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There are two types of people…

June 11, 2008 Leave a comment

Watching an old movie the other day reminded me of a discussion I had a while back with someone who intimated that I did not take my duties – or Masonry, for that matter – seriously. Predictably, he went on to mention some of the things that he, himself would do if he were me; including, not unsurprisingly, making sure that people who didn’t abide by the rules would be “dealt with.”

It became apparent that my well-meaning brother was under the a mistaken assumption in which he was confusing the tools that I use in my duties (“levity” and “a relaxed approach”) with my underlying attitude and approach toward them. Obviously, this brother and I hold fundamentally different philosophies as to how the structure of our fraternity works: he seemed to think that just telling people what to do is sufficient, and considered what I do as a District Grand Lecturer something akin to a traveling minstrel show.

See, as the District Grand Lecturer, my duties as assigned are actually pretty light: I just have to administer a test to make sure that the incoming Master is prepared, ritual-wise. However, several lodges have asked me to help them polish their ritual proficiency and floorwork, and so I spend most of my time at rehearsals, giving tips, making suggestions, and (hopefully) inspiring new officers to be better by coaching them along. Not surprisingly, this is exactly how I was taught in my own lodge by some experienced Past Masters. In theory, I could simply read the book to them and say “Okay, that’s what you’re supposed to know. I’ll be back next week to grade you.” In practice, I tend to be light-hearted and jokey (where have I heard that before ?), simply because that was the kind of style that inspired me. I figure that if I’m going to join a half-dozen guys walking around a cold lodge room on a rainy evening, then I want to at least make it enjoyable for myself. If the other people get something out of it, then so much the better.

In the aforementioned discussion, I found myself rather surprised to hear the suggestion that lodge officers should be given the ritual book, and have it explained to them that the rules of our Grand Lodge say that they need to follow the instructions. Their testing, as it were, could then be done by some other officer, thereby obviating the need for District Lecturers. I was surprised because, indeed, this is exactly the case as it has been for the past fifty or more years. Connecticut has a published ritual monitor, and it’s relatively clear what the Master and officers should be doing. The problem is, some people haven’t been doing it. In fact, by my estimation, a hell of a lot of people haven’t been doing it properly for quite some years, and many lodges have had several generations of officers pass without seeing proper ritual work modeled for the younger officers, who would then model it for the officers after them.

This is where I come in. I see that there is a disconnect between what the officers should be doing and what they are doing. So, in my light-hearted and jokey way, I’ve been giving ritual coaching. While I agree that the officers should be doing things a certain way, I don’t believe that throwing a rule book at them will make them change their behavior. My counterpart believes that it doesn’t matter – they knew what the expectations were when they signed up; or at least, they should have done so, because they agreed to it.

So, which one of us is correct?

Actually, he is.

Unfortunately, being right doesn’t always fix the problem.

This is a common situation for people in organizations because of the nature of the various types of people who are in – indeed, who are needed – to run an organization.

Freemasonry, like every other organization, is comprised of people who take on various roles. Most organizations have people who have a command of every rule and regulation, down to the sub-articles and clauses. It needs to be stressed that these people are very important to the organization because without rules, you have no organization! During any discussion in which group members want to “hurry up and do something”, it’s easy to dismiss the comments of the rule-keeper when what the members are proposing run a little out of bounds. “Oh, you’re just being fussy” or “Rules were made to be broken” are typical responses to those who strive to keep order. In our rush to be post-modern action heroes, we often fail to think our actions through to the possible consequences. Organizations in which the members do not follow rules soon devolve into anarchy. Those who keep track of the rules help to keep the structure of the organization intact.

Large organizations typically also have members who understand that the underlying purpose of those rules is to have a better organization, one that is more effective, more enjoyable, or more satisfying to the members. They also understand, however, that sometimes the rules – or the imposition of new rules – have unintended consequences which affect the performance of the organization. To these people fall the unenviable task of trying to achieve long-term goals while working within the scope – if possible – of the existing structure. If they are successful, the rules are usually modified in order to accommodate the new strategies. Masons – indeed, members of any organization – need to realize that both types of people are essential to the health and longevity of the organization, and neither is more important than the other. As Entered Apprentices, we are taught the importance of a proper, true and square foundation to our temples. Those rules and regulations are the foundation of our organization, and it is essential that we understand their importance. Yet, we also understand that we are all human beings, and as such are all different in terms of abilities, skills, and talents with the tools at our disposal.

Friendly competition between the left-brain and right-brain people is necessary for the continued health of the Fraternity; indeed, this is the root of that “noble contention of who best can work and best agree;” but I think that many of us are prone to forget this when we get caught up in overseeing our own very small piece of work that we contribute.

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Picture: The Fairly Odd Parents

Information Overload

June 8, 2008 Leave a comment

I’ve known my Canadian brother Justa Mason for a few years, and I’ve learned that you can always depend upon him to present a responsible opposing viewpoint to virtually any situation. Actually, what I’ve learned is that you simply can’t stop him from presenting an opposing viewpoint. On a recent post about our Past Masters MM Degree in which I described the dramatic additions to our Connecticut version of the Hiramic Legend that some lodges have been known to perform, he asked a particularly pertinent question:

I understand; the MM degree is long, and Friendship Lodge adds another dramatic section to the Connecticut version of the Hiramic Legend, which adds to the memory work. In our state, some lodges choose to add sections to the degree that give more background, which helps the candidates to better appreciate the lessons of the story. A number of them add the same section that we do, and one of my lodges, Frederick-Franklin 14, adds yet another section which serves to give even more insight into the character of Hiram Abiff.

Tom, I will opine here all this additional stuff does wonders for the member who can show off his memory skills.. and very little for the candidate.

What value is all this extra ritual if he can’t absorb any of it? His mind’s on overload to begin with. Shouldn’t stuff like this be done on a separate night where he can let it sink in?

What is the reason behind subjecting him to all kinds of optional ritual on a degree night?

That’s an excellent point. Most of us assume that if some ritual is good, then more is better, and lots more should be great.

Admittedly, I, myself, have pointed out that our candidates sometimes have a difficult time processing the information presented. I’ve even made light of it by writing, in a post about ritual:

The lectures and speeches are filled with symbolism and instruction, and those of us who have put the time into learning them know just how difficult it can be to deliver them with meaning.

All this just for the candidates?

You mean those new guys standing there in the front of the room with the deer-caught-in-the-headlights look? Those guys?

Yeah, those guys. Those guys can barely remember what to do with their hands and feet, and we’re expecting them to absorb some esoteric lesson, which has often been delivered by people who would have not been allowed speaking parts in the local amateur theater group. On the surface, it does sound like a waste of effort. Why go through the trouble to present such material – done well or not – if the candidates aren’t grasping the meaning?

RW Paul (the latest Nutmeg State Mason to start blogging) has another perspective, one which I’ve heard a number of times:

I am on the side that the extra lectures add value, of course I enjoy ritual and often perform some of the extra parts so my opinion is bias.

I have heard this argument in my district as well. But based on the comments by Grand Lodge that there is a lot lousy ritual being done, I think the lodges that still can perform these eleborate degrees should be proud.

I would much rather sit through extra long well performed degree than a short poorly performed degree.

Connecticut, like most US states, uses some variation of the Preston-Webb lectures in which there is a catechismal section (a Q&A section) and two other sections that elaborate on the symbols and allegories of the respective degrees. Each section can be ten to twenty minutes long, and in my experience generally seem to have been memorized by ol’ Brother Joe who retired to Florida a few years ago, so nobody does them anymore. I’ve seen these sections presented on non-degree nights a few times, but as degree nights typically get a larger turnout, it seems like the energy is better spent having them done when the largest number of people can potentially benefit.

Often, arguments – i.e., debatable points – are presented as a matter of extremes. Paul’s last sentence is an example of this, and Justa’s entire message does the same thing, albeit more subtly. I believe that there is a position between those extremes, however.

First of all, I firmly believe that lodges can deliver extra ritual that is good and well-performed. I know it’s true: I’ve seen it done. That said, one could argue that if they can do a good long degree, then they should be able to do a good short degree, too. Yup, I’ve seen that as well. But there are several advantages to a degree ceremony that pulls out all the stops, for both the candidates and for the other lodge members.

As to the candidates, I could point to the importance of total immersion in the initiative experience to create the most overwhelming feelings of awe which may inspire intense thoughts or associations on a deeper level. I suppose that I could also claim that – like the ‘shotgun’ approach – it’s important to throw as much as possible at the candidates in hopes that something will stick. Personally, I think that it’s rare for most lodges to get motivated enough to perform sections of a degree ceremony on off-nights, especially sections that require a certain amount of dramatic talent. It’s easier to present the material when all of the candidates happen to be in the room. Just the preparation for a degree ceremony tends to inspire the lodge members who are actually rehearsing the parts; I think that it would be difficult for some of them to “get psyched” enough to do inspiring work as a program after a regular stated communication.

But there’s something else that we miss: Yes, the candidates will miss some things with a longer degree. Hell, they’re going to miss things with a short degree. But later on they are going to be watching that same degree performed on someone else, and then they’ll have the opportunity to catch a few things that they’d missed.

And why do we assumed that the ritual ceremony is all for the new guys? What about the regular brothers? I’ve noticed that degree nights have a much larger turnout than regular business meetings. Wouldn’t it be nice if the older members had the opportunity to hear that rarely-done piece of ritual? Most of them might miss it if it were done as a “program” in a regular business meeting.

Let me repeat something that I wrote over a year ago in the post referenced above:

Our fraternity has some of the most morally instructive and spiritually inspiring ceremonies, all of which are delivered from memory at no small personal effort. When did we lose the motivation, the initiative to do it for ourselves?

I’m at the age where I attend almost as many funerals as I do weddings; but for each occasion I have lately discovered that during the ceremony I suddenly “hear” something new. Yes, I may have seen the ceremony and heard the same words a dozen times, but each time I hear something that I never noticed before. Why? Maybe a minister or rabbi delivers a line with more or less emphasis, or maybe because of where I am in my own life’s journey some passage that I’ve heard countless times before will strike me with a new insight. Who hasn’t been sitting at a wedding and suddenly turned to their partner upon hearing a line that reminds you of your love? Who hasn’t been to a funeral and been suddenly reminded of your own mortality? That is the purpose of ritual and ceremony – not only to instruct the new members, but to remind us – the old members – of our previous instruction.

Give this some thought: When did our ritual become less inspiring? When did our degrees become merely a pastime between dinner and desserts? When did you stop noticing something “new” in a lecture?

How many of us have substituted listening for hearing?

If the “extra” instruction is presented well – and not just once every several years – then it benefits everyone, new brothers and experienced members alike.

Animal House Lodge

April 28, 2008 Leave a comment

It has been at least a dozen years since Friendship Lodge hosted its own “Lodge at Table,” and even though the members are regular visitors (and helpers!) at other functions, WM Jim Sinclair decided that this was going to be the year that we would have our own.

WM Jim wanted to have some kind of theme to the dinner. Being proud of his Italian ancestry, he wanted to make that part of the theme, but having Italian food? Gosh, don’t Masons already eat enough macaroni and cheese or ziti with sauce? The answer soon became obvious: A Roman theme! And what better to reinforce the theme idea than to ask guests to dress for dinner… in togas ?

So the past week found a dozen different Masons wrestling with old bedsheets and bits of fabric, while the esteemed WB Richie took care of the menu. Ceasar probably didn’t eat pasta, but it’s quite possible that he ate freshly prepared vegetables, eggs, olives, chicken, lamb, pork, cheese and fruit. Oh, and in veritas, he would have had vino as well.

Roman Table Lodge
Click to see the online photo album

When I got there, the food was cooked, and WB Richie was preparing the dishes in his typical artistic fashion. I found the rest of the officers upstairs trying to get dressed, assisted by several wives and girlfriends who had shown up earlier to help in the kitchen. I’m happy to see that in some ways Friendship is becoming a nice hang-out spot for the brothers, and glad that their partners feel at home when they come down.

I noticed that it seemed to take much longer to dress the officers in sheets than it does to dress them in tuxedos. More ironic, too, because there is a hell of a lot less material in a sheet. On the other hand, most of the brethren managed to be fairly well wrapped. Interestingly, both WB Jim and I dressed alike, the both of us wearing tunics with purple togas draped around it. I didn’t actually use a sheet, my outfit was the result of a half hour at the local fabric store and another few minutes of my wife working up a few stitches on her sewing machine. I was amazed at the number of “toga party” hits I found when web searching, and was able to find quite a few tips on wearing togas – almost none of which worked perfectly.

And let me tell you – it’s dang near impossible to drive in one of those things.

Anyway, visiting brothers from Sequin-Level Lodge showed up to join the festivities, so we closed the doors and opened the lodge for the first of what we hope are many more Table Lodge functions.

The District FC Degree

April 6, 2008 Leave a comment

Well, we pulled it off.

On Saturday, March 29, a dozen and half officers from the eight different lodges of District 5 managed to put together a very nice FC degree in the auditorium of the Masonic Health Care Center in Wallingford.

Anyone who has ever seen the bedlam which accompanies a normal degree rehearsal can only imagine what our single rehearsal was like the week before the degree. Well, that’s not fair – since half the people didn’t show up, the confusion in the temple wasn’t anything like it could have been, I’m sure.

On Saturday morning, several of the brothers met at Friendship and piled the officer’s stations, jewels, aprons, and the movable set of stairs into RWB Gary Arseneau’s and Senior Steward Kyle Charette’s pickup trucks. WB Ted Hasty, the poor guy who coordinated this event was already at the auditorium, moving the chairs and rearranging the room. By 10:45 am, everything was in position.

Which was perfect timing for my arrival at 10:55.

Apparently, WB Ted was a bit antsy about the event, and got there very early just to make sure that things were going to work out. He’s obviously my Bizarro world twin: he shows up as early as I tend to show up late. Oh, and I think that Ted has a reaction to the red kryptonite.

After the room was set up we were treated to lunch in the MHA cafeteria. I declined, owing to a traumatic lunchroom incident in my childhood involving spaghetti, soy meatloaf, and canned wildebeest – the details of which are best left to the imagination. But shortly afterwards, several of us took a small tour of the Ashlar Village facility, just up the hill from the hospital. Ashlar Village is a small community having a mixture of independent and assisted living buildings. We took a look into the newly remodeled main building. “Newly remodeled” is perhaps not the best term, and for the last several years it seems to be under a new plan called “constant remodeling.” I think that the facility changes every month. One of the highlights, though, was the small lodge room that has been built on one of the basement areas. It hasn’t been used for any official purpose, however as you can see from the pictures it’s had some unofficial uses.

By the time we got back, other people started showing up: officers from other lodges, several interested onlookers, and eventually, a few brothers from the hospital itself. Personally, I was a little disappointed at the turnout – only eight brothers from the hospital and nearby Ashlar Village ended up visiting. But that disappointment was mitigated by learning that one brother had not been to a lodge in over 40 years, and another had been hoping to see a degree for several years, but had no way to travel. Four of our guests were in wheelchairs, one had a walker, and another had a cane. One brother happened to pass by me heading down the hall and called out “What part are you doing, sonny?” I slowed down to talk to him and keep him company on the walk down. After assuring him that I really did not need to borrow his ritual book (why do some of the old timers read the books while following the degree? Self-appointed quality control inspectors?) he told me not to walk with him because he was shuffling along rather slowly and he didn’t want to hold me up. “I’m pretty sure I’ll make it by one-thirty!” he called after me as he inched along the hallway.

Click here to see the rest of the photos

The degree itself was a pleasant affair, made interesting because we had one candidate from Sequin-Level and one from Unity. Being a Fellowcraft degree, Friendship brought along their stairs. Yes, we have a set of spiral stairs that appear to have been built in the 50s; they disassemble for storage, so we were able to fit them into the back of a pickup and haul them down. Some of the visitors who had never been to Friendship spent some time testing them for strength; but we’ve never had a problem. I fear, however, that we’ll need to make some minor repairs, simply because age and knocking around in a closet every few months is taking it’s toll on them.

The officers performed admirably and the candidates had a very nice degree, made even more memorable by the fact that parts were done by officers from eight different lodges. Even the “Staircase Lecture” was broken up into several parts to allow the lodges to take a more active role.

On the way home, most of us wondered why we didn’t do this kind of thing every year. By the time several of us had driven back to Friendship to help unload the furniture, we’d resolved to have another District degree for the residents of the hospital for next year.

5th District to present FC Degree at Masonic Hospital

March 26, 2008 Leave a comment

For those 19 readers that I have in Connecticut, there will be a Fellowcraft Degree at the Masonic Hospital in Wallingford on Saturday, March 29 at 1:00 pm in the auditorium.

The purpose of the degree will be to allow Masonicare residents who can not normally get out to attend a degree. The various lodges from the 5th District will have different officers take the chairs, and we expect that several candidates from the 5th District will be passed.

We drew names positions out of a hat at a recent Blue Lodge Council (our periodic District meetings), and came up with this mix of positions:

Worshipful Master: Valley Lodge# 36
Senior Warden: Sequin-Level #140
Junior Warden: Unity #148
Senior Deacon: Friendship #33
Junior Deacon: Frederick-Franklin #14
Senior Steward: Silas Deane #147
Junior Steward: Village #29
Chaplain: Evening Star #101
Charge: That egotistical District Lecturer.

Several of the lectures are going to be split up amongst various other officers in order to have a good representation of the lodges in the 5th District. The degree is being coordinated by the already overworked Ted Hasty, the Associate Grand Marshal for the northern part of our district. Anyone who remembers that all lodges have their own little quirks and “traditions” can well imagine the amount of aspirin that WB Ted is going to need in order to coordinate (and accommodate) eight separate lodges.

Some of us will be showing up at the hospital at 10:00 am in order to transform the auditorium into something that resembles a lodge room. Hope to see you there!
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