On Pipe Smoking: or Extreme sports for rocking chair athletes.

When I was ten years old my brother and I sat around the kitchen table with my parents and explained, like everyday, what we had learned in school. It was a Tuesday which means a police officer representing DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) had come to our school to speak about the horrors of drugs (mostly tobacco) and alcohol. My brother and I shared that we now better understood that if we smoked a cigarette we would become addicted to smoking and probably die within a few months of emphysema. Additionally if we so dared (ahem) to take a drink of alcohol we would quickly spiral in to alcoholism and die within a few weeks.

Public education fared us relatively well, all things considered, but this was the first time I remember my father literally being at a loss for words. He simply stood up from the dinner table and left. My mother, brother, and I cleaned the table up after our dinner and about a half an hour later my father returned with a plastic bag in his hand and told us to head in to the garage. There he placed a cigar in my mouth and a beer in my hand. He told me to smoke and drink, pointed a finger at my face, looked me in the eye, and said, "You're not gonna die." [1]

After that the luster wore off of smoking and drinking and it was simply something we did every family reunion or big holiday. It didn't matter if you were 8 or 78, you smoked a cigar, drank a beer, and enjoyed the presence of your family.

Later, in sixth grade our school asked each student to sign a pledge that we would never drink alcohol or smoke any tobacco products. A paper I refused to sign, but I was the only one. I knew a few would probably actually keep their pledge, but not because of what they signed. There was a lot of pressure, but I remember the look of respect on my teacher's face when I angrily declared it foolishness for a sixth grade kid to say he would never do something I for one was so certain I would do.

"You're not gonna die."

Yes, smoking can kill you. In fact cigarette smoking is responsible for significantly increasing your chance of getting a relatively rare disease (lung cancer), although some even deny that [2]. But it's really just a minor risk for a great pleasure. Eating too many Skittles will likely rot your teeth out and kill you too, but there isn't the same stigma associated with skittles as there is with smoke (at least not yet). People will complain about Johnny, "He's a smoker," they'll whisper behind his back. But few people will complain about Betsy, "She's a Skittle-r."[3]

Whatever the case I like to think of pipe smoking as an extreme sport for rocking chair athletes. Wikipedia defines extreme sports as "certain activities perceived as having a high level of inherent danger. These activities often involve speed, height, a high level of physical exertion, and highly specialized gear." While smoking does not need to involve speed or height, a rocking chair can easily cause me to gear up to my limits of physical exertion in a hurry, and smoking definitely requires specialized gear—especially for the pipe smoker.

But really it's just that in the same way a skateboarder knows that flying 10 feet above a half-pipe to do a trick isn't exactly the best way to ensure long life past 70, a pipe smoker watches him from the audience enjoying the view and the smoke obscuring it. In the same way a paraglider wouldn't give up his pastime for three mothers-in-law telling him it'll kill him someday, a smoker brings his pipes to his in-laws on Christmas to enjoy a smoke in the backyard.

If you ask the skateboarder, paraglider, or pipe smoker why he does it he simply responds, "Because I love it!"

Smoking later gained some traction for me when my dad got a new job and we moved to the Middle East where a hookah is just a part of life. In 10th grade I smoked my weight in hookah tobacco every month, and it was glorious. Then in return to America I simply quit. Didn't really even miss it. Apparently I lack much for an addictive personality.

Then at 18, in a park sitting on top of a picnic table my youth pastor introduced me to a corn cob pipe asking, "You sure your dad is going to be okay with this?" Yes. I was fairly certain he would be. And this carried me through college with more than a few evenings spent enjoying something purchased from the local smoke shop. Usually some vanilla or black cavendish, but trying just about everything. I purchased a few pipes over time and cracked one or two of the bowls smoking them too quickly and without enough of a rest between smokes.

There are many versions of a saying which says something to the effect of: a cigarette is like girl friend you just use and throw away; a cigar is more like a passionate lover you cherish slowly and take to a nice meal; but a pipe is like a wife, you cherish it, and treat it with respect and care, but it'll burn quickly through your money.

When you buy your first pipe it's easy to become overwhelmed by the many choices in shapes and materials. Thankfully, however, there exists a company called Missouri Meerschaum which produces corn cob pipes at extremely cheap prices (about $5), and they're some of the best pipes money can buy. Yes a $1,000 pipe should probably smoke better, but it's amazing just how well Missouri Meerschaum's are made.

Then you have to realize you've bought in to an art, and learning what kinds of tobacco you like and how you like to smoke them can take a lot of time. There are even immense arguments amongst pipe smokers about the best way to pack a pipe. Traditionally people say simply to fill the bowl full to the rim, press it down to half full, then fill it to the rim again and press down to two thirds full, and then fill it once more and you're ready. But some people like to take a big wad and twist it in to the top of the pipe so all the tobacco is concentrated at the top and there is an air pocket at the bottom. Not to mention the incredibly popular "Frank Method"[4], and this is just the beginning of the pile.

As long as it can take to learn to pack your pipe perfectly, I have always found most people at least basically get the hang of it after three or four smokes. But this is why you need your rocking chair, so that when you figure out what you like and you become overly opinionated, at least you can look the part.

One particular evening my sophomore year at the University of Colorado so much snow had fallen in the night some bushes, usually standing close to six feet tall, had their branches weighed down over an equally tall ledge below and beside them. Seven of my friends and I climbed in to the cave it had created, with snow covered branches down to our ankles but enough head space to sit on the bench bolted to the ledge wall.

That night did something in my soul that was new to me as the embers and ashes in my pipe burned slowly for hours in the presence of my friends. We talked of deeper things than we had ever discussed as the smoke grew thicker in our bush-igloo and the snow gathered higher around our ankles.

"You're not going to die."

In fact there was something uniquely life-giving that night, and smoke definitely played a role in it.

Such experiences took hold and in lieu of paying $60 to rent a cap and gown for a ceremony I cared nothing for, I spent $60 on a Davidoff cigar I had coveted for years. I built a small cardboard carrier box and kept the thing on me during my last final exam. Walking out of the building I laid in the grass on campus and smoked until the blue sky above me turned dark and my friends got bored and went home.

Fast forward to a few months after graduation where I dumped my then 9 pipes on a friend and moved overseas to a place without tobacco. I've been here 8 years now and about a year ago I found bagged and tinned pipe tobacco at a local market. Overpriced, but it was something.

It had been years since I last smoked, and I had never before purchased any over the counter brands, so I had no idea what I was doing when I selected Borkum Riff Whiskey. But I knew something was wrong when the experience seemed familiar but my tongue tried to fight back.

Eventually I found some delicious blends, MacBaren's Mixture Flake being the thing that brought hope back to something I feared I just remembered wrong. I wrote my friend in America and had my old pipes shipped over.

And now I sit, in a rocking chair to get my heart pumping (a man's gotta exercise), writing this with a delicious light Virginia tobacco in my old Irish Seconds pipe—a gift from my parents when I was in college. I regularly enjoy the company of a few other American's who have jumped in to the gloriousness with me. I'm pleased that with the advent of the internet, and even international shipping, most tobaccos are within an affordable price range. I'm pleased I've taught friends to have strong opinions about their tobaccos. I'm pleased they like to pack their bowls differently, smoke slower, and rock at a different pace from my norm. And I'm thankful of one thing most.

I'm (probably) not going to die.

[1]For the record, later research showed the DARE program was ineffective at keeping kids off drugs, and the program was largely shut down.
[2]See Lauren A. Colby's "In Defense of Smokers" http://www.lcolby.com
[3]Or, "She's tasted the rainbow 30 times today!"