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In the Arthur Conan Doyle short story “The Red-Headed League,” Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are confronted with a case involving a man who seems to have been the victim of an elaborate scam — except that nothing, it appears, has been taken from him.

Watson turns to his friend, once the initial facts are in, and asks, “What are you going to do, then?”

“To smoke,” Holmes answers. “It is quite a three-pipe problem, and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.”

As an avid pipe-smoker myself, I can attest to the wisdom of this. Time spent with a pipe is, for me at least, time well spent. And it can work a quiet sort of magic.

I have smoked a pipe for virtually all of my adult life. The reasons for this are likely twofold: (a) my childhood infatuations with the Sherlock Holmes stories and The Lord of the Rings, both of which are set in worlds where pipe-smoking was a gentlemanly habit; and (b) my grandfather, who always seemed to have a pipe in his hand, and was one of the most gentle and wonderful men I have known. I have become convinced, in recent years, that my grandfather’s gentle spirit and his tobacco habit were connected in a very real way.

Now, it is entirely politically incorrect to claim that tobacco use has a positive aspect of any sort. But that is exactly what I am claiming, and just like meditation, exercise or anything else we do deliberately, it has everything to do with the satisfaction gained from the act itself.

Cigarettes and cigars are too easy: You put one /files/storyimages/in your mouth, light the other /files/storyimages/on fire, and puff away. Nothing to it.

But smoking a pipe is worlds apart; it is difficult. (In fact, it’s a competitive sport in some places.) Our grandfathers made it look easy, and indeed it was easy for them, but that’s the result of years of practice.

You see, pipes require a fair amount of effort and attention to keep lit. The physics of a pipe differ from other smokes in that the ashes do not fall off into an ashtray — they sit atop the unsmoked tobacco. So the hot part of the flame has to constantly be kept in contact with the fresh portion of the bowl. This is done partly by “tamping,” or gently pressing down on the ash with a tool of some sort (a pocket knife or pen or whatever probe you have handy will do) and partly by steady, even, well-paced breathing.

This is where pipe-smoking, to me, becomes an act of meditation. You cannot do it in a hurry, and you cannot (or at least I cannot) do it while focusing attention on something else. You can’t choke a pipeload down in three minutes while on a break. Breathing is the central component of most meditation styles, and it carries the same weight here: Breathe too fast and the smoke becomes bitter and harsh; breathe too slow and the ember dies out.

Smoking a pipe relegates all of the day’s responsibilities and furors and tensions to the background. For me, it is the single best stress remover there is.

I am sure I have upset the stalwart anti-tobacco types, people to whom all smoke is anathema. And I wish those folks well. But I do ask them to kindly hang up the cell phones and concentrate on the road while driving, because that is a habit that endangers my life far more than my three-times-a-week pipe. We all choose our own risks, whether it is sky-diving or the stock market or driving on the highway or eating elephant ears and funnel cakes.

(And don’t even get me started about the Kentucky State Fair’s myopic decision to eliminate the pipe-smoking contest — which actually made a portion of the Fairgrounds smell good for a while, imagine that — while countless engines and generators up and down the midway coat the air with a petrol-sick stench.)

Pipe-smoking is, I maintain, a gentlemanly (and gentlewomanly) art, and one whose benefits far outweigh its costs when done sensibly. If you’d like to give it a try, don’t be intimidated — meet me over at J. Paul Tucker’s Oxmoor Smoke Shoppe sometime and I’ll help you get your first one lit

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