• 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.


  • Sarah Poetry

    Sarah Poetry | LenaStark.com

    Last month my friend Sarah passed away after a two-year journey through the wasteland of breast cancer. She was 32. We became close after she got sick. Life, you big trickster!

    Most of what I’ve been able to write since she died has been poetry that I haven’t really known what to do with other than message it to a couple of close personal friends and post it to the highly impersonal universe of Twitter.

    I want to say what’s on my heart but only to people who I know for sure will be gentle or to people who are removed enough that they can’t hurt me. It’s getting better. Last week I felt normal-er for about three days; but I still ping-pong between that and feeling very fragile, which is beginning to frustrate me.

    In any case, I’ve decided to post the poetry so far here, which feels like a big step. Further forthcoming poetry will go in separate posts (I’m sure there will be more).

    3/30/15 ~ The Midnight Door ~

    Death sneaks in the midnight door
    Silent it creeps along the floor
    Its lengthening shadow snatching more

    Wrapped in sheets, her breath unsound
    Winding love, her soul surrounds
    She calls no more, for she is found

    “Rejoice!” Resurrection cries
    Dying done, pain breaks its ties
    Loved she lived, and loved she flies


    The empty space
    The afternoon I used to visit you
    But now you’re gone
    And all that’s left
    Is fuzz on


    The cursed day
    The day you died
    The day I loved to spend with you
    The day you’re gone the most


    Less tears today
    I sang my songs in peace
    And only wept in prayer.
    You marked my hands, my feet, my heart;
    I sow my grief in silence.

    That’s it for me today.

  • Book Review: The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

    Gorgeous cover art is a plus too!

    The Complete Fairy Tales by Jacob Grimm

    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    “Picking up some fairy tales, huh?” said my friend Eli, the proprietor of my favorite bookstore, as I sidled up to the cash register.

    “Yeah, I’m taking the kids camping, and they aren’t quite old enough to read Poe to at the campfire. Proper fairy tales seem about right though, but I’m looking for the real ones — translations, you know. None of that sanitized Disney stuff. You think either of these books will work?” At that point my six kids were ages twelve and under.

    Eli grinned at me and checked the two books in my hands. “You don’t want those. Come here; I’ll show you the book you want.”

    That was how I came to own this version of the Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Eli was right; it is the version I wanted. These tales are so much more entertaining and rich than the happily ever after renditions that seem ubiquitous in children’s picture books and popular films. The first night camping I read several to the kids and to my in-laws who had come with us. The kids, Uncles, aunties – all loved it (not so sure Grandma appreciated it), and now the kids insist that I drag it out again every time we camp and even the adults ask me if I’m bringing it along.

    The kids’ favorites are A Tale About the Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was, Rumpelstiltskin, and How Some Children Played at Slaughtering. That last one slightly horrifies me, actually, but the kids think it’s hilarious. I append my own dictum, “NEVER DO THAT because I’ll cry forever,” to the end, which seems to amuse them even more as they roll their eyes and immediately request another story.

    These stories will not appeal to everyone. If you worry a lot about kidnappers, trampolines with no nets on them, people who ask too many questions, or your children getting the idea that cutting off their toes to fit into a fancy shoe to impress a prince is a great plan, you will probably hate these. Why do I like them? They are seedlings of imagination that plant in your brain and grow into all sorts of wonderful, bizarre things. They inhale the wild, weird beauty of this world and exhale wonder. They tell of a world that never was yet feels just as familiar as our own.

  • 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.

  • Velvet Children

    Every morning as she left for school, Angelina walked  down her hallway, past the lonely picture of the Velvet Children. It was the only picture on the entire length of the wall, and for some reason Angelina’s mother had positioned it right beside Angelina’s bedroom door, like a bizarre 70’s era placard.

    It was a hideous picture. Two small children, a boy in painted green shorts with buttons attached to suspenders, and a girl wearing a swaying yellow dress, were blowing dandelion fuzz. The artist was not especially skilled and both children wore a slightly maniacal expression, as though they had been cooped up for far too long and had only just escaped. Presumably the artist had meant for them to look happy and carefree. They didn’t.

    Something else was wrong with the picture, and as Angelina hopped on the school bus, she finally figured out what it was. How had she not noticed before? While the boy’s hair was waving on the wind towards the left, the girl’s dress fluttered toward the right. The dandelion fluff swirled up above their heads in what seemed to be a funnel pattern. What looked like it was supposed to be a gentle picture of two happy children playing seemed to actually be taking place in the middle of an unseen tornado.

    Kurt sat down beside Angelina on the bus bench seat and dropped his backpack on her big toe. As the nerves sparked and her toe seemed to expand until it felt like her body was solely comprised of the one toe, she realized why she hated the painting. It was not the painting she remembered from years or even months past.

    Last year the children in the painting had been smaller, further away from the frame. She had only noticed the crazy eyes recently because they had only grown large enough to see clearly in the last few weeks. Angelina failed her math test and received and incomplete on her spelling test that day.

    When she arrived home, Angelina pulled out her ruler and carefully lined it up with the edge of the frame. The distance to the girl’s dress was 2 1/8″. She measured twice. The next morning Angelina woke up early so she could re-measure without her mother seeing her. This time the distance was 2 1/16″, and the velvet children’s mouths, clearer now than they were yesterday, curled into a vengeful sneer.


    Some days I do a lot of staring. I stare at out the window, at the blank wall, at the cobwebs I should be sweeping off the ceiling. I stare because writing presents too many choices, too many characters and subplots and arcs. Where do I begin today? So, I begin with writing warm-up, like wind-sprints to wake up my brain and remind it to focus. I don’t edit them, and they are often short and non-sensical. Occasionally they are sublime.

    Writing prompt from https://twitter.com/writingprompt

  • 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.