Despite American’s cultural condemnation of smoking, pipes have retained their cultural panache free of scrutiny.
American culture has condemned the lowly smoker, who has gone from openly smoking while broadcasting the news to exile in cold office parking lots. Smoking cigarettes has lost its air of sophistication for men and women alike, who once could not even enjoy a smoke equally. We often forget that not long ago, it was “unladylike” for a woman to be seen smoking in public and advertisers marked women’s liberation by marketing cigarettes specifically to women in the 1960s and 1970s. Virginia Slims declared that women had “come a long way” and could now ruin their health just like men, free of social stigma.
But the condemnation now levied on smokers of all genders exempts the pipe, which still enjoys a smaller and mostly male following. Pipes have even retained their cultural panache free of scrutiny. James Bond has not smoked a cigarette onscreen for 25 years, and the last time he did, the film was preceded by a message from the studio insisting that it did not endorse smoking.
Gandalf and Sherlock Holmes, however, still possess an air of gravitas when smoking their pipes, which have become part of their characters. One could not imagine Tolkien’s wizard tearing open a pack of Parliaments as he told Frodo that the spirit of Sauron still lived, extinguishing the used butt in a cup of tea. The smoke looks the same, but the message is decidedly different.
Even among dedicated pipe smokers, one rarely sees a woman stuffing tobacco into a pipe. Culturally, the image of a woman smoking a pipe still raises eyebrows and not one of us could avoid a double take if we saw a woman with a pipe in the airport smoking area. The juxtaposition of a woman and a pipe is typically used to suggest lower class, as tales passed down of an old Irish ancestor of mine place her firmly in her rocking chair, puffing her pipe in our ancestral dirt-floor home outside of Galway. We come from peasant roots, the pipe is meant to convey.
Men’s cultural command of the pipe has ancient origins, when pipes were used mostly for ceremonial purposes and tobacco was an expensive luxury. Since men controlled both the conduct of ritual and the community’s money, pipe smoking naturally became a male privilege. Centuries later, changes in attitudes and mass-produced (and more easily smoked) cigarettes proved more appealing to smokers just as the gender bias dissipated. As a result, the pipe’s association with traditional masculinity stayed frozen in time with few female smokers interested in joining the gentlemen’s club of pipe smoking.
I am not really a smoker, but I don’t mind the smell of it in a restaurant or pub. What people do to themselves is their own business. And pipe smoke was the backdrop of much of my childhood growing up with a father who preferred Mac Baren’s “plumcake” tobacco. The distinct aroma was certainly more pleasant than cigarettes and a single molecule of plumcake in the air immediately transports me back to my childhood.
And, I must admit, I have indulged myself. Once a year, every year, I place some Virginia Cavendish tobacco in my own pipe and strike a match. It’s not the tobacco, per se, that draws me to it every Halloween. To be honest, I usually get a headache in fifteen minutes.
But every year, my childhood friends gather on a remote mountain in New Hampshire on the weekend closest to Halloween. The “Halloween Hike,” we call it, and we have done it every year since 1986. We just completed the 29th Annual Halloween Hike and look forward to Year 30, a hike to celebrate three decades of companionship. It’s a tradition we have kept alive along with our friendships, which are nourished by our annual meeting around the fire along with our bellies, compliments of Cooky the chef.
One will not find trail mix or freeze-dried anything on the Halloween Hike. Fire-roasted legs of lamb, beef stew, personal-sized pastries with reduced berry glaze, doughnuts made from scratch, and gallons of coffee are the norm among the “Tea Fellowship,” as we came to be known somewhere along the way.
Smoking has become part of our tradition too, perhaps oddly, given that none of us are “smokers.”
It started with cigars long ago. Parodi cigars, specifically, given more dash when we found out Cooky’s father-in-law smoked them in combat during the Vietnam War. One year, Tea Fellow Vin pulled out a briar pipe, forgoing his usual cigar. He endured some ribbing and we all seemed awfully young to be smoking pipes. But he persisted, filling the northern woods with the sweet smell of pipe tobacco.
At some point in the 2000s, pipes became the norm. We still bring cigars, but they sit mostly unsmoked in our backpacks. Somehow, we never marked the transition or even noticed it but before long, each personality found a corresponding pipe. Scott with his battered corncob pipe jutting from his teeth, shaded by his Red Sox cap that was faded from overuse. Jason and his stubby, compact pipe of orange briar. My long-necked churchwarden that allows me to smoke it without lifting if from my knee. Every pipe found its man.
It wasn’t a difficult decision to switch to pipes, though preparing a pipe for smoking requires more effort and patience than a cigarette. In 2014, there are few habits that make us wait for anything; we manically check our smartphones for the thousandth time in two minutes and strum our fingers nervously while we wait for YouTube to load.
But a pipe has no patience for you. You must carefully pack your tobacco in its bowl with enough air between the leaves to feed the embers but tightly enough to allow the flame to spread. You must touch it with the fire and allow it to catch, shielding it from wind but not taking longer than a match allows. It takes concentration, which can be a rare accomplishment today and even revelatory when done in the silence of the forest where your cellphone has no bars to find. When you can clear the static and concentrate like that, you start to see the other moments all around you take shape in tandem with the lassos of smoke you have brought to life. And that’s a good mindset to be in if you are at risk of forgetting friendships that have endured for thirty years and stop for a moment to notice they are with you around a roaring oak fire.
The writer and inventor Lin Yu-tang said that the proper enjoyment of tobacco “can only be developed in an atmosphere of leisure, friendship and sociability. For it is only with men gifted with the sense of comradeship, extremely select in the matter of forming friends” that the enjoyment of tobacco is possible.
It’s not the pipe that brings pleasure, really. If it was, I would smoke it more than once a year. And, it’s an unhealthy habit. The pipe certainly contributed to the oral cancer that killed my father and that reality hangs in the air each time I light my pipe around the campfire. And perhaps our notion that women would look silly smoking them warrants examination as well.
Women have their own rituals, of course, when they gather with their friends and not all men break out pipes when they do the same. Most don’t have the patience to master the art of keeping it lit or endure the friendly teasing they will get from others.
And it is women more than men who comment on my return to the White Mountains to be with my old friends every year. They openly express their pleasure that I even still have friends that old.
“I wish my husband had that,” they often say.
Most women I talk to understand the need for their husbands or brothers to enrich their lives with male friendships and speak of it more willingly than us men. But if some eccentric pipe smoking is a quiet way we can celebrate our fraternal bonds while in each other’s company, it frees us from having to find the words.
Sometimes, a pipe is just a pipe, of course. And while pipes may accompany rituals, they can’t create them. This lesson is quickly learned by those who place a pipe in their mouths and wait for something magical to happen, though that hope keeps the price of briar high.
The rituals in our lives worth observing require patience and the ability to slow down, to breath in the moment when others are itching to check their email. The same kind of patience one needs to keep an ember alive in a carved bowl of briar. The person who appreciates both in the proper order, man or woman, is someone who knows the power of a quiet moment in good company.
And they do not, generally speaking, consider themselves smokers.
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