By Scott Keith –
A Tribute to Robert Farrar Capon
The scene is the United States Senate floor. The President Pro-Tem is busy attempting to call the senators to order. He announces the bill, which is to be voted on – the consideration of a national decree intended to ban all pipe smoking in both indoor and outdoor public places. He then recognizes the distinguished senator from California who sponsored the bill, who in turn rises to address the senate.
“My fellow Americans… We have considered this bill for far too long, it is time to vote.” Suddenly the senator for Texas breaks in and loudly objects, saying: “Now just hold on here one gosh darn minute, I want to hear the bill one more time before we make this here thing final.” At that request, a clerk rises and begins to read the bill aloud to the gathered senators.
“Whereas both smoking tobacco directly and the inhalation of second hand smoke are known to be dangerous and cancer causing; and whereas there is no discernable public benefit known to result from pipe smoking and pipe smoking is considered pointless; it is thus concluded that pipe smoking is known to be a wholly useless endeavor and subverts the safety of society and the public good.” The clerk continued: “Therefore, let it be resolved that the smoking of tobacco pipes in any and all public venues both in doors and out of doors be completely banned. This a ban will include restaurants and restaurant patios, tobacco shops, parks, sporting venues, as well as bars and bar patios.” He continued: “This ban will also include smoking pipes in any private home which is located fewer than 5,000 feet from any school, so as not to tempt the children who might see someone smoking their pipe, or catch a wiff of their glorious tobacco as it rises into what is commonly known to be the public air which we all use for breathing.”
At this the senator from California rose from her seat and exclaimed: “In the progress of our debate over this public health and morality bill, we have been informed by both advocates and detractors, and we have availed ourselves of all of the latest research regarding pipe smoking and its deleterious personal as well as public health dangers.” She then gave a heavy sigh as she elaborated upon their deliberations. “It is a shame, that during the course of our research we were forced to smell pipe smoke as we ventured to smoking clubs and backwoods bars that still allow these atrocities to continue. I still can’t get the smell of the Virginia-Blend out of my hair.”
At this, the senator from Texas, sensing that he was losing the argument, raised his voice and said: “Madam Senator, we concede that most studies show that pipe smoking presents a moderate risk of an increased propensity toward cancer of the mouth. But the increase is moderate. We also concede that second hand smoke has, in some studies, been shown to have some damaging effects.”
At this, the senator from California puffed up, showing that she believed she had won the day. But the senator from Texas continued: “But it is also true that it has never been shown that moderate pipe smoking is anymore harmful than getting stuck in traffic and breathing the inevitable car fumes while one waits on the highway. Are we to ban driving as well?” He almost gleamed when the senator from California shrunk back in her chair. “Also,” he said in his most southern drawl, “is there no data that suggests that smoking a pipe, moderately of course, might in some way be beneficial to one’s health, especially when gathered in the company of other pipe smokers in a public place.”
Now the entire senate was in an uproar while some cheered and other jeered. The senator from Texas struggled to regain control of the floor, but after a few well placed bangs of the gavel by the President Pro-Tem, the room came back to order. As he continued a quiet calm and look of peaceful nostalgia seemed to settle on his face. He quietly reminisced: “When I gather with my friends to smoke my pipe at our little watering hole around the corner from my house, a couple of distinctly ‘healthy’ things happen to me. First, I slow down, as smoking and caring for the embers in my pipe takes time. Second, I talk to my pals and truly experience the peace that can only be had when one spends good times in conversations with his pals. Finally, I think about things I don’t get a chance to otherwise. Things like right and wrong, good and bad, holy and depraved. In short, I truly get to be human.”
At this, the senate floor seemed more like a rustic country lodge where an old man sat in front of a fireplace talking to his family about growing up in the good old days; the days when men could be men. He had the floor now; no one would dare take it from him. He calmly explained, in detail the importance of what it means to be human. “Smoke don’t matter. Your comfort and my comfort maybe even don’t matter. What matters is freedom. To be human is to desire to be free.” He looked sternly in the eyes of the senator from California and said: “And the most nonsense of all is to say that pipe smoking is pointless. Hell, nothing is essential then. Wine is pointless. Your Diet Coke Madam Senator is pointless. We are pointless and this Senate is then pointless. Why heck, the whole dang world is pointless from that point of view.”
The entire senate looked in amazement at the passion on the senator’s face as he said: “It seems to me, that the point isn’t just to live and be ‘safe’ all the time like we always talk about. Maybe what is needed is a little more friendship; a little more time to relax; a little more smoke to calm the nerves and jazz up the conversation. His final remarks set many back on their heels. “Pipe smoking is good! Pipe smoking is not only good it’s sublime. It is good for me and it is good for our society. It shows that we embrace freedom, love quality, enjoy friendship, value time to think, and attempt to answer the bigger questions in life. In short, the only ethical choice for us is to send this bill back from where it came; the gates of hell.”
Well, we all know how the vote went. The next time you having some well earned camaraderie with your friends, and you attempt to light up your finely crafted smoking implement on the patio of your favorite bar and are asked––politely or not––to put it out for the sake of others, think of this story. Do we desire to be safe or to be free? Do we want to be a society that strives for value, quality, truth, and beauty or are we to always be content with being protected from ourselves? The desire to sit around a public table with friends and a pipe is not merely natural it’s primeval. As for me, I’m going to light my pipe and wait around to see who kicks me out first.
– Robert Farrar Capon was an Episcopal priest, theologian, and author. He was also a food critic for the New York Times. This piece is inspired by his article “The Case Against Heavy Cream: A Metaphysical Quibble,” which first appeared in October 5, 1983 edition of The New York Times.