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Points Well Made

March 6, 2009 4 comments

“You’re wearing your ring the wrong way, you know.”

The Past Master tried to be nonchalant, but the way he slightly emphasized the “you know” implied that he didn’t actually think that I did know, and he was going to make sure that I knew I didn’t know.

You know how some people are.

“That’s odd,” I replied, “I was sure it was on correctly when I left the house.”

I shifted the glass of Jameson’s to my left hand and held my up my right,  wriggling my fingers.

“Yeah, see?” I pointed out. “The big part of the ring is on the outside and the the skinny part is on the inside. It would really be uncomfortable the other way.”

To his credit, he didn’t take the bait, being more interested in pointing out my mistake.

“No, you’re wearing it with the points out. You should be wearing it with the points in.”

“In where?”

“Pointing in, toward you,” he said.

I curled my fingers and moved my hand around a bit. “Aren’t they pointing in now?”

“No, I mean pointing in on your finger.” He was obviously being very patient with me. “The points on the compasses should be pointing up your finger to your hand, back to you.”

“What? Why’s that?”

“Because you’re not a Past Master, that’s why.”

He sipped his beer and gave me a knowing look. I swirled the glass of Irish whiskey, hearing the tiny cubes tinkle in the glass.

“I don’t remember that being in the ritual monitor,” I said.

“There are lots of things about Masonry that aren’t written down,” he replied. “You just have to learn them the hard way.”

He took another sip of his beer.  “Do you always wear it that way?”

“Well, maybe,” I replied. “I hadn’t really thought much about it until now.”

“I’m surprised that nobody else has mentioned it before,” he said. “I guess I just must be more observant.”

“What possible difference could it make?” I asked “It’s only a ring.”

“It’s the symbolism,” he explained, “a only a Master can give light; you have only received it.”

“I’m pretty sure that the flashlight is the working tool of one of the other degrees.”

“Now you’re just being a Mr. Smarty Pants. The Worshipful Master gives light during the degrees. You, however, haven’t done that; you should wear your ring with the points in, the way you saw them on the altar.”

“Points in?”

“Yes. Look, how were the points arranged when you were brought to light?”

“The same way they always are,” I replied.

“Exactly – with you looking up at them.”

“Uhh… up?”

“Right. So, when the ring is on your finger, the points should be arranged the same way as when you first saw them, to remind you of that experience.”

“Unless I’ve given light, right?”

“Yes, now you’re getting it.”

I politely declined his offer of a little cigar, and pulled out my own pack of cigarettes. I struck my lighter,  a small butane novelty, and offered it to him. We stood for a few moments, enjoying the cool evening on the back stairs.

“I don’t suppose that counts as ‘giving light’, does it?”

He shook his head. “No, and you’re being a Mr. Smarty Pants again.”

“I’m just trying to be clear on this,” I explained. I took another sip of my Irish whiskey and thought for a moment. “I sort of get the symbolism – sort of. But, as a Junior Warden, though, I’ve done degree work. I’ve initiated new brothers. That sounds like I’ve given light – at least, partially.”

He paused for a bit, and then answered. “No, that doesn’t count.”

He didn’t seem compelled to explain why, so I asked him.

“Because, only the Master can give light.”

“But I was in the chair doing the work.”

“Yes, but you weren’t the Master.”

“But I was doing the work of the Master.”

“That may be, but you were not the actual Master.”

“So, are you saying that those new brothers aren’t real Masons?”

“Hmm?”

“Because the candidates certainly didn’t notice the difference.” I went on, “But if I didn’t actually give any light, and if I follow what you’re saying, then they must not actually be Masons. It would really be a bad thing if all of those lodges that have the Wardens do degree work turn out to not actually be initiating Masons. Why, half the members in this district are probably invalid, if that’s the case.”

He thought for a moment. “No, that’s not right. You did it with the permission of the Master, so you were acting through him.”

I conceded, but then asked “So, what if the master called out sick that night? I’d still have been doing the work, right? Would that mean that…”

“No, you’re purposely making this difficult,” he pointed out. “Only the Master gives light, so only he is entitled to wear his ring with the points out,” he insisted. “It’s symbolic.”

“And we’re big on symbols around here, I’ve noticed.”

“Right.” He took another sip of beer. “Besides, when you go around with the points out, pretty much anybody can see them.

“Well, it is a ring…”

“Yes, but it’s almost like you’re advertising that you’re a Mason.”

“Wait, what?”

“You’re supposed to be keeping the secrets of Masonry, right? You don’t go blabbing it all over, right? You do know that we used to call ourselves ‘The Quiet Fraternity’, right?”

“Yes, that was one of the things that I liked when I was reading about the fraternity; the lack of blatant self-promotion.”

“Exactly so,” he answered. “When you have your points out, it makes it easy for anybody to notice them. That’s why I said, it’s almost like you’re advertising that you’re a Mason.”

“Advertising?”

He nodded. “Like you’re showing off, or something.”

“Oh, I get it,” I replied, “We are quiet and internally directed because we’re making ourselves better men; so advertising our affiliation with our rings makes it look like we simply joined for the sake of joining.”

Ne nodded again. “Now you understand,” he declared, “I’m glad we had this little chat.”

He finished the rest of his beer and moved toward the door.

“Umm, one thing,” I said.

“Yes?”

I motioned at the two dozen or so cars in the parking lot, almost all of which were sporting decals with the logos of Blue Lodge, York Rite, or the Shrine. Several of them also had the now familiar “2B1 Ask 1” bumper stickers.

“Why do you suppose it is that my small, discreet ring is ‘advertising’, but all of those decals, badges, and bumper stickers are simply showing pride in membership?”

The old Past Master stubbed out his cigar, and turned toward the door. “Some people,” he snorted, “just don’t get the point, even when you poke them with it.”

From EA to WB

January 5, 2009 Leave a comment

It’s the joyous season here in Connecticut… no, not the season that you’re thinking of; that’s passed already. Sweaters and blenders have been returned, the last of the turkey, ham, or goose has been eaten, and there are more needles on the carpet than on the tree. No, as the Masonic year generally coincides with the calendar year (give or take a month, depending upon the lodge), it’s now Installation season. Out with the old and in with the new!

The Installations of officers are often semi-public events here in Connecticut. I can hear some of our brethren in other areas gasping for breath, but really, now that we’ve pretty much shown everything on the History Channel and You-Tube, why is this an issue anymore? In my area, the “secrets of the chair” are imparted several weeks beforehand, which obviates one of the needs to hold an Installation in a tyled lodge. Just before the Installation ceremony itself, the lodge is tyled and the outgoing Master opens the lodge for the last time and then goes to Refreshment. The then fun begins, and afterward, the new Master closes the lodge.

Some members still prefer a closed ceremony, but I submit that it’s a great way for a man to introduce his friends and family to his lodge; if only to show that his brothers and fellow members are a great bunch of guys to work with. Indeed, most new Masters are rather proud to have been elected to lead a lodge, and it’s quite natural for them to want to show it off. Accordingly, Installations – at least for those who have not done it several times over – are often held on a weekend and a large reception party is held afterward.

I was Master in 2006, which means that I’ve been out of an office for almost as long as I’ve held an office. This makes me “a moss-backed, old turtle” according to some members of Friendship Lodge, several of whom had better be careful or I’ll smash their tail lights with my walker. But having been out of office for a while is giving me some interesting perspectives on why Past Masters develop the not-totally-undeserved reputation that invariably follows them. These new guys are, well, new, dammit! They do things differently than I did. I worked hard at changing some of the old, boring, inefficient things that Masters before me had done, and now, these upstarts come along and change things that I did.

And good for them! Friendship is an active lodge with a lot of younger members who are generally happy to participate. For years now, we’ve had every officer’s chair filled, and have often had a backlog of people waiting to get into the officer’s line. I can’t imagine that people around here are interested because we keep doing the same old thing all the time.

Worshipful Brother Eric

Eric 2009

Some time between Christmas and New Year, we installed Brother – Worshipful Brother Eric into the big chair. I’m very proud of WB Eric. He is one of the first people that I, as a new officer, helped to conduct around the lodge. Now, understand that I’m not a particularly large guy. When I met Eric, he was a very young, very nervous, and very big guy. My job was to guide him through his initiation, which involved wrestling him around the small lodge room, and trying to keep a grip on his arm through the copious amounts of sweat. Think “tugboat” and “ocean liner”, and you’ve got the picture.

Anyway, after having my tux cleaned, Eric and I became friendly. It’s been a pleasure to see him go from being nervous and shy, to becoming a planner and organizer, and someone who can talk about his goals and aspirations.  When I was a Junior Warden, Eric was at my right hand, and remained there until I was out of the East, passing from Senior Steward to Junior Deacon, to Senior Deacon. Each year, each position, saw a little growth and maturity, and I’ve been proud of him ever since.

Look well the the East, Worshipful Eric. I’m sure that you’ll do a great job.

Q: How many Past Masters does it take to change a light bulb?

December 16, 2008 Leave a comment

A1: The lights never went out in my year!
A2: Hey, my grandfather donated that light bulb!
A3: Why should we change it? It always worked before.
A4: Light bulb? In my year, all we had were candles.

Once a year, on the second Tuesday of December, the Past Masters of Friendship Lodge No. 33, along with the Past Masters of Harmony No. 20 of New Britain (which merged with Friendship back in the 1990s), and any other Past Master that happens to be within asking range gather together for an evening of complaining conviviality and story-telling, and of course, eating and drinking.

Friendship Lodge
Past Master’s Dinner 2008

Like many new Masons, I figured that all lodges were like Friendship, and I had some eye-opening moments when I started visiting and really watching what happens in some other lodges. In Friendship Lodge, those “old Past Masters” do not sit around the lodge hemming and harrumphing, complaining about the state of ritual or how things were done “back in my year.” And we are very fortunate in that we only “repeat” a Past Master through the chairs about once every 25 or 30 years – a fact to which I can attest, having checked the dates once.

Oh, there’s no question that some of our PMs are active. Sometimes one will stay on as a Chaplain, and we always have them serving as a Treasurer and Secretary. Our PMs run the Trowel Club picnics and several other functions. The most recent PM is usually the Trowel Club President, and will take charge of the Past Master degree (usually a MM degree held in the fall). And the next to last PM gets stuck running the annual Past Master’s Dinner.

Because our lodge is active, we do like to joke that the PMs are no longer needed; at each annual dinner, we award the outgoing WM with a new name tag which he is to wear after the next WM is installed. It symbolizes the esteem in which he will be held as a new PM.

It’s a Friendship Lodge badge, with the name section left blank. His new title becomes “Worshipful Nobody.”

Yes, of course it’s a joke – but there is a certain poignancy to this. For one thing, it takes several months just to get used to people addressing you as “Worshipful;” whenever I heard that title, I kept looking around for somebody else. For another thing, many of us who have served as the WM of a lodge – especially an active lodge like ours – you have a very full year, what with all the programs, meetings, visiting, degrees, dinners, and the constant phone calls and emails from people who need to check in, ask an opinion, get permission, or ask questions. You are the center of attention, most of it good, for an entire year – generally starting about 10 minutes after your installation ceremony. People look to you and look up to you for twelve solid, non-stop months.

And then, suddenly, it all stops.

I can well understand that some PMs may try to recapture a bit of that sense of importance by nitpicking ritual, or by reminding people of the customs and traditions which they, the PMs observed. In lodges that do not have a constant inflow of new officers, PMs always have an opportunity to fill in a chair, but in active lodges, I wonder how many PMs simply drop out of sight after a few years, from feeling as if they they have nothing further to contribute?

… gang aft awry

November 23, 2008 Leave a comment

Sometimes when you look at something on paper, you’re completely convinced that it’s going to be a disaster, but when you actually have the experience, it turns out to have gone rather well.

On Sunday night, WB Jim calls me up. “You know that Master Mason degree that we’re helping with over at Unity 148 on Tuesday? We’ve got a problem. I need you to be King Solomon.”

Oh man. I’ve got less than 48 hours to prepare, and I’ve got a pretty heavy workload for the next couple of days, plus a visitation the night before. Was I supposed to study in my sleep? Ah, but such is the life in any Masonic lodge, and we are always prepared for these small incidents when real life interferes with what we would like to do, right?

Over the next two days, it got even better. There’s no rehearsal, and we need a Senior Warden, too. Oh, and we can’t get together all of the Craftsmen that we need. And, uh, several of the candidates aren’t going to make it.

Man, could it get any worse?

By the time Tuesday night came around, I learned even more. I was expected to serve as Worshipful Master from after refreshment, through the drama, and then into the closing. This was a Past Master’s night, and some of the PMs hadn’t been to lodge in over 10 years. And in addition to the lodge we were helping, we had brothers from three or four other lodges filling in – all of which had their own little customs and ways of doing things, and we had about 15 minutes to get ourselves ironed out.

Yeah, that’s what I thought, too, at first.

Fortunately, the Craftsmen – what few we had – were headed up by WB Frank of Frederick-Franklin 14, arguably one of the best ritual lodges in the area. WB Frank and I took a few minutes to go over some details, and since we’d worked together in the past, it was just a matter of communication. The SW, Bro. Doug, came from Silas Deane 147, and we only needed a few minutes to fill him in. I had thought that the SD was to be WB Jim from my own lodge, for part of the degree, but ended up being RW Gary, Grand SD and GL officer in this district, who seemed rather unfazed by the confusion in the temple.

The lodge opened, and it was interesting to see the older Past Masters of this lodge in action. If this were a Carl Claudy story, I’d be mentioning how they took over the room and how things moved along flawlessly, and how impressive it was to watch Past Masters at work. However, anybody who has read this blog knows that I’m only mentioned in the same sentence as Claudy when at least one of the other expressions in that sentence is “in contrast to.” There were some stumbles and memory lapses, to be sure, and I think that some of that could have been prevented by a rehearsal. But after a few minutes to warm up, most of the PMs managed to get into gear, and the degree moved along well- all the more impressive knowing that some of these men had not done this in years.

Before long, it was time for refreshment and the Hiramic drama.

Personally, I really hate not being well rehearsed and well prepared for degree work. Part of is it a desire to make a good impression on the candidates, and part of it (perhaps the bigger part, if I’m being honest with myself) is simply pride and ego. So I have to admit that when I assumed the East that night, I did get a bit flustered, and it took me a few minutes to find my center. But at some point it came to me; I lost my earlier feelings of annoyance and frustration, and WB Frank and I simply followed each other’s cues. The next thing I knew, I was at the gravesite and the degree was almost over. Too soon, too soon!

One more surprise, though was being able to hear the ritual style of somebody I’d looked up to for the last several years. RW Carl, the Chaplain for Unity, when he wasn’t reminding me about my hat, proved to have a melodious speaking voice, and an incomparable memory. It’s funny; I’ve known Carl for about five years on several committees, but never sat in lodge with him until this year, and have never heard him really have any speaking parts until the other night. I really enjoyed listening to him. Also enjoyable was watching WB Harry, the outgoing Master of Unity, perform a lecture that is normally done by the newer members. I’m sure that both he and Carl will make fine Stewards one of these days.

While I would never advocate “winging it” as a ritual style, sometimes it can’t be helped. Afterward, scarfing cookies in the kitchen while trying to decompress, we decided that it had actually been a pretty good degree after all, and we were all just a little bit proud of ourselves for having done a great job.



Past Master’s MM Degree – 2008

June 4, 2008 Leave a comment

Every year, the next-to-junior Past Master of Friendship Lodge gets the the unenviable task of gathering together a large group of his predecessors for the purpose of putting on a Master Mason degree. We typically hold two sets of degrees, one in early spring and one in the fall, and the Past Master’s degree is performed at the Master’s discretion. Some choose to do it early to give them more time to study for their own degree.

If you’re having deja vu, it’s because I first wrote that two years ago, and again last year. This is obviously a sign that I’ve been blogging too long.

Last year, we did this degree in the Fall. This year, we did it in the spring because the WM has slacked off needs more time to prepare before he can do it well. 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.

Anyone who has run an event comprised of all Past Masters can well understand the metaphor “like herding cats.” Some check their email daily, some weekly, some never. Some were going to be gone for the scheduled week, probably because it was close to the Memorial Day holiday. Some wanted minor parts, some weren’t going to make it for dinner, some wanted parts, but weren’t sure if they were going to be there at all.

Of course, it didn’t help matters when, not for the first time, I scheduled a rehearsal on Mother’s Day.

Lucky for me, I had just done this degree at my other lodge, so unlike last year, it was still fresh in my memory. One of my occupational hazards is that I’m often seeing, coaching, or participating in different degrees each week, and sometimes one degree will get stuck in my head and remain there for a couple of days. This becomes a problem when in the middle of a lecture or charge, I suddenly blank out and forget which degree I’m on. Fortunately, it wasn’t a problem for me this year, and I somehow managed to get through the degree without any mental infarctions.

The junior officers put on a huge meal: a very tasty surf & turf dinner that was heavy on the cholesterol, for which they made no apologies. It didn’t seem to faze the dinner guests, and when I walked in I saw wall-to-wall smiling faces. How we all managed to stay awake after such a lavish feast is beyond my ken.

I took the East for the first section of the degree, and WB Richie took the West. We traded seats for the dramatic portion, and at the end of the evening had raised three new Master Masons. Those of you who are reading this, hoping for one of my little humorous tales of something gone wrong, are going to be disappointed, I’m afraid. We had an excellent crew of Past Masters, and by all accounts the evening was a success.

It was, however, the first year that I actually felt like a Past Master, myself. Last year the whole PM thing was still new for me, and I was still getting the hang of being the District Grand Lecturer. This year, though, I had more of a sense of how removed I am from the Oriental Chair. I’m not sad or melancholy, quite the opposite: I’ve had a long time now to look back and to think about what I liked, and what I might have done differently. The weekly phone calls from the current Master Worshipful Jim serve to remind me that my opinion and advice are still valuable, and I have come to appreciate that.

Past Masters need not devolve into moss-backed old turtles once they leave the chair.

Jim is In!

January 2, 2008 Leave a comment

On Saturday, Dec 29th, Friendship Lodge installed one of it’s youngest Masters: WB James Sinclair.

WB Jim joined Friendship about a year before I did, and was on my investigation committee. WB Julian, the WM at the time, lived halfway down the block from me, and was joined by WB Dennis, who is now the very overworked Treasurer of our building committee, and the newly raised Bro. Jim, who, I seem to remember, showed a hearty enjoyment for the lightly chilled Motepulciano d’Abruzzo that I brought out to the picnic table on my back deck.

I got to renew my acquaintance with Jim when he became the JS to my SS the next year. I promise not to tell anyone that he used to duck out on me all the time whenever I had to clean up after a big meal.

Kids.

It’s been pleasant to watch WB Jim grow and mature – masonically and otherwise – into a dedicated and hardworking brother who has shown a talent for organizing and a willingness to listen to the wisdom of others when making decisions. A good example of this was getting the officers together to outline his plans for the coming year to get their support and their ideas.

I understand that many lodges have Past Master’s meetings at which the incoming Master discusses what he would like to do for the coming year. For some reason, Friendship doesn’t do this – or at least, hasn’t done this in the last six or seven years. Anyone running a lodge understands the importance of the support from the officers under them, though, and WB Jim has already implemented some of his ideas: I just received a four-page Trestleboard – via email, saving on postal and printing costs, and bringing more newsy items than our previous single-paged calendar.

The installation itself was a pleasant ceremony, as was the dinner afterwards, prepared by our Stewards and Associate Stewards. Associate? Er, yes – some of the brothers are not as strong with their kitchen skills as they are with their ritual skills, and usually beg ask their significant others for help. It has actually turned the lodge into a great social hangout, which in itself is not a bad thing.

Here’s to a great year for the new Worshipful Master!

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Past Master’s Degree 2007

December 14, 2007 2 comments

Every year, the next-to-junior Past Master of Friendship Lodge gets the the unenviable task of gathering together a large group of his predecessors for the purpose of putting on a Master Mason degree. We typically hold two sets of degrees, one in early spring and one in the fall, and the Past Master’s degree is performed at the Master’s discretion. Some choose to do it early to give them more time to study for their own degree.

If you’re having deja vu, it’s because I first wrote that last year. Once again, I’m amazed that I’ve been blogging for a year and a half.

Last year, I sat in the East because the PM in charge of the degree wanted to slack off see it done properly didn’t have the time to prepare over the summer. This year, the degree was again held in November, and WB George, PM from 2005, followed suit by taking the JD position and asking WB Richie to take the East. Yours truly ended up in the West, although not exactly riding off into the sunset.

Because of the various schedules of the PMs involved, plus a large benefit dinner that involved most of the officers the previous weekend, there were no rehearsals for this degree. Now, in theory this should not make a difference; we’re all experienced ritualists, and being Past Masters, we’ve all had some degree of practice.

You know what they say: In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice.

Amazingly, however, most of the PMs did a great job, even though it’s been years since they’ve sat in the big chair. WB Bob reprised his role as SD and this year managed to leave by the correct door, and RWB Bob and his Past AGM Dick came out to give a great Q&A lecture. Our lodge has an extra part of the GMHA drama that takes the form of a prelude (and postlude) to the official ritual, and our RW Gary, the GSD took on the part of Hiram with his usual aplomb. We called upon a few of the regular officers to fill in other parts of the Craft, and managed to put on a great Master Mason degree… despite the fact that for some reason my brain was geared to an Entered Apprentice degree.

How embarrassing.

A day or two previously I was at another lodge in order to certify their SW in the ritual. We usually do this on the EA degree, and because he did not ask any other officers to help out, I played the roles of the other places and stations in order to give the ritual a better “flow.” When he was finished, another officer popped in and even though he wasn’t prepared to do his certification, we ran through it anyway. The result was that I ended up with the EA degree stuck in my head, much in the same way that a song or TV commercial plays and replays itself over and over until it’s cleansed by a few single malts or if it’s one of the more pernicious forms of earworm, perhaps a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster.

So, WM Richie opens the lodge, and when he comes to my station, asks how many anciently composed a lodge of Master Masons.

My answer was immediate: “Seven or more.”

Richie is a pro. “When composed of only three, who were they?”

*ahem*

It didn’t stop there, of course. Signs? I was on the wrong degree half the time and it was a never ending source of amusement to watch me correct myself half a second after my brain kicked in. In fact, a visitor from another lodge came up to me later and said “You know, I’m a member of York Rite and Scottish rite, and I don’t believe I recognize that sign you gave at the end there. Was that one of those mystery degrees?”

Wise guy.

In an interesting twist on how a man will often bring in a younger family member, one of the men we were raising was watched by his son-in-law who came up from New York City to see the degree. This particular batch of candidates have already made themselves useful in the lodge, coming down to help for various events since the summer. That’s great because often new brothers feel at a loss because they don’t know anyone or how things work. I’ve found that more than meeting nights, helping out at events – dinners, blood drives, food drives, etc., are a much better way to get to know your new brothers because it’s a much less formal setting, and doing actual, physical work give everyone – even the new guys – an opportunity to feel useful. I’m sure that they will all be great additions to our small but active group of brothers.

I managed to redeem myself in the second half, in which, saving the best for last, I gave the charge. It was the best damned EA charge ever heard in a MM degree, too.

Afterwards, RWB Gary said, “Well, Very Worshipful, that was a rather interesting degree. Certainly an interesting mix of ritual in there, wouldn’t you say?”

“Sure,” I agreed, “and some of that ritual was even from Connecticut.”

Obviously, the purpose of appointing me as District Grand Lecturer was to illustrate the point that W.C. Fields once said, “No man is totally useless; he can always serve as a bad example.”

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