What If We Can't Know What Makes Us Happy?

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, April 1, 2015

Like many people, I have a period in my life I recall as unusually happy. The further I recede from it, the more definitive a glow it acquires, just as a ragged swirl of cosmic plasma transforms, from a great distance, into the single, bright point of the northern star. I wonder sometimes what made it so happy. Often it seems obvious to me: I’d just moved overseas; I was literally being paid to learn and explore rather than to produce work; I was falling in love.

But occasionally I suspect it could have been something totally different than those conspicuous answers. I close my eyes, in bed at night, and re-inhabit my body during that time. The new city where I’d moved was set amongst hills, and every day I walked inclines: these long, difficult rambles dissolved my daily cares. Perhaps it was the air itself, damp and laced with salt, drifting in from the nearby sea. Read more ...

The Battle to Be Israel's Conscience

By Eve Fairbanks, The Guardian, March 12, 2015

On 15 August last year, five weeks into the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Hagai El-Ad, the director of B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation, appeared on a morning radio show to discuss the conflict. Throughout the fighting, B’Tselem did what it has done for 25 years since it was founded during the first Palestinian intifada: document human rights violations by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza. It compiled film and testimony gathered by volunteer field researchers on the ground, tallied daily casualty figures that were used by the local and international press, and released names of individual Palestinians killed by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).

B’Tselem’s founders intended it to serve a purpose unlike any other organisation in Israel’s fractious political atmosphere: to provide pure information about the Israeli military’s treatment of Palestinians, without commentary or political agenda. But by last summer, this stance had become a source of controversy. Read more ...

Why Failure Can Be a Good Thing, Even When We Don't Learn From Our Mistakes

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, March 11, 2015

If ever you doubt that nature loves futility and failure, go to the sea. Walking in the surf last month in South Africa, I saw a plethora of little blue snails burrowing into the sand. The precision and the effort they put into it was amazing: first the pinprick of a hole in the beach, then a wriggle until only the round ends of their shells peeked out. They looked snug, at home. And then, of course, the wave: it demolished all their effort, sending them tumbling back and leaving them squirming, slimy foot upturned, in the receding surf. Repeat. Every effort they made was repulsed, and still they turned themselves over and persisted in rooting into the sand.

I wondered if their efforts had some hidden purpose. Read more ...

How Surfing Taught Me to Make Choices

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, February 25, 2015

On the last day of 2014, I tried surfing for the first time. Living in Cape Town, South Africa, I often heard surf bums go on about how you “learn who you are on the board,” but on the board I realized that truism was true: Or rather, you learn both who you are and who you could yet be.

Surfing distills into a pure physical moment the usually drawn-out, intellectual, complex challenge of simultaneously accepting what life throws at you and making the best of it. At first, when I fell, I felt a desperate desire for my teacher to tell me my mistakes were normal, that I didn’t measure up poorly against the others he’d taught. It was so similar to my yearning, often, to be reassured that my mistakes don’t reflect badly on my character.

After a mixed record of successes and failures, my teacher told me that at some point I just had to “decide to stay on the board.” Read more ...

José Mujica Was Every Liberal's Dream President. He Was Too Good to Be True.

By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic, February 5, 2015

The man was old and rumpled, no tie over his blue-and-white striped shirt. His eyes squinted; his hair looked like it was slicked back with kitchen grease. He ascended the podium in the United Nations General Assembly hall clutching a sheaf of papers. Before him sat the diplomatic orthodoxy, sleek in Amal Alamuddin hairdos and Savile Row suits.

Ostensibly, José Mujica, as president of Uruguay, was a fellow member of the global elite. But if his attire didn’t make it clear that his allegiances lay elsewhere, what he was about to say would. Most U.N. speeches are pure boilerplate. The address Mujica was about to give on September 24, 2013 was something else entirely. Read more ...

We're Ruining Our Vacations

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, December 23, 2014

For as long as I can remember, I meticulously planned vacation time to maximize its bliss-out power. That didn’t mean pricey holidays, although my family did occasionally go to places like Santa Fe. But even if we stayed at home the hours were packed with fun: biking along the canal! Going to a museum! Playing a 40-hour historical board game! Baking complicated pies! Anything to scour the tired, musty smell of work from our spirits and wash them clean.

Then, a few years back, I started dating a non-American. His family did the opposite on vacation: nothing. They arrived at their destination — an un-decorated beach shack in the family for generations — and just cut the mental ignition.

There was a lot of sitting with coffee around the backyard table, sometimes speaking about nothing much, sometimes not even speaking. Read more ...

Whole Foods Is the Most Beautiful Place in America

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, November 26, 2014

Every time I return home to America from where I live in Kenya, I make a pilgrimage to a Whole Foods. I think this instinct is common among expatriates, particularly those of us who live not in France or Italy but in places where food markets are a chaotic experience. It’s not a conscious decision — “visit Whole Foods” never figures on my home to-do list — but an almost animal yearning, like the corporeal calling of an elephant to trek hundreds of miles over rocky terrain to a particular field to die. My yearning to go to Whole Foods is a longing to experience beauty.

To me, upscale food markets are now the most beautiful places in America. Hear me out. To experience them this way you have to go without a wallet. The possibility of making an actual purchase pollutes the experience (and injects you with a dose of self-hatred when you realize you can’t afford a single heirloom tomato anyway).

Without cash, though, a chi-chi food market like Whole Foods becomes a temple to pure loveliness. Read more ...

Accused in Kenya

By Eve Fairbanks, OZY, October 12, 2014

As a writer working in Africa, I’ve come and gone from Nairobi, Kenya, a dozen times in the last two years. Always, the immigration staff has been friendly, welcoming me to the country or expressing the hope I had a good time when I left. Until June.

That month, trying to head out of Nairobi to meet my mother in Italy, a pair of passport-control officers accused me of forging my visa. The curious thing wasn’t the accusation itself, but the way they did the accusing. They alternated between fierce and nonchalant, and the most prominent feature of their interrogation was an attitude of total and contemptuous certainty I had done the wrong.

“Why did you do it?” the female agent asked, fingering the visa page in question and shaking her head sadly.

“But I didn’t do it,” I said. Read more ...

How Personal Essays Conquered Journalism

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, October 10, 2014

My Life as a Little Person.” “I Still Dreamed of the Abuser I Once Thought of as My Father.” “I Understand Why Westerners Are Joining Jihadist Movements. I Was Almost One of Them.”

They’re everywhere these days: stories along the formula “I Am an X, and Y Happened to Me!” These kind of confessional articles long constituted the barbarians lurking around the gates of traditional newspaper culture, appearing on XOJane or blogs or niche columns like Modern Love, while the serious journalistic real estate remained dominated by authority figures like Larry Summers or Aaron David Miller pontificating on the economy or Israel-Palestine.

Now, though, they’re in the citadel. Read more ...

How My Bougainvillea Taught Me to Live With Less

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, August 13, 2014

We didn’t know much about gardening per se, but we thought we knew the most important principle: Pay close attention! So when my boyfriend and I brought home a beautiful pink bougainvillea for our balcony, we pampered it: We fertilized. We watered every day. We tied its delicate branches around an arbor with string, to give it a frame on which to grow.

But instead of growing, it began to die. The marvelous flowers that drew our attention in the nursery faded and dropped, and then some leaves dropped, too, yellowing and curling in on themselves like wounded snails. 

Apparently we’d been too eager to court new life: We had over-watered it. According to the instructional Web sites we consulted after the damage was done, to save our plant now we had to prune it — aggressively. Pruning allows plants to recoup their energy, fruit trees to devote attention to fewer, but bigger fruits. Some plants have what’s called “epicormic buds,” buds dormant beneath the bark that are suppressed until living leaves are cut away. There’s even a process called “coppicing,” whereby continually cutting a tree back to its stump to regrow can, in theory, enable it to live forever. To revive our limp bougainvillea, we would need cut the whole thing down to a stump: to kill most of it so it could be reborn.

I read that a month ago, but I still haven’t been able to bring myself to do it. Every time I advance on the plant with my shears, I feel so sad about stripping it of the only, struggling green leaves it’s got left that I pause, then turn away.  Read more ...

All You Need to Know About "All You Need to Know"

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 22, 2014

On June 9, the data-journalism Web site FiveThirtyEight.com published its lead story previewing the World Cup. Its first two sentences read: “All you really need to know is this: The World Cup gets underway Thursday in São Paulo, and it’s really hard to beat Brazil in Brazil.”

Could “all you need to know” be the most insidious, reductive, and lame story formula currently conquering our reading life? Everywhere you turn there’s another purported ne plus ultra explainer purporting to tell us “absolutely everything we could possibly need to know” about some current event, some curiosity of history, some deep mystery of life on Earth. It’s in the Wall Street Journal (“all you need to know about the [Crimea referendum] vote”), Vox (often, like “Everything you need to know about Israel-Palestine“), Time (“all you need to know about sequestration”), CNN (“all you need to know about the Jerry Sandusky trial”), ABC (“everything you need to know about the Syrian civil war”), and, of course, BuzzFeed, which offers both world-historical contributions like “everything you need to know about the schoolgirl kidnapping in Nigeria” and  philosophic ones like “These 13 Questions Will Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Yourself.” (Subhed: “This is as accurate as it gets, people.” The questions directed me to visualize different aspects of a cube, and I learned that I’m guarded, bitter, and hate most people but simultaneously wish to raise 1,000 children. Time to accept my previously unrealized destiny as the head of a death cult.)

Explainers” and hubris have both been a part of journalism for a long time. “It isn’t journalism unless it comes packaged with a bunch of bragging,” Jack Shafer, the longtime media critic now at Reuters, told me, pointing me to the Chicago Tribune’s long-running billing of itself as “The World’s Greatest Newspaper.” (And, of course, there’s the New York Times’s “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” now repackaged for the web as “All the News That’s Fit to Click.”) But here’s why this journalism trend is worse: It combines both those things, and, stirred, together, they make something way worse than either one alone, like Cool Whip and dog poo. Read more ...

"I Have Sinned Against the Lord and Against You! Will You Forgive Me?"

By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic, June 18, 2014

On August 1, 2006, the South African apartheid government’s most notorious police minister, a slight, 68-year-old man named Adriaan Vlok, stood before the Union Buildings—the presidential complex in Pretoria originally meant to telegraph the timeless glory of European rule in Africa. Sprawling, made of pink and beige sandstone, and surrounded by statues and fountains, the place looks like a cross between Britain’s House of Parliament, Versailles, and a Tuscan villa. Vlok had worked in it in the late ’60s, right at the beginning of his sparkling governmental career, when he still looked up to apartheid’s laws as the apotheosis of good governance and moral power.

And as he walked into his old workplace, he was astonished by how much it appeared the same: the same furniture, the same carpet, the same rococo wallpaper and trim. The main difference was that the black people his government had once oppressed now occupied the offices, and Vlok had come back as a penitent. He had come to wash the feet of a black man he had once tried to kill. Read more ...

What Lentils and Onions Taught Me About Relationships

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post: PostEverything, June 2, 2014

I started cooking Indian lentil soups because I was poor. Like many things you do by force of necessity, though, it made me understand far more than I’d anticipated. It turns out there’s nothing like cooking an Indian lentil soup to teach you about patience, and what David Brooks calls “the blooming virtues.”

When I started cooking them, dals of all forms, I was always startled by how small a quantity of spices the recipes called for: a quarter teaspoon cinnamon, two single cloves. I didn’t trust my recipes. I’d sniff the little heap of spices as I mixed them: not too potent, for such a lot of beans. I’d double the quantities. Read more ...

Oscar Pistorius's Paranoia

By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic, April 16, 2014

A couple of years ago, a burglar climbed across my roof in suburban Johannesburg to get to a neighbor’s house. I never saw him, only heard him, but for months afterwards, I would awaken with the sense somebody was on the roof again. In the haze of half-wakefulness, I experienced this sense as an utter conviction: The certainty an intruder was there. I never knew what to do, especially if I was alone. In the clarity of the following morning my decisions almost never made any sense. Sometimes I went and huddled in the middle of the living room, the part of the house furthest from windows, as if I was anticipating a bomb blast; other times I flicked my bedroom light rapidly on and off to send a Morse-like message to the would-be intruder to let him know I knew he was there. Once, I even grabbed a cast-iron pot and lurked with it near the door until I realized the noise I’d heard was a branch scratching the roof, put in motion by a gust of wind. After the tension of the moment dissolved, I looked with bewilderment at my hands holding the pot as if they were a stranger’s. What had I intended to do with it?

Oscar Pistorius, the famed footless runner, claims he, too, was paranoid about an intruder when he shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year. Read more ...

Don't Cut the Fulbright! Its Benefits Are Immense

By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic, March 28, 2014

The Fulbright program is under the knife again. There's a long and incredibly mistaken tradition of dumping on America's flagship international educational-exchange program, which sends 8,000 Americans and foreigners a year to each other’s countries to study things like physics and poetry in a completely different environment. The program started in the post-World War II peace-promoting glow; in the '50s, Joe McCarthy freaked out about it and tried to defund it, thundering that it was importing communism into the country; in the '80s Ronald Reagan sought to halve it, failing to see its value to the spirit of the country in a material age. Now President Obama has proposed a 13 percent cut to its budget, which will force major downgrades to the number of available grants, which are already extremely competitive to get.

The program is an easy target for budget cuts because its value has never been entirely quantifiable. Read more ...

Smile. Snap. Repeat

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Mail & Guardian

The morning after Nelson Mandela died, around 10am, I went to his house in Houghton. I stayed for three hours, just hanging around, paying respects, getting a sense of what the mood was like. A shrine of candles and flowers had begun to rise on a street corner. Some hundred bouquets were already there when I showed up; and hundreds more people arrived to lay down new flowers.

What surprised me, though, is that, save for one wizened old man dressed in a suit, hat and patent-leather shoes who left a carnation, not a single person who left flowers for Madiba did so without taking a selfie in front of the flowers. Young people, old people, everybody took grinning photos of themselves in front of the shrine.

It felt kind of weird, as though we were all tourists posing in front of the Big Hole, not mourners. "I want video. I want Instagram. I want everything!" one woman instructed her iPhone-wielding ­husband as she bent backwards over the pile of flowers to get the right background.

The smiling selfie Barack Obama, David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt snapped at Mandela's December 10 memorial at FNB Stadium unleashed a torrent of righteous indignation. The New York Times tsk-tsked that he "did not allow himself an uninterrupted time of reverie" appropriate to the event; even less generously, the New York Post suggested he had gone "into sugar shock over a Danish pastry" and "lost … his dignity".

But have we behaved any differently? Read more ... 

The Dark Spot on Nelson Mandela's Legacy

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic

The morning after Nelson Mandela died I spent a couple of hours standing along a police line dividing his Johannesburg house from the public mourning that had formed outside. Ordinary people and reporters pressed up against the line, gawking at the family and luminaries coming and going from the house.

The tone of the chatter on the line was surprisingly dark and derisive, given it was less than 24 hours after we learned the beloved hero had died. The black reporter standing to my left identified a clutch of men in ink-dark silk suits as Johannesburg city councilors, adding dourly, “You can tell because of the way they carry themselves, like they’re so much more important than everyone else.” On my right, two students discussed whether a tall man wearing a sharp blazer covered in what looked like military medals was Zondwa Mandela, Nelson’s grandson. “He’s the guy from Aurora,” one said with contempt, referring to a mining investment scandal for which Zondwa was later prosecuted for fraud.

Further down the line, a tall white woman tried to push through the tape. A policeman intercepted her, saying Mandla Mandela, another grandson, had specifically asked him to keep the public away from the door. “Maybe he’s doing something wrong,” the policeman said, permitting himself a wink and a slip of a sarcastic smile.  Read more ...

The Scene Outside Nelson Mandela's Home Was Not That Dramatic -- Because His Country Has Become a Normal One

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic

“What will we do now that our father is gone?” Archbishop Desmond Tutu keened over the radio, his voice cracking, in a speech responding to former South African President Nelson Mandela’s death yesterday at age 95. Go shopping, evidently. On South African airways and in the international press, the mood is somber grief, but the vibe on the South African street itself is decidedly different: Life goes on. Around noon today I went to Nelson Mandela Square, a cobblestoned quad in the middle of a shopping mall presided over by a huge, grinning bronze statue of Mandela. It’s one of the most famous Mandela statues in the country, and the mall clearly anticipated a throng of mourners. Packs of earpiece-wearing security guards had been deployed, and two taped-off areas indicated where people should wait in line to take their picture with the statue and leave bouquets of flowers. But the flower area was less than a quarter full; I saw a guard bravely trying to space out the bouquets to look less sparse, but it still looked forlorn. The photo line was only a few people deep. A nearby poster exhibit on Mandela’s life had no visitors at all. Inside the mall, though, the stores were full. Families bought ice cream, young women perused handbags at Gucci and Louis Vuitton, and a middle-aged black man in a platinum suit shouted about a business deal over his Samsung Galaxy while another black man polished his shoes. Commanding more crowd attention than the Mandela memorial was a Christmas parade with characters dressed as South African candy bars and elves on stilts.

At Mandela’s home in a leafy suburb called Houghton Estate, the crowd that had come to leave flowers and gawk over a police tape at the train of official mourners arriving at the Mandela door was a little larger, but not huge, and in several hours there I saw no visible grief. There was a sort of carnival atmosphere, with small circles of singers and dancers, one group, rather mystifyingly, hoisting the flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A man hawked baseball caps with a picture of Che Guevara. Read more ...