it's only because of the natural ebb and flow of life's priorities; about six months ago I was playing banjo and mandolin so much that I was seriously contemplating trying to get a band together. Now, I've barely touched either instrument over the last 3 or 4 months.

Late in 2006 I optimistically purchased a years' membership in the Guild of American Luthiers; I've been interested in Lutherie for quite a long time, and I thought last year might be the year I actually build a playable instrument from start to finish. The entire year of 2007 went by without my completing so much as a 3-string cigar box guitar, and I let my membership lapse... I highly doubt I'll have the time or space to work on instruments any time this year.

My siblings and I are total card and board game junkies, having wiled away hundreds of companiable childhood hours over many of Parker Brothers' and Milton Bradley's finest. I have board games that I either purchased myself or received as gifts that have gone unopened and/or unplayed for more than a year.

I've been struggling with this issue of having too many interests and too little time and/or money for the last few years, and although I don't know if there's really a solution I think there's at least a healthy attitude with which you can approach the problem: Recognize that it's OK to put an interest back on the shelf for a while. I think too many people equate "taking a break from" with "being a quitter" or "being a failure", and wind up being way more bitter and/or frustrated than they need to be.

And there... I just chewed up most of my lunch break putting this together. I really must take a step back for a while!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Young Master Mason and Not Taking The Bait

"Where is this Brother coming from?" thought the Young Master Mason to himself as he sat reading through his RSS feeds one morning. "What is he even talking about? To hear him tell it, he's Wil Smith trapped on a post-apocalyptic island full of zombie Masons!"

The Young Master Mason sipped his coffee, cracked his knuckles, and began trying to compose a thoughtful, measured response to all of the vaguely paranoid, feverish accusations and condemnations he had been reading for months.

Five minutes later, he looked out the window and saw the sun shining. It was a beautiful Spring morning... the leaves were unfurling on the maple trees, birds were singing, and all of the snow was finally gone from the deepest hollows in the woods.

"I've got better things to do with my time," he thought, "It's a beautiful day, and I'm not going to waste it sitting in front of a computer, firing self-important missives across the internet."

The Young Master Mason finished his coffee, turned off his computer, and went out to face the world.

Friday, April 25, 2008

U.S. News and World Report Article: "Inside the Masons"

I hadn't seen this article by Jay Tolson before. I just came across it on Gary Dryfoos' venerable web site, and it's a surprisingly respectful, non-sensational piece. It's even fairly accurate - there are a few statements that you could quibble with, but I think they were probably just simplifications, made without qualification for the sake of brevity.

As it is, the article comes to a rather abrupt end that pretty much skips the 20th and 21st centuries... I wonder if they ran out of room in that issue, or just figured people weren't interested in reading about their Grandfathers' Masonry.

The article was written in 2005, and I thought the observation at the end was interesting... basically, it states that membership is stabilizing thanks to large numbers of retirees joining, and then closes with a line that reminds me of 1950's science textbooks on the subject of man going to the moon... "And who knows? Those aging boomers might even figure out how to bring younger Americans back into the craft."

2005 wasn't a long time ago, but in the interim it does seem like there's been a bit of a groundswell as far as those younger Americans go. Anyway, here it is:

Inside The Masons

Thursday, April 17, 2008

In Summary

Since my induction in February I've been to five lodge meetings; my three degrees, a Lodge of Instruction, and my district's Exemplification. The exemplification happened the very night after I was raised, and as the only person crazy enough to show up without being obliged as an officer, I wound up playing the part of the candidate again, and got to experience the short and long forms of the second section - how many Masons do you know who were raised thrice in two days?

Five meetings isn't a lot, but it's been enough for me to start to get a sense of some of the personalities and dynamics within my lodge. I still have a long way to go in terms of learning and understanding the ritual, but receiving the third and final degree did have the feeling of "completing the picture" for me. That is not to say that I was somehow suddenly elevated to a state of full cosmic enlightenment, far from it - but after 9 months of trying to figure out what it's all about, the third degree left me thinking "Oh! Now I think I get it," even if I can't put into words what "it" is.

I am quite pleased to be able to leave all of that speculation behind, and my plan henceforth is to write about actual experience as I continue in Freemasonry. I feel a little bit like I'm closing a book, and so before I move on I want to write down some impressions and observations based on my own experiences from discovering Freemasonry, to petitioning, to investigation, to induction.

So you just got kind of interested in the Masons

Assuming you're in the same boat I was, with no direct context among family or friends, the whole business can seem a little bit mysterious or even sinister, especially since every TV show or newspaper article about the Masons begins, "There are over 6 million Freemasons worldwide, but they are very secretive and little is known about them."

The first thing a lot of people notice about Freemasonry is the heavy use of symbols, some of which may seem a bit strange; a coffin? A dagger pointing at a heart? A big disembodied eye hovering over everything? Unfortunately, it seems like many people leap to the immediate conclusion that such symbols must be somehow occult or macabre, rather than simply archaic; The first Grand Lodge was formed in 1717 and the Freemasonry has been around longer than that in one form or another, so we're talking about symbols from 300+ years ago. They didn't have emoticons back then.

Then there's all the terminology; Rituals, Temples, Altars - in the 21st century, the use of these words outside of the context of a mainstream religion seems to have Temple of Doom-style connotations to people.

I know most of my own hangups were centered around terminology; "If it's not a religion, then what's the altar for and why do they call their buildings temples?" Once I learned that Freemasonry uses the allegory of the building of King Solomon's Temple as the basis for its teachings, most of my misgivings went away. If you're in the same boat I was last June, intrigued but a little bit weirded out, do yourself a favor and get a copy of Brother Chris Hodapp's Freemasons for Dummies.

Contacting a Lodge

Even if you've decided that the Masons aren't up to anything weird, taking the next step and contacting a lodge can be indimidating; after all, it's a "secret society", isn't it?

Things to keep in mind:
  • If you've spent any time reading up on the Masons, you have no doubt read that membership is down - your local Lodge(s) will be delighted to hear from a potential new member.
  • If they didn't want people to call them, they wouldn't have a publicly listed phone number.
  • If you're more comfortable with e-mail, and you find a website and e-mail address for your local lodge, by all means go for it. Just be mindful that a lodge's e-mail address may not be checked as obsessively as you check your own; if you don't receive an immediate reply to your e-mail, don't worry about it. One of the first lodges I contacted by e-mail took a few weeks to get back to me! If you're really raring to go, telephone is probably your best bet.
  • The person you talk to went through the same exact thing; they had to knock on the door and ask to join too.

Submitting a Petition

If you've pretty much made up your mind to join by the time you go and visit a lodge to ask questions and get a tour, you might want to bring along names, addresses, and phone numbers for people you want to use as references, so that you can fill out an application on the spot if you decide you want to go for it.

Other than that, there's not much to it. In my jurisdiction, the application form asked for the information you'd expect; name, address, contact information (day/evening phone numbers), and then a question you wouldn't expect on most other applications:
  • Do you believe in a Supreme Being?
By now you have probably read or been told that this is a key requirement for membership - but beyond an answer in the affirmative, you are not asked to elaborate.

The Investigative Committee

From my own personal experience, and having read about numerous other Brothers' experiences, you don't need to get nervous about your "investigation". Look at it as an opportunity to get to know a few of the men who will be your Brothers once you join, and obviously for them to get to know you. In my case, I got the impression that they relied more on my references to get a picture of what kind of person I am, and used the meeting with me to get a read on my social skills and general demeanor.

This experience probably varies widely from lodge to lodge, but in general, if you're an upright citizen who's not a jerk, you should be in good shape.

The Interminable Wait

This was the hardest part for me, once I decided I wanted to become a Mason; my timing was such that I applied right before my lodge broke for the summer, taking July and August off... and then my degree was scheduled on short notice in September, but I wasn't able to attend because of a long-standing, prior obligation! That's how I wound up waiting nearly 8 months to take the first degree.

I occupied my time by reading about Freemasonry on and offline, and I allowed myself to get caught up in some of the laments about the current state of the craft, and debates over reform and revitalization, speculating blindly about what kind of experience I'd find when I finally did join my own lodge, and generally steeling myself for disappointment, like I was joining about 100 years too late.

I don't know that there's really any way I could have avoided that; 8 months is a long time to wait for anything these days, and from the start Freemasonry was something I was very interested in; it was the white bear I couldn't not think about for three quarters of a year. If you find yourself in the same boat, waiting for months before your actual induction, at least do yourself the favor of not setting your opinions or expectations in stone. Like Sarastro said on his weblog:
Imagine that you've spent the last 15 years reading about riding a bicycle. You've read everything there is to know about balance, coordination, how a bicycle works, theories, training manuals, biographies of great bike riders, etc.

None of that can compare to actually getting your butt on a bike and riding it.
So as you speculate, remember that no one person speaks for Freemasonry, no matter how high their website ranks in Google search results. Consider this: even Grand Masters' authorities end at the borders of their own jurisdictions! As you read about frustration or indignation over the state of Freemasonry in one place or another, try to keep in mind that your own experience, once you finally take that first degree, will almost certainly be different than what some guy on the other side of the country is writing about! For that matter, it will probably be different than the picture you're building up in your mind (like that hypothetical bicycle above.)

One last thing I would say: avoid spoilers if you can! Skip the part about the degrees in Freemasons for Dummies, and stay away from complete descriptions such as can be found in Duncan's Ritual, which can be easily found online. I tried to avoid details about the degree ceremonies themselves, and although I couldn't help but be exposed to some details ahead of time, I definitely feel like the experience was better than it would have been if I knew exactly what was going to happen next.

The Induction

On the night of my initation, several Brothers went out of their way to reassure myself and the three other candidates that there was nothing to fear, and that everyone else in the lodge has been through the exact same thing. This was in contrast to some other accounts I've read where some Brothers will make jokes about "riding the goat", which might seem to them like a harmless enough joke or a good way to break tension, but does a disservice to the potentially nervous candidate and the seriousness of the event.

I'm here to spoil the joke for all the merry pranksters out there: There is no goat. Seriously.

When you are told early on in the first degree to Fear No Danger, it's the truth.


So this is the end of "Chapter 1" - I want to thank my Brothers who helped me learn about Freemasonry when I first got interested, and through their encouraging comments and insightful writings convinced me that this was something I wanted to be a part of. Thanks, Widow's Son, Tom Acousti, Chris Hodapp, Wayfaring Man, and the author of Horseshoes and Handgrenades, whose handle I am afraid I don't know! I read so many Masonic blogs and forums during my initial curiosity that I'm sure I am forgetting someone, so one last generic "thanks" to everyone else. Fiat Lux!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Ok, one more parallel

I'm going to point out one more parallel between divisions over tradition within the Masonic world and similar conflicts on the outside, and then I'm going to try my darndest to stop flagellating this non-viable equine on this blog, because frankly I'm tired of reading about it in my own backlog of posts!

Last week, the popular photo sharing site Flickr rolled out a new feature: the ability for users with Pro accounts to post video clips.

"So what," you say? "Big deal! Everyone does video these days," you say? I present you with the We say NO to videos on Flickr group. At the time of this writing, more than 1,700 images and nearly 29,000 members, convinced that the addition of Flickr means the imminent ruination of their beloved photo sharing community.

Meanwhile, most of the people I've known through Flickr for 3 years are going quietly about their business, posting photos and now the occaisional 90 second video clip, (The maximum length allowed by Flickr,) and enjoying the site just as much as they ever did.

A bit of history about Flickr, which just turned 4 last month: my recollection is that Flickr started out as a MMORPG, part of which involved a chat room that included a unique feature allowing users to share things... people started sharing photos via the chat room, then they started sharing a LOT of photos via the chat room, and eventually the game part of it fell by the wayside and Ludicorp decided to go with the flow, and developed Flickr as a photo sharing community.

Unlike existing sites like Photobucket and Yahoo! Images, Flickr presented a clean, lightweight interface and made it very easy to browse through your own photos, and to connect to your family and friends and view their photos as well (and vice versa). Flickr first crossed my radar during the summer of 2004, when they followed the lead of and added the ability for users to arbitrarily tag photos. I signed up for a free account, posted a few photos, and dropped it a day or two later because of the irksome Flash-based display of photos.

When I took another look in early 2005, many improvements had been made, images were displayed with good old HTML, and Flickr had achieved what I think was the perfect balance - enough users posting enough photos that you could always find something exciting or beautiful, but few enough users that you got to know "familiar faces" from their photos... sort of like the people on your block you've said "good morning" to for the last five years without knowing their names. I took the plunge and signed up for a pro account, and there was no turning back. I've been a Pro user ever since.

In August 2005, it was announced that Yahoo! had purchased Flickr, and there was a huge panic in the Flickr community. Many, many people (myself included) were convinced that Yahoo! was going to take Flickr and pollute it with huge banner ads and cross-promotions for their other services; up to that point that's what they had done with pretty much every other online service they had bought, and there was little reason to think that they would have the sense to leave Flickr alone.

A year or so passed and Yahoo! seemed to be leaving well enough alone, but then it was announced that the "Old Skool" Flickr login system was being phased out, and that everyone would have to merge their Flickr login with a Yahoo! accound. More panic and protest ensued - it wasn't helped by the fact that there were some bumps for some users in the transition process. But ultimately, that all smoothed out.

Then it was announced that Microsoft was trying to buy Yahoo!, and the sky fell yet again.

And now, they went and started allowing videos, and a lot of people are absolutely convinced that it will be the downfall of Flickr; Flickr's a PHOTO sharing site, not a VIDEO sharing site, Look how crass people are on YouTube, Flickr's going to be JUST LIKE that, just you wait, et cetera, et cetera.

While I was admittedly quite upset by that first major change (the acquisition by Yahoo!), I have found each new round of hysteric protest increasingly tedious. What ever sense of "ownership" or privilege I used to have by virtue of being a relatively early adopter disappeared with my "Old Skool" login.

I'm not trying to make any 1 to 1 comparison between Flickr and any particular aspect of Masonic debate... but a lot of the noise generated online has a similar knee-jerk, black-or-white feel to it; "Putluck dinners are ALL BAD and NOT what Freemasonry is supposed to be about!" or "I hereby find you guilty of Masonic THOUGHT CRIME and if you don't recant, I'll report you to your Grand Lodge!"

So, like I said at the beginning, I'm going to try and stop writing about it, and get back to exploring Freemasonry... this time from the perspective of a newly-raised Master Mason.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Remember now thy Creator

Last week I was raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason, and I've spent the ensuing days mulling over how best to write about the experience without doing it injustice or, in my enthusiasm, sounding like I just went to a tent revival.

I had read repeatedly that the third degree is quite different from the first two, and I already knew about the Hiram legend and general theme of the ritual, but I was wholly unprepared for the effect it had on me; whereas the first two degrees were fascinating and steeped in history and tradition, the third was, well... sublime! Over the last 9 months I've read a number of blog posts by newly-raised Brothers that just say, "I was raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason last night, and it was awesome!" I don't want to stop at that; thinking back to my earliest Google searches about Freemasonry and what the ritual is about, I want to try and at least give some further impressions.

I can understand a little bit better the reluctance of many Brothers, past and present, to discuss the ritual with profanes, because it's a very personal and intense experience and, at least for me, hard to describe in terms of emotional/spiritual impact. I don't mean physically intense, or scary - early in the Entered Apprentice degree we are told to "fear no danger", and that certainly carries through the second and third degrees; by this third degree, I knew and trusted most of the Brothers doing the ritual work.

However, from the Chaplain's reading as I was accepted for the third time into the lodge room it was clear that the tone of this degree is very different than the first two, and from that point until the actual raising I found myself reflecting on mortality and the sum of my life's accomplishments. While the first two degrees were instructive, the third was deeply introspective. And yet, at the end of it I felt much more closely bound to my Brothers than I could have expected; early last June I described myself as a life-long introvert and someone who is generally suspicious of any chummy clique of people, and that hasn't really changed. Clearly, I have found the meaning I was looking for when I petitioned 9 months ago, even if it has taken a form I don't quite understand yet.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Flavors of suspicion

I get the impression that our brothers in the UK have to contend with more political suspicion than we do in the United States - I've read several news stories like this one that describes a failed attempt by the Royal Institute of British Architects to require that members disclose any ties they might have to various political/social organizations, including the Freemasons (who were singled out by name), because, as then-president Jack Pringle says, "I don’t particularly like the masons or any secret society which appears to work together in an undisclosed way."

It's a different flavor of suspicion; it seems like much of what we're exposed to in the U.S. is either half-serious (the Masons as the butt of tired grassy knoll jokes) or totally bananas, tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory ravings. By contrast, political stumping against Freemasons in England takes a tone that makes the fraternity sound like a shadowy network that's up to no good, but keeps getting away with it because nobody ever catches them red-handed.

From my limited perspective here on the other side of the ocean, I get the sense that this isn't an uncommon sentiment about the Masons in England... sort of like how Americans tend to assume (right or wrong) that anything having to do with organized labor in northern New Jersey must obviously be controlled by the Mafia.

I find the contrast very interesting, and can't help but wonder how my experience so far would have differed in such a climate.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Intermediary Musings

Nearly a month has gone by since my Fellow Craft degree, and this week I will be raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason.

I have not stopped by the lodge to work on the FC lecture as much as I did after my EA degree - this has been partly due to sheer busyness, and partly due to the fact that I now know what to expect in terms of my lodge's requirements for "suitable proficiency". My understanding is that in my jurisdiction (The Grand Lodge of Massachusetts), the criteria for suitable proficiency is left up to the individual lodge. At my lodge, the requirement is that candidates just be able to read through the cipher.

(I will pause here for a moment to let the blood-curdling howls of protest and indignation subside.)

I'm a little disappointed, myself; last June I wrote that I wasn't interested in becoming a Master Mason if all I had to do was show up for a day and hand somebody a check. There has definitely been more to my journey than "showing up for a day", but the work is not nearly as demanding as I had expected based on other first-hand accounts I have read. My disappointment is somwhat tempered by the GL's "Lodge of Instruction" program, whereby candidates are required to sit down with an instructor and review some of the meaning and symbolism behind what they experienced in the preceding degree.

As I read through Wilmshurst's The Meaning of Masonry, I am interested by his comments about the ritual having been carefully designed by its creators to hide its deeper truths from the more casual Mason willing to accept the words and symbols at their shallowest level, while at the same time showing the way to true Light for Brothers who dig deeper and open their minds to the hidden knowledge within.

In more practical terms, Wilmshurst writes at the beginning of Chapter I,
A candidate proposing to enter Freemasonry has seldom formed any definite idea of the nature of what he is engaging in. Even after his admission he usually remains quite at a loss to explain satisfactorily what Masonry is and for what purpose his Order exists. He finds, indeed, that it is "a system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols," but that explanation, while very true, is but partial and does not carry him very far.
Does not having to go through a rigorous demonstration of proficiency make me less of a Mason? At one level I feel as though it does... taking the long view, however, if I become deeply involved with the fraternity for the rest of my days, work my way through the chairs to become Worshipful Master, explore the appendant bodies, and quietly seek my own path towards Light, I don't think my overall experience will have suffered too much compared to someone who memorizes the lectures down to the last semicolon but stops going to lodge as soon as they are raised.

The conclusion I am reaching is that the answer to the big, elusive "What the heck is Freemasonry?" question is kind of like Curly's monologue about the meaning of life in City Slickers; it's just One Thing, but that one thing is different for everyone. Better to be concerned with my own quest for Light, than the validity of everyone else's (and vice versa.)

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Why do you hate Freemasonry?

(Warning: Statement of political opinion ahead.)

I finally put my finger on something that has been bugging me about the critics of Brothers who raise awareness about problems with the fraternity or its appendant bodies. The discussion argument never begins with a common understanding. For example, a common understanding you might expect would be,

"We're all Brothers who love the noble ideals of our fraternity. We all joined looking for more or less the same thing, even if what we each found was a little (or a lot) different."

Instead, on the one hand we have Brothers coming from the above position, writing about things that don't quite mesh with their notion of Masonic conduct or ideals, or what they were led to expect when they decided to join; The goings on in WV, Halcyon and Euclid Lodges, The recent disturbing information about the Jesters, the fact that there are still jurisdictions in this country, in 2008, that do not recognize Prince Hall Masonry, et cetera - their understanding is more or less the above: Freemasonry is great, but we have some issues that need to be dealt with. If enough people are made aware of them and try to do something about them, it will be better for all of us in the long run.

The counterpoint understanding is more like "Freemasonry is super-double-plus-awesome and I can't understand why a Brother would ever say anything even remotely critical of any aspect of it in any jurisdiction, especially in public!" and the resulting discussion reminds me of the jingoistic, right-wing style of political discourse we enjoyed in the U.S. after 9/11 and during the run up to the invasion of Iraq:

Person raising a valid point: "Well, I don't know - we need to be wary of terrorism/Saddam Hussein/etc., but if we start infringing on peoples' civil liberties it's going to be a slippery slope-"

Right-wing republican: "WHY DO YOU HATE AMERICA???"

Person raising a valid point: "No, no! I'm just saying-"


et cetera. There can never be any kind of meaningful discussion or debate if one party won't even acknowledge the validity of the other's points.

I'm not much of a bumper-sticker person, but I do like the one that tries to remind people that "Dissent is patriotic."

(Addendum 2008-04-08) I should follow this up by adding that I am aware that "Freemasonry is not a democracy", as some people delight in pointing out whenever anyone questions the actions or policies of a Grand Lodge. That fact should not, in and of itself, preclude meaningful discussion about an issue, even if a Grand Master ultimately decides to exercise his prerogative and go in an entirely different direction. Once again, the argument happens at two different levels, with one side simply trying to make this point that some issues should be discussed or even just acknowledged, and the other saying "but they don't technically have to be acknowledged or discussed, so we can solve the problem by simply ignoring them!"