• Today You Almost Died

    Dear Henry,

    Today you almost died. I was sitting right there, close by and didn’t even see you. You and Faith had been just a few feet behind me on the shore climbing a boulder, and I was keeping an eye on your other sisters splashing in the lake. You were nowhere near the water. The lake was so still; the sky so clear; the sand so soft. And then you almost drowned.

    “Mom, I think I went a little too far out,” you whispered in my ear. I didn’t see you walk up until you appeared beside me, terrified and dripping. Your little six-year-old body was shaking.

    “What?” I said. You had been on the rock behind me, you see.

    “Well, I wanted to see how far out into the water I could go.”

    “What??” my repeated cry echoed across the lake. I could feel the color draining from my face.

    “I got out really far,” you said, “and then I couldn’t touch the bottom anymore, and I couldn’t call for help because the water was covering my mouth.”

    It took a moment before I could coherently respond. “Henry,” I whispered, trying to choke back my own panic, “how did you get back?”

    “Well, I tried to get back closer to where I could touch the bottom, but the water was taking me away from shore.” You fidgeted with the tie on your orange fishy swim shorts and dug your toe in the sand before telling me the rest. “Finally, I sank down into the water and then the bottom was there, and I could touch it with my tippy toes, so I just walked back.”

    You shrugged as you said that last bit as if it wasn’t really that big of a deal, and to tell the truth I’m a little blurry on what happened next. I remember hugging you and trying to purposely speak calmly so you wouldn’t freak out while still trying to impress upon you the seriousness of the situation and how you could have died and I would never have even known you where you went and how I would never be ok again if that had happened and how much I would miss you and cry every day and how you are NEVER to do that again and NEVER EVER EVER!!!

    You’re lucky I didn’t crush you from holding you so tight. And then in some magnificent feat of mothering, I carried you back into the lake myself and held you there, curled up in my arms, and helped you float on the water until you weren’t scared anymore. Swimming lessons start on Monday, and I didn’t want you to be afraid.

    There were other things, though, that I didn’t tell you today. The lake? The still lake with the warm water and gently sloping beach? It’s not actually a lake. It’s a flooded rock quarry. The bottom is uneven and has places that drop off twenty to fifty feet deep. If you had sunk down in one of those places, you would not have found footing so close beneath your feet.

    You would have simply slid away into the water, and since I didn’t even see you sneak into the lake, I would not have known you were gone. I would have looked for you on the shore, in the wrong place. They would have had to drag the lake, and you would have died. On my watch.

    Two families I know of this summer, both friends of friends, have had children die in terrible accidents. I don’t know why. You are alive. You were a shadow away from death, yet you live. Their boys are dead and mine is alive. You are alive, and I don’t know why. Thank you, Lord, for returning my son to me.

    We packed up and came home shortly after that, and you spent the rest of the day playing happily like nothing had happened because you are six. But I didn’t. After you kids went to bed, I sat on the couch with your dad and cried all evening. Because, you see, you scared the shit out of me. You don’t really seem to understand what almost happened today, but I do. I almost lost you today. Today you almost died.


  • Pipe Dream, Part 2

    Pipe Dream #2 | LenaStark.com

    Part 1 is here in case you missed it.

    “I knew you would know where to go,” I said to my friend Angie as we pulled into the alleyway behind the boutique pipe tobacco shop down the street from her house. Knowing where to buy a pipe and tobacco is useful when one wants to take up pipe smoking. She grinned. Angie has a massive cache of unexpected information inexplicably quartered in her miraculous brain. It’s a huge part of why I like her.

    Upon entering the small, acceptably wood-and-leather inspired shop, we were greeted by a gray-haired, amiable looking man with the biggest mutton chop sideburns I’d ever seen.

    “I’m looking for a cheap pipe,” I told him.

    “Oh, well I’ve got a wonderful, refurbished Master Craft for $35. Here, take a look at this,” he replied as he removed a small pipe from a glass display case and handed it to me. It was very nice, but not quite what I had in mind.

    “Actually, it’s for me, and I’ve never smoked a pipe before. I’m really just looking for something cheap like a corn cob pipe so I can decide if I even like smoking it or not.”

    “Oh, it’s for you!” he said. He did not seem to be expecting this and immediately became more animated. I got the impression that I was not his usual demographic. “You can buy corn cob pipes anywhere. Well, except here because mine just sold out.” Not a promising start.

    “How about tobacco?” I said. “Do you have Sail?” According to my mother, this was the brand my grandfather used to smoke. My mother does not approve of my pipe smoking.

    “Sail! No, that’s horrible stuff, all chemically processed. I don’t carry any of that here. All of my tobacco is organic, and I blend it myself. Here, smell this,” he said as he shoved an open plastic bag labeled “Grandfather’s Blend” in elaborate calligraphy under my nose. “I made this blend myself fifty years ago for my own grandfather.” The proprietor puffed proudly, and the difficulty with which Angie was stifling her giggles at his rapid demeanor change was becoming a palpable threat to my own attempts to remain collected. “This is eight dollars, but if you buy it today with the pipe, I’ll give it to you for six.”

    The thirty-five dollars in my purse roughly comprised my pipe experiment budget. Maybe I could just buy the tobacco here and get a corn cob pipe at the smoke shop up the road that had “Pipes Here” emblazoned on the iron-barred windows next to the gang signs. “What’s this one?” I asked, pointing to the bag beside the grandpa one. “And can I smell that one too?” I pointed to the one on the other side.

    He seemed rather pleased that I was sniffing and admiring the aromas of his other tobacco blends. “Actually,” he said, “if you buy the pipe, I’ll throw in the tobacco for free. Just for today.” There was my $35! I looked at the smooth, wooden pipe in my hand. It really was beautiful, and it wasn’t too big.

    “Okay, I’ll take it,” I said. “Hey, do you have a pouch I can keep this stuff in?”

    “A pouch? Hmm, I don’t think so. Let me check,” he said as he began pulling out and rifling through each of the drawers behind the cash register. “I don’t usually keep them, but I might have an old one floating around… yes, here’s one. Here are some matches too,” he said as he threw a small box on the counter, “and you’ll need a tamper. Hang on.” He went back to the display case and pulled out a small metal tool that was flat on one end and tapered into a very thin scoop on the other. I could feel Angie snickering again behind me.

    “What is your problem?” I asked her as the man was whizzing around accumulating gear that either wasn’t for sale or that I hadn’t asked for.

    “Nothing. Nothing at all,” she said with amused eyebrows and an abysmally stifled grin. I turned back to the checkout counter which now claimed a pipe, a bag of tobacco, a box of matches, a tamper, and a pouch to carry everything in. This was going to be way over budget.

    “Soooo… what do I owe you for all this?”

    “Oh, you can have it for $35,” he said. I hadn’t told him how much my budget was. I offered to pay for everything, but he declined.

    As soon as we got back outside, Angie exploded in laughter.

    “I think I just snookered some old guy out of a bunch of stuff,” I said.

    “Yeah, I think so.”

    The next week my Mom was over, and she wanted to see my new pipe. Grandpa hadn’t smoked since I was a kid, and although I have fond memories of the smell, I had completely forgotten what his pipe looked like. She hadn’t. “This pipe looks exactly like your grandfather’s,” she said. It wasn’t until she brought over the picture of Grandpa two weeks ago for Pipe Dream, Part 1 that I realized just how right she was.

    Lena Stark | Pipe Dream, Part 2
    Grandpa Style: Me with my pipe on the porch swing.

  • Pipe Dream, Part 1

    Pipe Dream #1 | LenaStark.com

    When I was young, my grandfather smoked a pipe. While cigarettes smell like sweaty gym socks that have been lit on fire, pipe smoke is a lovely wisp. It is the aroma of pungent woods and smoky spices and summer and the old man who called me Sunshine because I smiled so much when I was small.

    Lena Stark | Pipe Dream
    My Grandpa and my cousin in 1973.

    Now I have five brothers-in-law plus my own brother, and out of the six of them, five are pipe men. This charms me more than I care to admit, and for several years I tried to con, cajole, or beguile my husband into smoking a pipe too. “Come on, your brothers all do it. It smells so nice!” Alas, he insisted on being his own man and would not be moved to blithely puff on potential carcinogens even on the very occasional basis I was suggesting. So rude![pullquote position=”right”]My husband has a rather curious code that governs what he will and will not flip out about.[/pullquote]

    Last fall I found a picture of a woman I know on Facebook, that purveyor of jealousy and poor habits. She held a book in her hand and a pipe in her mouth, and suddenly I felt very silly. I could smoke a pipe myself! Obviously, I could smoke a pipe since I have this perfectly usable mouth apparatus attached to my very own face. This was worth pondering.

    My husband has a rather curious code that governs what he will and will not flip out about. After nineteen years of marriage, I still have not quite figured out the qualifying factors for flippage. This is the list to date:

    I haven’t actually gotten to the crazy hair colors yet because by the time I actually wanted to put purple streaks in my hair, I had already hennaed it red, and henna + any other hair dye = not good. Really, his list is pretty short. He’s not usually a demanding or pushy fella, but I’d prefer not to have him look at me and think “Ewwww” if possible, so I try to avoid the very few things on the flip list. A pipe was an entirely new question though, which had previously had no call for list assignment. Which way would that go?

    In January we went to Los Angeles and spent the better part of a day driving around the city with his brother (the only non-pipe one). I looked out the passenger window and casually floated the idea.[pullquote position=”right”]”You don’t see a lot of women smoking a pipe.”[/pullquote]

    “I think I’m gonna buy a pipe,” I said. [tweetthis]”I think I’m gonna buy a pipe,” I said.[/tweetthis] The bumps on the pavement seemed especially loud. I was sure the locals meandering down the sidewalk were staring at me.

    “Like a smoking pipe?” said Mike the Brother.


    “Oh! You should talk to Steve [pipe brother]; he’ll get you set up,” said my guy.

    “Uh huh. Or Jon [another pipe one]. They’ll get you all taken care of,” said Mike.

    Huh. That went better than expected. They both passed.

    “You don’t see a lot of women smoking a pipe,” reflected my guy after a minute or two.

    “Yeah. I don’t care about that,” I said. “Do you?”

    “Me? No, I don’t care. If you want to smoke a pipe, then smoke a pipe.”

    Guess I can update the list to this now:

    After we returned home, I grabbed my best friend and we went to buy a pipe. You’ll find that story in Part 2.


  • France in Five Days

    I am not supposed to be here this morning sitting on a plane to France. I’m supposed to be at home snoozing quietly in my bed. This isn’t my trip. I have not planned and hoped and saved for the last year to fly overseas today, yet here I am. My dad is the one who is supposed to be here. I am taking his place.

    T-6 Days (or last Thursday to you lay people):

    Last week (Sun-Sat) was our church’s Family Camp at the beach, which we and my parents and my husband’s parents all attended. Two weeks prior to camp, my dad had minor surgery, which he began having complications with last week. Thursday morning I awoke to discover that Dad was in the hospital. Mom came back from the hospital two hours later to pack up their things and let us know they were going back home.

    “Is your passport current?” Those were Mom’s first words to me when I finally found her. Dad was transported to the hospital by their house, and they went home.

    T-5 (that was last Friday. See how I’m looking out for you?)

    “We refunded your dad’s ticket and yours are booked.” – Mom

    Thank you, terrorists, for prompting airline regulations when you hijacked aircraft on 9/11 that prohibit transferring Dad’s ticket directly to me. This means I am not on the same outbound flights as the others, which was undoubtedly part of you nefarious scheme.

    Oh yes, right. “Others” is plural. Did I not mention that my parents were not flying alone? The point of the trip was actually to take three college-aged art girls to tour Paris and Provence since my mom speaks French and has taken a couple of other sets of girls there before.

    Anyway, by Friday afternoon I was definitely going. Alas, I was still at the beach for one more day, and we were hosting about fifty people from camp that night. Not much preparing was going to get done that day.

    T-4 (I know you can do this; I have faith in you. Okay, it was Saturday. I was sure you had that.)

    “I might not be going either, so you might be taking the girls by yourself.” – Mom

    Dad still wasn’t out of the hospital. Did I mention that I don’t speak French (Mom does)? Or that I’ve never been to France (Mom has)? Or that my driver’s license was due to expire during the first week of the trip (problematic with the second week plans to rent a car and drive around Provence)? Or that I still wasn’t even home from camp yet? It was about that time that I began to properly panic.

    [pullquote]“I might not be going either, so you might be taking the girls by yourself.”[/pullquote]We drove home, unpacked the car, and went out and purchased walking shoes.

    T-3 (a.k.a. “The Day of Doom”)

    “Kyra and Henry both threw up last night.” – Husband

    By noon another one of the kids was down, and by the afternoon my husband and I were both sick too. This was not helpful. I needed to be at the airport on Wednesday by 3:30 or 4am. Everything needed to be ready by Tuesday evening.

    With the amount of available preparation time rapidly waning, I spent the time in between barfing episodes messaging everyone I knew asking them if they would be able to take a couple kids for a few days while Hub-ness worked during the week. In retrospect, that was probably the most convenient day to get sick before flying out.

    T-2 (Monday, which should be permanently prohibited by law)

    Spent the morning finishing organizing the kids (thank you, everyone!) and making a spectacular (or possibly ridiculous) list of things to ask Mom about the trip, since it was looking like I was no going to be in charge in France and I had very little of the necessary information to manage everything. Where are we staying? Do we take a taxi there from the airport? Can I have the tickets for the train to Nimes? On what day do I have to have everyone to Nice? Do you tip in France? You know, small things.

    Monday afternoon I kidnapped my friend Angie, who was already mad that I had ditched her for the beach for a week, and she spent six hours chatting and running all over town with me and my older son. Angie’s fun to take to the DMV.

    “HEY, YOUR DAD’S OUT OF THE HOSPITAL. FACEBOOK SAYS SO!” she yells extremely loudly to me as I’m talking to the lady at counter. She’s taking the fact that I’m leaving for two more weeks really well, I thought to myself.

    We made it to my parents’ house, said “hi” to Dad, bombarded Mom with questions, and borrowed a TSA lock. Dad was fried that Mom might miss the trip on his account; Mom didn’t want to leave Dad since he had just gotten out of the hospital. After getting all my questions answered, I started feeling like this might be doable.

    T-1 (That means it’s the day before the take-off, in case you really have watched nothing involving NASA or space)

    “Your Dad is covered; I’m coming.” – Mom

    Knowing the trip situation, some friends had volunteered to stay with Dad while Mom is gone and another friend had organized for people to bring him meals.

    I spent the day organizing up an itinerary for the trip so I knew what was going on, typing up kids’ itineraries for my husband including two birthday parties and eight places the kids are staying, printing out copies of our bills and my passwords and my itinerary for my husband in case I die, locating our life insurance information, packing, getting a hair cut, and making a million phone calls. I started working at 7am and finished at 10:40pm. Phew! All done. Angie messaged me five minutes later: “I am already angry with France. Have a safe flight. Don’t get Taken. I would hate to fly there to rescue you.” And there it is. “I would totally be all Liam.”

    Blast Off! (after 3:39 minutes of sleep)

    “Are your power cords in your carry-on? Don’t wear those flip-flops on the flight. What if you get stuck outside the airport and it’s cold? What if you have to sprint to catch a plane?” – Husband

    He’s usually a very calm man, but the trick to telling when he’s worried is to watch for the irrational statements. It’s rare. I always feel very loved when it happens. I smiled and changed my shoes despite the facts that a) I could think of no plausible explanation for why I would be trapped outside an airport, b) the fact that I was wearing flip-flops with my khakis and sweater was not likely to produce hypothermia even if I did since it is June and I’m not going anywhere cold, c) the shoes he wanted me to change into were also sandals, just ones that had a back, and d) since I was planning to spend my seven hour layover in Newark writing and reading Isaac Asimov, I expected to have plenty of time to make it to my flight without sprinting. It’s all for you, dear. All for you. Except going on the trip. That’s for me.

  • Dinner Gone Awry

    I didn’t see his approach; my friend did. My friend, an established writer, and I had gone to a local restaurant to talk shop and put the happy hour menu to good use (the pomegranate margarita was quite marvelous). I am pre-published and had lured her into answering a bucket full of technical questions with the promise of food and a children-free discussion.

    The restaurant was quiet with a relaxed atmosphere, good food, and a small bar in the corner; and we had been chatting and laughing away for nearly two hours, talking shop and oblivious to everyone around us. Well, I was oblivious. My friend was facing the bar.

    “How would you two lovely ladies like some free drinks?” he said with no introduction whatsoever. The table my friend and I were sitting at was tiny, one of the two-seaters that look like the restaurant manager had sawed a kids’ table in half and shoved it against the wall to save space. This guy from the bar was now standing as close as possible, maybe six inches away from me, and I hadn’t even seen him arrive. “You two are both really cute. See my buddies over there at the bar?” he pointed over my shoulder. “We’ll buy you drinks if you go be cute over there and flirt with us.”

    My friend and I stared at him and then at each other. I’m married; she’s married. Being cute in an effort to schmooze free drinks out of the schmucks at the bar was not one of the evening’s goals.

    “Thank you, but no,” I said.

    “Nothing has to happen; we could just have some fun,” he continued.

    “Yeah, sorry. I don’t think so,” said my friend.

    “Alright, that’s okay. I’m not going to get mad or anything. I’m used to rejection.” He seemed to think we should now feel very grateful that he wasn’t going to freak out while also simultaneously feeling sympathetic towards him for his lack of skill in the picking-up-random-women department.

    “Good. You handled rejection well,” I said to him as he walked away.

    “I’ve been married twenty years,” he replied over his shoulder while pointing to his wedding ring, “I get rejected all the time.”

    My friend and I rolled our eyes and returned to our conversation. His attempt had been brief, fairly low pressure, and he had left graciously. If he had had one tiny smidgen of sense, he would have stopped there. Ten minutes later he was back.

    Guy: “Are you sure you don’t want to come have a couple drinks with us? You’re both really cute. You don’t have to be here alone.”

    Me (a little more abrupt than last time): “We’re fine. Thanks.”

    Guy: “You know, you guys should be really flattered that I’m over here. I’m pretty cute. Don’t you think I’m cute?” He tilted his head to the left and the right and up and down so we could see all of his delightful features. “Come on, just tell me I’m cute.”

    Me: “Fine, you’re cute. Now beat it!”

    My friend was amused. The guy was not. Instead of leaving, he squatted down by the end of the table. Did I mention that my friend and I and the table were all very small? The guy towered over us.

    Guy (pointing to my finger): “I see you have a ring on. Does your husband know what you’re doing?”

    What I’m doing? Discussing work with a female friend in a public restaurant? This question was so absurd that I don’t think I even answered it, which naturally he took as an invitation to continue.

    Guy: “Is he at home waiting for you?”

    Me (turning to my friend): “Do you think I should tell him what else is waiting for me at home?”

    Friend: “Yes, I think so.”

    Me (to Guy): “I have six kids at home.”

    The guy stared at me for a minute, which is the usual reaction I receive upon disclosing this information.

    Guy: “No you don’t.”

    Me: “Yeah, I do.”

    Friend: “Yes, she does.”

    Guy: “How old are you?”

    Note to men: this is a dumb question to ask, particularly to a woman you haven’t actually met yet are still trying to hit on. I had assumed that all humans possessing the XY combination of chromosomes had received this message ages ago, but at least one XY human seems to have misplaced his memo, so I am just repeating this as a public service announcement.

    Me: “Thirty-eight.”

    Guy: “Wow! You’re just popping kids out like cordwood!”

    Me (turning to my friend): “Well, that’s just what every woman wants to hear.”

    Another note to men: if your friend leaves you at the bar to go hit on girls that have already told him once to buzz off, you might want to check on him once in awhile. He may be busy making himself look so bad that the only way to keep yourself from looking like a jerk too is for you to retrieve him and make him step away from the women. I’d hate for you to be mistaken for a jerk due to your friend’s bad behavior.

    Guy (to my friend): “How about you? She has to go home to her husband, but you’re not wearing a ring.”

    Friend: “I don’t have mine on.”

    Guy: “Well, do you want come over to the bar?”

    Friend: “No. I’m married and have kids at home too. I have a ring; I just don’t have my ring on tonight.”

    Then he tries to tell us that we really needed to go over to the bar with him so he would look good in front of his friends (since this clearly should be our main concern at this point).

    Me: “NO! I have six kids. I have no problem saying ‘no.’”

    Guy: “With six kids, apparently you do.”

    Me (getting pretty fried now): “I only say ‘yes’ to things I REALLY like.”

    Guy (dejected): “I’ve been married twenty years. I get rejected all the time.”

    Me: “Well, you’re losing points every time you open your mouth.”

    Guy: “I’m not very good at this.”

    Me: “Pointing out your ring and talking about how you’ve been married for twenty years doesn’t help.”

    Guy: “Should I take the ring off?”


    Me: “No! You’re MARRIED. You shouldn’t be over here trying to hit on other women!”

    Finally, the waitress returned with our check. She then told him that his was waiting for him at the bar and he needed to go take care of it now. After swearing at both me and the waitress, he returned to the bar, and my friend and I left. Happily, he didn’t try to follow us, so I didn’t have to stab him with the keys I was gripping in my right hand as a makeshift weapon.