Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Put that in your pipe

I want to preface this post by saying that I really like Kevin O'Brien. I think he's a tremendously talented person who is deeply Catholic and who writes sincerely and well. The remainder of this post should not, therefore, be construed as a general invitation to beat up on Mr. O'Brien in any way.

But I find myself disagreeing with some of this. Particularly this:
It was the party after the conference (the party is the "end" and the conference is the "means"). I sat with perhaps fifteen other men in Lou Horvath's screened-in patio as the rain fell hard on a chilly October night, the darkness surrounding us, cigar smoke filling the room, whiskey, good wine and good beer flowing, the ChesterBelloc Drinking and Debating Club in full swing. [...]

These sorts of insights only come by way of cigar smoke, bourbon, a chilly night, the pouring rain, and true Christian fellowship.

This is because there's something dangerous in men of like mind smoking and drinking together, united in a love of Christ.

There's nothing dangerous about Kumbaya, about "the sign of peace", about sitting in a circle and sharing. The one is living and has gonads; the other is the emasculated product of the same society that's trying its best to re-bury G. K. Chesterton. [Links in original: E.M.]
It should be said that I do agree with the main point of the post, which is that if we're going to impact the world as Christian artists, we have to write things that human beings would want to read, or draw things that human beings would want to view, or film things...but you get the idea.

In fact, I overwhelmingly agree with this. My in-progress children's fiction book is intermediate children's science fiction, and it is not--not--a work of "Christian fiction" or of "Catholic fiction." Yet my characters are moral, and operate in a moral system that comes from my own beliefs.

I once made the mistake of sending the manuscript to a small Catholic fiction publisher. She wrote back very kindly, encouraging me to submit the work to a secular publisher, but telling me that my being a Catholic and a writer did not make my book Catholic fiction. Only having my characters attend Mass, pray the rosary, have deep theological discussions, venerate the saints etc. could make my book "Catholic fiction." The fact that some of my characters, the human ones, have only the most tenuous of connections to the people of Earth and that the rest aren't human at all does not, apparently, mitigate this burning need for Catholic fiction to contain plenty of overt Catholic stuff with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Whether actual human beings will read a book in which characters break out into theological discussions the way musicals break out into song is another question.

So what's my problem with Kevin's blog post?

I dislike the glorification of smoking as some kind of male-bonding, chest-thumping, manly-man activity.

I lost my grandfather to tobacco use. This manly, outdoors type, this man who had panned for gold in Alaska in the 30's, this man who built his own house, this man who without any higher education worked as an inventor for Brach's Candy Company and designed and built a machine to make boxes to keep chocolate-covered cherries from getting damaged in shipping (among many other similar inventions) essentially choked to death from emphysema in his mid-seventies--and he came from a family in which dying at 90 was dying "young."

Some Catholic men appear to be trying to rediscover both pipe-smoking and cigar-smoking as if both were some kind of deeply Catholic, essentially masculine, spiritually good activity. They will claim that pipe-smoking and cigar-smoking are not cigarette-smoking and thus will not lead to emphysema; they will claim that both may be enjoyed in moderation as truly harmless male bonding activities. They scoff at the statistics showing high rates of increase of things like oral cancer and pancreatic cancer among cigar and pipe smokers, and will deny that the addictive properties of nicotine will cause them to crave the "occasional" cigar or pipe with greater and greater frequency. They will point to the way our world discourages male fellowship and suggest that if not for some manly tobacco use, men would never get the chance for some exclusive male company.

I'm actually sympathetic to that last complaint; women have chances for fellowship with other women exclusively, but men have suffered from the decline of opportunities for male fellowship and friendship to such a degree that many men complain of being lonely in this regard, even if they are happily married and gainfully employed. Men do need the chance to sit together, to talk, to laugh, and to do so without having to be worried that they will unwittingly offend someone (and that someone would usually be female).

But they shouldn't have to smoke to get that fellowship. That's just confusing accidents with substance, or something.


Chris-2-4 said...

As long as you're not saying we can't get back to the Whisky*. :)

*-by which I mean Scotch or Kentucky Bourbon only... (And in moderation only of course)

Barbara C. said...

I sympathize with your concern about equating cigar/pipe-smoking with authentic Catholic manliness. That's like equating skirts-only and veiling with authentic Catholic femininity.

It's just amazing to me that a group of men could get together and not have the conversation devolve into gossip about and descriptions of sex acts. From what I've heard, most men think that when they get together sans their significant others they should be re-enacting scenes from "The Hangover" or other such "man" flicks.

Jason Cebalo said...

Barbara C,

I'm no fan of those who insist all women must wear skirts and veils, but there is a big difference here, at least, last I checked, neither skirts nor veils were carthenogenic.

As for your claim that "It's just amazing to me that a group of men could get together and not have the conversation devolve into gossip about and descriptions of sex acts." Well, I've been on any number of men's retreats or to "boys nights" at the Catholic College of which I;m an allumnus and I can sure you that the conversations was largely very edifying.

kkollwitz said...

I haven't been in the company of vulgar boys since I was a teenager.

scotch meg said...

Completely agreed that men need male fellowship and don't have enough opportunities. Also completely agreed that smoking isn't necessary - and would like to see less pressure to drink, as well. Seen too many wounded!
DH has been trying to quit nicotine for 30 years. He's on the chewing gum now, and I don't care if it lasts the rest of his life - at least we don't have to deal with the negatives of cigarettes any more.
Warn your sons and daughters! DH is a physician and knows intellectually why he shouldn't smoke. He got hooked as a teen (thought it was cool, peer pressure, etc.) and stopped wanting to smoke by the time he was 21. Lots of money and suffering later... we still have to deal with the addiction, even thought we've eliminated the cigarettes.

Charlotte said...

I am party to about a half dozen traditionally-minded Catholic men, including one priest, and all of them enjoy the whole smoke-a-cigar-have-a-drink-wear-an-old-fashioned-hat thing.

I think it's trite, but harmless. I personally believe that it's their attempt to take back an aspect of men's socialization that's sorely missing in our culture if you don't want to hang at strip clubs, play video games with grown men, or get wasted watching sports.

There is nothing wrong with an *ocassional* cigar and whiskey. Occassional (like once or twice a month) isn't going to kill anyone.

However, I do agree that this is a weird phenomenon that is manifesting in conservative circles. Like anything, it can be taken too far. Rat Pack culture and sensibilities are awesome - as they were when they were current and in vogue - but many ended up alcoholics as a result of the "cocktail culture" that pervaded the 40's, 50's, and 60's.

As usual, it's all about self-control and balance.

Anonymous said...

To me, the issue of all this participation in eyebrow-rising smoking, drinking, etc. just is indicative of a push for consensus as in 'the old boys club', and not consciousness-raising.

Those whose habits are not of drink nor snuff, might find themselves 'outsiders' at the all-boys club, and therefore their ideas are unwelcome.

My husband does not smoke nor drink and would not ever choose to do so, but he's attended many congenial gatherings where alcohol was served and others smoked.

As for me, I do not smoke nor drink either, and can take gossip in small snippets, so if everyone were to light up and consume alcoholic beverages, or decide to meet in a private club to unwind, I would feel alienated because I would not participate. I can't stand smoking and it's hilarious to watch those with the fake nicotine pipe and I do not feel at all comfortable with those that cannot control their drinking habits.

If we were to meet in a Jacuzzi overlooking an ocean, I could distance myself sufficiently from the spell of 'everyone thinks the same' and 'feel-goodedness'.

Barbara C. said...

"I think it's trite, but harmless. I personally believe that it's their attempt to take back an aspect of men's socialization that's sorely missing in our culture if you don't want to hang at strip clubs, play video games with grown men, or get wasted watching sports."

That's the point I was making. It's nice if some of you men have been able to surround yourself with lots of orthodox Catholic men. But not everyone is able to find that easily. And probably for the majority of men, who either are not Christian, Sunday morning Christians, or moral therapeutic deists when men get together in a group the conversation gets low and crass.

Tim Jones said...

You know the arguments about the safety issues, so I won't get into that. Yes, there is some danger to smoking a pipe or cigar now and then. No, it shouldn't become a kind of Trad Cath Coolness test. But there are real dangers in a lot of pleasurable pastimes (sports, etc...). In addition, we know a lot more than our fathers did about the dangers. I lost my own dad to complications from emphysema. He was 58, but he had made a number of bad health choices besides smoking. For myself, I have a much greater problem with food. The health risks of alcohol are manifold. In short, I am aware of the risks of my pipes, and so I indulge with great moderation. I enjoy it, and it IS a bonding thing for those men who enjoy it. It also, i think, creates an imaginative bond with our pipe-smoking ancestors.

I appreciate your concern, though. It adds to the illicit thrill. :-D

Tony said...


I'm sorry you lost your grandfather to lung disease in his 70's. My dad died of emphysema at 85, and my grandfather died of congestive heart failure at 89 (after smoking Parodi cigars non-stop most of his life).

We're all going to die of something. But if you're going to post information regarding the health effects of smoking cigars, please provide accurate information.

A good place to start is:

An additional fact is that absorption of nicotine through the oral mucosa from a cigar not treated with nicotine enhancing chemicals like cigarettes are do not reach levels which foster nicotine addiction

I have been smoking cigars for close to 15 years. I have possibly one a week (sometimes none in the winter if the weather is not mild enough to make smoking enjoyable).

So if you don't want to smoke cigars, don't. But don't tell me what I should do, and what I might consider a manly pursuit. If I want to discuss reform of the reform, or how good most women look in a skirt with a bunch of my friends augmented with a fine cigar and beverage of our choice, butt out.

Full disclosure: is my domain also.

Erin Manning said...

Tony, I did post accurate info about cigar smoking. I hope you have regular dental appointments and that you inform your dentist that you smoke cigars, so he or she can be checking for oral cancer.

Having said that, I'm certainly not telling you what to do. I just don't find cigar smoking particularly manly. Then again, I don't think gentlemen sit around commenting on how women look in skirts. I think cads do that.

Tony said...

I have a dental appointment every 6 months, and I always have an oral sweep for cancer. I hope you do too. Oral cancer doesn't discriminate against non smokers.

I don't think it's "cadly" to comment on how much better a modestly dressed women looks than one who dresses "slutty". ;)