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What Are You Smoking in Your Pipe?

When people see me smoking my pipe, they often mutter, “You’re kind of ‘old school.’” I always reply with a twinkle in my eye, “It depends on what one is smoking in the pipe!”

Pipe smoking is experiencing resurgence, mainly because of millennial males, who worry about the dangers of cigarettes and the image of cigars. Pipes are a happy medium and are much more social than either of the other alternatives.

I’ve smoked a pipe off and on since graduate school. At the University of Maryland where I received my doctorate, I got a TA job in the English Department for a professor who taught film. I was literally paid to watch movies... and grade papers. I’ve probably read 1,000 papers on Hitchcock’s film Notorious. Professor Joe Miller was not only my film aesthetics mentor; he also introduced me to smoking a pipe. This was a long time ago, so we could actually smoke while watching the films from the back of the university classroom. I still have my first pipe, a Peterson 215.

In today’s world, pipe smoking is limited to certain environments that are associated with particular kinds of professions, those that are usually done alone and not in a typical professional office building where smoking is not allowed. Writers, academics, programmers, and consultants—people who work from home—often have the space and freedom to indulge this vice without the approbation of others.

For me, there is something peaceful and meditative about smoking a pipe. I associate it with sitting by a wood stove or open fireplace. There is nothing Type-A about pipe smoking. It is by its nature a “patient” smoke. Contemporary observers have suggested, “Like canning, beards, and homesteading, the resurgence seems to be a direct backlash to the fast-pace of the rest of life.” It’s kind of a dysfunctional Yoga for the orally fixated.

And while it is a lot more common to be complimented for the smell of one’s pipe, than is the case with cigarettes, still many do not like the smell or the secondhand smoke. There is much chatter among pipe smokers about dealing with disapproving wives. Tobaccos are often labeled by their brand, strength, taste, and room note. Room note means the ambient smell the blend puts out for those around the smoker. It’s obviously a pretty subjective scale and probably is associated with the number of complaints. Many pipe smokers are banned to outside the house. Others wisely have in their arsenal of pipe tools air sanitizer. Though pipe smoking is essentially a communal activity all do not enjoy it. So some measure of sensitivity is called for in the activity. This might be compared to playing the drums.

I’m hardly an expert on pipe smoking, but over the years I have made a few observations. There are two kinds of pipe smokers, those who collect pipes and those who explore tobaccos. All pipe smokers have a collection of pipes. This is because pipes need to dry out after they have been smoked. I have nine in my collection. Some are in disrepair because I have chewed through the stem. (You can get a pipe re-stemmed for about $35 per pipe.) The choice of a pipe can depend on whether one typically holds the pipe in one’s teeth or in one’s hand. A heavier or longer pipe cannot be as comfortably held in one’s teeth. This is why teeth carriers prefer lighter corncob pipes.

But I am not a pipe collector. The beauties of the wood, the uniqueness of the shape, the craftsmanship are not what interest me. I’m a tobacco guy. I remember being in Scotland, and I asked my local host, “What is the best Scotch?” “I don’t know,” he said with a smile, “I’m still looking.” The adventure is in the looking. This is the way I approach pipe smoking. It’s a constant exploration in taste and branding. And there are many tobaccos I can’t stand. I’d have to say that my taste in tobacco is pretty basic and beginnerish even after all these years. British tobaccos tend to be too strong for me. I prefer a medium strength, bite-free, mellow aromatic blend. The biggest selling pipe tobacco is Lane 1-Q, and this is one of my standards.

It is also true that pipe smoking is pretty much a male culture. In Korea, where I was raised, the widow was often marked by the fact that she took up smoking her deceased husband’s pipe. My wife, Kathryn, has made no such promise. Millennials tend to avoid gender stereotypes, so we may see many more women smoking pipes in the future. Studies have also suggested that millennials prefer high-end specialty tobaccos, just as they do their wine, Scotch, and mescal.

There is a southern agrarian feel to the marketing of pipe tobacco. This is in part explained by where tobacco is grown. But tobaccos are more than a commodity item; rather they are carriers of meaning, identity markers, and lifestyle accessories. Sailing, fishing, hunting, military, and drinking all have their brand presence. In my current selection I have tobaccos labeled “University Professor,” “Salmon River,” “Ole Shenandoah 76,” “Angler’s Dream,” and “Irish Whiskey.” Brigadier Black pipe tobaccos are named for major military battles, “Antietam,” “Gettysburg,” “Bull Run,” and “Sherman’s March.” Pirates and trains also have their tobacco brands. Typically local pipe shops will rename Lane’s I-Q or RLP-6 to something that is associated with their clients or surroundings as their “house blend.” There is something “old school” about this culture—that is decidedly politically incorrect. This will have to be updated to attract millennial pipe smokers.

But there remains something essential to the millennial spirit in pipe smoking. Slowing down, hanging out for a warm conversation among friends, where the easy laughter and authentic tears easily blends with the haze of smoke.

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