Out of the Ashes

Creatures of Habit

G. L. Pease
What sort of pipe smoker are you today? Do you like to play the field, constantly trying new blends, endlessly seeking the next great pipe? Or are you happily a creature of routine, finding satisfaction with a single tobacco and the same few pipes you’ve had for years?

Yes, it’s reductionistic, and most of us probably fall somewhere on the continuum between the two extremes, but there are more pipesters at the ends of the spectrum than we might think. I’ve met some of them. I’ve read their posts on blogs and in forums. On one extreme, we have the pipestser who asserts that there’s simply no reason to go beyond his chosen Gramp’s Mixture, bought in five pound bags, stored in recycled jam jars and smoked religiously in one of his handful of well-worn Mystery Briars; on the other, the tobacco Lothario with hundreds of open tins, and a seemingly endless supply of exotic pipes with unpronounceable names, rarely smoking the same tobacco or the same pipe twice in a year. (Sorry. My hyperbole is showing again.)

Both are creatures of habit. Either will likely insist that they are fully satisfied with their pipe smoking, that it’s "the way to do it." One has found reliable, pleasing combinations, the other derives pleasure from endless variety. And, at the risk of wetting my wellies in a murky puddle of relativism, neither of them is wrong, but each might benefit from spending a little time in the other’s house.

Here’s the self-indulgent part. As a symptom of my own peculiar split-personality, I usually find myself oscillating between these two extremes. When I’m working on something new, it’s all I want to smoke, all I will smoke, and even when the new baby has gestated and been delivered into the waiting pipes of eager smokers, it’s hard for me to break the habit. Somewhere in the shadows of the insanity that’s part of my job description, I become convinced that this is the best thing I’ve ever done, that I could enjoy it, and nothing else, from now until the end of days, and then, gazing at the cabinet on the wall, the pile of briars on my desk, the drawers full of pipes and boxes full of tobaccos untouched through the passing weeks or months, I vow to thin the herd, trim the fat, dispossess myself of all the extraneous briar baggage and superfluous tins. Fortunately, my natural tendency towards procrastination prevents this happening too quickly, because the tables will turn, as they always do.

One day, I’ll get an email from someone curious, asking about a blend of mine that I’d been ignoring, or some old classic that I hadn’t thought about in months or years, and do I have anything similar? It will rattle my brain, shake the dust off, and inspire me to revisit something I haven’t tasted in a while, and that first puff is revelatory. Viewing it with fresh eyes, so to speak, it becomes the antidote to a palate jaded by constancy.

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This triggers an inevitable transition to the other state, where I’ll bounce from pipe to pipe, from blend to blend, constantly seeking the excitement of newly revitalized experiences, wondering how I could have fallen into the rutted course of sameness. I open tin after tin of new and vintage blends, relishing the spice of all their variety. Dusty pipes are polished and enjoyed as I wander the woods, seeking out those perfect combinations of briar and leaf, the ones that seem to outshine all the others. Then, without warning, a lighting strike of inspiration sets fire to a nearby tree, and I wind up obsessing over a new blend idea, the table turning back again, the cycle both completing, and beginning, like a strange dream with no escape clause.

It’s a kind of madness, but on the positive side, it’s taught me a few things about both the extremes, and the more sane realm of the middle path, the one I too rarely walk.

On one side, there’s the cultivation of a deep appreciation for a single blend, or a couple, a few cherished pipes, and the satisfaction that comes from comfortable familiarity. They become like old friends who know what you’re going to say before you do, the ones you want to hang out with when you need to laugh a little, cry a little, share life’s stories, discuss the latest book you’ve read, or just sit quietly in the company of another.

On the other lies the excitement of a world filled with continuous change, like finding yourself in a new city every day, wandering its strange streets with a child’s wonder and enthusiasm, never knowing what new experience will be met face-on round the next corner, meeting new people, tasting new foods. Not every experience will be a good one. It’s unpredictable, but it’s fun. It’s a vast world, after all.

It’s a strange phenomenon. In other areas of our lives, the playground is usually more balanced. Would we choose to eat the same foods day in and day out? Or, bounce from cuisine to cuisine, never enjoying the same dish twice in a year? Yet, as pipe smokers, many of us seem predisposed, at least occasionally, to the sort of compulsion that results in a strong gravitational pull towards one or the other extreme. We become creatures of habit.

So, back to the original question: What sort of pipe smoker are you today? I suspect most reading this will lie sanely somewhere between the extremes, enjoying a few different blends, a rack or two full of cherished briars, occasionally venturing into the unknown to discover something new to add to the mix, or replace something that’s grown tiresome. But, if you do happen find yourself having drifted towards one end or the other of the curve, you might open the window to some new and interesting pipe smoking experiences by taking a page out of the other side’s play book. If you smoke the same thing day in and day out in the same pipes, change it up. Try something completely different. Try a new pipe, maybe a clay or a cob, and a new blend in a style you haven’t smoked in a while, or one you recall not enjoying when you last smoked it. If you’re constantly exploring new things, take a step back. Pick a tobacco and really get to know it, exploring the subtlety and nuances brought out by the same blend smoked consistently in a few different pipes.

Me? I’m going to try to find my way to the middle path, but I don’t anticipate much success. For as long as I do what I do, I’m probably stuck on the carousel of lunacy that is the life of an obsessive (passionate might be a gentler euphemism) tobacco blender…

Your turn.

Since 1999, Gregory L. Pease has been the principal alchemist behind the blends of G.L. Pease Artisanal Tobaccos. He’s been a passionate pipeman since his university days, having cut his pipe teeth at the now extinct Drucquer & Sons Tobacconist in Berkeley, California. Greg is also author of The Briar & Leaf Chronicles, a photographer, recovering computer scientist, sometimes chef, and creator of The Epicure’s Asylum.
See our interview with G. L. Pease here.
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