Happiness Is A Cigar (Period)

Back in the 80s there was a legendary ad campaign in the UK with the tagline “Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet”.  Well, forget Hamlet and I think they may be on to something.

I used to be a smoker, a proper smoker not a so-called social smoker; in fact I smoked around 15 cigarettes a day for 13-odd years, which means I got through 71,175 in my time.  These days I only smoke cigars, twice a week, and am no more likely to call myself a “smoker” than someone who enjoys the odd glass of wine would call him or her self a “drinker”, with all the connotations that implies.  Smoking cigars, for me, is nowhere near the slavish addiction I had to cigarettes but far closer to the rarefied pleasure of decanting a fine spirit into a polished glass as a reward, or consolation, for the day’s endeavours.

When people see me whip out a stogie many get curious; they want to know how cigars are properly smoked and why those that enjoy them seem to enjoy them so much.  Most people who claim to have tried a cigar say that they didn’t like the taste or, worse, that it made them feel sick.  And they’re probably right, for there are different grades of cigars and different ways of smoking them.

Most people’s first experience with a cigar is as an emerging adult; they are bought en masse to celebrate a graduation, a bachelor party, marriage or birth of a baby.  They are bought because they are seen, in popular media, as an essential part of the celebration ritual much like champagne or presents.  However, though most people know the name of a decent champagne and can easily acquire a bottle from the local Offie most people don’t know the name of a good cigar and buy only what’s available behind the counter, which more often than not is a Hamlet, a Henry Winterman or a Café Crème.  These are to premium cigars as Babycham is to champagne, a woefully weak imitation.

Premium cigars are a different breed, constructed in three parts; the filler, the binder and the wrapper, from the finest hand-picked tobaccos grown, not just in Cuba, but also Brazil, Cameroon, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Indonesia, Mexico, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, the Canary Islands and the Eastern United States.  I won’t go into the whole process, that’s what Wikipedia is for, but I will try to explain the unique pleasure I, and my cigar-smoking friends, get from this particular indulgence.

The Range

Just like wine (or whisky) there are scores of cigar manufacturers in different parts of the world producing dozens of blends and brands in a myriad of shapes, sizes and colours.  Just as you may have a preferred wine maker or region that produces a particular grape blend or label you like the same can be said of cigars, meaning there is lots to learn, lots to try and lots to discuss.  It is a subject with deep roots and innumerable branches and the more one knows the greater one’s pleasure.

The Ritual

Cigars aren’t smoked liked cigarettes and I don’t just mean the way you suck ‘em.  I mean that you don’t absent mindedly extract one from a box of twenty identical sticks, spark it up and suck it down before the boss notices you’re gone then race back to your desk.  You make time for a cigar; first you need to select the right one for the moment depending on the time you have, the mood you’re in and what you’re pairing it with.  Then you have to prepare it by either cutting or punching the closed end or ‘cap’ before lighting it by gently rolling the open end or ‘foot’ over a blue flame being careful not to touch it but holding the tobacco close enough so that it naturally combusts.

The Kit

To complete the ritual, you need the kit.  First comes the humidor, an airtight lacquered box generally lined with Spanish cedar wood that keeps the cigars humid; after all there’s no smoke without water.  (Case in point, if you want to send smoke signals from a campfire you need to cover it in moist leaves, not dry ones.)  Cigars at the Off License are not kept in a humidor, neither are they hand-rolled or made from hand-selected tobacco for that matter.  They’re actually made from tobacco scraps that are artificially flavoured, homogenized into sheets and rolled by machine.  They are essentially the Chicken McNuggets of the tobacco world, which may explain the sickness.

Next is the punch or cutter, there are many different styles of cutter; the guillotine, double guillotine, scissors…  They all achieve the same end but are similar to a bottle opener in the process of getting in to a cigar and can be a work of art in themselves.

Then there’s the lighter.  Cigars burn hotter than cigarettes because they’re not infused with flammable chemicals therefore it’s best to invest in a butane lighter if you don’t want to relight every few minutes or rely on long matches in a stiff breeze.

The Smoking

Finally, there’s the actual smoking.  The smoking of a cigar is not to be hurried.  Unlike the humble cigarette a cigar is entirely organic and not pumped full of chemicals to enhance the nicotine or increase the pace and evenness of the burn.  They burn very slowly and a single cigar rarely takes less than 15-minutes and can take up to an hour-and-a-half to get through depending on the size, the humidity and of course the smoker.

First you take the smoke into your mouth but you do not inhale.  Like the grapes in wine, tobacco leaves take up the properties of the environment they are grown in.  Typical flavours within the smoke include nuts, coffee, dark chocolate, red wine, vanilla, leather and herbs.  Some are more ‘full bodied’ than others and the taste can even change depending on age and humidity. (Yes, cigars can be aged.)

Once you have had a satisfying hit of the flavor you slowly allow the smoke to escape your mouth and maybe inhale the last 10% just to get a little buzz going.  Any more than that and the nausea of the inexperienced bachelor party smoker will kick in and spoil the moment.

For me cigars are natural, artisanal and feel authentic in world stocked with machine made, mass-produced mediocrity.  They require care and consideration to smoke well.  They’re a rare treat that helps slow life down and create moments of contemplation in an otherwise hectic schedule.  If you’d like to try or learn more visit your local Cigar divan and ask them to make a recommendation or else check out the videos in Cigar Aficionado’s Newbie Corner.  If you want a personal recommendation drop me a line, Nx.

Get Therapised!

I once read a great article about the portrayal of mental illness in movies; how it’s all either raving mad men brandishing axes or glassy-eyed window-lickers rocking back and forth in the corner of an asylum, the point being that, in reality, most mental illness is very dull and that’s because most mental illness is Depression.

I myself have dealt with depression; several years ago after a split with a significant other I found myself on the well worn path to oblivion with a certain Mr. Jack Daniels as my guide.  I’ll spare you the boring, mostly bed-ridden details but after a couple of heavy drinking and smoking years my mind and body got together and staged a mutiny outside Liverpool Street Station one morning whereupon I collapsed, a shivering, snotty mess atop the escalator opposite Pret a Manger.  Following a swift assessment from a bored looking City nurse who placed me squarely in the stressed-out-cityboy box  (probably her dozenth that morning!) I was referred to my GP who, along with the usual words of wisdom about less booze and fags, more sleep and exercise, recommended a course of CBT.

CBT stands for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and is typically a 12 week course of one-hour appointments that aim to equip you with the tools to make better decisions i.e. deal with the symptoms of your depression better.  This worked for me for about six-months; choosing the gym over the pub, a salad over a kebab, a wheatgrass shot over a tequila one, but sadly I couldn’t stick to it.  The issues underlying my depression were still there so I decided to look into psychotherapy, which brings me right back to my reason for penning this post…

I am, as you may know, an otherwise healthy, middle class white boy from a loving two-parent family who raised me to get a decent education that would provide me with choices as an adult.  Ergo, when I first considered going to therapy for my depression I experienced a lot of guilt.  I spent a lot of time looking in the mirror and asking myself Why do you need to see a therapist?  What have you got be depressed about?  Don’t you know there are people dying in the world?!  This, I have learned, is common.  Many of us don’t believe our depression is worthy of professional attention because many of us don’t class it as an illness but it is an illness, an illness of the mind and just like every other part of the body the mind has its own specialists.  So let’s use our minds for a moment to imagine someone we care out being physically ill, lying in bed with a red nose, sore throat and streaming eyes.  They look up at you and say, “I think I’ve got the flu.”  How do you respond?  Do you look back at them incredulously and ask “Why?”  If they suggest that they might need to see a doctor, do you snort derisively and demand to know “What for?”  I doubt it, because you can see they are in pain, the symptoms are clear.  However, for many depressives incredulity and derision are typical responses to their diagnosis.

Unfortunately, depression doesn’t care about your upbringing, your education or your social status any more than the flu does.  It’s an illness.  And just as you don’t have to have trekked through the arctic in your underwear to catch flu, neither do you have to have participated in a bloody war or seen your parents gunned down in front of you to get depression – it just happens.  When it does you need to treat it like you would any other illness, go to your doctor and consider seeing a specialist i.e. a psychotherapist.

Think about it, you wouldn’t suffer in bed with the flu refusing to see a doctor or drink your Lemsip because you felt guilty about it would you?  So why would you suffer with depression when the treatment is just as readily available?

As I said, when I first considered going to therapy I experienced a lot of guilt; I didn’t think my issues were worthy of therapy, that other people have it much worse than me.  Well of course they do!  And just because other people are dying of cancer doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see a doctor about your sore throat or runny nose.  If your mental or physical health is impairing your quality of life and you have the motivation and the means to do something about it, you must.  It’s those that wallow in self-pity or who continue to bring others down through their persistent negative attitude and poor lifestyle choices that should feel guilty.  Make a positive choice; if you think you’re suffering from depression – get therapised!

My Best Advice (In Pictures)

As we embark upon an exciting New Year many of us will be making (or maybe already breaking) resolutions based, in many cases, on the advice of others be they friends, parents, medical professionals or parole officers.  Whether you intend to quit smoking, read more, lose weight, learn a musical instrument or climb Mount Everest chances are somebody has tipped you off that those fags will kill you, you watch too much TV, you’re fat, talentless or just need a goal.  All good advice (if tactlessly delivered) but each piece targeted to a specific issue.  Once that issue is resolved the corresponding advice becomes redundant and so it’s on to the next bad habit that you can worry about breaking in 2014.  And the beat goes on!

No, what I’ve found far more useful are the rare pieces of advice I have either received or come to realise that remain relevant throughout life and can help you maneuver around some of the smaller solecisms to attain a more sustainable sense of satisfaction and I would like to share them with you through the medium of pictures, or more specifically PowerPoint slides ‘Saved as Pictures’. I hope you find them useful.

Of course, this doesn’t mean I am entirely without specific resolutions; to be more thankful for one and write more for two but you can judge how I am doing by the tone and frequency of my updates.  Happy new year, I hope 2013 blesses you with health, wealth and happiness to spare. Nx

Mobile Phones On Trial

At the time of writing there are 7,075,013,000 people living, breathing, working, sleeping, farting, fighting and fucking on this planet SO, as Tyler Durden famously remarked in Fight Club, “You are not special.  You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.  You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.”  Deep down, I think everyone recognises this…until they get their hands on a mobile phone at which point they come to think of themselves as a cross between Jack Bauer, Bono and Batman; the world simply cannot survive without them!

Exhibit A

Call me old fashioned but I still think dinner and a movie is a pretty unbeatable way to spend an evening with your loved one so last Saturday I took Mrs Lore off for a bite and a Bruce Willis sci-fi-actioner called Looper.  The film was unusually excellent thanks to both Bruce and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s convincing portrayals of each other but also because it dared to be a little complex asking the audience to at least leave their brains ticking over rather than turning them off completely.  Apparently this was still too much for some and one middle-aged mook in front of me got about 90% of the way through the movie before deciding it was all a bit beyond him and took out his mobile phone.  Now, I’ll forgive someone a single message; who knows, maybe they’re a doctor on call…or actually Batman.  But when I see that Facebook blue, glowing like a cheap neon sign in the gloom I lose it!

I leant forward until I was sure he could feel my breath gently rustling his ear hair then, in my deepest and most manly voice, said “If you’re too stupid to understand the film I suggest you go outside and post an update asking someone to explain it to you.”  He tried to look offended but could only look down to find he had no legs to stand on.  At the beginning of the bill we were all told, in no uncertain terms, by the cartoon bouncer on the screen that mobile phones were to remain off for the comfort of all audience members – but didn’t we already know that?!

Exhibit B

Continuing our cultural odyssey Mrs Lore and I also visited the local Playhouse for a Sunday matinee performance of Pangdemonium’s Swimming With Sharks; a biting satire about Hollywood.  The play was well acted and smartly staged and opened with a brief film commissioned especially for this production.  The film; elaborately scripted and starring the peerless Adrian Pang, was essentially a begging note to the audience pleading with them to please, please, please turn off their damn phones!  Nevermind the fact that the occasionally obscene nature of the play meant this was an audience consisting entirely of adults who, by the way, had paid around S$70 each for the privilege of being there – the producers still felt compelled to spend a good portion of their production budget on a film reminding punters not to disturb actors or fellow audience members by using their phones.  My question is why?

Closing Argument

WHY PEOPLE, WHY?!  What’s so important that you HAVE to pick up your phone regardless of where you are or what you’re doing but NOT so important that you could leave your house to do it?  Who are you?  What do you do?  Are you the Prime Minister or President of an unknown country in a state of national emergency?  In all probability NO!  You are a schmuck!  But that’s okay because I am a schmuck and there is nothing wrong with being a schmuck but that means the world can live without your input for a couple of hours.  And you can live without it’s.  You are not missing anything.  Actually, scratch that, you are missing something.  You are missing the film/play/intimidate-moment-with-your-partner that, for a small investment of your time and attention, would provide far more satisfaction than a fucking text message finished off with an emoticon masquerading as real affection!  I frequently recommend films, performances, galleries, and restaurants to friends who report back that their experience was underwhelming only to find out that they spent half the time with their face buried in the glow of their mobile phones.  THIS IS NOT LIVING PEOPLE!  So do yourself a favour and choose life.  Choose experiences, intimacy and enlightenment.  Choose to turn OFF your mobile phone, don’t wait to be told.

Thinkin’ About Drinkin’

An American friend of mine once said that moving to the UK was one of the unhealthiest decisions she’d ever made.  I looked up over my Big Mac and snorted in derision – seriously?  A citizen from the home of the Big Gulp and land of the Cheese Steak was going to tell me how unhealthy we are – I don’t think so missy!  ‘Because,’ she continued, ‘when you want to celebrate, you go to the pub.  But when you want to commiserate you go to the pub.  And when you want to relax and unwind you go to the pub but when you want to talk serious business, guess what, you go to the pub?!’.  I think she may have been on to something.

The first time I visited Singapore Mrs Lore took me out to dinner with some of her school friends, I remember we had herbal chicken soup on Changi Road (I remember because it was black, I have since discovered it is supposed to be).  Being a stranger in a strange land I let them do the ordering and they started with drinks.

‘Chinese tea please.’

‘Chrysanthemum for me.’

‘I’ll have a soya bean.’

‘Make mine a coke.’

Until it finally got around to me, ‘Er, I’ll have a beer please’.  I felt weird being the only one “drinking”  and that’s when it hit me that Britain has a very unique drinking culture – not a pub culture, that’s different – I mean a drinking culture i.e. a culture of drinking.  All the time.  For any reason.

From the earliest itchings of adolescence Brits are desperate for a drink, it’s as much a preoccupation as sex because, for many, the former is essential to attaining the latter.  This certainly isn’t the case in Singapore where many of my younger friends and employees don’t drink and never have.  And it’s not the case in many Mediteranean countries where alcohol is consumed casually as tea and enjoyed for its own sake, not as a means to a drunk and debauched end.

My personal drinking story began at around 15 when, as a precocious young actor, I had the confidence to walk into the local Offie, bold as brass, and ask for a 3-litre bottle of White Lightning and a couple of 20:20s.  The Licensee would ask me for my birthday, which tripped of the tongue with well-rehearsed ease, and then if the alcohol was all for me.  ‘Yes’ I’d think to myself, ‘I’m going to drink 3-litres of gut-stripping cider and wash it down with a couple of 20:20 chasers all by myself!’ but of course I never said that aloud.  I said ‘Yes, of course it’s for me, I’m stocking up the fridge for a bit.’ then handed over the sad collection of change that my half-dozen friends around the corner had scraped together from their paper rounds and made my hasty exit.  (Remember when you could get shitfaced all night then wake up at 5am to do a a paper round?  Happy days…)  When said friends saw me appear out of the darkness laden with bottle-shaped bags their faces lit up brighter than an alcoholic’s nose and we all headed off to the local park to get pissed; a ritual repeated by generations of British youths throughout the country forever and ever amen.

Since then alcohol has been a constant companion at celebrations and commiserations, work and play through good times and bad but for how much longer?

Lately, as a newish husband and business owner with delusions of writing I’ve realized I’ve got shit to do and increasingly alcohol stops me from doing it.  For every “legendary” story of a pissed night out I have three of days that were wasted due to hangovers.  And my hangovers are horrific!  It’s not that I feel particularly sick, it’s that I get crushing depression and paranoia, which I find utterly paralyzing.  I fret about what I might have done the night before, what I should be doing right now and what I won’t get done if I don’t learn to say no.  Many people my age have babies, which brings a screaming, crying halt to the hedonism of their youth but I am, as yet, unencumbered by offspring so am going to have to impose some measure of sobriety upon myself.  The problem is how and to what degree?  I’ve tried full-on abstinence for, like, 3 days but all I could think about was how badly I wanted a drink and what I would do for one (a LOT it turns out!), which seemed to bring me closer to the mindset of an alcoholic not further from it.  I have tried switching from beer to wine, which I tend to drink much more slowly but the problem is that I FUCKING LOVE BEER!  Contrary to medical advice I’ve tried ONLY drinking alone at home but I am hopeless with peer pressure and my peers are all hopeless alcoholics so I end up drinking everywhere!  So here’s my cunning plan…from October 15th 2012 until the end of the year I am going to limit myself to just two drinks, be it beer, wine or whisky, in any one session because, let’s face it, one drink isn’t enough and three is the point of no return but two?  Two is satisfying and sociable.

Hopefully, if my experiment works, these blog posts will get more frequent as I won’t be spending so much of my weekend in bed, recovering.  I shall gain the gift of time and maybe even lose a little weight.  Wish me luck my friends for I am boldly going where very few Britons have gone before, a little place I like to call Moderation.  Nx

P.S. If you’re wondering why October 15th is D-Day it’s because I have a stag-do on the 11th…and a wedding on the 14th…and the groom is an Aussie…from Tasmania…I think I’ve made my point.

Roll Your Own

As someone who makes videos and smokes cigars I’d love to have had the opportunity to create this film, part of a series entitled Made by Hand it’s the story of a small cigar shop in NYC that rolls its own in every sense.  Find more from these filmmakers at www.thisismadebyhand.com and, like a fine cigar, enjoy!

Made by Hand / No 4 The Cigar Shop from Made by Hand on Vimeo.