Friday, August 14, 2009

The Masculine Ritual

I have, off and on, smoked a pipe since college. My father smoked a pipe long before I was born. My grandfather was a pipe smoker for decades before I was born. Those decades of history had been passed down over time and now resided in my house. The basement of my home during my formative years was very much like ten family's garage sales packed into the space of one. A favored pastime was burrowing into the mess--literally boring a tunnel into the teeming heap--until I made a sort of cave or found some undiscovered niche. There were desks full of yellowing and oxidizing trinkets, racks of old clothes that smelled very much like I remember my aunt's house in New York to smell, chairs we never used, tables, and the various and sundry smaller articles of my family's pre-90's life. Of all the treasures I found and hoarded, wondering ceaselessly about their purpose or value, the small circular rack with four of my father's and grandfather's old pipes is perhaps the one I miss the most today.

The indelible imprint left by this sort of object upon my memory is certainly responsible for my interest in picking up certain hobbies or rituals. When the Briar Patch opened downtown I would casually drop by to examine the wares and wistfully consider buying a cigar or, even more so, a pipe. Garage sales long past had claimed my prized rack of heirloom pipes, and I was hesitant at best to begin smoking avidly, product as I am of DARE programs and anti-tobacco ads. It took the better part of two years to convince myself that I wanted a pipe of my own, and I took great care in choosing one that suited my tastes.

The pipes I remembered were perhaps nothing special.  Straight-stemmed or only slightly curved; darkly stained briarwood  worn smooth in calloused hands. Budgetary concerns kept me necessarily thrifty in my own choice.  In the end, who can tell what makes this pipe fit more satisfyingly in the hand than that?

Such was my trepidation at the prospect of buying a piece of Italian craftsmanship--for it was with such thoughts the tobacconist had piqued my interest--that I left the store and returned on three occasions before setting myself to the purchase. I ended up with a beautiful Savinelli Duca Carlo pipe with a gently curved stem and smooth bowl in a dark walnut finish and a few ounces of a mellow and aromatic blend of tobacco called "Sweet Mist."

When I smoke, I am always outdoors out of consideration, and usually reading something that combined with my pipe-smoking gives the most pretentious air possible to a young man. That is all part of my ritual--the pipe is a relic of bygone times these days. A reminder of times when men were men and mistreated pretty much whoever they wanted to (a practice I've chosen not to continue), smoking a pipe takes care and patience; a ritual with minute but important actions telling of centuries of developing the best way to smoke; the right pressure for a consistent burn, allowing the char to build up inside the bowl, keeping out excess moisture. It's an intellectual practice, calming and simultaneously busying. It keeps my hands occupied without interfering with my ability to read--something that Ritalin never truly accomplished.

Rituals like pipe smoking, I gather, help a young man to feel grown up. The connection with past generations is a rite of passage that continues with each time we lather up to shave, tie the correct half-Windsor or St. Andrews, or sit down to truly polish our leather shoes. Rituals are the rise again.  I hope to examine the peculiar things men do in more detail in future posts.  I promise, I'll strive for brevity.

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