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?

Allow your plan to change

Among other books, I'm reading The Great Shark Hunt by Hunter S. Thompson. It's a collection of essays, some published, some unpublished, all Thompson. One of the essays is the jacket copy from his classic book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

I've read Fear and Loathing, but I read it in paperback, which means I didn't get the jacket copy when I read the book.

It's a good reminder that the book started out as an assignment for Sports Illustrated, which wanted Thompson to write a 250-word caption for a motorcycle race in Las Vegas.

That's right. It's a sports book.

It's also a true crime book. The lawyer on the trip was an L.A. lawyer Thompson was using as a primary source on an investigative news piece about a shooting by sheriffs in the Hispanic community, and because Thompson wasn't a member of that community, it was clear to the reporter the only person who wanted him interviewing the lawyer was the lawyer.

Thompson took him to the motorcycle race so that they could get out of the community and could talk.

There were plans for the trip highlighted in the book, and while maybe the objectives laid out – the investigative news piece and the race caption – were achieved, at some point for Thompson the plan changed and the book that became the legacy of that trip was something else altogether.

Just because it wasn't the plan, doesn't mean it didn't get accomplished. In fact, something bigger came out of it.

The lesson here is that you need to allow your objectives to evolve.

I saw this with some running this week. I was going to see how many days in a row I could run for 30 minutes, but it only took two days to realize that wasn't a sustainable plan. Day 1 I ran for 30 minutes and some change then couldn't get much of a resistance workout in because I was just done. Day 2 I did a great resistance workout and puttered at 17 minutes of running.

Rather than let it get to me, I've changed my goal to 120 minutes of running a week for three straight weeks. I don't care how far I go, or how fast, the cardio, joint and muscular endurance are important to me.

Day 3 I knew two things: I was returning to the tennis court for the first time in 15 months, and I was dropping my car off at the shop. So what I did was drop my car at the shop and run 15 minutes to work, then after work I ran 15 minutes back to the shop. That gave me plenty of rest and recovery time for tennis, and got me 30 more minutes for the week.

That left me 43 minutes of running to do in 4 days; an easy enough average that I could take a rest day (or 2!) and still hit my goal.

I adjusted my goal downward, yes, but certainly didn't make it easy on myself.

Start off with a plan, but don't quit when it looks like that plan isn't going to work out. Be willing to evolve with the circumstances, otherwise you're just going to keep running into a wall.

The weekend's coming. Don't forget to do something important and to make the time to create something.

Who are your favorite writers? Why?

My favorite writers are songwriters.

This is, in no small part, because I am also a songwriter (and I've dabbled in performance poetry).

When I sit down to write or edit, I either have Mozart in my ears (I have a CD with his 40th and 41st symphonies on it that has irretrievably increased my productivity with frequency), or I have Tom Waits graveling in the headphones, hoping that maybe something will rub off on me. This small bit from "The Ghosts of Saturday Night (After Hours at Napoleone's Pizza House)" is what puts me over the edge.

...a solitary sailor who spends the facts of his life like small change on strangers paws his inside P-coat pocket for a welcomed 25 cents and the last bent butt from a packet of Kents as he dreams of a waitress with Maxwell House eyes and marmalade thighs and scrambled yellow hair.

. Yeah, that.

I'm also a big fan of the late Bill Morrissey, an unassuming, small-framed New Englander who died in his 50s right about this time last year. In addition to recommending to me one of my favorite guitar pickers, Mississippi John Hurt, he wrote a book called Edson, which is one of my favorites because it feels right – like four feet of soft powder on a grey Sunday with a fire in the fireplace and the power out and no chance of getting to the grocery store so you're stuck with the last of the week's wine and Oreos.

Local Twitterer Jason Mintz recommended I read Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I've only read him in translation (he writes in Spanish), but if ever ink spoke like satin sheets, Zafon has found the recipe.

You'll also see in my current reading list I'm back to Hunter S. Thompson. Most of you know I'm a recovering reporter, and Thompson taught me one really important thing that a lot of reporters still won't admit: if I'm part of a story and I still think it's a story, it is a story. "I" and "we" are even more powerful than "he" and "they" because I can describe how someone else thought something went, or I can describe how I saw it. Guess which description is going to come out more interesting reading? The second, of course.

Who should I be reading? You tell me!

What I’m reading

As part of the important stuff, I'm doing more reading. I'm going to keep a lot of books going for a little while, I think. All four books listed here are books I'm currently reading; not what I've recently read.

Days After the Crash by Joshua Fields Millburn. Millburn says that in the Internet age, while genre fiction certainly enjoys a large readership, literary fiction is in decline. I know I'm reading less of it (though I still do have my favorites). He's written this novella to challenge himself, and he's made it challenging for readers (as in, you actually have to focus and pay attention if you want to understand what's going on). The introduction was worth the time; I'm just getting to the meat.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I'm hoping this book gives me a little insight into myself – and not in a Steven Covey sort of way. I'm just through the first chapter, and it's fascinating. In the late 19th century, we were a country that prized character; in the 20th century we became a country that prized charisma. The "extrovert ideal," as Cain labels it (I'm sure she didn't invent the term), says that if we're quiet and reserved and like to think and hang out by ourselves, there's probably something wrong with us. That probably explains the high percentage of people who are on anti-anxiety meds in the U.S.

The Secret History of the World by Mark Booth. It turns out that there are a lot of books with similar titles. Booth has always been fascinated by secret societies (Freemasons, Knights Templar, Rosicrucians, etc.), and he's written a book about some of their beliefs and where we see them in everyday life. Also, he's an editor at a major British publishing house, so he's not some crackpot on the street corner with a pen and a conspiracy theory.

The Great Shark Hunt by Hunter S. Thompson. If I'm going to do more writing, clearly I need to be reading stuff by people whose writing I really enjoy. So, back to Dr. Gonzo I ran.

Also on tap this summer: Darwin, Plato, Guevara, and more.