A devastating e-bike tragedy. Children fired out of cannons. The media circus surrounding George Santos. A psychology professor studying the science of awe. And a deep dive into a beloved (and dirty) Peanuts character.

1. Molly’s Last Ride

Peter Flax | Bicycling Magazine | January 31, 2023 | 8,136 words

Exactly two years ago, 12-year-old Molly Steinsapir got onto an e-bike with her best friend, crashed, and died. I remember when it happened — the tragedy was covered widely, in no small part because Molly’s mom took to social media to talk about it. Now, in a moving and nuanced feature, Peter Flax examines the question of who, if anyone, is liable for Molly’s death. Flax, who owns two bikes made by the manufacturer of the one Molly rode, a company her parents are now suing, illuminates how the explosive growth of the e-bike industry, while a seeming net good for people and the planet, isn’t without dangerous consequences. There aren’t a lot of industry regulations, and there are pressing concerns about the quality of popular equipment. “As a country we have decided we value entrepreneurship and business and letting people just go to market,” Molly’s mom, Kaye, tells Flax, “and then we find out if the thing is safe or not as it is sold and marketed and used.” This is one of my favorite kinds of magazine feature, the personal story that serves as a lens for a bigger one, which in turn asks people to wrestle with urgent questions. Molly is gone, but her death may well save another 12-year-old girl somewhere. —SD

2. The First Family of Human Cannonballing

Abigail Edge | Narratively | January 9, 2023 6,964 words

I was a child who had to endure being padded up to the hilt and a safety lecture just to get on a bike. So this story, about a family who happily fired their children out of cannons (starting around the ripe old age of 14), left me agog. An insight into a different world, it is a delightful read about what happens if you actually do run away with the circus. David Smith was 27 when he and his wife, Jean, joined a traveling circus — a surprising career move for a maths teacher. After a stint as a trapeze artist, where he would catch his wife as she hurtled through the air, he found cannon life and never looked back, continuing to be fired over 100 feet into his 70s. The couple’s children grew up immersed in circus culture, seeing it change over the years as circuses fell out of favor; David’s son, David Jr., is still being fired out of cannons today. Pragmatically told, this is a measured take on an extraordinary family. —CW

3. 16 Hours With George Santos: Dunkin’ Donuts, 27,000 Steps and a Scolding

Jesús A. Rodríguez | Politico Magazine | January 31, 2023 | 4,248 words

Okay, so Politico doesn’t believe in Oxford commas. Demerit issued. But look past that, because Jesús Rodríguez turns on the gas for this scrum’s-eye view of what it’s like to have to cover George Santos, a man whose unrelenting mendacity is shocking even by Congressional standards. If Frank Sinatra had a cold, Santos has an allergy to anything resembling virtue. But he does have the feeble bribery of a box of donuts, which he leaves outside his office for the frustrated journalists — and the last of those donuts provides the apt (if obvious) literary device that fuels the piece. Empty calories, with a core of emptiness at its center: Is there a better culinary symbol for a man like this? Rodríguez knows you know the answer, so he just lets the question sit as he chases Santos around the Capitol and surrounding offices, chronicling every platitude, snipe, and muttered aside along the way. This may be a piece about an elected official, but to call it political journalism does it a disservice. Sometimes you need to laugh to keep from crying, so enjoy the punchlines while you can. —PR

4. Finding Awe Amid Everyday Splendor

Henry Wismayer | Noema | January 5, 2023 | 6,377 words

“To experience awe, to fully open ourselves up to it,” writes Henry Wismayer, “helps us to live happier, healthier lives.” But what is awe? How has the human sense of wonder over the centuries driven us toward various pursuits and ways of being? Wismayer spends time with Dacher Keltner, a Berkeley professor at the forefront of a scientific movement examining our least-understood emotional state. I’ve appreciated Wismayer’s recent contemplative essays on other subjects, like travel and tourism, and this hybrid of profile and reported essay is yet another thought-provoking read. It’s informative about this new field of psychology but not at all dense, and I came away from it fresh, open-minded, and ready to experience the small wonders of my day. —CLR

5. The Dirt on Pig-Pen

Elif Batuman | Astra Magazine | October 27, 2022 | 2,245 words

I’m still sad that Astra Magazine is no more. Maybe it’s because I’m seeing so much fervor for bot-written text lately (oh hi, ChatGPT) and I worry about its mind-boggling potential to pollute the internet with pap left unchecked, not to mention the repercussions of inevitable misuse. Thankfully Astra remains online for now, which allows you to read Elif Batuman’s terrific deep dive on the Peanuts character Pig-Pen. Through Pig-Pen, Batuman explores what Charles Schultz had to say about American values in the 1950s and beyond, most notably, commentary on the darker side of society and relationships. But, in wearing his messiness with pride, is Pig-Pen perhaps the most authentic Peanut of all? “Everyone, it turns out, has a Dirty version of themselves: mussed, unkempt, scribbled over. This feels true.” —KS

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