Saturday, May 31, 2008

A New Obsession

When I lived in Southern California, I was fascinated by post-modern googie architecture - partly because of a general interest in 1950s design but also because it was nothing like what I grew up with in Massachusetts. After I got my first decent digital camera in 1999, I got into the habit of planning pilgrimages to various buildings I had read about so I could see and photograph them.

Since getting back to New England I haven't really had a similar photographic subject to focus on, but lately I've been taking a lot of photos of things Masonic and related to other fraternal/civic organizations. It's fun to have a photographic obsession again. As with the googie architecture, I like finding and shooting things that not many people are paying attention to any more and feel some of the same sense of urgency to capture them before they disappear.

Odd FellowsPacific Lodge A.F. & A.M. - 1
Bygone WelcomeWorcester Odd Fellows' Home - 17Benevolent Protective Order of Elks

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

On The Wearing of Rings

One of the things I remember reading early on last summer was that Masons aren't supposed to wear rings or put bumper stickers/emblems on their cars until they are raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason.

I don't remember where I read it, and I don't know if the claim was made about North American Freemasonry in general, or if the writer was posting about their own jurisdiction and I didn't really make the distinction at the time.

I should read through it again, but I don't recall any mention in the Massachusetts' members handbook of who is "allowed" to wear rings or put stickers on their car. I certainly don't recall any mention of a proper way to wear one's ring (compass points out vs compass points in, on a certain finger, or whatever); it strikes me as a slightly fabricated topic of discussion, as though someone recently assumed that there must be some kind of tradition or significance, and kicked off a debate where none existed previously. I like this answer best. (via the comments on Bro. Shane Hale's recent post - congrats, Shane!) However, I may be totally off base here and flagrantly dismissing a matter that is much more important in other jurisdictions. My apologies if this is the case - if there are Grand Lodges (or local lodges, for that matter) with official stances or policies about the wearing of rings I'd love to learn about it.

I've been wearing my ring with the points out for fairly pragmatic reasons. It's easier for someone else to recognize it that way in most situations, and that's half the point of wearing a Masonic ring (at least it is for me.)

As for auto decals: there was one tucked into my handbook, and I received that right after my Entered Apprentice degree. I don't think it matters too much in Massachusetts. Plus, as far as I know there's nothing stopping anyone, including cowans and eavesdroppers, from ordering a whole Lodge's worth of regalia, rings, hats, bumper stickers, et cetera from someplace like LAFSCO... the ring (or the manner in which it is worn) does not the Mason make.

Lodge as Retreat

Over the last couple of months I have gained a real appreciation for Lodge as a retreat/refuge from the outside world. Stresses of work and our imminent move into the new house (which still needs much work to be habitable) have been mounting, and I am very much looking forward to leaving that all behind for a while during tonight's dinner and Lodge of Instruction.

It's a bit different than going out for a drink or a movie with a friend; I have a hard time taking an arbitrary break if I know there's something I could/should be doing with my time instead. While being a member of a Lodge definitely includes a large social element, it's the extra bit of structure, formality, and commitment that lets my inner taskmaster accept it as something I have to do, not just something I'd like to do.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Worcester Masonic Temple

Worcester Masonic Temple - 2

I had an errand that took me to downtown Worcester, Massachusetts. I had never seen the Worcester Masonic Temple before except in an old postcard view, so I plugged the address into Google Maps and discovered it was right around the corner from my destination.

I was surprised to discover I actually had seen the building before, about 6 years ago when I was trying to find the RMV and used Ionic avenue to turn around. When I saw it again I remembered being struck by the place the first time and assuming it was an old high school. If I had looked closer I would have seen the square and compasses over the entrance, but at the time I wasn't the least bit interested in Freemasonry, and didn't notice.

The building was totally deserted on a Friday morning... not surprising really, but tucked away on a downtown side-street with no other adjacent businesses except a Boys and Girls' Club that was also closed up tight, it felt a little bit lonely and forgotten.

Nevertheless the building looks like it's in good shape --at least on the outside-- and I believe it also is home to the Scottish Rite Valley of Worcester and a Knights Templar Commandery. I noticed that it also serves as a 32º Childrens' Learning Center... I'm sure that if I came back on a weekday afternoon or evening the place would be much more lively. I'd love to get a look at the inside.

Worcester Masonic Temple - 2
Worcester Masonic Temple - 3
Worcester Masonic Temple - 4
Worcester Masonic Temple - 5
Worcester Masonic Temple - 7
Worcester Masonic Temple - 8
Worcester Masonic Temple - 9
Worcester Masonic Temple - 10
Worcester Masonic Temple - 11

The temple was completed in 1914 and originally used by four lodges from the city of Worcester. You can read more about the history of the building and one of the venerable lodges that meets there at:

View Larger Map

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Not Your Founding Fathers' Freemasonry

In his post John Quincy Adams, Masonry & The Free, Invisible Car, Wayfaring Man examines a stinging description of Freemasonry by John Quincy Adams in a letter to William A. Stone in 1832. Here’s a brief excerpt that sums up Adams’ view:

...nor is it conceivable that any such Entered Apprentice, on leaving the lodge after his admission, should fail to have observed, with pain and mortification, the contrast between the awful solemnity of the oath which he has taken, and the extreme insignificance of the secrets revealed to him.

It’s actually not so much different than the tired quote from Benjamin Franklin:

The great secret of Freemasonry is that there is no secret at all.

At risk of putting words in those esteemed gentlemens’ mouths, here’s my take:

Adams is saying that upon being initiated, the new Entered Apprentice’s first reaction is, “That’s IT?!” Adams then posits that the full initiation is spread across three degrees to keep those disappointed candidates hoping for the real secrets in the second and third degrees; otherwise, everyone would bail after the first.

Franklin is saying that you’re missing the point if you obsess on the secrets and ignore the three virtues of brotherly love, relief, and truth.

It seems like there are two main types of disappointment expressed by new Masons here in the 21st century. One is from candidates who are expecting “instant enlightenment,” or as Wayfaring Man writes:

But there is another group of men who have passed through the west door: these men are under the impression that when they reach the third degree they will be given the spiritual equivalent of a new car, and when they find that this is not the case, they lose interest rapidly.

The other kind of disappointment is from Masons who are excited to join the fraternity after reading about its role in the 17th and 18th centuries… how it provided a safe haven for open-minded men to learn and discuss philosophy, spirituality, and science on the level. Upon joining, though, they feel they can’t find any brothers interested in discussing something more stimulating than who’s going to man the griddle at the next pancake breakfast. 2 Bowl Cain writes:

American Freemasonry of the 20th and 21st century has changed and become a 501c10. The Freemasonry of our Founding Fathers is dead and gone in America. Pre 1800’s it was an entity on its own. Today it is one of many other 501c10’s.

The conclusion of these Masons is that three degrees have become little more than a vestigial curiosity and otherwise there’s not much separating us from the Elks, Lions, or Kiwanis. To borrow the car analogy, these new Brothers are expecting to learn how to build a car from scratch, and are crestfallen when they’re handed the keys to a regular old Chevy that’s already been built.

In their disappointment, some of them never discover that the Chevy is a 1958 Corvette Roadster, which needs a lot of work but will be a priceless classic when it’s done.

The thing that seems to be constantly overlooked in these comparisons of modern and early American Freemasonry is that our society has undergone tremendous changes since the revolutionary period… industrialization, urbanization, and then the backlash and willful self-isolation of suburbanization. We’ve invented cinema, radio, television, video games, and the internet. These changes have all affected the ways in which we interact with others and view the world around us, and even if our ceremonies and language haven’t changed much in the last 200 years it’s not reasonable to expect the Masonic experience not to have changed along with the rest of society.

The plain truth is that Freemasonry isn’t needed today as a safe, private forum to discuss political and religious matters in the same way that it was in the 17th and 18th centuries. While you’ll still find plenty of intolerance and small-mindedness on those subjects throughout this country, you generally needn’t fear being jailed or executed for expressing yourself in public.

So what is our relevance?

One of the biggest scapegoats for the decline in membership among all fraternal/service groups is the fact that the free-spirited baby boomers rejected these groups as part of “The Establishment,” and left their parents’ generation holding the torch from the 1960's onward. As generation X and Y have come along, we have been inculcated with the notion that the Masons, Elks, and Odd Fellows used to be popular/relevant/bigger than they are today, but nobody except a few old guys belongs any more. As institutions they have been stripped of any kind of relevance as far as younger generations are concerned, because in so many cases our parents never felt any relevance either. My generation’s attitude seems to be “Aww, it’s kind of quaint that there used to be organizations like that, instead of the way society is now when nobody knows their neighbors or gets involved in their communities. Oh well!” The thought of joining such groups ourselves doesn’t even occur to us unless it’s a family tradition, because we never got those cues from most of our parents’ generation.

I can still remember quite clearly my deep sense of surprise last year upon learning that a 26 year old co-worker was a member of the Elks. The idea of a young guy joining one of those clubs who met in those old buildings I’d been driving past for years knocked something loose in the back of my head, and ultimately led to my becoming a Mason. While I was attracted to the Masons in particular because of its emphasis on the art and science of character building, in a more general sense I joined because I wanted to feel some of that sense of community and fellowship that was lacking in my life.

I think that we are sometimes too quick to dismiss that basic, social/community aspect of the modern Masonic experience as being “just like the Elks” and therefore somehow distasteful. As humans continue to create more diverse and effective ways to isolate and distract ourselves, plain old fashioned social gathering and interaction will become an increasingly valuable commodity. I don’t see that as anything to be ashamed of.

As for the “missing” philosphical aspect of modern Freemasonry, I think that we newer Masons have the wrong expectations when we petition… there seems to be this concept of esoteric or philosophical discussion as a monolithic thing, like a bullet point on the meeting agenda:

  • Open Lodge

  • Read minutes

  • Read bills


  • Close Lodge

The approach seems stilted to me; I wouldn’t sit down next to a Brother at our next dinner and say, “So, would you like to have an esoteric discussion about Masonry?” Sitting down next to a Brother and asking a more specific question like, “So, what were you thinking about during the second section of the third degree?” is a much more targeted question that might jump start an interesting discussion about what Masonry means to the other Brethren at my lodge.

It’s not reasonable to expect the lodge experience in the United States (and from state to state, district to district) in 2008 to be the same as it was in England in 1717. Nor is it reasonable to expect broad changes to happen or be embraced instantly, no matter how spoiled we are by one-click shopping and overnight delivery.Keep in mind how long it takes to become a Master Mason in some jurisdictions: at least one month between degrees in most of the ones I know of, and longer than that in others where they’re serious about proficiency. It was 8 months between the day I applied and the night I was initiated.

Keep in mind how long it takes to become Master of a lodge: seven years assuming there’s a full officer line and nobody drops out. When was the last time you spent seven years working on anything except perhaps your Master’s degree or PhD?

The first operative mason who had an idea about how it would be possible to construct soaring, thin stained glass walls by using flying buttresses probably didn’t figure it out during the first year of his apprenticeship. He probably didn’t get it right on the first try, either.

If we aren’t finding the experience we seek, it is up to us to draw the blueprints and provide the guidance, and more importantly the patience to bring it to the Craft.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Wor. Brother R. Theron Dunn

I would like to extend my sympathies to the family and friends of Worshipful R. Theron Dunn, who passed away on Tuesday after a brief, unexpected illness.

Theron’s weblog, Beacon of Masonic Light, was among the first that I encountered when I got interested in Freemasonry last year, and it provided some of the strongest counter-arguments to the voices of discontent calling for radical changes, Grand Lodge reform or even the formation of new Grand bodies like the UGLA/GOUSA. I never met or interacted with Theron personally, but his counterpoints were partially responsible for helping me form my own middle-of-the-road attitude toward Freemasonry. I am not the first to say it, but while I may not have always agreed with some of Bro. Theron’s arguments and positions I usually understood where they were coming from.

Sometimes I didn’t, though, and I will admit that there were times that I had started (and abandoned) cantankerous rebuttal posts of my own. I bring this up not out of any kind of guilt or apology; I still have my opinions, and Theron will no doubt have many stimulating discussions about his with all of our Brethren in the Celestial Lodge above. I bring it up because his untimely passing puts those differences of opinions in a better context; Being brothers isn’t about any one person being “right”, or about agreeing on everything all the time, (good lord, how boring that would be!) it’s about tolerance and mutual respect. As Brother Dunn was fond of saying, "It's not about me changing them, it's about me changing me."

Virtus Junxit, Mors Non Separabit.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Whither the Odd Fellows?

I've been thinking a lot about the Odd Fellows since my post last week, saddened to see a once-vibrant fraternity disappearing and wondering how it was that the Masons have remained comparatively strong as the Odd Fellows seem to be fading away. Looking at the directory of Massachusetts Odd Fellows' lodges, most of them are in the greater Boston area and some of the ones further west are indicated on the map, but no longer listed below... presumably gone dark.

Is there some vital difference that has kept Freemasonry alive while Odd Fellowship has faltered? Or (and I suspect this may the case) did the Masons' state-by-state Grand Lodge system provide better regional autonomy and support for lodges during the leanest years than the IOOF's internationally sovereign structure?

There's a part of me that feels like I should petition Naukeag Lodge in Ashburnham, Massachusetts if only to try and help keep it alive --and, I admit, to satisfy my curiosity about how the Odd Fellows' degrees compare and contrast to the three Blue Lodge degrees. As a motive for joining, though, that feels rather empty compared to the visceral "That's what I've been looking for" feeling I had when I asked to become a Mason.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Good thoughts for W. Brother Theron Dunn

Call it prayer, call it "thinking positive thoughts," call it "sending good vibes" - whatever it is that you do, please do it for Brother Dunn.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


I am not much of a jewelry purchaser or wearer. In high school I succumbed to the Jostens sales pitch and had a class ring for a while, but I lost it somewhere during my senior year and it wasn't until I got married that I acquired another hunk of metal to put on my finger. And even then, my wife and I bought our wedding bands from a vendor at the Sherman Oaks street fair in 1999 or 2000... plain old sterling silver bands for about $8.00 apiece, picked out from between all the flaming skull and iron cross rings on either side. (Of all the things on which we might have spent thousands of dollars we didn't have, teensy metal loops was not at the top of our list. Neither of us even particularly likes gold or diamonds.)

Masons' rings mean a lot of different things to their individual wearers. As for me, I decided to get one to show my pride in belonging to the fraternity, and to provide a mode of recognition to others when I'm peregrinating. I didn't want to spend a lot of money, though, and some of the rings you see at the low end of the spectrum (on Ebay, for example) look like Cracker Jack prizes. I found this on Amazon, and I'm very happy with it for the price; I find it elegant in its simplicity and understatement.

(Obligatory disclaimer: I am not affiliated in any way with the vendor, I don't get any kind of referral, et cetera. I'm just a contented customer.)

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


This past weekend was the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts' official 275th anniversary blowout, with Grand Lodge tours, a black tie dinner, a ball, guided Masonic tours of Boston, and other goings on. If I weren't still working away at my house (The end of June is alarmingly close, and I really can't spare any weekend days for at least the next couple of months) I would have volunteered to lead some tours of the Grand Lodge (which I have yet to visit, myself)... but oh, well... I figure by the time the tricentennial rolls around I should be in a much better position to participate in all the festivities.

So with all that was going on this weekend, you'd think an accompanying article in the Boston Globe might have gone into a little bit of history, touched on Prince Hall, or generally departed from the same fluff written about the Masons in pretty much any newspaper... but no, you get the usual:
  • Mention the conspiracy theories right away
  • Mention the Freemasons in in the American Revolution
  • Mention the presidents who were Masons, throw in Ben Franklin and John Hancock for good measure
  • "We don't have any secrets" quote from a prominent Mason
  • "Resurgence in popularity thanks to the Da Vinci Code and National Treasure" seems to be the new bullet point replacing "aging members dying off and lodges struggling for survival"
Of course, shallow articles about the Masons are just part of our secret plot to lull the public into a false sense of disinterest.

(Clippy graphic purloined from a post by Bro. Christopher Hodapp a while back.)

Monday, May 5, 2008

Childhood Glimpses

Last week I had occasion to drive through Worcester, Massachusetts on Route 190. Having grown up in a town near Worcester, I rode through many a car trip along that major artery through the city, and one building used to dominate the hillside to the north of the freeway: The Odd Fellows' Home. It's still there, but another building has sprung up between it and the Freeway, so it has receded into the background a little bit.

My parents would often point it out, partly because it's a neat building, and partly because it's fun and mysterious to talk about a group of people called "The Odd Fellows". My parents never had much of an answer for me as to who the Odd Fellows were, other than that they 1) had been around for a long time, 2) did a lot of charity work. 3) were a private sort of a group (they might have gone so far as to use the word "secretive".)

What they didn't know was how people got to be in the Odd Fellows in the first place... and as a kid, any question your parents can't answer is surely a deep, deep mystery of the universe.

Looking at the large, victorian building perched atop a hill with its prominent logo (three interlinked rings) across the tower, it's exactly the sort of dramatic place you would expect a group called the Odd Fellows to meet, and as a kid the fuzzy mental picture I developed went along with the building; old guys in fancy clothes meeting at night behind locked doors, doing mysterious things. The fact that such a phenomenon existed was intriguing to me, but did not strike me as relevant to my own existence, nobody in my immediate sphere being involved; over the years it was an interesting bit of cultural trivia to know of the Odd Fellows, and to recognize the three linked rings on the occasional building or cemetery headstone, but it wasn't until much more recently that I ever contemplated finding out how to join such an outfit.

I was not a particularly popular kid growing up, and was never at the top of anyone's list to invite to any "clubs" that might have been formed... but the notion of clubs and club houses definitely appealed to me. One of my favorite book series as a kid was Alfred Hitchcock's Three Investigators... the titular teenaged characters had their own detective agency run out of an old trailer completely buried in a junkyard. They could surveil their surroundings via periscope, and access to the clubhouse was via a series of hidden tunnels through the debris, with special knocks and everything.

I would bet that aside from all of the noble ideals of spiritual temple building and service to mankind, inside just about every Mason is a 10 year old boy who really digs being part of a "secret club". I'll cop to it, how about you? Apart from those of you whose fathers/uncles/grandfathers were Brothers, How old were you when you became aware of groups like the Masons and Odd Fellows? How did you learn about them? What did you think? Looking back, what do you think now?

Friday, May 2, 2008

That's Better

I still have plenty of distractions whirling around in my head, but I managed to break the logjam that prompted my last post and now don't feel quite so much like I'm stealing time away from something more or important, or wasting precious free moments by nattering away on this weblog. So, in no particular order, here are thoughts that have been knocking around my head this week... (fair warning, this turned into a rambly one.)

Last Saturday evening I attended my first Table Lodge, which you could also say was my first "non-newbie" Masonic function - that is to say, I wasn't receiving a degree, and I wasn't required to be there as with a Lodge of Instruction. Also, I was the only person there from my lodge so in a way it was a little bit like that first time you take the car out by yourself after getting your license.

It was a lot of fun, and I can't wait to attend another. (although I will have to budget myself; $25 is not much to pay for an evening of warm fellowship and excellent food, but enough of them would definitely start to add up!)

A few observations:

As mentioned, I was the only person there from my own lodge, which meant I didn't have any "default conversational partners" for the evening. I had met some of the Brothers who were there from other lodges at my degrees, or at Lodges of Instruction, but for the most part I was on my own. I wound up sitting next to a Brother from the northwest corner of the state. He was very friendly and welcomed me warmly to the fraternity, but I didn't really converse much with him through the evening. I didn't really converse much with anyone through the evening, and because I'm the sort of person who tends to watch and listen before diving into most situations, that was Ok. I wasn't being actively ignored or shunned, and feel I could certainly have struck up a conversation if I had wanted to.

The overall sense of fellowship was really something... I described it to a profane friend as a general, mutual feeling of "I've never met you before, but if you're here you must be an OK guy." The food was good, and the evening's 7 toasts (with wine) were way more fun than they had any right to be. Looking around from time to time, I saw that I was not the only Brother choosing to just watch, listen, and passively enjoy the company.

With the exception of the entrée and the wine (apple juice for those choosing to abstain), the meal was served on paper plates. I did not feel that this detracted especially from the overall experience, which was simply one out of what I hope will be many, at many different lodges over the years, some more formal than others, some more "traditional" than others. If after all that I want a table lodge with real dishes, glasses and silverware, I can damn well become Master of a lodge and try to make it happen during my year in the East.

Which segues into a CD that just arrived in my mailbox today (gotta love SwapaCD), Broken Boy Soldiers by The Raconteurs. It had been on my wishlist since it came out in 2006, and promises to find itself in heavy rotation as spring gives way to summer. Anyway, a couple of lines from the track Together struck me:
You want everything to be just like
The stories that you read but never write
If I want to change or improve something in my life, or at my lodge, or wherever, then all I have to do is actually get off my ass and do it. Sometimes it's easy to lose track of the simple equation:

x not done + someone doing x = x getting done

Most of the time it's easier to complain about x not being done, or write about all the reasons x should be done, than to actually do x. Probably the most profound example of this equation in my life happened about 12 years ago, when I went with my brother and sister to the iMax theater at the Boston Museum of Science and watched a film about special effects - specifically, the kind old-school miniature building that made Star Wars such a ground-breaking phenomenon, and has since been almost entirely replaced by CGI. As we left the theater, I made a comment like "Wow, I'd love to do that for a living", and my older brother flippantly said, "Well, then you should go do learn how to do it!" He probably doesn't even remember the conversation, and at the time I didn't think much of his comment.

A month or two later, I moved to Los Angeles with my then-girlfriend (now wife), who got a job at a foam fabrication/costume making shop herself, thanks to skills she had picked up doing 3D illustration in college. Since we only had one car, I would drop her off in the morning and then pound the pavement all day trying to get my foot in the door with a web design company. I got to be a familiar face around the shop where my wife worked, and one day when they were up against a shooting deadline, I was asked if I wanted to help work on some stuff for a Saban (you know, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers) production... and just like that, I was doing special effects for a living.

Granted, the pay was crappy and it was a far cry from Industrial Light & Magic, but if I had been passionate enough about effects to put in the long hours and work my way up the food chain in L.A., ILM would not necessarily have been out of reach. Want to work in special effects? It's easy: move to L.A. and start cold-calling the small shops around the San Fernando Valley. Sooner or later you'll find one that needs warm bodies for some project or another, and if you demonstrate any kind of competence at all you stand a good chance of being kept on after the crunch.

I did manage to do some work I was proud of on some props and costumes that appeared in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but my heart wasn't in it... there were guys who would sacrifice their nights and weekends without overtime pay on the mere possibility that they might get their name in the end credits of a movie. Me, I just wanted to go home and crash.

Speaking of making change happen: I'm psyched about yesterday's announcement of The Masonic Society, which I probably would have joined already had I not spent almost exactly the same amount of money on an inexpensive (but tasteful) Masonic ring only hours before. I think I will join The Masonic Society as a housewarming present to myself after we have moved into our new house later this summer.

As for the ring, it's something I'll be proud to wear, and I'm also very curious to see what kinds of places and situations I'm in where it might be noticed by a fellow Brother. Photo to follow when it arrives.

And finally, I need this t-shirt: