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The Nightmare


Chicago Pipe Show, ca. 2005. The gentleman at the table next to mine had been fuming and muttering to himself since returning a few minutes prior. He thrust a pipe at me. “Tell me,” he gritted, “does that look like a Canadian to you?”


Uh-oh.


The pipe was new, obviously a commission, made by a young but prominent North American carver, and the new owner was obviously unhappy with it. The pipe was smooth with a purplish stain, no flaws, decent but not holy-cow grain. The shank was a slightly plump oval, probably over two bowl widths in length but not much over. It was a clean, conservatively executed pipe that met the minimum requirements for the shape. Which evidently was not what the irate gentleman had in mind.


When there is a pile of dog poo in the middle of the sidewalk only a fool steps in it, so I replied that I wouldn’t know what else to call it. “No, no,” he said, pulling another pipe out of his bag, “THIS is a Canadian.” Which was indisputable, I can’t remember the brand but it was one of the Italian makers that, being a glass of grappa away from the briar cutter, gets ridiculously good wood and the shank was maybe five or six inches long all by itself and daringly thin. It was the kind of pipe that says to makers like me, “nya nya, we get this block all the time.”


“Did you tell him that you don’t like the pipe?” I asked. “What’s the use?” he snapped. “If I ask for a Canadian and this is what he makes, it’s what he thinks a Canadian is. I don’t have time to argue with him.”



“Wellll,” I said, still trying to edge away from the dog poo but feeling the need to stick up for my guild, “If you told me that you had told him that you didn’t like the pipe and that he had told you to stick it, I would jump in the boat with you. But it sounds like he has no idea you’re upset. If I were him I’d want to know you’re unhappy. Maybe he’ll take it back, maybe he’ll make one with a longer shank if he knows that’s what you want. Why not give him the chance to say no?”


“He won’t take it back. I know how these guys are.”


Ho-kay. Check, please. Luckily someone stopped at the gentleman’s table. “Here, look at this pipe. Does it look like a Canadian to you?”


The performance was repeated several times over the next few hours and then stopped. I don’t know if word got back to the maker and he took care of it or if the customer realized that the performance wasn’t helping his sales, or maybe he didn’t find enough people willing to step in the poo to validate his anger. Maybe he just punched himself out. Today, I can report that the incident had no lasting negative impact on the carver’s career, but it certainly made an impression on me. To have someone out there complaining to perfect strangers about a pipe you’ve made and to have no idea, what a nightmare.


Perhaps I’ve made the irate customer sound like an unpleasant person behaving irrationally. Actually, he was a very nice guy, we got along just fine, and the behavior he exhibited was not particularly unusual. We may think of ourselves as Clint Eastwood riding off to take care of our own problems ourselves, but when it comes right down to it, if there’s a showdown our first instinct is to round up a posse. i mean, build a consensus. There have been other instances where someone has shown me another maker’s pipe hoping to enlist me. “Am I off base here?” is probably the most circumspect enlistment ploy. “I don’t want to be unreasonable . . .”


For carvers in my stratum, commissions are welcomed gladly, for obvious reasons. However, beyond the pleasantness of making a pipe that is already sold, one must be alert for the fundamental unsharability of human experience, as epitomized by the exchange I’ve had with the female members of my immediate family (which would be all of them). She: “Which one of these do you better?” Me: “I like the pink one.” She: “WHICH one?” Me: “The pink one. The one on the left.”


“Are you blind? That’s purple!”


And so it goes. Most of my commissions have gone reasonably well, at least partly because I try to ask lots of questions and email photos of the pipe in progress so that if I’ve gotten it wrong from the start I can abort before I spend a lot more time making a pipe that nobody wants. I always say, “I don’t consider the pipe sold unless you’re happy,” and I try to take photos that don’t make a pipe look better than it is (and you thought my photos sucked because I was lazy). And most of you have realistic expectations and good communication skills. That said, some commissions happen because a customer has a very specific mental image. I, or any maker, may not immediately grok that image and may not even be able to create it. We may not have the right block, the drilling may not be workable, the size/weight requirement may necessitate chambers filled with helium. Mainly, though, the same word — like Canadian — may mean different things to you and to me, which is why that episode has since haunted me with a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God uncertainty whenever I put a pipe in the mail. Maybe the customer will be delighted, maybe I’ve just lit a fuse.



Those of us watching the movie can see all the better ways the story could have gone. The customer might have said up front, “I don’t consider anything with a shank shorter than four times the bowl diameter to be a Canadian,” to which the maker might have said, “Got it,” or “I don’t have any blocks like that right now,” or “That will cost an extra hundred bucks.” Or, the maker could have emailed an “Is this in the ballpark?” photo of the rough shape. But for two people to proceed on the assumption that they each knew what the other meant and wind up on opposite rims of the canyon happens all the time. Where there are two humans, there will, eventually, be a failure to communicate. If I had been sitting next to the pipe maker I would have heard the story about a guy who ordered a Canadian, didn’t say boo when he picked it up, and then bad-mouthed him all over the Chicago show. It’s just the way it is; we all are justified in our own stories. We all believe we’ve been perfectly reasonable, yet there is conflict in the world.


It’s something I try to remember when I’m dealing with another person and feel like I’m getting the short end of the stick. Of course, if you buy a pipe from me and something is wrong I hope you will contact me before inciting the village to take up pitchforks and torches. My point when I started this post wasn’t any broader than that, but perhaps I’m not the only one who sees what passes for public discourse today writ small in that 15-year-old pipe commission that went south.

An Aikido maxim states that force meets force blindly. This is a bad thing; the more strongly we oppose the opposition rather than seeking common ground, the more blind we become to solutions and the more blood we waste. Which is as high a horse as I care to get on, and I just got off. If you don’t like a pipe you’ve purchased from me, you know what to do.

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