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The Importance of Ritual

I just put on a record, which was a much more involved process than you might think. My first step was to turn on my amplifier, which in turn provides power to my turntable. I removed the cloth draped over my turntable (no hinged plastic cover for me) and placed it on top of the short stand that holds my jazz and electronic albums. This is where the cloth goes, no exceptions.

Next I selected an album from my collection–in this case David Gilmour’s About Face–and slid the adjacent record out a bit so that there was no doubt where to refile old Dave when I was through with him. I removed the record from its outer sleeve and propped the album cover behind the turntable, as if I still worked in a record store and needed to display what was now playing. The inner sleeve found its rightful place on top of my turntable’s protective cloth, and I placed the record on the platter.

Cleaning records before playing them is important for many reasons. Doing so extends the life of both your records and your stylus, and who wants to hear dust’s staticky clicks and pops? I put four drops of cleaning fluid on my Discwasher, the only record cleaner I’ve ever used, and carefully set the leading edge of the Discwasher’s felt pad on the record. Finger on label–always on label–I manually rotated the platter with one hand while slowly rolling the record cleaner from front edge to rear edge. When I was done I marveled at the amount of dust a Discwasher picks up from a seemingly clean record, an observation I’ve made literally thousands of times over the last 40 years.

Time to check the stylus. No matter how much gunk a record cleaner picks up it seems that there’s always some left behind. If you aren’t paying attention, after a few records you’ll have a little dust ball clinging to your needle. I didn’t see any hangers-on, but just in case I got out my Discwasher stylus brush and gave my needle a quick cleaning.

Finally, I flicked open the little latch that holds my tonearm in place, carefully placed the needle on the record’s lead-in groove, hit the switch, and About Face came to life.

All of this is more than a process: It’s a ritual, and fortunately for me it’s a socially acceptable one. Many of my other rituals are at best considered eccentric and at worst pathological. I count things in groups of four–four drops of cleaning fluid, four breaths, four steps, on and on. My toothbrushing ritual probably seems elaborate bordering on insane, though it’s quite good for shiny teeth, and don’t even get me started on beverages in restaurants. Without medication my need for ritual sprawls into a pretty significant problem. Fortunately, taking meds is a ritual of its own.

That’s what many people picture when they think of ritual–the batshit crazy neighbor with the handwashing problem–but all humans need rituals. Children gravitate naturally toward a bedtime ritual, for example, and woe unto the parent who deviates from the rules. Brushing teeth after story time? What are we, savages? People of all faiths take comfort in religious rituals from sacrifice to head covering to communion to Bodhisattva prayer.

Holidays consist of elaborate rituals, many of which have lost their original meanings: eggs in the yard, offering candy to children in skeleton masks, turkey on Thanksgiving and black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. Checking door locks four times is loony tunes, but dragging an evergreen into the family room and stringing lights on it; well that’s just plain normal.

Manners for the most part are elaborate social rituals, and much like holiday rituals their origins often are no longer relevant. We don’t shake hands to demonstrate that we’re free of weapons, nor do we greet a sneeze with “God bless you” because we’re protecting the sneezer from demons. We engage in social rituals of this sort because they affirm (or reaffirm) social bonds.

Over time these social rituals die or evolve. We no longer tip our hats, for example, because we no longer wear tipping-worthy hats. Can you imagine trying to tip a beanie or slowly raising your MAGA ball cap? Dining rituals are all but gone–which fork to use, pushing your soup spoon away rather than toward you, on and on. It’s not just dining rituals, either: Victorian courting rituals are absurd by today’s standards. Heck, most of the time my daughter’s high school boyfriend didn’t even knock on the door when he came to pick her up. Rather, he texted her from the driveway and the only person that bothered was me.

The Coronavirus may do away with the handshake. I went to lunch with a couple of friends last week, and rather than the customary handshake we exchanged elbow bumps. They were offered half in jest, I think, but the underlying “keep your cooties to yourself” was as loud and clear in 2020 as “I’m holding no weapon” would have been in 1520. Perhaps 500 years from now the eight surviving humans will routinely bump elbows, never questioning why they do so.

Rituals out of context seem insane, or at least exotic. Americans still think the bow is weird and the Iraqi shoe throw is simply bizarre. Even within our culture, the context of time is essential. Texting and social media have their own social rituals that would seem insane during another historical period. Imagine Abraham Lincoln saying “like” every time someone made an observation aloud, or punctuating his Gettysburg Address with emoticons.

Habits and rituals sometimes overlap. Ritual is the sole reason I envy smokers, specifically smokers of my grandfather’s kind. The old man rolled his own smokes, which was fascinating to watch, and he never used disposable lighters. No, he maintained his silver lighter, which involved flints, wicks, and lighter fluid. So many steps, so much to do. His smoking habit involved elaborate process, which my child brain translated as ritual. Pipe smoking seems much the same, but picking up a pack of smokes and a Bic? Meh. Where’s the fun in that?

Unfortunately, many of our rituals end up displaced like Zippos for the convenience of ritual-free Bics. Why go through all of my steps to spin a record when you can simply stream the same music? Why decorate Easter eggs when you can buy them predecorated? Some of our current rituals, like Black Friday and Super Bowl parties, are grounded in nothing more than consuming stuff. They are Bic holidays: cheap, packaged, and disposable.

It’s depressing to watch my friends and neighbors embrace these empty faux rituals. How does camping in front of a Wal-Mart after Thanksgiving dinner feed one’s soul? I guess at least with a Super Bowl party there’s some sense of temporary fraternity, which many of us lack since fraternal orders like the Elks and the Moose fell out of favor in the ’60s and ’70s. College fraternities and sororities might be the only popular organizations to still engage in those sorts of rituals. The rest of us are left with seven layer dip and pretending we care who wins the big game or which was the best commercial.

We crave ritual so much that when we’re shut out of mainstream culture we find alternative rituals. Ask any junkie and you’re likely to hear that the heroin ritual is as important as the high–the paraphenalia, the process. Getting jumped into a gang is a painful but essential ritual. Organizations like the Mafia and the Hell’s Angels have rituals not too dissimilar from those observed by fraternal organizations like the Masons or the Elks–initiations, oaths, ranks and what not. I would imagine that some percentage of people who join extremist organizations like the Klan are attracted to their elaborate rituals.

How will societies change when most of waking life takes place online, when our entire lives become plastic Bic facsimiles of our Zippo uniqueness? Will emojis and clicking “like” feel like meaningful substitutes for opening doors or saying “God bless you”? What would I do with my time if forced to give up my record rituals for music streaming? Would I value the music as much as I do when I can touch and care for it, or would it be Bic music that I use and discard?

Rituals provide comfort and bind us together. We need them, so don’t be so dismissive of that Civil War reenactment weirdo who lives at the end of your block. Instead, next time you see him give him a tip of your hat.

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4 replies »

  1. You said it brother! I think there is a certain percentage of nostalgia involved in record playing. Most people with your average stereo setup would be hard pressed to weigh in on the sound difference between MP3 and analog. I myself have some bands that I regularly buy on vinyl and some that I just download. When I do get the vinyl though… I clean it, play it, store it in plastic sleeve and Mark that it is both clean and plays without issues. Hardly any ritual at all. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

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