Coloring outside the lines

When Hurricane Irma was coming toward us in September, we were scheduled for a trip to Central New York for a family wedding.

We were at the car rental counter when we landed, and inquired about adding days onto our rental if that became necessary — the day we were scheduled to return to Savannah was the day Irma was expected to hit the area, making our return on that day unlikely and our ultimate return day uncertain.

The clerk at the counter wasn't confident that we'd be able to extend our reservation, especially with the same car, but she suggested that we call the agency we booked the car through to check.

"Hypothetically speaking," I asked her, "what if our flight were to get moved to, say, Wednesday, and we just didn't bring your car back until then?"

She explained that if we were able to extend the reservation, it wouldn't be a problem, but otherwise, they'd give the car to someone else.

It took several go-arounds for me to make my point. We were scheduled to bring the car back Monday, and they could therefore rent the car to someone else on Monday.

In order for her to hand someone else the keys to the car, though, we would have to bring the car back. What if we didn't?

She simply couldn't conceive of someone not following the rules.


In a coloring book, the lines constrain an image, but not a palette. An object is offered, but the scene is not. Take this gorilla with a bow tie, for instance:

The gorilla has a proud expression on its face, but outside of the animal straightening a bow tie, we have no context. Coloring inside the lines augments the subject, but still doesn't give us any context. Did the gorilla steal the bow tie from a zoo visitor? Is there a formal dance at the panda display? Is the gorilla crashing the Academy Awards?

If you want to tell a story, it's the part outside the lines that is most important.


The law of the instrument says, in its most famous iteration, if you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

It's really a story about education — one early version says:

Give a boy a hammer and chisel; show him how to use them; at once he begins to hack the doorposts, to take off the corners of shutter and window frames, until you teach him a better use for them, and how to keep his activity within bounds.

Within bounds? That will sound familiar to my Masonic brethren.

In Freemasonry, when we speak of bounds, we're talking generally about "keeping our passions within due bounds," that is to say, even in the face of anger or frustration, we are to keep a level head and treat people politely.

What it doesn't mean, though, is to treat every situation in the same way.

We have leeway to come up with reasonable solutions. So too, the child with the hammer and chisel. There are times when it is perfectly reasonable to use a hammer and chisel.


You could use the face of a hammer to break the safety glass and the claw to pull a fire alarm. You could play pool with the grip as a cue.

You could use a hammer to open a bottle or can, set a broken nose or make mashed potatoes.

You could carry a thin sheet of hot metal.

Each case would certainly be within due bounds, if unorthodox. Except the setting a broken nose bit. I'm pretty sure that's exactly how they do it. If you've ever seen my nose and noticed sort of a re-curve in the bridge, that's an over-corrected broken nose, and it looks exactly like someone took a hammer to it.


Duncker's candle problem is a cognitive exercise in which a subject is placed at a table next to a wall. On the table are a candle, a book of matches or a lighter, and a cardboard box of thumbtacks.

The charge is to light the candle and walk away, but ensure that no wax drips on the table.

The solution is to empty the box of tacks, tack the box to the wall, and place the candle in the box.

The success rate when Duncker first proposed the exercise was fairly low.

If the same items are presented but with the tacks piled on the table next to the box, the success rate is almost 100 percent.


I don't know this for sure, but I'm guessing the linear, inside-the-lines thinking that gives people trouble creating scenes around a coloring-book gorilla, makes Duncker's exercise difficult and makes it hard to understand that someone might not follow established norms is learned.

I know our education system is based on a factory model, though increasingly we have de-institutionalized ways around that, from MOOCs to on-demand boutique learning through sites like Udemy or Creative Live or The Great Courses Plus, to tutorials on YouTube on anything from changing your oil to installing a water heater to building a shed.

Without allowing creative thought and nonlinear problem solving to take a larger role in our development through schooling (and subsequently through our largely institutionalized workplaces), we're going to have fewer and fewer people to take the sorts of shots that Elon Musk, Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil are taking, or that Astro Teller is looking for over at Google X.

Let's think differently and make the world much more amazing.

Bringing conversation back into our lives

Aristotle was...pretty good at conversing.

Aristotle was...pretty good at conversing.

One of my favorite things about Freemasonry is what many organizations (including churches and the like) call "fellowship." In modern-day English, we call it "hanging out." When we're not in a formal meeting (or sitting formally at prayer, for instance), we're still gathered with like-minded folk, eating, drinking and, most of all, talking.

As someone who works from home and communicates with my coworkers via an online chat if we need to (sometimes we just sit around independently and work for 45 minutes or so without saying anything), I don't have an opportunity to grab lunch with a coworker or chat with someone at the water cooler or coffee pot.

And, in fact, in turns out, even people who do work in offices together aren't talking to each other as much as they used to. Same with people who sit around the dinner table, staring at their phones instead of talking to each other.

Author Sherry Turkle has been writing about it for a while now. She has a new book called Reclaiming Conversation, which is about bringing conversation back into our lives.

It's an extension, really, of work she did for another book on being alone, even if we're connected. Here's her TED talk on it from 2012.

She talks more about the new book on the Art of Manliness podcast.

In the lessons of the second degree of Freemasonry, we learn about the seven liberal arts and sciences we should really study to become well-rounded humans. Of the seven, three really relate to conversation: logic, grammar and rhetoric.

I won't go into detail here, not because there's anything secret in the ritual, but because practicing the art of conversation is so much more important than sitting by yourself reading this. But if you want want to learn more, The Masonic Roundtable has great discussions on each:

Grammar
Rhetoric
Logic

Working the tools: The gavel (cutting out the excess)

bring-back-the-study
Via Leading Change in Freemasonry on Facebook.

While this post will ring a little louder with Masons, I think it's important for everyone. Masonry is, after all, designed to make us better people.

In the first degree, one of the working tools we're given is the common gavel. It is used to trim the excess from our lives. It really is one of the hardest things in our lives: recognizing the stuff that is keeping us from doing the important stuff.

Taking Facebook quizzes instead of turning off the lights and getting to bed early enough for eight hours' sleep before your alarm goes off; binge-watching "Modern Family" instead of opening that biography you've been saying would inspire you to greatness; shopping for shoes on Zappos instead of launching that new business you've been talking about — these are the excesses we face every day, the things that keep us from reaching our potential.

Not to say that those things are bad, nor that sometimes they're a welcome diversion. Sometimes you need to zone out in front of the TV, and sometimes you wear a hole in the sole of your sneakers. Sometimes Facebook is the best way to be in touch with friends and family.

I've been starting to use my gavel more and more. I'm saying no to projects that aren't either fulfilling or worthwhile from a financial standpoint. I'm making progress on some projects that have been on my plate for a long time. I'm making sure I connect with people it's important I stay connected to. I'm writing more.

I feel good. I'm sure there's more I could do, but baby steps are so much better than no steps. Or giant leaps that don't stick.

Bonus: The Masonic Roundtable discusses balance.

Love, even their faults

sunset-hands-love-woman

This conversation first came to me in the context of Freemasonry, but I think it will translate well to lay terms.

The question posed to me was, at its essence: If people are doing something they believe is right but is diametrically opposed to my principles, how do I make them see the light?

My response was this: It's not your job to bring others to your view. It's your job to bring yourself to love people, even if you believe they are wrong in their thinking.

I think we'd all do well to attempt to uphold that ideal. It's not easy, and it never will be, but I think it's important.

Building a better you

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[image credit]

Here are some great posts to get you up and moving, in no particular order. These are the ones I most often come back to, to remind myself of their importance, to help build a better me.

In Freemasonry, we call ourselves, as fallible, imperfect humans, rough ashlars (an ashlar is a stone used for building). We work on ourselves to try to become a perfect ashlar – in builder's terms, a stone perfectly fitted.

I hope you think they'll also help you to build a better you.

What does 2015 look like?

This was my annual look back and look ahead, and it's by far the most in-depth post like that I've done. My biggest takeaway for me:

You know how sometimes you want to be good at everything? Well, you probably should be.

What do you have to offer your heroes?

It's easy for most of us to name some people we might call "heroes" or "inspiration." It's another thing altogether for us to be able to offer them something if we ever have a chance to meet them.

Create something

So go out, and create something. Because creating's fun. Do it for the sake of creating something. Don't worry about the rest; just go out and do it. And do it with purpose. If you're not ready to create something big, create something small. Let it grow. It doesn't matter what your scale, just create.

How do you plan for success?

That's an honest question. I have to admit I'm scared shitless of the idea of success.A lot of people are afraid of failure. I'm not.

We are nothing if not present tense

For the past couple of years, since I stopped being driven by The Almighty Search Ranking, I've been either a former writer or an aspiring writer. I'm not sure which is more dangerous of an attitude to take. "I used to do this," or "someday I'll do this." We are nothing if not present tense.

The universe isn't out to get you

the universe is busy dealing with entropy and eventually collapsing on itself. There are stars blowing up every day. Let me repeat. There are stars exploding every single day. There are comets careening around willy-nilly.

The universe could give a rat's ass if your power goes out while you're trying to make dinner, or the cable's on the fritz at kickoff, or if gravity took a beer glass from your hand and pulled it to the floor. I mean, gravity, for fuck's sake. It's keeping you on the planet, stopping you from floating up in the air and having your head blow up because it can't take the pressure.

You know what? If your head blows up? It's going to leave a hell of a lot less crap floating around the universe than those exploding stars. The universe isn't even concerned if your head blows up. It's not hiding your car keys, you just didn't put them on the hook when you got home yesterday.

More favorite motivational posts

My dog is more interesting than you
Want to crush life? Take a chance at getting crushed
6 tips for just getting on with your miserable fucking life

Working the tools: Six months with the Craft

The night after we put the house on the market in April, I was raised, as they say in Freemasonry, to the Sublime Degree of Master Mason. It was one of the more interesting and meaningful journeys I had taken to that point.

These have not been the easiest six months in my life. Not that they were particularly difficult, just stressful. We had a wedding, a planning process I was not prepared for. I spent three weeks laid up with poison ivy (they gave me steroids and everything). The house didn't sell, and now we're going through the process of trying to get it rented and figuring out our next chapter.

There are other things, too, perhaps more personal, that I won't get into. At any rate, things in the Shear household have been largely chaotic for a while, and to this point, the lessons of Masonry have been a good focus.

I have a long journey ahead in the Craft. I've delved into some local Masonic history. I've read some old books. I've held some old documents. Looked at the minutes of meetings of my Lodge from right about the time of the Civil War. I've spent most days this week at the lodge building, digging through the archives, sorting through piles of history that have been shoved in drawers and forgotten. I folded a flag with 45 stars (that puts it between 1896 and 1908). I hung an apron worn by a brother who was raised in 1912.

With the wind and the rain and the leaves and the cinnamon of the season, the dust feels warm, and being alone among the artifacts is a good reminder in a fast-paced, post-Empire world crying for novelty, adherence to ritual is just as important.

Without going too deeply into the more mundane details, Freemasonry, or speculative Masonry, uses the working tools of operative stonemasons to help us be better humans. The tools offer great lessons, and I've needed them a lot these past few months. The two-foot ruler reminds me to set aside time for the important things. The common gavel is used to chip away the stuff I just don't need. The square, to remember to be fair to everybody, especially in this time when we're trying to transact business.

"But what about your secrets?" I hear you cry. Here, give last week's Whence Came You? a listen. You needn't be a Freemason. You needn't want to be. I think it has great life secrets for all.

On ritual

We said our farewells to Fritz over the weekend. I don't expect you'll go read through his obituary, so I'll give you the gist.

Fred Mills, "Father Fritz" to his flock, was a reverend, a weightlifter, a hiker, and a Red Sox fan (a die-hard fan — literally — there was a Red Sox logo on the shroud covering his coffin at calling hours).

His family relationship to me is kind of tenuous on the surface. He is my wife's first cousins' stepfather — my wife's uncle and Fritz's widow raised a couple of women. Fritz had his own children coming into that marriage as well.

While Fritz's family stayed in New England (primarily Cape Cod), he lived in Central New York, and he was always at family gatherings. I met him first in 2010, five years after the stroke that ended his power-lifting days and his ability to hike on his own two legs. The three things I remembered from that first meeting were still true when I last saw him a couple of months ago:

• He had a crushing handshake. If you weren't ready for it, you risked taping up a couple of fingers for a week. And he held on for a lot longer than is generally deemed a social norm. One of his daughters inherited that grip and the hold, and I thought to mention it when we met.
• He looked you in the eye, not in a challenging way, but in a gentle, respectful way.
• He wanted to talk baseball. It was common ground, and since I grew up a Red Sox fan in Massachusetts, it was a good way for us to connect.

His funeral was at an Episcopal church. I don't really understand the inner workings, but strictly from a standpoint of observation, it's almost Anglican (Church of England), I guess. They take communion (so it's in a Catholic tradition), but priests can marry, they have female priests, and I didn't see any crucifixes (a cross being a cross, a crucifix having a crucified Jesus on the cross).

There were some rituals that were curious to me, an outsider (I'm Jewish). One was something they called in the program The Peace. It's a stopping point in the service during which you look around and wish those around you peace. The priest later explained the communion ritual (which I'm guessing changes a bit from church to church), but it was almost another half hour before the communion ceremony. Some of the readings began and ended with the priest elevating the bible above her head and making a declaration.

As I mentioned, these were curious to me, but they probably felt perfectly normal to someone else.

As some of you know, I'm a Freemason. One of the things that connects the fraternity to its past is its ritual, which can vary from place to place, but remains integral to every meeting and every degree ceremony.

The ritual is certainly unusual to an outsider, and was to me when I first saw it, but is now a mark of comfort that, no matter what else happens before, during or after the meeting, the meeting will open and close with ritual.

It's the same in many other organizations, including religious gatherings, fraternities, business, etc. People look to ritual to emulate others — do a search for morning ritual or rituals of successful people, and you'll get millions of options, some of them downright scary (like, say, Hunter S. Thompson's daily routine.

Watch some baseball players as they step up to bat. Some of them have elaborate rituals before they get in the batter's box, including touching different parts of their bodies, adjusting their uniforms or batting gloves, touching the bat to a specific point on home plate, etc.

Ritual guides us in practice, connects us to our past, and brings us a comfort of familiarity in unfamiliar situations.

What are your rituals?

Becoming a Freemason

One of the more interesting and worthwhile endeavors I've undertaken recently is becoming a Freemason. I'll be raised to Master Mason (3rd degree, for those not in the know) on April 15 – any brothers reading are certainly welcome to visit for the degree ceremony (meeting at 7 p.m., Lodge details here and the usual visiting rules apply, of course).

I have a family connection to the Fraternity: both of my grandfathers were Masons. While I didn't really know my paternal grandfather, Milton Shear (he died when I was 2), I was close with my maternal grandfather, Bernard Tuttle, who I knew growing was a Shriner, but I didn't recognize his connection to Masonry until he died. He was a 32nd degree Mason, and I was recently sent his degree certificate, which is an interesting artifact, as well as an heirloom, which I'll of course have framed.

I also have, through Freemasonry, a connection to some great people throughout history, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, a total of 52 signers of the Declaration of Independence and at least 16 U.S. presidents (including Gerald Ford, who was a 33rd degree Mason, the highest degree).

Groucho Marx is famously credited as having said that he wouldn't want to belong to a club that would have him for a member, and when I was at the other end of that spectrum – looking for a club to belong to that wasn't actively seeking me as a member – I went looking to the Freemasons.

I first wrote to my local Lodge in application over a year ago, in March of 2013. I didn't hear from them for a couple of months, when several Lodge members came to the house to interview me, and then I didn't hear from them again for almost six months, when I was told the initiation ceremony for the first degree (Entered Apprentice) would take place in December. After being initiated, it was again six weeks before I was contacted, and mentored through the degree work; I was passed to Fellowcraft in March of this year.

There seem to be few things, these days, that take preparation, time and work, and largely take place through the mail and in people's living rooms.

Since I've told some friends that I'm undertaking this endeavor, there are two questions I get a lot:

(1) Didn't you at one time actually have to be a mason to become a Freemason? and
(2) Aren't the Freemasons a secret society? Why are you telling me?

To answer the first, yes. Operative masons – people who built buildings – were the first Freemasons, and Speculative Masonry, which is what Freemasonry is today, can be traced back, at least on paper, to 1717, and still uses as spiritual tools common operative masonic tools, like the square and compasses, which are prominently displayed on Lodge buildings and pretty much everywhere throughout the Freemasonic world.

To answer the second, well, kinda sorta not really. Question mark? You can always tell a Lodge by the square and compasses on the side of the building. Masons are not asked to keep their membership a secret. Many of their works are public, from appearances in parades to Shriners hospitals and circuses to (in some states, like New York) the Child Identification Program (CHIP) to places like the Masonic Care Community in Utica.

And there's plenty of information on the Web, and of course in books, many of them written by Masons, so they'd know.

Some people look at the names of Freemasons – Washington, Franklin, Adolf Fredrick (18th century king of Sweden), Salvador Allende, both Leopold and Wolfgang Mozart, James Naismith, Gene Autry, Count Basie, Simon Bolivar – and think with all that power and celebrity, there must be some conspiracy at hand. I looked at the list of Freemasons and said, hey, if all those great people wanted to be a part of this, I want to be a part of it, too.

Anyway, that's the long version. But it's one of the things I'm up to these days.