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2012: Grand Armageddon

April 1, 2012 1 comment

Connecticut Freemasons were surprised this week by the actions of their new Grand Master, Most Worshipful Gary William Robert Arseneau, a brother who had previously been known for his temperate character and his prudent decisions.

MW Bro. Arseneau used his first few days as Grand Master to issue the typical pronouncements and proclamations, but then followed up with several decrees which seem completely out of character with the progressive way that Freemasonry has generally been practiced here in the Nutmeg State.

The first pronouncement was so out of character that a number of people initially thought that he was joking, but further investigation prompted him — or rather, his office — to forward this email to the districts:

“While in the past it may have been up to the individual to choose how to wear their Masonic ring, it is the decision of the Grand Master that Freemasons under the Grand Lodge of Connecticut should only wear their rings with the points turned inward, i.e., pointing toward their wrist.  This is no different than the rules and regulations pertaining to the wearing of one’s aprons or jewels in public. Members with the points described in any other fashion will now be considered as subversive, and will be liable to be reprimanded, suspended, or expelled.”

Further communications were just as surprising, both for their content, and for their unusual bluntness in laguage.

On Ritual Seminars:

“Due to the costs involved with hosting the various ritual seminars around the state, the Grand Lodge Committee on Masonic Education will mail DVD copies of the various National Geographic and History Channel specials to new lodge officers so that they can study on their own time.”

On Officer Training:

“The Grand Lodge can not be expected to fund the coffee and donuts for a few dozen half-awake officers that show up a couple of times a year.”

On the Grand Lodge website:

“We have been wasting money on this website for years. It is my plan to scrap the entire thing, sell off the servers, and move everything over to Facebook and Google Documents. They’re free,  the uptime is better, and if there are any problems, then the members can complain to Facebook or Google for support.”

But the most surprising communication had to do with something that most Freemasons around the state had considered to be a dead issue: The Grand Lodge of Southern New England.

“Because of the large amount of the funds expended in the legal process of finalizing the details, and in the physical construction and remodeling of the building, and because the Grand Lodge of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations reneged on the arrangement for a merger between their respective Grand Lodges without due and timely notice, it is the decision of the Grand Master that we seek to recover those financial damages in a court of law. “

Anonymous sources close to the Grand Master have reported that MW Bro. Arseneau had been especially upset with the merger cancellation several years ago because he, himself, had done a large part of the background work. While so far unsubstantiated, he was reported to have said “They only have, what, like two dozen lodges? I say that we sue the hell out of them, and then when they run out of money, we’ll just move in a take over anyway. Then, nobody will left to object to our keeping the ‘A’ in the ‘AF & AM’.”

The word is that the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts will be watching the developments closely, and may offer to buy the Grand Lodge of Rhode Island outright as part of their new public awareness campaign. Connecticut brothers familiar with the workings of the  Massachusetts Grand Lodge have hinted that while it would actually serve little purpose, Massachusetts Grand Lodge officers had been “miffed” that they had not thought of the merger idea themselves several years ago, and see the opportunity as a way to turn the Connecticut failure into their own public image success.

In the meantime, Masons around Connecticut are still reeling from the number of new rules and regulations, and many foresee that lodge meetings for the remainder of the month will need to focus on getting the word out to the Craft.

There oughta be a law

July 13, 2009 Leave a comment

First, some background:

Back on April 1 of this year (note that date), I ran an article purporting to be a news clipping from the (now long defunct) Hartford Times about the proposed merger between the Grand Lodges of Rhode Island and Connecticut. The article explained that the reasoning is that our small states had too many Grand Lodge officers covering too few districts, and we needed to consolidate our resources. Masonic Education would be handled by videos made for Youtube, and both states would now be referred to as the Grand Lodge of Southern New England. To add to the verisimilitude, I created a website using the WordPress free blogging platform.

The Grand Lodge of Connecticut web site posted the article and linked to the new GL-SNE site for the day. Some of the brothers, both in and out of Connecticut fell for the joke (for which I wrote about a little while later), and everybody had a good laugh. “Oh, that Tom, what a joker,” etc, etc., and a week later (this being the internet and all) we forgot all about it and were now into The Next Big Thing, which probably involved the story about how a nun, a rabbi, and Chris Hodapp walked into a bar, and asked for a… well, as I said, this is the internet and even that is old news now. I  pretty much forgot the Grand Lodge of Southern New England.

Until a few weeks ago.

Somebody forwarded to me something that had been forwarded from a friend, which had been in turn forwarded to them.The first forwarder (a brother who is not from Connecticut) wanted to know if this was true, and sent it to another person (also not from Connecticut). Somehow, they managed to figure out how to email a Mason in Connecticut, who thought the incident amusing enough to let me know. I checked, and sure enough, the blog stats showed a spike in readers over the previous several days.

Interestingly, for the next week or so, I continued to see visitors to the GL of SNE “website.” I learned that what had prompted the original question was that a re-print from the article in The Connecticut Freemason had appeared in another newsletter. Some of those readers mistook the prank for an actual new item, and then forwarded that news on to other brothers – and to some internet groups.

The other day, somebody else emailed me with another twist. Someone had posted to yet another group — an email list — the explanation for the merger.

The main reason the Rhode Island merged with Connecticut is that they were loosing members and they could not afford to keep a grand lodge going in there state. They were running out of money at an alarming rate to say the least.

Oh dear.

For perspective, the original prank simply stated “Citing a budget shortfall due to a lack of membership and the bad economy.”

Anyway, the next few days saw even more spikes in the visitor counts, and several friends were kind enough to email snippets of some of the conversations of various lists to me.  One of the people who had passed it along to several other groups was finally clued into the hoax. Apparently, he later admitted to falling for:

sadly it is a sick hoax written by a Brother as a April fools joke

Maybe I have become inured to the members of Friendship Lodge, but where I come from, a “sick” joke generally involves bodily functions, medical attention, and quantities of alcohol.

What another person wrote, though, underlines what is not only a problem in the fraternity, it’s also a problem that we see frequently in society overall.

Saw the rest of the posts but FYI this appeared in the May issue of the Conn. Freemason along with the disclaimer by the author as a separate article. Interesting that Conn. GL was totally silent & let confusion reign.

Maybe I’m reading too much into that last sentence, but it seems to belie the too-common attitude of “I don’t like what that person is doing. Let’s get somebody in charge to stop it.”

You see, the Grand Lodge of Connecticut was silent because, quite simply, the overwhelming majority of the members thought it was a funny joke — even those who fell for it. I wrote a follow-up article about those who were inclined to take the bait, and in it, I questioned why those people let their imaginations overtake their critical thinking skills. I mean, in the Masonic world, especially in the US, that would be big news. You can’t really imagine something that big happening without months of rumors and gossip beforehand.

But here’s where this whole situation pins the needle on the irony meter: Despite the fact that the only news reports of this merger were on my blog, despite the fact that the news item did not actually make any newspapers (and the Hartford Times has been closed since the mid-1970s), and despite the fact that no other Grand Lodge has sent out any kinds of notices to members, advising them of, for example, their status with regard to visitation, none of the people who passed on those rumors (nor those who considered it to be a sick joke) bothered to contact me. Not one.

So, why does this ping the irony meter? Because most of those brothers who passed this around — three months after the fact — were members of research lodges or education email lists.

Doesn’t the concept of “research” imply that one needs to do at least a minimum amount of legwork to determine the veracity of a concept?

Now, I’m not trying to poke fun at any of them. Just the fact that they are using the internet at all should probably be applauded. But perhaps I live so much of my life online that spending five minutes on Google to check something new has become second nature to me, and so I’m a bit embarrassed for those brothers who simply passed around the news, embellishing a little as they went.

The other thing that I don’t understand is why some of those brothers — the ones who were hipped to the hoax — couldn’t be bothered to drop me an email (being an attention hound, I’m not that difficult to find) to discuss their disappointment or dismay with the prank. A Facebook friend passed this on:

The substance has been passed, as fact, pretty much around the Masonic world and is will provide anit Masons great material to note how Masonry is declining

You would think that if somebody had that much of a concern, they might want to drop me a line and discuss it. In fact, I’m often disappointed to discover that despite our Masonic admonishment to “whisper good counsel in the ear,” too many of us find it much more convenient to rant and rail against something (or someone) with which we take issue.  I wonder if we can make a law about that?



Hoax, Deconstructed

May 9, 2009 Leave a comment

(This is the extended disco version of the article that ran in the May 2009 issue of The Connecticut Freemason publication.)

Many readers know that for the last few years I’ve been assaulting the internet with my blog, The Tao of Masonry (http://masonictao.wordpress.com), on which I write articles about how Freemasonry has made an impact on my own life. On April 1st, I finally got to make an impact on Masonry, at least in Connecticut.

Like many people, I enjoy a good practical joke – especially when it’s played on somebody else. Back in February, I started setting up a prank for April Fools Day that was completely harmless, did not poke fun at anybody, and against all odds of prankery,  still ended up being amusing. But on reflection, there were some reactions to the prank that made me wonder about our fraternity.

The prank was set up as you can see elsewhere in this issue: I wrote a news article purporting to be from the representatives of Connecticut and Rhode Island, in which they announced the merger of the Grand Lodges of our two states to help control costs, and to consolidate the many Grand Lodge positions.

I got the idea for a merger between Grand Lodges back at our own Grand Lodge Semi-annual Communication in October. At the time, I noted that there were quite a few lodges not represented, and that there were fewer people in attendance than I had expected. I know that some of my friends out in San Diego will get a small van and make the eight hour drive up to San Francisco for their Grand Lodge meetings, and I wondered what they would think of people who couldn’t make an hour drive halfway across our state. Knowing how small the states are in this corner of the country, I made some jokes about merging our small states into a large one, and from this simple hint, the Grand Lodge of Southern New England A.F. & A.M. was born.

There were clues in the article that this was not to be taken seriously. Writing it as a news item from The Hartford Times should have tipped off an observant reader, as that paper went out of business back in 1975. Likewise, history buffs should have caught the names of the spokespersons, which were made up names that were connected with historic figures in our respective states. William Rogers, of course, is from Rhode Island founder Roger Williams. Thomas Ludlow is a compilation of Roger Ludlow, the founder of Connecticut, and Thomas Hooker. At least one sharp-eyed reader suspected the hoax based simply on reading those names.

After writing the interview, I got the idea to compound the hoax by creating a web site, to make  the Grand Lodge of Southern New England (http://glsneafam.wordpress.com ) look more “official.” The website has current news items from our own GL site, contact information, a page describing Freemasonry, and some information on how to join, all of which are typical of Grand Lodge websites.

You can’t have a Grand Lodge without an official seal; so I used the S & C graphics that Bro. Kyle Charette designed for our own Friendship Lodge logo. I found the picture of the “stately and superb” Grand Lodge building in a search of old photos of the UConn campus; the early 1900s style reminds me of quite a few lodge buildings around Connecticut.

So much for the technical details; now let’s look at the the aftermath.

The fake news item was published in the wee hours (3.33 am, of course) of April 1, and was spotted early in the morning by RW Simon LaPlace (Chairman of the Masonic Awareness Committee and head dude for the Grand Lodge website), who found the prank amusing, and wondered what would happen if he added to the fun by posting it on the Grand Lodge of Conn web page. I double dog dared him, and an hour later he had not only the link, but the entire front page of the Grand Lodge of  Southern New England site up. WIN!

Knowing it would be just a matter of time before the calls started coming in to the Grand Lodge office, he informed the secretary. Marje didn’t fall for it, mainly because she knows that if she didn’t type it or file it, then it didn’t happen. He also informed our new MWGM Art Carlstrom, and then settled into enjoy the show. According to him, he didn’t have long to wait. The emails and phone calls started coming in from people who were wondering what it was about and when it had been discussed – after all, our GL annual communication was only two days previous, so they should have heard something about it, right? I mean, who could possibly believe this for more than a minute, right?

And here’s where it gets interesting.

Initially, I had expected to fool people who don’t live in or near Connecticut; after all, most of us are rather parochial in our Masonry, and barely know what is going on at the other end of our district, let alone in foreign lands such as Putnam or Greenwich. It’s not unusual for US Masons to have no idea what’s going on in other states. This is not a failing, it’s simply a result of having fifty separate and sovereign Grand Lodges, each with their own rules, regulations, culture, and problems.

What I had not expected, however, were how many brothers here in Connecticut would take the prank seriously; especially those who really should have known better. But some of our members believed that they had missed out on this huge decision (apparently while they were socializing in the hall?), or missed hearing the rumors that invariably precede such decisions. And therein lies the most fascinating part of the prank, and leads to several important questions:

What happened to our critical thinking skills? Are Masons inherently lacking a sense of humor? Why would those who should know better actually believe the story? And what does their reaction say about the organization and its members?

To illustrate, allow me share some of the reactions.

The first concern was raised by a Grand Lodge officer, whose response was to ask what it was about. After being informed that it was a hoax, he seemed unclear on the concept and went on to ask who Thomas Ludlow was. He then suggested that the site be taken down ASAP so nobody else would see it and take it seriously.

Another GL officer asked why he hadn’t been informed of this decision.  Several more District Deputies, Masters of lodges, and other members called or emailed the Grand Lodge office and various Grand Lodge officers to ask questions about the merger. Several lodges even passed it around on their email list, and it was a topic for discussion at lodge meetings that night. For the rest of the day, Grand Lodge officers (including me) fielded calls and emails, explaining that it was just an April Fool prank.

Most of Grand Lodge officers, when asked about the merger, replied to the caller “What day is it?” You’d think it would have ended there, but at least a couple of people were confused by the fact that on April 2nd, the Grand Lodge of Southern New England website was still up (although the picture was off the Connecticut Grand Lodge site),  as was the news report on The Tao of Masonry. As much as a week later, one of my counterparts in another district told me that the Master of his lodge had been asking him questions about it. And two weeks later, I heard that a Past Master from another lodge was still telling people about it and wondering how it was going to affect the fraternity. After all, it must be true if the site is still up after April 1st, right?

More interesting were the reports of people who not only believed the original news of the merger, but who also believed the contrived April 2nd story as to why it failed: Ostensibly because there were too many tax and legal issues to straighten out, the “rumors” were that the real issue was of Connecticut and Rhode Island not agreeing on which designation (“AF & AM” or  “F & AM”) to keep. At least one person was reported to have said something like, “Yes, that’s just the kind of thing that Grand Lodges would argue about.”

Hey, wait a minute – that’s probably not so funny.

I was amazed at the number of people who confessed to being out of the loop, even though they had just been to the Grand Lodge session; almost all of them used the excuse that they had left early, or had been in the hallway socializing for most of the afternoon session.

Here are a few of the emails we received:

“Tom, you’re with the Grand Lodge. What’s the scoop?”

“Is that [the merger] for real? I’m surprised we did not talk about it [at Blue Lodge Council] last night.”

“Maybe I haven’t been paying as much attention lately, but how is it that something of this consequence could be taking place without any prior notice or fanfare? I heard/saw NOTHING about this as a proposal.”

“[...] the Merger column with your blog; Is that true? Are we really merging? Didn’t stay long enough to hear it… had to leave, got paged from work.”

I fielded a few calls and emails, myself, including one from a brother who wrote “Tom, I can’t believe that you are the only one reporting on this.”

Really? Just me? What a scoop, eh?

One of the Grand Lodge officers from the eastern part of our state said that the brothers in Rhode Island thought the prank was very funny, and nobody reported anyone taking it seriously – at least, not seriously enough to contact their Grand Lodge. Likewise, those up in Massachusetts were also amused. Nobody took it seriously there, either; although some of their people were reported to have said that the clue to them was that Massachussetts would never join something that was initiated by Connecticut, anyway.  “We would come up with the idea, and then allow Connecticut and Rhode Island to join” was, I think, how they phrased it.

There were a number of people who did not get the joke even after it was explained, or who did not find it amusing. Their reactions were typically expressed as: “You can’t do that,” or “The Grand Lodge shouldn’t have allowed that on their website,” or “They better have a talk with the guy who made that up.”

While I admit that practical jokes aren’t for everybody, the idea that it “shouldn’t” be done makes me wonder just how seriously we are expected to take our Masonry. More to the point, I’m happy that the Grand Lodge officers in my state can take – and express – amusement in what was a very harmless prank. Humor is one of those little social lubricants that help us to all get along; and a gentle spoof on a serious state of affairs can help to ease the tension of the situation. The economy is down right now, fraternal memberships have been down for a generation, and many jurisdictions are wrestling with issues of retention, management, and education. My prank simply called attention to these issues in a light-hearted way, and I was glad to see that it led to some interesting discussions on Masonic web forums around the US and UK.

But what are we to make of those people who took the hoax itself seriously? Can you imagine a project as huge as a merger between two Grand Lodges remaining a secret? Apparently a number of my brother Connecticut Masons can. This is distressing on some level because it means that a large number of people believe that they could have been out of the loop for something this important. That is both disquieting and sad because it points to a lack of connection with the organization.

A merger between lodges within a state is generally a year-long affair, from the initial idea to the discussions between the lodges, to the final voting, name changing, informing the rest of the members, and packing away the old furniture. And along the way, of course, there is the talking and gossip. Face it: despite our reputation as a secret society, most of the Masons that I’ve known love to gossip. I can’t even imagine my brothers planning a cookout in total secrecy; if you don’t know what’s going on in your lodge, chances are it’s not because they aren’t telling you, it’s because you’re not paying attention.

Now, one might believe in the reality of a “Grand Lodge Merger” because the idea is, on some level, plausible: Connecticut and Rhode Island are small states, membership has declined in the last generation, and economic times are hard right now.

Yet, most people figured it out in the first minute and found it amusing, as I had hoped they would. Why did others not pause to say, “Hey, I never heard any rumors about this. I’ve never seen any Grand Lodge officers from Rhode Island visting. We were talking about redistricting only last year, and nobody brought this up. Hmm, something’s fishy about this news article… oh, wait a minute – it’s April 1st.”

My brothers, to believe for more than five minutes – hell, even one minute – that something this big could suddenly just happen isn’t an issue of being humor-impaired; it’s an issue of having a disconnect with the organization itself.

And this raises the question of how and where we connect to the organization; how we, as Masons, see our places within our own fraternity. Do we make an effort to stay current with our knowledge and awareness? Can we – or should we – be expected to keep up with the events and goings-on of our organization, or are we content to just glance at a trestle board once in a while? And are we conscious of how our being knowledgeable benefits the organization as a whole?

It’s possible that I might be reading too much the reactions. But what concerns me is that most of the people figured it was a joke because they knew it was April 1st. How many more people would have been taken it seriously had I done this a week or a month sooner? And what does that say about our people and our organization?

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