A Father's Day meditation on a most masculine activity
by Timothy Rutt
I. Young man with a pipe
Three decades or so ago, when it was OK to smoke indoors, the intermediate creative writing class at the University of Colorado was held in the sunlit front parlor of the former home of the college president. The on-campus house had been turned into classroom and office space years before. We would gather around the table in the parlor to read each other’s short stories and pose.
Not prose --pose. The posing was deadly serious. We were Sensitive Artists, fated to be Serious and Successful Writers. As our teacher, poet Ed Dorn, would puff away on a Marlboro, the students would fire up Gauloises or Dunhills or those awful clove cigarettes and stare thoughtfully, wispy smoke curling up to the ceiling, cigarettes languidly dangling from their young fingers.
Well, except for me. And I always won the unspoken posing contest, because at age 20 I smoked a pipe.
A pipe gives you a much better pose as a litterateur than a cigarette any day.
I think I started smoking a pipe the previous summer in my hometown of Grand Junction. My role model was my high school friend Bill Sharp, a year ahead of me, already a fan and perpetrator of the avant-garde music scene (he introduced me to Talking Heads and Devo years before anybody else had heard of them; currently, his own group, Biota, is a darling among the Europeans). Bill was also a teenage pipe smoker.
Now, lots of kids I knew in those days smoked tiny little pipes filled with you-know-what; Bill and I smoked tobacco from fine-looking briars. Definitely will give you a leg up in the young artiste posing department, but some folks don’t know what to do with you when you’re a young man with a pipe.
At that point -- finding nothing illegal on our persons -- they gave up and sent us on our way. It was only later than we found our fourth friend was watching our searches from the car seat as he stuffed a jar full of rolled up doobies between the seat cushions.
In college, I had many bull sessions in the dorms, puffing away on one of my briars or the meerschaum carved in the shape of an Arab’s head, which I picked up in the local head shop. My favorite tobacco was called Philosopher, a vanilla-flavored aromatic that I wish I could get today -- everyone seemed to enjoy the smell of it, what pipe smokers call the “room note.”
I was a very serious pipe smoker. I took good care of my pipes. I won a butane lighter at a pipe smoking contest at the local tobacconists once. I loved the various accoutrements you needed to have, like pipe racks and pipe lighters, tampers and other pipe tools, the ritual involved with packing and lighting. It was very satisfying.
My next job -- working for a rural weekly newspaper -- was more of the same. It was a smoking office, so I had an ashtray and went through a pack of Merits a day as a hard-bitten news hound will do. Over time, my pipes were lost or broken or gummed up beyond use, and they went away as I switched over entirely to the evil stick. But I wasn’t liking it very much. In 1985, when I moved to California, my first act was giving up cigarettes entirely, and I haven’t had one -- or the desire for one -- since.
I would have a cigar a couple of times a year during special occasions. When my first daughter was born, I bought a couple of expensive stogies to share with my then-father-in-law. Several years later, at Thanksgiving, I would retire with my current father-in-law and my brothers-in-law to the back yard for after-dinner cigars. In my church, we occasionally would have gatherings of the men for a fish fry or what not and the stogies would come out.
But that got harder as the years went on. The last couple of times with a cigar made me light-headed and a bit nauseous. But I’m so shallow I also didn’t want to look like one of the non-smoking doofuses in these testosterone-heavy environments. What to do?
I follow a Christian alt-folk/jazz singer named Audrey Assad. I was reading her Facebook page one evening and she referred to her brother’s website, The Pipe Guys, which dealt with all things pipe. I surfed over there, and the lightbulb went on.
Of course! My old friend ...
Bought one on Ebay. I discovered “estate pipes.” That’s a euphemism for “used pipes” -- there’s cottage industry of guys who will buy old pipes, sterilize and refurbish them, and auction them off. So I made a couple of purchases and found a tobacco store that wasn’t just all about cigars and bought some tobacco.
It was like riding a bike. The ritual of packing and lighting, the use of match and lighter and tamper, all came back to me. But I was also re-acquainting myself with the lore of the pipe smoker.
Like every serious endeavor, there are terms that the cognoscenti use. Borrowing from wine-lovers, your collection of tobaccos is called your “cellar.” You want a good “cake” (i.e. a tarry carbon coating smoking creates inside the bowl, which help disperse heat and contributes to taste). There's the "char burn," which chars the top layer of tobacco so you can tamp it, fire it up again, and enjoy the smoke.
There’s the architectural terms: the bowl (the little furnace where the tobacco is burned) and the stem (the tube where the tobacco smoke is sucked into your mouth). Some have “stingers,” an aluminum something or other in the stem that supposedly picks up the moisture condensation so you’re not drinking tobacco juice.
And, oh! the implements you need: a tamper, reamer, poker, Czech pipe tool, tobacco pouches, pipe cleaners, etc. The first person I ever saw wearing a fanny pack -- this was around 1982 -- was the author Theodore Sturgeon, who was coming to an autograph party at my bookstore. His pack held his pipe, tobacco, and all his tools.
As with wine, there are particular terms for tasting: strength; flavoring (some are doused in flavors, such as vanilla, chocolate, cherry, rum, etc.); taste, which is different than flavoring; and room note (what everyone around you smells).
What’s the mixture? Is it aromatic (i.e. flavored) or English (tobacco-y)? Each type of tobacco adds a different taste (Virginia, burley, latakia, Perique). Tobaccos have different cuts (shag, cake, ribbon, etc.) This is at least as complicated as tasting wine.
There are different ways to hold it the pipe-- you can’t just clench it in your teeth all the time, you know. This is usually a function of how hot it burns -- it’s nice to curl your hand around the bowl, but with a hot bowl, you have to hold it by the stem. One commenter said that his favorite position for holding the pipe was around the bowl, pointing the stem at you as he makes his point.
One of the things I discovered that I loved about it was the aesthetic: You need a bowl and a stem, and within those bounds there's a real aesthetic beauty in the shape pipes come in. I sometimes look at the pictures just because I think they're so gorgeous. And you have to know the basic shapes: billiard, author, Canadian, Oom Paul, pick, poker, etc., as well as freehands, which can look like almost anything. Part of the joy of it is the handling: the briar's surface can be smooth or textured or some combination of both, adding an additional stimulation as you enjoy the leaf. Smoking a pipe engages all the senses.
I have a Pinterest board called “They Were Pipe Smokers” where I collect pictures of men (and some women) smoking pipes. Overall, pipes exude masculinity, but a certain type of masculinity. The pipe smoker exudes intelligence and thoughtfulness. He can be as manly as Clark Gable or Cary Grant or as intellectual as a Jean Paul Sartre or Albert Einstein, to name some pipe smokers, but there’s a certain common something about them.
Now, some women do smoke pipes, but they are rare birds. When I was in college, I did meet some women who tried out pipes -- delicate little lady pipes, but pipes nonetheless.; I don’t think any of them did this for long. Never saw one of these college women smoking a pipe that wasn't shiny and new. Pipes seem anchored in the Venn diagram of the masculine.
Sometimes the exception proves the rule: one Sunday I was at the Pasadena City College flea market, where I did see two women smoking pipes. They had buzz-cuts and boots, with trucker’s wallets chained to their Dickie jeans. Obviously not concerned about keeping a feminine appearance, they were also admirably smoking very well-used, serious-looking pipes.
V. Women and the man with the pipe
A few weeks ago, during Little League practice, I was sitting on a bench in the back, smoking a fine aromatic. One of the moms saw me, and headed my way, saying, “Are you smoking a pipe? I want to sit by YOU!”
And we share a conversation I’ve had with several women since I re-adopted this practice: pipes remind them of a father or grandfather or much-loved family friend, the odor a happy reminder of the adult men they loved in their youth. This particular mom said she was going to try to convince her husband to take it up, because he sometimes smokes cigars in business-related gatherings and they have the same effect on him as they have on me.
This love for -- if not the pipe, the men who smoke them -- is not universal, needless to say. I’m married to a physician, and occasionally get the Mouth Cancer Lecture. Pipe smoking is also an outdoor sport in our household, as I am exiled from civilized company. What has surprised me, though, is that no female to date has screwed up her nose in horror and disgust. There’s something about a pipe man that seems to have some kind of respect if not attraction.
And not just adult women. A few months ago, my wife tells me -- before I took up the briar -- our 9-year-old daughter spotted an older man walking down the street, smoking his pipe, and declared, “I like that.”
I’ve noticed a few things about kids with a pipe smoking man in their life: even though it is drummed into their craniums from an early age that smoking is horrible, pipes seem to get a pass.
My eldest daughter was a big fan of the Power Puff Girls, an early 2000‘s cartoon about lab-spawned superheroes who just happened to be little girls. Their father/creator, Professor Utonium, is a tall man always wearing a lab coat, and frequently holding a cartoon pipe.
A hero -- smoking! In a cartoon for young children!
Part of it is an arch comment on the image by the animators, of course, but it’s also a shorthand: the long, neat white jacket with the pens mean Serious Scientist. The pipe softens that, showing him as thoughtful, genial, and paternal. Hard to think that a cigarette smoker in a cartoon would be anything other than bad. Pipes are different.
Since we have children, we have a large collection of children’s books. In the older volumes, we now notice “Dad” as a concept is frequently depicted with pipe in hand, or in mouth. One book that struck me has Daddy coming home from work, pipe clenched firmly in his teeth, carrying his child piggy-back into the house, back to the bosom of family.
Pipe means being calm, thoughtful, intelligent. Pipe means a man who is comfortably masculine.
In other words, a man with a pipe has many virtues -- and it means Dad.
And that’s not such a bad thing.