WANT TO JOIN MY JUNTO?

This past August, as I often do around that time of year, I found myself sitting in the middle of the Nevada desert contemplating existential questions with like-minded music makers and dreamers of dreams. Burning Man has become my week-long New Year’s Eve – the point where the new year begins and I look back at the last 12 months and my life and my place in the grand scheme of things.

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This year I managed to make it over to the TEDX tent, where there was a large, open-air geodesic auditorium constructed just for the Burn. I sat there in the dust for a few hours on Thursday, hearing various TED talk presentations. Most of them were pretty much bullshit, but one did really spoke to me. It was about Benjamin Franklin and a club he founded called The Junto. If they tried to teach me this in high school, I must have been skipping that day.

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In 1727, founding father and all-American bad ass Benjamin Franklin was apparently a bit bored with being merely an expert printer, and more importantly, he decided he was not done learning. Not by a damn sight. He organized a group of friends to provide a structured forum for discussion, in the hopes of expanding their minds and teaching each other their respective trades. The group, initially composed of twelve members, called itself the Junto (derived from the Spanish “to join”, and seemingly mis-pronounced with a hard J). The members of the Junto were drawn from diverse occupations and backgrounds, but they all shared a spirit of inquiry and a desire to improve themselves, their community, and to help others. Among the original members were printers, surveyors, a cabinetmaker, a cobbler, a clerk, a bartender, an astrologer, and a merchant.

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From his autobiography:
“I had form’d most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased. Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.”

The Junto’s Friday evening meetings were organized around a series of questions that Ben devised, covering a range of intellectual, personal, business, and community topics. These questions were used as a springboard for discussion and community action. Through the Junto, Franklin promoted many institutions which we now take for granted, like public libraries, volunteer fire-fighting clubs, neighborhood watchmen, and public hospitals, to name but a few.

THE 24 QUESTIONS
The 24 questions that the Junto addressed weekly.

1. Have you met with any thing in the author you last read, remarkable, or suitable to be communicated to the Junto? particularly in history, morality, poetry, physics, travels, mechanic arts, or other parts of knowledge?

2. What new story have you lately heard agreeable for telling in conversation?

3. Hath any citizen in your knowledge failed in his business lately, and what have you heard of the cause?

4. Have you lately heard of any citizen’s thriving well, and by what means?

5. Have you lately heard how any present rich man, here or elsewhere, got his estate?

6. Do you know of any fellow citizen, who has lately done a worthy action, deserving praise and imitation? or who has committed an error proper for us to be warned against and avoid?

7. What unhappy effects of intemperance have you lately observed or heard? of imprudence? of passion? or of any other vice or folly?

8. What happy effects of temperance? of prudence? of moderation? or of any other virtue?

9. Have you or any of your acquaintance been lately sick or wounded? If so, what remedies were used, and what were their effects?

10. Who do you know that are shortly going [on] voyages or journeys, if one should have occasion to send by them?

11. Do you think of any thing at present, in which the Junto may be serviceable to mankind? to their country, to their friends, or to themselves?

12. Hath any deserving stranger arrived in town since last meeting, that you heard of? and what have you heard or observed of his character or merits? and whether think you, it lies in the power of the Junto to oblige him, or encourage him as he deserves?

13. Do you know of any deserving young beginner lately set up, whom it lies in the power of the Junto any way to encourage?

14. Have you lately observed any defect in the laws, of which it would be proper to move the legislature an amendment? Or do you know of any beneficial law that is wanting?

15. Have you lately observed any encroachment on the just liberties of the people?

16. Hath any body attacked your reputation lately? and what can the Junto do towards securing it?

17. Is there any man whose friendship you want, and which the Junto, or any of them, can procure for you?

18. Have you lately heard any member’s character attacked, and how have you defended it?

19. Hath any man injured you, from whom it is in the power of the Junto to procure redress?

20. In what manner can the Junto, or any of them, assist you in any of your honourable designs?

21. Have you any weighty affair in hand, in which you think the advice of the Junto may be of service?

22. What benefits have you lately received from any man not present?

23. Is there any difficulty in matters of opinion, of justice, and injustice, which you would gladly have discussed at this time?

24. Do you see any thing amiss in the present customs or proceedings of the Junto, which might be amended?

The TED speaker told us about Ben and his junto, with the intention of encouraging those present to take this notion of endless learning home with us. The idea that we could form small communities who shared this ethos, and spread it slowly like a very friendly virus.

Like I said, this really spoke to me.

LET’S DO THIS

When I got back from Nevada, I began plotting devising a plan to start my very own Junto. And why not? I am surrounded by fascinating and brilliant friends and acquaintances who know SO MUCH that I don’t know. They read more books than me. They subscribe to different magazines. They watch cooler documentaries. They’re from different backgrounds. Different ethnicities. Different mindsets. All I need to do is access them. Give them a forum for their own littler TED Talk. I had nothing to lose.

I did do a bit of web research to see who else out there has formed Juntos. I was a bit dismayed to discover most of them seem to be right wing Ayn Randers. Oh well. Not mine. Nine is going to be fucking cool as shit.

As luck would have it, 2 weeks after my return, I was invited to spend the weekend at a rustic old hunting lodge in update NY with eight other guys – five of my closest friends, and three work buddies of our host. This group included three advertising Creative Directors, one of whom has a taco empire on the side, a commercial director, myself, and three investment bankers. Their backgrounds can be traced back to Korea, Uruguay, Puerto Rico, The Black Forest, Boston, Cincinnati, and some unknown exits off of the L.I.E. Due to certain activities that took place that weekend, their names must sadly remain unspoken. But I can assure you they’re all intellectually curious fellows whom you’d be lucky to have a beer with. Not to mention, a hunting lodge from the 1800s seemed like a setting befitting Mr Franklin’s old timey landed gentry steez of yore. The Junto was actually going to happen!

The original plan was to simply spend a weekend in the woods drinking bourbon and possibly shooting guns or not, depending on whether you who may be reading this is a member of law enforcement. I just needed to squeeze the first Junto meeting in there, somewhere.

I sent an Email off to the group, telling them the story above, giving them the 24 questions, and requesting that they bring something of interest to discuss. How much they followed through or not was out of my hands at this point.

TALK ABOUT IT BE ABOUT IT

I then had to figure out what I wanted to present. The questions are so broad, I feel like just about anything is on the table, but I kept thinking to myself: “what would Ben Franklin do?” I mean, he was smack dab in the middle of the Age of Enlightenment, and he was clearly trying to bring to light the newest and most profound ideas of his time. So what is a present day equivalent? This conundrum consumed me for days.

After much consternation, I settled on the absurdly out-of-my-depth task of attempting to explain The Multiverse Theory. It’s a scientific mind-fuck that I had heard batted around and referenced for years, but didn’t really grasp to any satisfying degree.

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I spent the next 7 days on the web, soaking up every article I could find, trying to piece together a presentation that would lay out the basics. I went back and forth via Email with my father, a retired physicist by trade and a lifelong astronomy nut. He was kind enough to review and critique my simplistic descriptions and help me wade through the physics references they never taught me in art school. After a lot of copying and pasting and some considerable editing, I managed to put together a power point presentation I was proud to claim as my first foray into scientific discourse, however shamelessly plagiarized and half-baked it may have been.

THE MINISTER OF FUNNY HATS

Oh shit I almost forgot. Two days prior, one of the members suggested I bring 9 red fezzes, to really give the affair a cult-like air about it that Ben franklin might appreciate (he was, after all, a 33rd degree mason and big kahuna or grand dragon or whatever of the Philadelphia Lodge). As it turns out, its damn near impossible to find a store in the 5 boroughs that has 9 red fezzes in stock. Costume stores had a few, but they really sucked. Some hat store clerk told me to go to the stately Freemason headquarters on 23rd St, because they had their own fez store. I ran in there on my lunch hour and had a hilariously embarrassing conversation with a kindly and more-than-patient African American freemason who was clearly in charge of stopping idiots like me from getting in the building.

“I’m here to buy some fezzes. Can you direct me to the fez store?” I asked, eagerly and earnestly.

“The WHAT?” he was very confused.

“You know, the fez store. I want to buy 9 fezzes from you.” I declared.

“Son… what on earth are you talking about?” he asked with a furrowed brow “Are you a member here?”

“Um, no. Not a member. Just need some fezzes. Like, NINE of them, to be exact. Ideally red… but I’ll settle for anything at this point. It’s for this thing I’m doing on the weekend. It’s a long story.”

“First of all, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” He Lectured. “We don’t wear fezzes. That’s the Scottish Rite. And when you join, you get all of their accoutrements, including a fez. I can direct you on how to contact them if you’d like.”

As annoyed with me as he was, he was still graciously polite. I realized I was just looking like an ass at this point and apologized profusely for wasting his time before making a hasty exit. So, no fezzes. I did manage to borrow Alison’s big furry Grand Puba hat that she wears at Burning Man. The idea being, at least the person presenting can be wearing a funny hat. Makes sense.

I LOVE IT WHEN A PLAN COMES TOGETHER

The weekend itself was awesome. The hunting lodge was gorgeous. The Shining meets Moonrise Kingdom. It was located 3 hours from Manhattan near Monticello, on a massive plot of land with 3 lakes, 30 private cabins. a tennis court, a boat house, 2 gun ranges, and 7000 acres of woods. Yes, 7000 acres.

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I brought up the Junto during dinner on Friday night, asking people if they were as excited as I was to get down to cerebral business. The collective reaction was expectedly varied. Several of the guys were indeed very psyched. Some asked “wait, you were SERIOUS about that?”, and a few admitted to not having even read the damn Email at all. LOL. Typical. But I was not to be deterred. This was my fucking Junto weekend, and they were gonna hear all about the fucking Multiverse whether they liked it or not.

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We spent Saturday afternoon doing manly outdoorsy things and reconsidering if the NRA was really such a bad lot after all. After a delicious catered dinner that night, as the dessert was being brought out and the bourbon being poured, I called the first Junto meeting to order.

For starters, the hat was a BIG hit. Never underestimate the power of a big, funny hat. A solid ice-breaker and it adds a level of absurdity that somehow takes the pressure off whatever you’re actually saying.

To my delight, my Multiverse presentation was received with open minds and eager ears. I stuttered my way through it, supported by some nice power point slides. You can check it out HERE if you’re curious. It sparked a lively debate and everyone seemed genuinely fascinated by the implications. The meeting was off to a great start.

We soon retired to a nearby den inside the lodge, complete with animal heads, dark red leather couches and a roaring fireplace. Mixed with the bourbon, it could not have been more perfect setting to continue conjuring up the spirit of Mr Franklin.

The rest of the evening was fantastic. Even those that hadn’t prepared anything felt compelled to participate. Everyone wanted a turn wearing the funny hat.

We debated the ills of money in politics. We debated the state of education in the digital age. We all accepted a challenge to integrate an act of thankless giving to a stranger or strangers into our lives in the next 3 months. The oldest member gave a short speech about how precious time really is. One guy played a song on his guitar. Another told an amazing story about his father’s harrowing yet inspiring experience in solitary confinement as a political prisoner. Each and every subject was treated with respect and a keen interest from all. It was truly inspiring and altogether unprecedented. This went on very late into the evening. Even the chef from the catering company was compelled to speak. She shared a personal and very dramatic story from her own life that involved political corruption, a custody battle, and a machete-wielding Serbian gangster. The night just kept giving and giving.

The next morning, I packed the big furry hat away and we said our goodbyes. Everyone seemed genuinely moved to have participated in such a rare event. In short, the first Junto was a SMASHING success. To have an entire night purposely devoted to intellectual enlightenment and debate was truly something very special.

THE FIRST RULE OF JUNTO IS…

I cannot wait to do the next one. And I plan to do more than one. I want this to be like Fight Club, where they just spread organically. Surely you know 10 or so people who could teach you something they already know. Wouldn’t that be fucking cool? You’re damn right it would be.

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