Why I Smoke a Pipe: And Other Small Acts of Defiance

May 4 · 12 min read

In this, the era of the algorithm, we empower mathematical prejudice to organize and prioritize the stuff of our every day. Yet, for all the seeds of convenience germinating in our technological Gardens of Eden, our existences remain tangled in troublesome paradox and irony: we have less time to ourselves than ever. Today, we are infinitely reachable by office, child, friend or other. And by means of the digital billboards we willingly tote about in our pockets, mount on our walls, and stand atop our desks, technology has coopted, molested, and remanufactured our attention spans for its own ends.

In times earlier, imagination was fueled by boredom, our aimless and undistracted thoughts stretching into the blue or dark skies, the blank walls, the pages of our journals. But in this newly minted epoch in which we find ourselves, one is never allowed the luxury of boredom. We are inundated with counterfeit lights, animated illusions to tickle the eye and arouse the brain, like clickers, providing a small and steady high. Lucky for us, the inability to focus on a single task across a span of an hour, let alone years — i.e., multitasking — has become a paramount skill for one’s economic survival. In fact, as you read these words, it is likely that you are growing restless. Some of you already resigning yourself to the fact that this essay, as much as it is able, will resist the intellectual indignity of skimming. Most of you will end your reading here.

As a writer living in the Contemporary Utopian States of America, I am told that in order to be heard in any capacity, have any chance of stirring an emotion, edifying, or nudging a mind toward new points of view — succinctness is next to godliness. Pith must rule the day. Whatever repository of creative tools at my disposal, only the most highly digestible narrative structures and eminently salable prose should ever be deployed. Nuance is to be treated the same as I treat cashews and pistachios, both of which I am allergic to. Of course, when publishing, under no circumstance should I employ words as sophisticated as, “eminently.” Because in this Land of Almond Milk and Cruelty Free Honey, brilliance is measured by the ability to profit without ethic and the dexterity to parlay wealth onto ascending planes of celebrity. Heroes are made, as Steinbeck put it, by, “the selfishness that puts making a buck above the common weal.” Egocentricity, once a personality flaw and affront to a community, is now an ideal of the highest order.

The person who invents the next great luxury and successfully transmogrifies it into a necessity, without worry of any deleterious effects on the human body or society, is lionized. But the artist who deigns to slip in an extra word, read literature from a certain age, or dress in deference to a certain era, is the one to be accused of overindulgence and convicted without trial.

And so, into this I send:

Sentences long and languid, unshackled and free from gravity’s burdens, each word infused with potential sui generis interpretations that are always rising, never falling, daring the reader’s eyes forward into sensuous communion, into the undertows of love and madness, poetry and rune — or, simply, repairing her heartbeat to a more human rhythm.

My verbosity, of course, is not limited to my sentences. My emails tend toward the insufferable and confounding. My essays, too. In person my stories, if you have the pleasure, wind and wend, veined by odd collections of extraneous details. I pause regularly to seek out the perfect word. I rarely find it.

Many of these tendencies, for better or worse, are of my constitution. Another part, however, is deliberate. An exacting calculation. Because — to put it simply and pithily: I live in conflict with the world. Frankly, I have more faith in my own expansiveness than to be anything less.

And — I have more faith in your expansiveness, your attention spans, your vocabularies, your critical thinking, your vision, your ability to discern nuance and juggle contrasting ideas — than to be anything less. I believe in the human mind and I believe the human mind still craves the balm of silence and the aliment of knowledge. I believe we are naturally drawn to conquering our fears and pursuing the unknown no matter the travails. I crave for us both the adrenaline rush that accompanies the simple act of living.

In short, by existing in conflict with my socio-economic, political, and cultural environment, I am able, in perpetuity, to reclaim a virginal confidence in humanity. A faith neither blind nor naïve, but demanding of rigor and risks wisdom. I live my life in small but open rebellion. I smoke a pipe.

Because, in its most basic form, a pipe is an object of death. To begin, it is typically made of briar wood, the burl of long-dead heather trees. Lifeless, it is then cured before being mangled by blade and drill, belt and rasp. To exist as a pipe, a piece of briar must go through a mummification of sorts, its corporeal form left for shaping to the human will — carved into bowl and shank. A basic tool for small ceremonial fires. An anointed object.

An anointed object, itself an instrument of death. Tobacco, as is well advertised, will kill you. In some respects, this is the point. The surveillance state extends beyond the video cameras, smartphones, social media, and the myriad devices unceasingly pillaging our personal data — and out to medicine, too. So fearful of death are we, so uncomfortable with the beauty in the idea of it, that we open our bodies to routine invasion. We allow the most intimate of our internal physicalities to be scoured and plundered for the tiniest treasures that prognosticate our demise. We become so caught up in the minutia of our every bodily function that it becomes obsession. The obsession grows and festers, as if it itself were the virus — and perhaps it is, because we let the putrid, transmissible fears cumber our choices and augment our experience of life. As a result, we do not live forever, but instead kill our lust for the uncomplicated enjoyments of breath and heartbeat.

When we choose instead to nurture a curiosity for, and comfort with, the inevitability of our death and the death of all things, we unburden ourselves of the most terrific weight we can carry. We set free congeries of time and emotional space that were once spent in worry. In this way, in a metaphoric sense, we extend our lives, lay bare the full length and breadth of Living’s designs.

I suppose it must be said that medicine has its place and I have benefited greatly from its modalities and therapies. I will continue to benefit as minimally as I can manage in a world against me, and as much as is required to complete my love and work on Earth. As well, it should be emphasized, lest you fear for me, that I am I not recommending you ignore the basic maintenance of your physical, emotional, or spiritual health. My intention is neither to excuse nihilism nor encourage unneeded risk, let alone suicide or the devaluation of other people’s lives by violence. I rather seek to indicate where society is capable of running slipshod over our fundamental human natures if we fail to apply certain checks and balances. First, checks within ourselves to square up our personal ideals, and only then applying balances to the communities we are beholden to.

To quote an author who believed in an economy of language far smaller than my own, I think Charles Bukowski said it best when he quipped, “Find what you love and let it kill you.” I am not silly enough to believe this is a statement in support of vice for vice’s sake. Nor am I naïve enough to believe Bukowski a saccharin inspirationalist. My interpretation of the line is to understand that to live is to truly live with all its adverse and mortal side effects. To be alive is to kill. Whether a leaf of lettuce or a cow, our body consumes life to function. At the very least, our bodies — that which connects us to this plane of existence — could not exist without the billions of deaths we are made of. And yet, Bukoswki’s line sits in the greater context of a paragraph and therefore should not be read in isolation. To wit:

“My Dear,
Find what you love and let it kill you. Let it drain you of your all. Let it cling onto your back and weigh you down into eventual nothingness. Let it kill you and let it devour your remains. For all things will kill you, both slowly and fastly, but it’s much better to be killed by a lover.
-Falsely yours”

I believe Bukowski understood full well that for him to write, do what he loved, he had to indulge his imperfections, his lust for vice. For him, it was the typical authorial temptations of booze and cigarettes and sex. And yet, the note as a whole seems neither to be about writing nor the sacrifices necessary to achieve success therein — but rather the torment of loving. The toll to be paid for choosing another. Then, he signs off, “Falsely yours.” Perhaps out of some writerly instinct for what is “false,” in the sense of fiction, to contain more truth. Or, to clearly label his aforementioned notions as lies. Perhaps both. We do not know whether by “better to be killed by a lover” he means another person or if the “love” he refers to is, in fact, a vocational passion. However, in either case, within his diminutive treatise on death, there lay enthusiasm for life. We are inclined to focus on the casualty of his words, but underneath, is a life whose full measures of energy and resources are spent in love and ambition. This should fill us all with a realist’s quota of hope and resolve. So much could be gained by loosening the tethers around our lives. Just as we must learn to free our children from the shelter of our parenting, launch them into their unknown journeys despite what skirmishes may come, so too must we release ourselves into the dangers of the world. The child inside us will never cease its curiosities nor outgrow its daring resolve. The parental protections we place upon ourselves as we age into adulthood, in time, become nothing more than an anachronism inside ourselves, a guardian we no longer need. Defying our inner parents can mean roller coaster rides, scuba diving, or base jumping. For others, in a way, it is attending church or doing yoga. Whatever it is, whatever we do, to be alive — every moment of it — is to risk death. So, we take ownership of ourselves and pursue our mortal pleasures where they may be had.

I call this phenomena the Opportunity for Meaning. Human beings stand unique amongst living things in the scales of significance we are able to ascribe to our acts on Earth. We are not wholly alone in this within the animal kingdom, but more readily able are we to dedicate our lives to purposes within human constructs and account for successes and failures therein. We, amongst the diversity, have the ability to leave behind knowledge for conscription into the service of others. We, amongst Earth’s variety, learn to create art and lesson. We, amongst the living, may choose to dedicate our lives to a cause or sacrifice it to a greater good — all in full awareness of what we do.

And thus I say, what a pleasure is the pipe.

First and foremost, to begin the process of enjoying a pipe, counterintuitively, one must: stop.

Stop what you’re doing. Get off the internet, quit working for a moment, leave the dishes alone. Without ritual preparation there is no pipe to be had. The pipe is a fussy and frustrating thing. It will be difficult for the non-smoker to understand just how much skill is required in smoking a pipe. It is a perpetual learning process toward a goal that could never be achieved. It is Platonic, striving to achieve the ideal experience that will always exist outside our reach. To the outsider, it is delightfully simple: grab the thing, grab some tobacco, stuff it in the bowl, light it and enjoy your cancer. But half the reason a pipe is so enjoyable is precisely on account of its indifference toward convenience. Like most things with a soul, it is easily replaced with faster and easier fixes. A cigarette, a vaporizer, and to some extent, a cigar. How to choose a pipe, choose a tobacco, pack the pipe, light the pipe, keep the pipe lit, and then clean, maintain, and rest the pipe — this takes time, patience and practice. In other words, smoking a pipe in relation to its more convenient counterparts, requires beauty. There is romance to a cigarette, even to a vape at times, and a cigar has its attitude, but none compare to the love affair stirred up in the insides of she who picks up a pipe.

Here I could regale you with stories and facts about the incomparable multiplicity of tobaccos that age and cellar like wine, the sheer variety of which would make even a master sommelier tremble. I have to admit, the desire is strong to wax poetic about the cornucopia of quality woods and supreme artists who carve these old world tools with their old world hands. I could gloat about the community of people, of which I count myself a member, who gather and indulge, slow down, speak face to face, support one another, encourage one another, and relate as flawed people around common threads and common interests that stand, like time itself, outside the purview of politics, race, and religion. Pipe smokers are admittedly old fashioned. Quaint even, but in revolutionary ways. We’ll meet in our backyards, cafes, and dimly lit bars like the subversives of yesteryear and, beaming with pride, call ourselves The Luddites. We will post pictures of ourselves and others with pipes hanging from our lips because we will wear who we are with pride. We are neither ashamed nor embarrassed. And though we may count ourselves as a type of minority in your world, we still share this world with you. You exist in mine and I exist in yours and that is allowed.

But these things have already been written about almost ad nauseam. To the interested party, humor your curiosities and seek out the resources already available about this lifestyle, this hobby and its people.

And although picking up a pipe automatically gains you entrance into these communities working to transcend time and space — smoking a pipe is deeply personal. It forces the smoker to build a relationship with herself and her tools. Smoking a pipe is to begin to understand the omnipotence of doing nothing. Because, in the final analysis, doing nothing is the definition of freedom. Smoking a pipe is a meditation, and yet it is not meditation. Smoking a pipe is by definition an activity, and yet it is abeyant. And so, when I smoke my pipe it is an act of defiance, it is a protest against a world closing in on my freedoms. When I touch match to tobacco, slow down, and puff lightly to taste the nuances and let the nicotine relax me — or when I lay down the first word of a sentence and let it roll downhill ahead of me, I am lifting a protest sign. I am drawing a line in the sand. I am saying “no” and standing my ground. I am trying my best in minuscule ways to massage the scars of the world. To recognize them and kiss them. To appreciate the stories they tell in deference to the pain that put them there. My sentences, my pipe, they are the outlines of the soft impressions I leave upon Time itself.

My father taught to me to smoke. I learned from him by instruction and example. And when he one day passes, as we all must, by my pipe I will be able to say I died with him. By living in tandem with one another, we die together. And when I pass, he will have died with me, too. Same to my friends who meet me in fraternity and sorority to enjoy what Nature offers us by Her wood and leaf, and we do it without worry or fear. And hopefully they will say of me when I am gone, he regained his time and took his repose and smoked his pipe and pleasured in what was pleasurable. He tried to help those who were helpable and he worked only as it served these goals. I hope they say I was a man of Earth who dreamed of gods and knew death as nothing more or less than what lay beyond these tangled edges, that I discovered the one universal truth worth holding fast to: all edges are round.

You see, like me, a pipe is a small object but no small thing.

So, put that in your pipe and smoke it.

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