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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

Column unfinished

May 22, 2008 1 comment

Add my name to the list of fellow bloggers and Masons who are saddened by the untimely death of WB Theron Dunn, author of Beacon of Masonic Light, and prolific contributor to a number of other web forums, message boards, and online publications. Add my name as well to the list of those who occasionally disagreed with his perspectives, but managed to do so in a fraternal manner. Our disagreements never prevented Brother Theron from emailing some joke, a Masonic inspiration, or a funny video. I’d like to think that Bro. Theron believes – believed – as I do: that our agreements are far more important than our disagreements, and that our appreciation for the fraternity is the basis for our mutual respect. May the Great Architect of the Universe grant some peace of mind to his grieving family and friends.

I was thinking, understandably, of Bro. Dunn’s death in the context of the dramas of our own fraternity. The Hiramic legends in the 3rd degree deal with the tragedy of death. But what is it that makes death a tragedy? reflecting upon this question, I thought about the death of my grandmother a few months ago. I wrote

“She was 95 years old. She died peacefully in her sleep, in a warm room surrounded by trashy romance novels, jigsaw puzzles, and loving family members. We should all be so fortunate.”

Maybe our connotation of “tragedy” is the concept of “unfinished business.” While there are certainly some people who are still vital and active in their mid-nineties, my grandmother certainly fit the definition one thinks of when hearing the phrase “lived a full life.” She was a nurse during WWII, she raised 4 children, and then had an active social life. She lived to see grand-children, and even great-grand-children. She’d never been sky-diving or hiking in the Himalayas, but she didn’t seem to have any regrets.

Our unrealized potential, the things that we will never have the chance to do boggles the mind. I may be reacting to Bro. Theron’s death out of a certain sympathy, as he and I were of a similar age; perhaps I’m saddened because I realize that I, myself, will probably not be able to accomplish many of the things that I’ve dreamed of. And perhaps this is why the death of a child or young adult affects us so deeply; the unrealized potential in all of us is tragic, but the younger one’s life, the more potential we see. We say that we are saddened by the loss of life, but maybe what we are really saddened by is the loss of potential realization – the songs that will never be written, the stories that will never be told, and the work that will never be completed.

I have always thought about the tale of Hiram Abiff as some kind of Death allegory, but now I’m seeing it as a metaphor that points out the unfortunate – and inevitable – inability of all of us to fulfill our dreams. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we should always feel sad, though. We all work on our own spiritual buildings, and none of them will ever be complete. But ultimately we will all need to lay down our tools, if indeed, those tools do not simply fall from our own nerveless grasp. Maybe the story of Hiram should remind us that it’s not the completion of the building that is important, but the fact that we’ve started it at all.

Secret Sauce

January 29, 2008 1 comment

“So, what’s your secret recipe for this great tomato sauce?”

I heard this from at least 8 or 9 people on Saturday night, when my wife and I served up 65 pounds of ziti and 480 meatballs, all covered in almost 25 gallons of our home-made tomato sauce. No, I don’t have a big family; this is a now annual fund-raising dinner to help out the confirmation class of the First Congregational Church in downtown Southington.

I know, I know – you came here to read about Freemasonry, not about my cooking skills. I’m getting to that part.

My wife and I had started cooking the sauce a week previously, using the 8 burner stove and large pots available in the church kitchen. I’m sure that the church meeting hapll must have smelled like an Italian restaurant by the end of the week, and by 5:30 pm – a good half hour before the advertised time – because people were ready to stampede lining up to get good seats. We started serving at a quarter to six, and didn’t get a lull until well after 7:00, at which time I was able to walk around, fishing for compliments asking for feedback for the next year. And that’s when I noticed something: even though I told people what I put in my sauce, everybody acted as if I were being cagey about the answer. But that certainly was not the case; I’m usually more than happy to tell people what my own recipes are, and in fact, I’m going to tell you right here how I make tomato sauce.

Yeah, yeah, I know – you’re waiting for the part about Freemasonry. It’s coming, really.

A word of caution: if you’re the type of person who enjoys “recipes” that include such syrupy metaphors as “Add a cup of courage, a teaspoon of tolerance, stir with passion, and serve with L O V E“, then get thee hence! This blog is a NO GLURGE ZONE. Sure, those cutesy sayings were funny the first six or seven hundred times I heard them, but enough already. The 70s are over, and those little naked kids with the big eyes and hearts over their heads are has-beens. Deal with it.

Yes, yes, I’m getting to the part about Freemasonry. Really.

Now, I take a dim view of people who refuse to share good recipe. I don’t care if your great-great-grandmother carried it in her boot when she came from the old country, or if you just discovered it while messing about in the kitchen. In my opinion, the kind of people who won’t share their recipes are merely feeding their egos while they feed you a meal. When they invite you to dinner, it’s either to brag or to play the “I’ve got a secret” game and are, in essence, saying “Hey, I’ve got this really great thing and I’m only going to let you have a little taste in order that I might feel special. But don’t worry; come back next year and I’ll let you have another little taste, just so you can remember how special this is.”

Even more odious are those that purport to give you the recipe, but hold back a key step or ingredient, thereby making you think that you are stupid for not being able to follow directions. A pox on all of them.

What? Oh, yeah – the Freemasonry part. Sorry.

When the first few people asked what I put in my sauce, I told them “A hell of a lot of tomatoes.” It was funny at the time, and very true – we bought over two dozen of those large restaurant sized cans at the local warehouse store, along with salad for 200 people, dressing, grated Parmesan, and sundry other items. We started by sauteing several bulbs – that’s bulbs, not cloves – of crushed garlic in olive oil. Once the smell started wafting through the church hall (I should point out that I did this during one of the services in order to remind people of the upcoming dinner) I added a few scoops of the crushed tomatoes, and some of the typical Italian spices: oregano, parsley, basil, and a bit of fennel seed. I let this cook for a good thirty minutes, and then put some into each one of the five large pots. This served as a base, to which we added the rest of the canned tomatoes. One pot we reserved as a marinara sauce, and to the others we added some cooked ground beef (left over from the Rally Day picnic in September), and some minced and cooked Italian sausages, both of which had been cooked and minced previously in order to save time. We cooked the sauce for about six hours that day, and then came back for a few hours mid-week, and put them on again first thing Saturday morning so that they had another good eight hours to simmer. Usually I put some red wine in the sauce to counter the bitter taste from the tomatoes, but after a few people had concerns about sensitivities to the sulfites in the wine, this year I opted to add some sugar and salt.

I have to say that this was one of the best batches of sauce that I’ve made in a few years. Even my wife will attest that this year it was particularly good, and the compliments from the hungry crowd was certainly a testament to how it turned out.

Yes, yes – I’m coming to the Freemasonry part directly.

I told every person who asked me exactly what I used in the sauce – which, as you can see, are just regular Italian spices. Every person had the same reaction: If I’m just using regular spices and ingredients that you normally find in sauce, then why did this batch come out so well? Certainly I’m leaving out a crucial step, a secret ingredient, a particular item that made this come out better, right? After all, you can’t just throw some tomatoes and spices in a pan and expect it to come out like that, right? Right?

Apparently, my sauce admirers miss the essential point.

They had the list of ingredients that I use, and I even gave them some little tips. And while in theory there might be some small differences between brands of tomatoes or spices, in practice I’ve never noticed any significant difference.

So, what is the point of all this?

The raw tomatoes contain a lot of water, which needs to cook off. In that process, the heat breaks down certain proteins and acids, releasing certain chemicals, and causing others to bond. Five gallons of sauce in a pot takes hours to get up to the proper temperature, with constant stirring to prevent the bottom from burning and tainting the rest of the sauce. The heat also breaks down the chemicals in the spices, and the stirring allows the flavor to gently infuse throughout the pot of warm liquid. Eventually, the acids break down and dissipate, and the sauce itself tastes of the fragrant basil and oregano, perhaps mixed with the spicy saltiness of the sausage.

The secret, you see, is not the ingredients at all. It’s the time.

Those people who are accustomed to opening a jar of grocery-bought sauce simply can not conceive of the investment of time that one must make to cook a good, home-made tomato sauce. Despite the stereotype of old Italian ladies standing at a stove all day, few people really understand that it’s the process of cooking that makes the difference between a rich, thick, savory sauce and a thin, slightly bitter one. Too often we try to make up for the lack of flavor by adding extra garlic, salt, basil, or other spices. But these serve merely to cover up the fact that the sauce itself is a hastily prepared affair.

Even the cooking shows on television offer up tips on how to make good tomato sauce, especially tailored for busy people who only have an hour or so. And now question about it, some of those sauces are tasty. But they’re not the same; indeed, if I may be so bold, they’re not even in the same class.

Let me make this clear: In sauce making, as with so many other things in life, there is no substitute for the investment of one’s time. It is only through the lengthy process of cooking that the unwanted and unnecessary ingredients break down, and are replaced by the desirable aromas and textures. It is only through time that certain agents can be make their way around the large vat of liquid, moving here and there until the gentle stirring combines them with other agents to produce something delightful to the senses. And certainly, the larger the pot, the more time is needed.

Time.

Speaking of which, it looks as if I’ve run out. It appears that I’m just not going to get around to discussing Freemasonry, doesn’t it?

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Unexpected Jewels

January 14, 2008 1 comment

A few years ago, a friend of mine got into the habit of stopping by my house once a week to talk about his new interest in Eastern esoterica and mysticism. A devoted practitioner of several meditative disciplines, he liked to tell me about his new discoveries, insights, and practices. Since I used to practice yoga, meditation and have had the opportunity to study some of the lesser known aspects, he felt that he could talk to me about what might be termed the spiritual aspects, knowing that I wouldn’t think it was too (forgive the technical term) “woo-woo.”

One day we were chatting about something and he asked me about a particular point, to which I answered that I didn’t remember much about it. He was surprised. “I figured with all the reading you’ve done, you’d have some opinion on this. ” He then confessed that he thought it was odd that I didn’t quote back to him some of the authors that I’d read, or refer to some of the older, classical writings.

I explained that some years earlier I had given away just about all of my books on Taoism and Zen, and hadn’t been inclined to pick up any more. He really didn’t understand this, so I had to explain to him what led to this decision. A long time ago I began picking up books and literature and read almost incessantly on the writings of Lao-Tze, Chang-tzu, and other authors with “z”s and dashes in their names. I picked up old books – translations written in the 1800s and early 1900s – and I picked up new books. I tracked down out-of-print books, the more esoteric, the better. I meditated, I unblocked some of my chakras, and managed to contort parts of my body into odd shapes, the better to allow the kundalini energy to flow.

At some point, I realized that as much as I studied and meditated, I was merely reading about Taoism, and not actually practicing Taoism. In fact, the reading, the meditating – the constant searching for meaning – was getting in my way. I gave away almost everything that I had bought, keeping only my favorite Stephen Mitchell translation of the Tao Teh Ching, and a couple of other older volumes. Instead of picking up yet another book, I decided that my time would be better spent trying to live up to all of the ideals that I had been reading about.

If this were a Zen parable, this is the point where I’d write “And at that instant, my friend was enlightened.” Unfortunately, that’s not quite what happened; he continued to argue with me, convinced that I was crazy. I’m sure there’s some ironic lesson in all this somewhere…

Anyhow, I’m writing this because the essential point – that at some time you need to put down the books and work with what you know – is not limited to Eastern philosophy. One of the great things about Masonic blogging is the unexpected jewel that you happen across while looking for something else. Earlier last week, I saw that MMM over on North Eastern Corner also came to a similar understanding. After mentioning the time he had spent collecting all sorts of books about the fraternity, he writes:

“It has been my bad habit of buying every book someone mentions on their blog or website for well over a year now and I have come to a decision that it must stop.

“Not because I haven’t gotten anything from any of these publications, but because recently I had an epiphany about books on Freemasonry and a hammer. [. . .] If you do an Amazon book search for “hammer” you come up with 183,470 books associated with hammer as a subject or somewhere in its title.

“I could read all 183, 470 books associated with the hammer and not even come close to what you learn in just ten minutes using a hammer. “(italics mine)

He gets it.

I wonder if this isn’t part of the reason that some Masons roll their eyes when somebody brings up the term “Masonic Education.” Our craft has inspired hundreds, nay, thousands of excellent books and essays on the nature of the craft, morality, on what it means to be a Mason, on the comparisons between Freemasonry and various other philosophies, on the evolution of thought, on the importance of religion or spirituality, and on just about any other subject that you can imagine being tangentially linked to the craft. The excellent website Pietre-Stones itself has more fantastic writing than the average Mason could read, the Philalathes Society has even more, and anyone with access to Google can read about any aspect of Freemasonry until their mouse finally drops from their nerveless grasp.

Here’s a good question: Is there – or should there be – a minimum requirement for some kind of Masonic Education? How much of this should we, as Masons, be reading? Should all Masons be expected to read Pike’s “Morals & Dogma“? Should we all be handed, along with our aprons, “A Complete Idiot’s Guide to Freemasonry for Dummies“? Should our brethren have a mandatory subscription to “The Tao of Masonry“?

In the last few years, I’ve read and heard some people complain about the sad state of Masonic Education, and about the dearth of great Masonic thinkers, and about the lack of modern books on Masonry. My brothers are, naturally, entitled to their opinions. My own opinion on that topic is that the internet has made available more excellent Masonic information than any of our ancestors would have dreamed possible. My own education on Masonry – the education that I have found to be the most valuable – came less from books, and more from conversations with knowledgeable brothers in person and in various online forums. Back when I joined, several of the brothers told me that “the real Masonry happens after lodge.” I didn’t understand what they meant for the first few months, but soon it became obvious – we had relatively short business meetings and then went downstairs for fellowship. Over coffee or whiskey (whichever a brother preferred, and nobody was pushed into anything) we would talk about how the Grand Lodge works, why a certain brother gets certain accommodations, talk about various aspects of our ritual and ceremonies, learn why this or that lodge runs the way it does, and dozens of other trivial-seeming topics that didn’t start coming together for me for almost a year.

Yes, I read a lot of books. I learned many aspects about the history of our craft, the evolution our our ritual, and saw how our symbols dovetail with symbols and teachings from long ago. But I also learned why it was important to have Caffeine-Free Diet Pepsi for WB Roger, and to always make a few low-cholesterol dinners for WB Julian, and to have coffee ready for WB Bob before and after the meeting, and . . .

Reading and acting. From which do you suppose I learned more about Masonry?

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Three Stooges Bloggers

November 4, 2007 Leave a comment

3 Mastooges

Appearances to the contrary, the handsome young men in the photo are not up for the parts of Curly, Moe and Larry. No, that’s me in the center, flanked by two of the four five Connecticut Masons who are guilty of blogging. Movable Jewel currently serves with me on the Committee for Masonic Education, and North Eastern Corner came to the recent officer’s seminar held at Ashlar Village, the Masonicare facility in Wallingford.

I’ve discovered that I have more online friends than local friends, so it’s always rare but interesting to run into someone that I “know,” but have never met in person. As it happens, though, I have met all of the Connecticut bloggers. Masonic Renaissance is a fellow District Grand Lecturer, and the mono-nymed Radcliffe of Metaphysical Freemason – the latest person to admit “If Tom can have a blog, then anyone can” – is actually a member of my lodge.

Is Connecticut big enough for five people to blog about Masonry? Hartford Advocate writer Adam Bulger wondered about the proliferation of Masons who blog in his recent article.

“I said it seemed odd that Freemasons, an order noted for its secrecy, would have so many members writing blogs, which are often like online confessionals.”

What didn’t make the article was that a lot of Masons are proud of their membership, and enjoy talking about it. Unlike the old days when you might never know that a relative had been a member of the Craft until after he died and you were sorting through his things, many Masons today are interested in exploring their journeys, and in discussing how similar and yet different their experiences are.

Of course, some of us (*ahem*) are just attention hounds.

The seminar itself is a half-day session in which Junior and Senior Wardens are given an overview of the things that they’ll need to know for when they assume the Oriental Chair. The seminars are a little different every year, but we cover a little bit about planning and organizing, team building, Masonic jurisprudence, rules and regulations, how to run meetings, etc. We also have a similar seminar for those who expect to be elected as Master in the coming year. We stress planning and team-building because most of us can’t think of anything worse than having the new Master take the gavel and then say “Uh, okay. Now what?” Similarly, if a Master has a plan for his year, he needs to understand how to delegate tasks, and how to follow up on them so he’s not caught short at the last minute. I was very pleased to find that all of the attendees that I talked to found the seminar enlightening and informative.

A nice post about the Warden’s Seminar can be found on Movable Jewel’s blog.

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