In Remembrance of Things Past

"It's not like it used to be, is it?"

How often have we heard these words? How often do we, apply this question, either knowingly or unknowingly, to some tobacco, some pipe that has undergone inevitable change? (Of course, my mother says the same thing about films, restaurants, and just about everything else that she perceives as being different, worse, in the modern world, and whenever I find these words on my lips, I wonder if I'm becoming more like mom, or if I'm just getting older.)

Recently, and this could mean several months or several years ago, as my grasp of the passage of time is possibly more tenuous these days than I care to admit, I was enjoying a bowl of newly reintroduced tobacco. Once made in the UK, this tobacco is now a product of Denmark. The smoke was providing me with wonderful taste sensations, a delightful aroma. It was smooth and cool, rich and complex, and satisfying in almost every way a good pipe can be. (I'll never disclose the name of this secret mixture, so don't even ask.) A friend then came over, a fellow lover of the pipe and weed, and asked what it was that I was smoking that smelled so good.

In response, I offered him the tin so that he may also enjoy a bowl. Upon seeing the tin, he declined my offer with a wave of the hand and a look of sadness. "It's not what it used to be, is it?" Was this meant to somehow elevate the old producer, or to disparage the new? Was it meant to discourage my enjoyment of the present experience, or to gain my friend entrance into some secret society, that inner sanctum of the "Old Guard" who could, from years of practice, sing the praises of blends gone by, and lament their passing with a morbid melancholy. Would I sleep that night, or would I toss about with the knowledge that a member of our coterie had passed harsh judgment on this tobacco, even while I was enjoying a bowl? What does this say about me, about my own tastes? Could I recall what this tobacco was like years ago, and if it was different, is this version somehow inferior, or merely tainted by the comparison? Mostly, though, why could I suddenly not simply enjoy this bowl, now, and save the comparisons for some more appropriate time? Why do we shatter fragile reveries in this way?

Perhaps I go a little off the deep end when things like this happen. This sort of interaction tends to stimulate long winded discussions with myself about the nature of consciousness, the nature of the culture, and of our own little subculture. Often, these discussions turn into arguments which I can neither hope to win nor to lose, but the questions which inevitably arise are valid and deserving, I think, of a little poking, a little probing, a little investigation.

Of course, one simple and expedient answer to my friend's question is, "No, it's not like it used to be." Though possibly accurate, this answer is incomplete. It serves merely to create a small crack through which we can examine a perception of reality, but it is not reality itself. Deeper questions must be asked to expand the crack, creating an opening large enough to see more than just a glimpse, more than just a nickel peep show into our recollections. When we do this, more questions arise than are answered, but perhaps this is the value of the argument. Perhaps the questions are more fundamentally satisfying than the answers would be.

We pipe smokers seem to be a nostalgic lot. We get a great deal of enjoyment out of our reminiscences of the smokes of the past, possibly nearly as much as we get out of today's smoking. But, memories are too often more like optimistic flights of fancy than rational renditions of past realities. Perhaps our nostalgic views recall something greater than actually existed. This combines with the fact that our memories are colored by time, and subsequently color current experience, and the smoke gets thick, indeed.

Each time we enjoy a particular tobacco, in a particular pipe, we have a slightly different experience; time of day, our mood, the relative humidity of the air, what we've eaten that day, how long the tin has been open, how long the tin was aged before being opened, the company we keep while we smoke, all contribute something to the basic experience. It is not the differences, but the common threads that hold these experiences together which help to weave the tapestry of memories.

With repeated experiences, we construct a framework in which to store these memories. If something is particularly memorable, we may subconsciously bundle up the whole thing in a tidy box, label it carefully, and place it on the shelf, ready to be recalled at a moment's notice, given the proper stimulus. Over time, however, the recall of the specific details of these events becomes more difficult, though the box is still there, its dusty contents waiting to be examined with the same care as we would take in the accidental discovery of Grandpa's old circus trunk.

Certainly, there are certain specific smokes of our lives that are memorable beyond the norm, perhaps, beyond our understanding. Some special pipe is wedded to some special tobacco, and a moment of sheer joy is produced in wisps of smoke. Invariably, though, there is that "something else," the thing Leary famously called the "Set and Setting" which enhances what would otherwise be fairly easy to replicate simply by applying the same formula of pipe and tobacco. These are the treasures of our nostalgia in the future, and get put on a special shelf.

Our memories of flavor and aroma are profoundly accurate and remarkably acute. We can easily recognize something we have tasted or smelled before, even if we can't identify it, and, despite the complicating effects of environmental factors, we know at once when something is somehow different. We choose our favorite blends, our favorite pipes, and seem to want them to be the same forever, immutable, relying on that smoky communion for salvation from the trials of our day to day living, or just for a momentary escape.

Then, something changes. This is not to our liking because it upsets our ritual and tears at the fabric of constancy behind which we have sought protection from the relentless change around us. We find that not even our loyal and faithful weed is immune to the perils of time. We complain bitterly about how good things are never left alone, and how much we miss the good old whatever of yesterday. This is human nature, I suspect, and may even be some deeply rooted brain-stem reaction; our distant ancestors relied on recognizing change to detect danger, and when things like our favorite tobacco changes, we may actually fear that one of our pastimes is going to be taken away from us.

More importantly, the senses of taste and smell are powerful links to other parts of our personal histories, often facilitating recollection so vivid that we unwittingly relive past events in sometimes excruciating detail. Perhaps we fear that these connections will be severed; that we will no longer have access to our boxes so neatly packed in years past. If a particular tobacco is a vehicle for these remembrances, it's no wonder we want it to remain exactly as it is!

A while back, at the supermarket, I picked up a pouch of Borkum Riff, the first tobacco I ever smoked. That evening, I lit a bowl, and a vivid remembrance of high school was instantly conjured, complete with fond memories of the teacher whose pipe inspired me to pursue this hobby, my first car, and Julie, my first true love. I can't say that I particularly like this tobacco today, but I do appreciate that it is at least similar enough to the Borkum Riff of twenty years ago to provide me with a wonderful recapitulation of that marvelous time in my life, when so many things were new, I had few expectations, and only a little of the jaded view of the world that seems inevitable when viewed through an adult's eyes.

Time marches on, and all things change. Eventually, we either adapt to the new, or spend our lives searching for those things of the past that were once so precious. Will we recognize them if we stumble upon them? If we find one of our long forgotten memories on the shelf of the supermarket, will we know it to be our own?

Is there some value to all this nostalgia after all?

It's true. It's not like it used to be. There are many great old tobaccos that have gone the way of all flesh. There are many new renditions of great old tobaccos that, for one reason or other, have been blown about by the winds of change. Some of these new renditions are excellent, some of them are not. There are many wonderful new tobaccos. There are currently so many brands, in fact, that it's unlikely that any pipe smoker will fail to find a tobacco which pleases them, which satisfies them, given a little due diligence. From my perspective, it is an excellent time for lovers of the pipe. If we free ourselves from the need to hum the funeral dirges of deceased blends, there's a whole new world to explore.

No, "it's not like it used to be," but, then again, I suspect we're not like we used to be, either. Wouldn't it be wonderful to enjoy our memories simply for what they are, and enjoy today's tobacco in today's pipe for no more and no less than what it is today, and take pleasure in adding more new threads to the tapestry?