The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The scythe and the beehive

I just came home from a masonic funeral, my second this year. I didn't know the deceased brother, who was a member of the other lodge that meets in our building, but was an honorary member of our lodge. Brothers from both lodges were there to see their brother off to that land from which no traveler ever returns. There was a good turn-out. The family seemed very grateful to have us there.

The old Past District Deputy Grand Master I had dinner with last week was there, and we talked afterwards. He told me that masonic attendance for masonic funerals really depends on the weather: when it rains or snows, very few brothers show up. I feel that attendance at masonic funerals is absolutely crucial. I canceled a paid job seminar to be there (I got a refund). It means a lot to the family, and it does our fraternity proud to have a good showing when a brother dies. It's the first and primary way that some people find out who we are and what we do. When a cop dies, cops show up to the funeral, even if they don't know the fallen cop. When firemen or marines die, other firemen or marines come to the funeral, even if they don't know their departed brother. It's the right thing to do, and that it brings us honor to do it is a nice side benefit.

The first masonic funeral I went to was for a Past Master of my lodge whom I had never met. I was the only brother who showed up who wasn't himself a Past Master. We had just enough brothers to perform the funeral ritual, but the family was so grateful. I talked to his widow, and was very moved by her reaction. Some people might find it weird that a bunch of men in aprons show up at a funeral, recite some words of 18th century English, and then depart, but I don't believe I encountered any of those people tonight.

I'm something of a hypocrite here, because my synagogue has put the word out for a minyan (10 people) to sit shiva (Jewish funeral observance) a few times when a family member of one of the worshipers dies, and I have yet to be involved. I really should participate the next time I'm asked.

I had a great interview at a start-up today. It was supposed to be for a half-hour, but I stayed for an hour and a half, and the last interviewer told me immediately that he wanted me to come back for a second interview. Usually I have to wait up to a week to be asked back to a company, so I'm taking this as an indicator of keen interest on their part. I have a phone interview today at a company where my uncle is an administrator, and I have a friend and former co-worker who works there and gave me a good recommendation.

Lodge of instruction tonight, hosted by the other lodge that meets in our lodge building.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Through Being Cool

I wrote this about a year before I pledged my lodge, and a little less than a year before I joined my synagogue. This was an exploration of masculinity, and reading Robert G. Davis' book: Understanding Manhood in America made me find this essay and reprint it. Were I to write it today, I would include what I have learned about masculinity from the Men's group at my synagogue and at my lodge.

I grew up in Australia. Australian men generally accept masculinity far better than American men, and I understand why this is. In every country on earth where boys play, there is a ritual of selecting members of each team, whether the game is soccer, cricket, football, baseball, kickball, mammoth-hunting, what have you. Most boys, at some time, have experienced the humiliation of being picked last, and it hurts. Even being picked second-last is much more tolerable than being picked last. It hurts— what is important, and culturally distinct, is how the boy deals with that pain and humiliation, when he's the one picked last.

In Australia, boys strive to be an asset to the team that picks them. They actually care more about how their team does than how they feel. This isn't ego annihilation, and it's not fascism. While playing the game, the game is what's important, not one's own petty issues. If a boy can table his own issues sufficiently to make a good catch, or kick a goal, he'll get picked sooner next time. He knows this. It's a question of priorities: the team wants to win, and they will pick those kids who will make it more likely that their team will win. How each individual feels during this process is irrelevant to the overall goal. Be dependable, be an asset to the team, and the rest of the team will take care of you.

In Australia, there is the concept of mates. The word loosely translates as "friend", but the truth is that Americans lack the concept completely. Your mate has your back, and you have his. Your mates help define you, and accept you unconditionally. Once you're in, you're in for life. It's not easy to get in. When I was nine, I had a kid who used to annoy me mercilessly on the playground. One day, I had had enough of his picking on me, and I knocked him over with a punch. He got up, shook himself off, and shook my hand. "We're having a party this weekend. Here's where it is."

I was still really angry, and I didn't immediately understand what he was doing. He wanted to know that I would stick up for myself when provoked. He needed to know if, after he was my mate, I'd stand up for him. Once he found out that I'd stand up for myself, I was in. At that party, everyone there treated me like a mate, and I felt more included than I ever did before, and I never got selected last for any game again at that school.

American boys don't have this. The best have a much weaker version of this, but the commitment is conditional and halting, the bonds constantly tested by vicious games of conformity and obedience. Maybe men at war have the real thing, but I have no experience of this. Coming back to the USA, I had to teach my male friends to be mates, and it never came naturally to any of my new friends. I have American mates now, some of whom I've been friends with for twenty years, but it took an enormous amount of work, and included really rocky periods, and a lot of struggle. New people I meet, especially younger people, have no understanding of what it means to be a mate. Friendships, especially among young people, are temporary, fleeting, strategic. They exist in order to jockey for social position. American men seem treacherous, insecure, and ungrounded in comparison to Aussie men. It's killing us as a society. It's one of the great tragedies of our time.

When an American boy gets picked last at a game on the playground, he gives up on ever being selected by the other boys, except last. He retreats into self-pity and misanthropy. This is encouraged by the adults, especially his parents, doubly especially when his dad made the same choices about being picked last himself. This boy tries to create a new playing field where he is the top of the selection. Because he knows he cannot compete on the playing field, he tries to compete in intellectual pursuits, or in a fantasy world, or in fandom. He collects comic books, or plays Dungeons & Dragons, or plays video games. Maybe he learns science, or literature, or art, or music. It never occurs to him to strive to improve himself, to make himself an asset to the team that might choose him. It never occurs to him that a drama is unfolding on a level bigger than that of his individual ego.

When adolescence hits, this boy tries to be cool. He creates a new pecking order based around musical taste, or fashion, or obscure knowledge. He tries out for the school play, or joins the debate team, or starts a band, or joins the school's literary magazine, and tries to win approval through his creativity and intelligence. There is nothing inherently wrong with seeking approval through these channels, but the boy still has a chip on his shoulder about rejection. He strives to create not merely a new selection where he is on top, but a new selection where the kids who are successful at the old games are rejected here. He seeks to be even crueler than he thinks those other kids are— to cut them down before they can hurt him again. He doesn't realize that being rejected from the alternative he has just created doesn't hurt at all, really. His ego depends upon being top of some pecking order, even an imaginary one, and he will viciously defend his new status, especially by being cruel to those who are lower down on his new pecking order. He becomes an asshole, but it's everyone else's fault but his.

Ultimately, this is what it means to be cool, to be indie, to be avant-garde, to be hip. As a young punk rocker, I was saved from this insanity because I grew up in a small town where weirdos got their asses beat. In order to be weird, you had to band together and watch each other's backs. We had to trust each other in a fight, or we'd all get stomped. It was ugly, it was nasty, and it was exhausting, but at the end of the day, you really knew who your friends were. A realistic selection sprung up based on whether you were worth saving when everyone got jumped by rednecks. You sized up new potential friends for their value in dragging you out from under a half dozen pairs of steel-toed Doc Martins when the Nazi skinheads broke up your hardcore show. (I like traditional skinheads, but the Nazi skins suck ass). When the bored, redneck small-town cops harassed us for being weird, you needed to know your friends had your back when you split up and ran.

The point is that every boy and every man needs to know his friends chose him. It's hard-wired into our brains. We need to know that we were worth picking, that we're valued for what we contribute to the people around us. We need it in our jobs, in our friendships, and in our relationships. Those boys and men who never get chosen, who never become the people anyone would want on their side, are damaged goods. They're not really cool, they're undeveloped. No tattoo or piercing, no leather jacket or pair of glasses, no boots or records or novels or comic books or mp3s or posters or t-shirts; no commodity of any kind is going to make a pair of balls occur where they wouldn't anyway.

We live in an advertising culture where we are constantly told that the only thing that stands between our current state and wholeness is a particular commodity. It's the central lie of our culture, and the people who hate mainstream culture the most seem to cling to this lie the most intensely. Notice how many "alternative" people define their non-conformity by how readily they conform to an alternate standard? How they buy objects that articulate their rebellion for them? It has become so ingrained in our culture that the current crop of teenagers makes no distinction between consumption and expression. They are frustrated that consumption alienates them from their own feelings and desires, but they express that frustration by consuming more commodities. It's a vicious circle. Let go. Quit being cool.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Two Blessings

First Blessing

A friend from undergrad ran off and joined the Krishnas. He was smart, grounded, and spiritual, and nobody's fool, and his conversion alarmed me. I had a number of long conversations with him during the period where he decided to move to New Vrindaban and follow Swami Bhaktipada as his guru. He understood that the path of the guru is dangerous, and that he was exposing himself to the real danger of being exploited and manipulated. Ultimately, he believed in his guru, and put his faith in the Krishnas and their religion, and he left to join them.

A few months later, I was roller-blading in Washington Square Park. It was a balmy June day, and I decided to skate around the East Village. As I got closer to 5th Avenue, I saw that it was blocked off by a parade. The International Society of Krishna Consciousness had organized a parade to celebrate the Rath Yatra festival.

There is a tradition that goes back to the city of Puri, and it could be 5 millenia old. The legend has it that the god Jagannatha appeared to the King of Puri and commanded him to make a likeness of the god. Over the next twenty years, an artist sculpted the living image of the god, on the condition that no other mortal could look upon the statue while it was being made. The king became very curious about the undertaking, and, unable to contain himself, stormed into the artist's studio on the night before the day that the artist was to finish the piece. The king, upon beholding the sculpture, caused the piece to transmogrify into a garish, cartoony image without limbs, and the artist disappeared. Today, the image of the god Jagannatha is sacred to followers of Krishna, and to Vaishnavas. The sculpture, or a likeness of it, is pulled in a cart down the main street of Puri, and similar carts with similar likenesses are drawn down the main streets of cities all over the world. In earlier times, the cart was considered to be so sacred that some devotees would throw themselves bodily under the wheels and allow themselves to be crushed to death, on the assumption that this would send them directly to a higher plane of existence. This appalled the invading British, who coined the term juggernaut to descibe an unstoppable force that crushes all within its path.

As I watched from the sidewalk, the sacred cart approached, and my friend was one of the devotees pushing it down the street. He recognized me and called me over. In the middle of the parade, I skated over to him, and a priest doused me with rose-water, and put a strand of carnations around my neck. I stood beside my friend in my skates, and helped him push the cart down the city street.

After the parade, one of the priests told me that what I had done was considered to be so sacred that, when the Lords of Karma review the events of my life, when they get to this particular event, they will allow me to immediately enter Paradise without reviewing any other deeds, good or evil, of mine.

Second Blessing

Later that summer, I hitchhiked across the country, and after a number of adventures, ended up on a Seneca Indian Reservation outside of Ithaca, NY, at a gathering there. The guest of honor was an eighteen-year-old tribal King from the Amazon rainforest. His tribe came into conflict with a logging company, and both sides had engaged in protracted, low-intensity warfare, with deaths on both sides. This young king had left the jungle for the city of Brasilia to sue the logging company, and he had won. The organizers of the gathering had invited the king to be the guest of honor, and he arrived with a retinue of warriors, and a translator who spoke English. He was aloof and proud, and radiated his royalty unmistakably. I was terrified of him.

I had come to the gathering with a friend, who was a mutual friend of the young man in the first story. We were both living in Brooklyn when we weren't travelling, and we were both obsessed with 1970s Shaw Brothers kung-fu movies. We would pretend to be characters from the movies, and engage in mock kung-fu battles, perfectly imitating the voice actors who dubbed the English versions of the films. We had reached a point where this behavior had become so obsessive that we were deliberately avoiding each other, for fear that we would lapse into kung-fu speak again without being able to restrain ourselves. A day had passed without us seeing each other, and I was walking away from the camp where I had enjoyed my dinner (incidentally, as a guest of the Krishnas), when I saw him coming over the hill. We looked at each other sheepishly, and I blurted out, "Your crane style kung-fu is no match for my tiger style!" and leaped into my cinematic attack. I did not realize that the king and his warriors were travelling from the opposite direction, and by the time I noticed them, the had watched the entire battle. The king was laughing so hard that tears were streaming down both of his cheeks. He beckoned me over.

"The king tells you that you have made him laugh," his translator informed me. The king, simultaneously laughing and sobbing, put his hand on my shoulder, and nodded. The king spoke. "This is the first time that the king has laughed since he left his home in the jungle," the translator told me. The king made eye contact with me, and seized my gaze, pinning me with his eyes, and told me something, something important. I was in his grip as the translator spoke again. "The king says that you have the gift of healing laughter. The king commands you to go forth into the world, and find the lost, and the lonely, and the afraid, and heal their hearts with laughter. This you must do."

The king held my cheeks in his hands as his translator conveyed his message, and nodded vigorously as he spoke to me. "Go now. The king thanks you for your gift of healing laughter," said the translator, and before I could recover from my astonishment, all of them were gone.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

One Mason may know another

Neither GM could make it, but it was a great night all the same. One of the things that draws me to freemasonry is the remarkable men I met whom I probably wouldn't meet any other way, at least not in such numbers. I genuinely like these people. I guess it shouldn't keep surprising me but it does. At dinner I was sitting at dinner with an elderly Past District Deputy Grand Master who was very funny and down-to-earth. I really like the men who were raised that night. One brother is a Marine, who ships out to Afghanistan very soon, but I hope the others continue to show up regularly.

Today at synagogue, a rabbi who attends our synagogue when he is not attending his own duties brought a young Muslim man from the Ivory Coast to Saturday morning Shabbat services. He showed up early for Torah study, and asked really sharp, penetrating questions. He was a little bit surprised that we were delighted when he asked difficult questions, rather than annoyed. The name "Israel" means "one who wrestles with God", and we do a lot of God-wrestling at my synagogue. This week's Torah portion is Mishpatim, which is a bunch of rules dropped into the middle of the narrative. The rules range from how to compensate someone who gets gored by an ox, to the enigmatic "Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother's milk." He was impressed that his questions were taken seriously.

During the service, he asked me if I was a Mason, and told me that he was as well. After exchanging fraternal grips, I explained each part of the service to him, and its meaning. He was impressed with the line from Psalm 150: "Every thing that breathes, by breathing, praises God." After the kiddush (blessing of the bread and wine), and oneg (lunch), he stayed for nearly an hour to talk about Judaism, and to ask questions about observance, about how Judaism had evolved over the years, and how our version compared to the Orthodox. We exchanged cards, and I told him I would be delighted to welcome him to my lodge for a visit.

I haven't really talked about unemployment very much in this blog, but I have a job interview on Thursday. I'm really excited, because I have a good friend at this company, and it's near where I live, and looks like a great company to work for.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Visitations for degree work tomorrow

Tomorrow night, my lodge is raising five brothers to the Sublime degree of a Master Mason. The new District Deputy Grand Master will make his first fraternal visitation, and the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Massachusetts is sending their Grand Master, their previous Grand Master, their Grand Historian (who will give a lecture on the history of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Massachusetts), and their District Deputy Grand Master for our city.

There has been some redistricting, and our new DDGM is from a lodge that hasn't previously been in the same district as ours. He is a younger man, and I've met him informally at dinner at our lodge, but I'll be very pleased to welcome him to our lodge for his first fraternal visit. He is a drummer for one local rock band and a bass player for another. I had a few years in the music industry, and have toured with rock bands, but we haven't really had the rock and roll conversation yet.

I love that my lodge is on such amicable terms with our Prince Hall brothers. The PHA Grand Historian and PHA DDGM visited our last Lodge of Instruction to talk about PHA history, and we all had such a good time that they've come back to see our degree work. The previous PHA Grand Master was a guest of honor at our lodge's 225th Anniversary Banquet, and my girlfriend and I got to meet him and his wife then, and I'm honored that he chose to visit a 3rd degree ritual at our lodge, and that he will bring the current PHA GM with him.

I recently found a high school friend on Facebook. We were in the same dorm in boarding school, which has its own traditions and rituals. My house was founded in 1814, and the intramural House Football league at my boarding school is the oldest active football league in the USA. I haven't seen him since graduation, and I was pleased to see a photo of him in a Shriner's fez. He's a Prince Hall mason in New Jersey, a Scottish Rite Mason, a Shriner, and the Worthy Patron of his Eastern Star chapter. I chatted with him online before dinner tonight, and we compared notes. For me to be in a Grand Lodge that prevented me from calling my friend my brother would be unimaginable. Here in the first Black History Month under an African-American president, it's astonishing that some Masons to fail to recognize that regular and PHA masonry have a shared legacy and a shared future.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Relief if within the length of my cable-tow

Yesterday I got a library card at the Somerville library. I have a Lynn library card, and a Boston library card, but even though I've lived in Somerville for nearly four years, I never got around to getting a library card.

It's still really snowy, and the streets aren't really cleared yet, so actual parking spaces are at a premium. There was a woman parked in two spaces right in front of the library. I backed up in my spot, and gently bumped into her. I got out, and approached her window and apologized, but informed her that she was taking up two spaces. I was expecting a confrontation, but she told me that her car died, and she couldn't move the car. She was fairly apologetic and sorrowful, even though I bumped into her.

After I got my card, I went back to my car, and she was still there. She beckoned me to her car. She asked me if I had jumper cables, which I did. I always keep jumper cables in my car, not only because my car has had problems starting sometimes, but because I like to help people. She had a Zipcar, a loaner car, and the Zipcar company could not come to her assistance with a jump for another two hours. She was a stranger in town, and pretty helpless.

I helped her with a jump, asked her if she needed any more help, and gave her a business card. She tried to pay me for helping her, but I refused. She took a twenty dollar bill, but it in my coat pocket, and leaped quickly away, and I didn't resist.

Before I was a mason, I might have drove away without apologizing for bumping her, because the impact wasn't very severe, and it was obvious that no damage was done. But with a "Massachusetts Freemason" sticker on the back windshield, and a 32nd degree Scottish Rite car emblem on the hatchback panel, I felt it would reflect badly on the fraternity to bump and run. I was tempted, when refusing her money, to tell her that as a mason, I felt obliged to come to her relief, but I felt that would have been a bit cheesy, and that actions speak louder than words anyway.

Please understand that, before I was a mason, I would have helped her with the jump and refused her money exactly the way I did. I think the kind of man who becomes a mason is the kind of person who feels that helping people is its own reward. I did take her money, but only after she made it really hard to reject her money. The influence masonry has had on me didn't make me help her without expectation of reward, since I would have helped her even before I was made a mason, but it did make me conscious that the honor of the fraternity was reflected in my behavior. Also, it's a genuine pleasure to meet monthly with a room full of men who all would have helped her without expectation of reward, all pledged to come to the relief of our brethren, their wives and children, and to others nearby whom we can help without harming ourselves. The more of us that hang out together, the more of a good influence we can be on each other. Masons can't make evil men good, but we excel at making good men better.