My Craft Journal
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When Stories Come Too Close to Home

My phone buzzed with a text from a friend as I was getting Scooter from preschool. There was a car accident in front of the local elementary school, my friend said. Did I know anything?

No, I texted back. Accident? What accident? Confused and concerned, I drove by the school, where I found the road blocked by police cars and yellow tape. Back at my laptop, I soon learned what was happening. A neighborhood mom had been doing what all of us do daily—buckling her child into a car seat—when she was hit by a truck. While her child was unhurt, she was seriously injured.

The news made me feel sick to my stomach for so many reasons. As the mom of young kids, this accident unnerved me. It happened just blocks from our house, on a street that we walk daily on our trip to school. And it could have been any of us. Like Sandy Hook, I found myself constantly refreshing the pages of local news sites and Facebook, hoping to hear that this mom would be OK.

Heartbreakingly, though, she was not. Later that day, local news sites reported that she had died from her injuries, leaving behind a husband, three small children, and a community stunned with shock and grief. Bunches of flowers began appearing at the spot where she was hit; a helium-filled “You Will Be Missed” balloon was tied to a telephone pole.

As a journalist, I felt just as ill. Earlier this year, I finished a sprawling beast of a story for a local magazine. The topic? Pedestrian safety, or lack thereof, in our community. Hauntingly, the issue began showing up on newsstands only a few days before the accident; I received my copy in the mail the day after the crash.

It was truly unsettling. I wrote that story, and researched the hell out of it, because I thought there was a problem in our community that needed to be discussed: the gap between the county’s admirable goals of encouraging residents of all ages to walk and bike more and the modern reality of our very busy roads. If you want people to skip the car in favor of other transportation options, you have an equal responsibilty to make sure those those streets are safe for non-drivers to use.

Clearly, we have a lot of work to do.

One of the most eye-opening facts I found in my reporting was how dangerous even relatively low speeds can be. Despite Arlington’s typical posted speed limits of 25 and 30, I swear that the effective speed on our local roads is 40 miles per hour. We’re all rushing to work, to school, to soccer, to daycare, and the dry cleaner, and I am no exception. But I now stick to the speed limit. Why? Because if a car going 40 miles per hour and hits a pedestrian, that pedestrian’s chance of dying skyrockets to 85 percent. Eighty-five percent. I want no part of that grief-filled number. Do you?

The police are still investigating the accident, but if there is anything I wish people would take away from that tragedy and my article, it is that we cannot afford to be so recklessly impatient on the road. Slow down. Stow the phone. Pay attention to all the users on the road. All of our lives depend on it.


Discovering the Writing Wisdom of Second Graders

A glimpse into fairyland.

While parents like me crowded into tightly packed rows of kid-sized chairs, the Little Supervisor and her fellow second graders gathered in wriggly groups on the classroom’s colorful area rug. The occasion for their gap-toothed grins, excited expressions, and carefully combed hair? Their class publishing party, where they soon would have the chance to share their original stories with moms, dads, and fidgety younger siblings.

But this party had a twist. Before they stood behind their desks to read aloud their mysteries, travelogues, or fairy tales, these seven- and eight-year-olds had to do something that most published adult writers fear: Speak publicly to the crowd about their work.

One by one, the students got up from their spots on the carpet, taking a gargantuan-seeming handheld black microphone from the previous speaker. In the endearing, fleeting lisp of pre-tweens who are still losing their baby teeth, they introduced themselves, explained their chosen pieces, and what they liked about writing.

As a parent, I thought the presentation was—to use a favorite expression here at Chez Books and Bicycles—frighteningly cute. The Little Supervisor, who has borrowed seemingly every Rainbow Magic fairy book in the school library, said her favorite piece that she’d written was “A Fairy Good Time,” about the time she and her little sister discovered Lizzie the Sparkle Fairy on their windowsill. Why? “Because I love fairies and I believe in fairies,” she said, and I felt my heart crack, just a little, at her quiet declaration of faith in those magical creatures and the power of imagination in a child’s life.

What I didn’t expect was that the journalist in me was similarly enchanted. My daughter said she liked writing because you could either make it up or it could be real, which I thought was a pretty good summary by a 7-year-old of the appeal of fiction and nonfiction to writers and readers. One child said he enjoyed writing because it made him feel free, and I thought, “Yes.”

I left the classroom that morning full of appreciation for my child’s school. We ask so much of our schools today, from teaching our kids how to avoid substance abuse and recognize bullying to racking up college credits in high school and learning economic principles in grade school. (Think I’m joking? Check out the Virginia Standards of Learning.) But as I listened to the Little Supervisor and her classmates, I realized that her teacher and her school had gone beyond the state-mandated writing requirements to teach the most important lesson of all: Write from the heart.


Snochi: The Real Olympic Games

I do find it a bit ironic that spectators at the Winter Olympics are basking in 60-degree days on the Black Sea while the Washington metro area is covered in a foot, give or take a few inches, of snow. Schools are closed again, grocery stores are running low on bread and milk, and parents are scrambling to find someplace—anyplace!—with sleds still for sale.

Snochi surprise: 12.5 inches of snow.

It makes me think that the real Olympics are not happening in Russia, but much closer to home, thanks to Snochi. Welcome to the Snochi Olympic Games, where Washingtonians of any age can bring home a gold medal.

Snochi sisters on Valentine's Day.

Official Event: Biathlon

Snochi-Style: Shopathlon

Like the biathlon, where cross-country skiers go like hell only to stop, breathe, and shoot a rifle at a distant target, the shopathon mixes speed and control. Competitors must make it to the grocery store before the flakes start to fall, collecting the East Coast snow day essentials of bread, milk, eggs, toilet paper, and for parents of young children, diapers and wine, before your neighbors do. Arrive too late and you’ll be stuck putting Parmalat in your coffee and making “blizzard soup” with banana peppers and yams because all the good ingredients are gone. Serve that to your kids for dinner, and you’ll really wish you’d picked up some Malbec to manage the madness in your house, because Mom and Dad are getting a serious DNF.

 This snowdragon creator might turn into a real dragon if Mommy forgotten to get milk before the storm.

Official Event: Skeleton

Snochi-Style: Solo kid sledding

Noelle Pikus-Pace, like many Olympic sliders, can hit speeds of 80 miles per hour on her tiny skeleton sled. As an athlete who also travels with her family to train and compete, she has also been the Supermom of Sochi. But the anxious thrills we feel watching her on TV are nothing compared to to the parental trepidation of watching our kids tackle the “big” sledding hills solo. Gack!

Please don't get any bright ideas about sledding down that mountain.  

Official Event: Speedskating

Snochi-Style: Shoveling snow

A preferred event of many Snochi dads—or maybe just at our house—shoveling out after a big snow demands cardiovascular endurance and one strong back, just like its official equivalent. And, just like speedskating, with its endless heats over and over again on the same track, shoveling never seems to end.

 I swear there's a car under there.

Official Event: Curling

Snochi-Style: Managing screen time

To succeed at curling, which involves sliding heavy stones on ice, would seem to involve superhuman patience. I mean, smoothing the ice with sweepers to control its path? That’s not a job for the easily exasperated among us. The Snochi equivalent? Controlling your kids’ screen time on a snow day, because after you’ve shoveled your driveway, pushed and pulled a all-terrain stroller over shoveled walks and the snow mountains on every corner, gone sledding, helped with a snowman and a snowdragon, built a snochifort, baked chocolate chip cookies, and dried 12 pairs of mittens, the thought of turning the TV to Disney Junior at some point during the unexpected five-day weekend so you can take a break from the Snochi Olympics is undeniably appealing. Crazy pants not required.


Snochi Olympic headquarters.

What games would YOU add to the Snochi Olympics?


An Open Letter to Norovirus: Get Out of My House

Homemade cards are the best, whether you're 3, 30, or 93.Dear Family Norovirus:

We generally enjoy having house guests. The Cyclist happily makes homemade doughnuts on request, I keep the adult beverage center stocked, the girls happily share their toys, and we're happy to light a cracklefire to make things extra cozy.

But you, Mr. Norovirus, need to leave. (Or is it Ms., Miss, or Mrs. Norovirus? What the hell--it's probably all of those given the billions and billions of you who have been occupying our lives since January 18.) I've had quite enough of your charming calling cards--the gurgling stomach, the fast-moving nausea, the nonstop bathroom visits, the absolute lack of appetite for food or activity.

I mean, you even took down Scooter, who is pretty much the fiercest person in the family.

Seriously, Mr. Norovirus. I can't imagine why you'd want to mess with this one. She's roaring for real and mad as a hornet here.

When you arrived at our house yet again on Sunday (visit #3 for the Little Supervisor and #6 for the family overall), it was clearly time to stop being Minnesota Nice.

Giving this gap-toothed artist the "throw up bug" three times is just not right. (BTW: Unlike the photo of her sister above, she's roaring here to be cute. Big difference, trust me.)

One gallon of bleach, countless loads of laundry, and a slightly embarrassing interaction at the Little Supervisor's school, I truly hope you have left my home and gone to the great science lab in the sky.

I have now disinfected every doorknob, light switchplate, tech gadget, and bathroom fixture in my house. I have washed with bleach seemingly every sheet, pillowcase, blanket, and towel we've used. I've borrowed a habit from preschool and misted the girls' toys with a germ-killing formula of 1/4 cup bleach in 1 gallon of water. This morning, I even gave the treatment to the Little Supervisor's school desk, chair, pencil case, composition notebooks, workbooks, and hall locker. (Yes, I have become Crazy Bleach Mom. Props to the Little Supervisor's teacher and principal for taking that discovery in stride. I'm totally contributing something amazing to the next teacher appreciation lunch for that, assuming our house hasn't been declared a biohazard site and covered in a bubble by government agents a la "E.T.").

My new best friend and constant companion.

If any of you pesky little viral monsters haven't hit the road, I suggest you get moving. They're predicting a big snowstorm for later this week, and we will not be sharing any of our bread, milk, eggs, OR toilet paper with you. 


Facebook's Birthday Gift

I'm more than familiar with the frustrations of Facebook. (The constantly changing privacy policies! The inexplicable results of the "top news" settings! The inescapable ads for the shoes you just considered buying on Zappos!)

But after gorging on each and every Facebook movie in my news feed this week, I may have to overlook the past transgressions of Mark and Sheryl and instead thank them for the series of 62-second life lessons that they gave me this week.

If that makes you raise a doubtful eyebrow, I understand. I'm a journalist: a healthy mix of skepticism, cynicism, and witty sarcasm lives in the air you breathe in newsrooms. And I have no illusions about the site traffic and 10th anniversary buzz that Facebook generated by creating these personalized movies, courtesy of its massive databases filled with all our personal information.

What did surprise me, though, was how well these movies--or at least the ones I saw--captured the joyful, messy reality of life. In a period when we spend more time Instagramming a snowy day than actually enjoying it, I found these Facebook movies unexpectedly, well, unproduced. I'm not talking about production values like the fade speed on the images or the pacing of the accompanying music, but the raw content of the movies themselves.

The most liked posts that made so many of the movies weren't status updates from exotic vacations, but celebrations of sobriety, memories of wedding days, sighs of gratitude after a child's successful surgery, and the staggering relief of being safe at home on a day when a dangerously ill gunman showed up at the office, shooting to kill.

So many of the photos I saw in the Facebook movies were similarly unpolished. They weren't art-directed portraits by a professional photographer, but snapshots of stubborn toddlers, stone-faced adolescent athletes, nappers on the couch, homemade birthday cakes, and in one notable case, a Photoshopped picture of Tim Tebow with my friend Lisa's head superimposed on a body with a rather bodacious bosom.

As I watched movie after movie, including my own, I felt my own spirits lift little by little from the post-holiday winter doldrums. (Between the nonstop snow days and a family-size attack of the norovirus, it's been a tough start to 2014.) We all want to lead perfect, or at least perfect-looking, lives, but perfection is not what makes our lives worthwhile. It's the imperfections--the grief, the fear, the failures--and then the getting back up, no matter how slow or halting, that turn us into the people we are. It's our stumbles, after all, that often forge the strongest bonds with those we love, hammering our red-hot pain into a fierce, unbreakable circle of friends and family.

So go watch your Facebook movie and everyone's else too. Facebook may be the one celebrating, but its birthday gift is actually for you.