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Always Remember Rule One

August 25, 2006 5 comments

A priest was in charge of the garden within a famous Zen temple. He had been given the job because he loved the flowers, shrubs, and trees. Next to the temple there was another, smaller temple where there lived a very old Zen master. One day, when the priest was expecting some special guests, he took extra care in tending to the garden. He pulled the weeds, trimmed the shrubs, combed the moss, and spent a long time meticulously raking up and carefully arranging all the dry autumn leaves. As he worked, the old master watched him with interest from across the wall that separated the temples.

When he had finished, the priest stood back to admire his work. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he called out to the old master. “Yes,” replied the old man, “but there is something missing. Help me over this wall and I’ll put it right for you.”

After hesitating, the priest lifted the old fellow over and set him down. Slowly, the master walked to the tree near the center of the garden, grabbed it by the trunk, and shook it. Leaves showered down all over the garden. “There,” said the old man, “you can put me back now.”
Zen Stories, “Nature’s Beauty”

So, summer is almost over and in getting ready for the remaining part of the year I was leafing through my ritual book when out fell a paper with three names on it. It took me a moment to figure out why these names were on a paper.

They were the names of the three young men that I initiated the first time I sat in the East.

It was about two years ago when, during a phone call with the “New Age” Dave, the Worshipful Master of Friendship Lodge at the time, he asked who I had lined up for which positions in the upcoming Entered Apprentice degree. Momentarily panicked, I replied that I thought he, as the WM, was the one that scheduled all that. Nope, that was all mine, he explained. Start to finish, soup to nuts, A to Z. I tactfully mentioned that I’d wished he’d clued me in on this sooner, then I hung up and went to work.

I really should have known better. Dave and I are long-time friends, and I should have remembered that Dave is a “big-picture guy”, as I like to call him. Not really much for details, though…

Lodges have different ways to prepare the upcoming WM for his duties. At Friendship, we typically have two sets of degrees: one set in late winter/early spring and the other in the fall. In the fall, the Junior Warden takes the East for the EA degree and later, the Senior Warden takes the big chair for the Fellowcraft degree. When you consider that at some point we’ll have a Past Master’s degree, then it seems like the WM hardly has to do anything at all!

Yeah, right.

Since I had already been studying, I made the phone calls to make sure that the rest of the guys were studying, too. Not only is the WM spot taken by another officer, but we usually move every officer up one chair to prep them for the next year. Our degree was scheduled for the second meeting in September (we meet twice a month on the first and third Wednesdays), and all of the officers were prepared, or at least assured me that they would be prepared in time.

Friendship Lodge is crazy. In a time when many lodges can’t fill the officer’s chairs, and when some WMs need to stay in the East for two or three years until the rest of the line is “seasoned”, our lodge usually has a complete line of officers, none of which are Past Masters. While it happened that I skipped three chairs, it appears that it was an anomaly; we have not had to recycle a PM since 1978.

But that’s not why we’re crazy. We’re crazy because at any time, out of the seven officers in the line, five of them will really, really enjoy doing the degree ritual. I’m one of them. Seriously, if you had told me five or six years ago that I’d be hamming it up with archaic British turns of phrase, I’d ask what you were smoking. But now, once I get through memorizing the words I start working on my delivery. I stand up, walk around, wave my arms, modulate my voice… in short, I try to get into the mindset of a WM from the 1700s trying to make an impression of the seriousness and solemnity of the degree on a nervous candidate in the back upper room of some old inn. And I’m certainly not the only one in lodge who does this. We have not one, but two rehearsals for every degree, and we rehearse from the opening to the closing. Crazy, I’m telling you.

The upcoming EA degree was special because the Senior Deacon was bringing in one of his sons, and the Junior Deacon was bringing in his younger brother. I had escorted the JD around for his own EA degree, and I was happy to have a part in bringing his brother into the lodge as well. The JD and SD, each taking the part of the next station, were going to join me at the altar for the grippy part. The Stewards had rehearsed the First Section Lecture (we added some floor work to make it more interesting and meaningful). One brother, a Senior DeMolay, was going to take the Marshal’s chair and deliver the charge at the end of the evening.

Yup, we’re all set.

A few of the guys missed the first rehearsal; no biggie. The second rehearsal was great, even with a lot of fooling around. Admittedly, we goof off a bit in rehearsal, in part because we pretty much know what we’re doing, and while we want to take it seriously, we also want to have fun with it. So a couple of days before the degree we’re having a Trowel Club meeting (other lodges have similar groups with different names; Craftsmen’s Club, etc.), and the young Marshal-to-be asks if I’m sure I want him to do the charge. Of course I do; he assured me that he did particularly well at memorizing DeMolay ritual, and that he’d have no problem getting the EA charge down. Well, seems that he’d been working a lot and really hadn’t put the time into it that he should have. I told him that I had every confidence in him, and that he still had a couple of days, so we wouldn’t worry about it. He thought about it for a moment and agreed that he should be able to make a good job of it. And since I was already in a dither over my own part, I promptly forgot about it.

A couple of days later, it’s not a rehearsal anymore. I’d taken half a day off from work just to get calmed down and into the correct mindset. Dinner was great, not that I could eat anything (even now I still get nervous before meetings and won’t eat until afterwards). The degree itself was great; the first half moved along smoothly as everyone did everything right on cue, including an optional bit that the SW and the Deacons added in without telling me first – just because they wanted to impress me. The obligations came off without a hitch, and we soon took a break. The candidates were suitably impressed, and when we came back to labor the officers did a fine job with the new version of the lectures. I was proud of the work of the evening, it seemed that I’d never seen any degree come off so well.

Then the Marshal got up to do the charge. He was sweating profusely. He faced the candidates, got through a few sentences, and paused for a prompt. Big deal, right? Well, it was that night; especially impressive because it was the first time in their respective spots, the degree had come off with only one or two prompts, at least up until that point. The Marshal, aware of this, got even more nervous. And paused. Paused again. And again. And again. When he finally finished, you could almost see the huge weight falling from his shoulders, although he looked horribly downcast as he returned to his chair.

We ended the degree on a high note, with lots of hand shaking and back slapping and high-fiving, and we all went downstairs for coffee and, that is, except for me and a PM that I considered to be a mentor. Richie told me not to worry about it, and pointed out that the Marshal had learned a lesson and would never again be so unprepared; indeed, he does very well, and is now serving as the Junior Steward, and does a fantastic job as a DeMolay advisor. Later, the candidates all told me how “believable” the degree was, and how much they enjoyed it, and how impressed they were. Visitors congratulated our work, seemingly impressed that everyone was serving in a different chair. I went home, proud of the fantastic job that they did, and proud of myself as well.

Now, you might think that this is a lesson to young officers to make sure that they study up. Yeah, sure, if you want. And if my JS is reading this, believe me; I’m not trying to make you feel badly or relive a bad moment. That’s not the point here.

No, this is not a lesson for the junior officers. This is a lesson for the Worshipful Masters out there.

See, the Marshal warned me that he might not have it down. He told me that he thought he’d be able to memorize it in a few days because of his DeMolay background, but apparently it just didn’t come together for him. He came to me two days beforehand, and although he reassured me that he’d be okay, I completely ignored Rule Two:

Always have a Plan “B”.

I should have contacted a PM to ask if they could brush up “just in case”. I should have offered to work more closely with the Marshal. I should have done something other than what I’d done, which was to smile and be supportive and to hope for the best.

As the Master of the lodge, you have a responsibility bordering on the sacred to make certain that the candidate gets the absolute best degree work possible. That means not just your own command of ritual, but using your best managerial skills to make sure that everyone else is going to work to the best of their capacity as well. Especially for an EA Degree; it is the first exposure to the mysteries of Freemasonry that a brother will have, and it should be one of the most impressive, solemn and thought-provoking experiences that he will remember for years to come.

Okay, it was my first time in the East. The candidates were impressed, and things ended well. Besides, nothing is perfect, and we need these little bumps in the road to allow us to appreciate the good parts of life’s highway, right? I’d even forgotten about it until that bit of paper fell out of my book the other day, but even with only four months of meetings left in my year, Rule Two is still a lesson worth remembering.

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Echoes in the Masonary

July 11, 2006 2 comments

When I started this blog… well, when I tried to start this blog last fall, it was my intention to write a little bit about the things that I was doing during my year as Master of Friendship Lodge in Southington, Connecticut. After a number of false starts, I finally got this off the ground, and heading in what I think is a good direction. I’ve decided that I want to post original content, that is, my own thoughts and ramblings. There are scads of great Masonic resources out in cyberspace, and I certainly don’t need to duplicate them, nor do I have the time or resources to research and publish the way that some of the more prolific authors do.

I’ve noticed that as I move from Usenet to the blogosphere, my blogroll – the list of other Masonic blogs that I read and respond to on a regular basis – is gradually increasing. One of the interesting things about blogging is that when someone on your blogroll “discovers” a new site, blog, or item of interest, it’s only a matter of time before you’re checking it out yourself… and quite possibly adding it to your own list.

That said, I thought it was a wonderful coincidence when Masonic pundit Tim Bryce published this essay for Masters halfway through their year in the East, nicely coinciding with my own labored ruminations. Tim’s article is less wordy and more useful than mine, and I urge both Masters and upcoming Wardens to check it out.

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Master of my Domain

July 6, 2006 11 comments

I’ve never quite understood why most lodges in Connecticut – indeed, in New England – close down for a couple of months in the summer. This is generally – and erroneously – referred to as “going dark”, an expression that should only be applied to lodges that actually give up their charter and close for good. I’m sure that there was some Yankee economy involved in this, but nobody has been able to explain it to me.

But getting ready for the summer break was the reason that Dave (the best SW east of the Mississippi), and I were sitting in the lodge after our St. John’s Day observance, eating donuts, drinking coffee, and speculating on the low turnout of brothers for the service at the historic First Congregational Church on the town green across the street from our lodge building. Graduation parties, involvement with other activities, sleeping late all came up… and suddenly, a question that had been napping fitfully in the back of my brain woke up, stretched a bit, and popped into the forefront of my thought processes.

Did I, um, remember to announce the event in the first place?

For many of us, being the Master of the lodge is our first time in a managerial position, and while we’ve prepared ourselves by honing our ritual work for our new position, learning the proper introduction for the seemingly endless titles of Grand Lodge officers, and getting the phone number of the Grand Lodge secretary, most of us aren’t prepared for the real secret of the Master’s chair: Almost none of the things that were important last year will apply to you this year. That said, you’d think that those of us with years of managerial experience would sail through the year with nary a slip, right?

At this point, perhaps I should further add to my embarrassment and mention that I actually own a business. So much for my own managerial skills. The fact that we make money is a testament to the well-organized and hard-working people who keep me on task. I’ll be the first to admit (albeit only by a slim margin) that “organized” is not one of the words usually used to describe me. This is evident when one sees the number of people each day who keep asking me if I’ve called this person or filled out that form. This is also evident because I see that I’ve gotten way off track from where I was going with this essay.

Anyway, Dave, who is finally getting a little nervous about next year, started talking about some of the projects and plans that he’d like to accomplish, and in listening to him I began to feel a little disappointed in myself for not carrying out all of the plans that I began outlining last year at this time; moreso because he mentioned several of the same things that I had wanted to do, myself.

On the way home I reflected on how things seemed to start going wrong right from the second meeting. Maybe not wrong so much as the normal flubs and fluffs of everyday life seemed to get in the way. I’d planned an EA degree for the second meeting in February, but the candidates hadn’t been available for investigation, which meant that we couldn’t vote in time, and the entire degree series ended up getting pushed out a month. That messed up the scheduling of certain other programs for other nights – not necessarily a bad thing, but one of the goals I had set was to have something interesting at most, if not all of the meetings. I wrote about the several changes of schedule in order to have the MM degree at a lodge halfway across the state; the last meeting before we close for the summer is generally the Awards Night (Ah! That explains why I had the bad mojo!).

But I’ve got the summer off, so now isn’t the time to dwell on what didn’t go right – it’s time to look forward to 4 more months (4 being a number with deep Masonic significance), which for the most part are already programmed. An EA in mid-September, FC in mid-October, the Past Masters MM in mid-November, then elections and the annual meeting in December. We have a dinner scheduled for one of the nights, so that leaves only 2 or 3 “open” meeting nights.

Gosh, re-reading that makes it seem like the year is pretty much over!

I’m not upset that things didn’t go as planned; part of being a grown-up is that we understand that some things are simply out of our control, and we learn to adapt to new situations. On one night when plans fell through a couple of days before the meeting, a brother – one of the several engineers in our lodge – created a set of button controlled lights and we had a Masonic Jeopardy game. Another night, when we should have been having our first EA degree, we ended up with a “mini” awards night, at which a brother presented something to the lodge, and I presented several awards that hadn’t arrived in time for the previous WM to present.

And of course, some things did go well, perhaps even better than planned. We had a St. Patrick’s dinner, which was served by the Rainbow chapter that we sponsor. We had a Cinco de Mayo night, and while I did not wear a sombrero, we did have a visit from a newspaper reporter that was looking to do a story on the local fraternal and civic groups. We gave him so much information that he ended up writing the entire article just on our lodge. And although a local event was rained out, the next night a group of us went to see “The DaVinci Code” as a group – meeting first for some pizza to get us into the mood (The 8 triangular slices being of deep-dish Masonic significance, you understand).

More importantly, I think, is that the lodge overall seems to be functioning smoothly. Officers and members seem to enjoy coming to lodge and attendance seems to increase a bit with each meeting. I never lack for volunteers when I ask for committees to investigate new candidates, plan projects, or take a degree part. In fact, we’ve never had a last minute no-show; the couple of times that an officer thought he’d have a problem, they’d made arrangements with someone else to keep things covered. And after meetings, guys and visitors are always hanging around for hours afterward, talking about Masonry, computers, gossiping, and generally enjoying themselves.

Hmm. The lodge seems to be having fun. That can’t be such a bad thing, right? So I’m going to stop worrying about the plans that didn’t materialize and about the programs that didn’t work. I’ve got two months in which I can take stock of what went right, and to fine tune my plans for the fall.

Now, where the hell did I leave my Palm Pilot?

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What Would Hiram Do?

July 3, 2006 17 comments

I was reading some of the other bloggers, and two recent posts jumped out at me because they lead to a similar issue. In the blog Within Due Bounds, blogger J. Roberts admits to having been a rude driver, and gives a few thoughts on acting “Masonically”. In The Burning Taper, “Widow’s Son” mentions a humorously titled post on yet another blog, and is called to task for it when someone asks “What does that have to do with Masonry?” WS answers that “A True Mason can not compartmentalize his life…” These posts led me to revisit a topic that I wonder about occasionally.

As Masons, can we ever really be “off duty”?

I’m not talking about our obligations to respect the laws of our Grand Lodge or to not reveal the secret entrance to the sub-levels of the Denver Airport complex. I’m talking about those rough edges on our personal ashlars and whether or not we choose to smooth them a bit every day, or to ignore them and hope that years of erosion and other frictions will do it for us.

Elsewhere I’ve mentioned that I’ve noticed small changes in the way I act and react to people and situations. I’m sure that part of this is just plain old “growing up”, something one would hope that any man of for(*cough* *cough*)ght would have been doing. But I’m aware of this on another level as well, not just an awareness that I’m more mature, but a meta-awareness that I often check my actions and reactions against some ideal that I’ve begun to internalize. That is to say, I now have an “awareness” that I am a Freemason, and I find that this adds a layer of conditions against which I monitor myself. But here’s the difficult part for me to answer: Am I actually monitoring myself as myself, or am I monitoring myself against some blueprint that is not actually real?

Yes, I’ve been reading too much Zen lately, why do you ask?

At some point, I started thinking to myself that because I had such a high regard for our institution that I wanted to be the best person possible, if simply to not bring dishonor to the fraternity. Back when I joined, that was actually a motivation for many of the things that I did, in fact, perhaps because joining was a new thing for me, and at the time I didn’t feel that I had much to else offer. Now, though, I rarely think about it – at least, not in the sense that I say to myself “Oh, I’d better not do that, I’m a Mason now.” I don’t think about it – at least, I don’t think I think about it – because I’m too busy simply working to make myself a better person to worry about what I’m supposed to be doing on behalf of the fraternity – if anything.

Back on 2003, our Grand Master at the time, the Most Worshipful “Chip” presented all of the lodges in Conn with a 3/4 length mirror, upon which were stenciled at the top: “Take a look at yourself – YOU are someone’s impression of Masonry.” Those so inclined to pause at those mirrors for a moment of reflection would often make the expected little jokes, but used to I wonder how many men walked away honestly contemplating the impressions that their attitudes, actions, and demeanors have made on people – family, friends, cow-orkers, and those people who really didn’t know anything about them except that they wear the S&C logo decoder rings.

The mirrors also made me wonder about how we judge our own impressions of ourselves. Some of us join the Craft because we like the idea of being historically associated with famous historical persons. Others joined because of family members, and others to make business or social contacts, or because of the esoteric ideals. When men with those motivations pause for reflection, do they judge themselves by the number of contacts they’ve made, or by the number of books about arcana that they’ve read?

More importantly, though, I now realize that maybe what I need to do is to define what “Masonry” is to me, before I can worry about what kind of impression I’m making on somebody else.

Did you ever have one of those days…

June 23, 2006 2 comments

… when it started off badly and then kept going downhill?

(Note: An edited version of one of my Usenet postings from earlier this month)

So, last night was Awards Night at Friendship #33. Unfortunately, I was working late, so I changed into my tux at the office and got to the meeting not long before opening. It being June, our Stewards had a picnic-themed dinner – hot dogs, burgers, slaw, etc. It being New England, it rained. Okay, stuff happens, right? But hey – at least there were no ants đŸ˜‰

We had 2 50-year members to receive pins, and I found out at the last minute that neither would be attending. Okay, stuff happens, right? I had 2 other awards, one of which was going to our District Deputy. Where was the DD? Uh… I mentioned it to him a month previous, but had forgotten to follow up to remind him. Someone remembered that there was a big Shrine thing going on that night, and he’s very active there. Okay, I understand – I probably should have called him beforehand just to make sure.

So we head upstairs, and I see that our new Fellow Craft member is with us. My lodge being comprised of some really sharp guys, no less than half a dozen people reminded me of this fact. Since we can conduct business on any degree in Conn, a couple of PMs took me aside to make sure that I open on the “correct” (i.e., FC degree). So, 7:30 rolls around and I rap the gavel, and throw everyone for a loop when I inform the Senior Warden that we would be opening on the EA degree. So right away, half the lodge, being in the mindset to open on the FC, is rolling their eyes at me, but since we’re all excellent ritualists, no problemo, right? No-o-o-o, of course not – not for anyone else except, apparently, for me. Partway into the opening I switch into autopilot and go from one degree to another. Hey, stuff happens, right?

I’d like to say that having made a few screw-ups, I was now alert and everything went smoothly. I’d really like to say that, but unfortunately, it didn’t stop there.

My Senior Deacon catches my bad mojo and suddenly forgets which on chapter to open the book, and then has a memory core malfunction and forgets which way to place the S&C – EA? FC? He finishes, and we manage to continue without much more going wrong, for oh, maybe a full minute.

Did I mention that the Grand Marshall and the DD and AGM from the other half of our district were waiting outside the door to be received formally?

Our district has 2 sections, A & B. The DD to receive the award is from our lodge, but the other guy was just installed, and hadn’t been down to Friendship in years, and was now happy to be here officially. He’s a really nice guy, and I keep running into him at different functions, with me always joking that he should come down to Friendship to see how ritual should be in our district. And our Grand Marshall out in the anteroom had been telling him how Friendship, even though a small lodge, is one of the best ritual lodges in the state, and how I and my officers have run nearly flawless degrees, etc, etc.

I can probably stop writing now, because you can just see where this is going, right?

My SD, who was prepared enough to write down the names and titles of the visitors, had run into the Grand Marshal’s wife earlier who informed him – nay, made him promise – to introduce him with the appellation “Billy Bob”. So he brings in the white-jacketed, purple-aproned visitors, and introduces the Grand Marshal. I’m now realizing that there may not be any way to salvage my reputation, so I simply burst into laughter. I invite my visitors up to the east to introduce them to the lodge. The DD and AGM decline to sit with me, and take a seat on the sidelines for the evening’s entertainment. The Grand Marshal sits next to me, so I offer – no, more like plead with him to take the gavel, but he declines – not having seen the debacle during the opening and not believing that we had anything less than stellar work.

So from there, my bad mojo infects the Senior Warden, where it then passes over to the Secretary – who had mixed up the minutes from the last meeting with the ones previous to that, which confuses everyone. We straighten that out and repair the minutes. He then brings up a piece of business, to which a motion is made and seconded, and I rap the gavel to pass it and then ask him to go onto the next item.

Grand Marshal: “Uh… Worshipful, don’t you think we should vote on that?”
Me: (remembering that I’m not at work) Doh!

Hey, stuff happens, right?

So the Secretary gets flustered and forgets to tell me that even though the 50 year guys didn’t show up, that there was a 40 year guy on the sidelines. Of course, when we ordered the pins, they didn’t mail *that* one anyway.

But we did vote on a new candidate, someone with a name that had way too many consonants for my cultural background, and I mangled his name horribly. Normally I’d get together with the Secretary before the meeting to go over this stuff, but working late and getting there just before the meeting messed that up. But stuff happens, right? So the bad mojo comes back to me for a couple of small slips – nothing major, but now the source of much entertainment to everyone.

Oh, did I mention that I serve on the Grand Lodge Committee for Masonic Education? Well, did I mention that a new committee member decided to drop in on my lodge that night? Yup, of all nights, he just had to come for a visit since he had heard so much about the great degree work that we do.

So, I’m thinking that it can’t get any worse, and introduce him by name – which I did not mangle. I’m sure he’d have felt a bit more honored, though, if I had gotten his lodge correct. He mentions that he’s glad to have met me, having heard so much about both me and Friendship from other people in the district. He smiles and says something about our “off night”, but adds “At least you’re having a good time here – I love the floor show.”

Ouch.

Anyway, I somehow manage to get through the rest of the meeting without causing the roof to cave in or lightning to strike the building. More amazingly, none of the PMs gave me the evil eye or threw themselves on the floor. Sensing an opportunity to recover a shred of dignity, I turn to the Grand Marshal and ask if he would like to close the meeting. He takes the gavel, and proceeds to close. All goes well, until we get to a little section right after the closing prayer. The Grand Marshal, apparently the new recipient of the bad mojo that had been making it’s way around the lodge room, suddenly trips over the words, tries to restart, then asks the Chaplain for a prompt. The Chaplain (an excellent ritualist and walking encyclopedia of Masonic protocol) suddenly draws a blank. There were about 2 seconds that lasted for 5 minutes, and I stepped in and finished the closing. Small comfort, but it was about the only thing I seemed to do right at all last night. So, the DD thanked me for the entertaining evening , as did a few of the visiting brothers.

But hey – stuff happens, right?

The thing that worries me, though, is that everyone came up to me and said that it was one of the most fun meetings we’ve had all year.

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