The Flirting Trap

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic, February 8, 2018

In 2007, when I was 24, two years after I moved to Washington, D.C., to cover politics for The New Republic, I joined an email listserv for journalists and policy wonks. One day, a stranger replied to a note I had posted on private equity tax reform. In my response to him, I quoted a line from the Beach Boys’ song “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”

“To understand ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice,’ you have to read Jameson’s Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” he emailed, with a tongue-in-cheek nerdiness that was common on the listserv. “It will change your life.”

Rebecca Solnit has written that the men she met in the 1980s “seemed to feel that they had to be more successful than whoever they were attracted to,” and that “a lot of girls learn to hide their intelligence.” By the time I grew up in the 1990s, though, my ambitions and intelligence went unhidden. At school, I was encouraged to study physics, math, and politics; I was cast as Abraham Lincoln and King Lear in school plays, and nobody blinked an eye.

Over the course of the next day, I exchanged nearly a dozen messages with the—married, I would learn—man on the listserv. Let’s call him “T.” Read more ...

How to Be More Human? Try Less

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, January 1, 2018

Over Christmas, a couple of friends and I took a trip to a farm called Riverstill. The farm is near the South Africa-Botswana border, a 500-mile dust trail patrolled by scorpions, a few cattle and giant ants the size of a person’s pinkie fingernail. On Christmas morning, I sat on the riverbank to think. After a few minutes, I noticed the patch of dust to the right of my thigh, which had been bare, had suddenly sprouted an anthill.

I’ve always been fascinated by ants: not by their discipline but by their product. Ants are artists. They could just throw the dirt they evacuate from their nests out of the hole, like gophers do, but they don’t. Some are potters: Harvester ants make beautiful, near-symmetrical concentric circles from the mud, like the ribbed vases sold in high-end ceramic studios. Others are sculptors, wrapping moist dirt particles around the tiniest of sticks to create oblong pellets. And still others are architects, molding bits of detritus into convex shapes so rainwater can run off. Ants remind me of a few people I know who are unwilling to see anything in their worlds go unused or unloved. They make elaborate statues out of restaurant straws or fold every piece of junk mail into origami before throwing it away. At the Riverstill farm, the giant ants by the river made a heap of arresting little balls, perfectly round as tapioca pearls.

Humans tend to think our bragging point, as a species, is that we create. We solve problems, we make art. Read more ...

We'll Be Paying for Mark Halperin's Sins for Years to Come

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By Eve Fairbanks, BuzzFeed, November 22, 2017

In mid-2005 I packed two duffel bags and took a train to Washington, where I hoped, as a young reporter, to better understand the city, and our politics and our country. As much as it was anyone’s, Washington was my city. I grew up there.

But when I arrived, I became aware there was a new don of Washington, one whose rules I would have to master. His name was Mark Halperin. He ran a chummy daily political newsletter, The Note, from his perch as political director of ABC News.

Three weeks ago, numerous women stepped forward to accuse him of extraordinary acts of assault: One said he masturbated in front of them at work; another said he slammed her against a restaurant window before attempting to kiss her (“I bear responsibility for my outrageous conduct,” Halperin said in an apology posted soon after). He lost his job, a book deal, and a movie contract. Case closed, it would seem: another predator, thankfully, out of a workplace.

But I’m not here to talk about that. I want to talk about the deeper, subtler, more insidious effect Mark Halperin had on our politics — one which we’ll be paying for for years to come.

The Note purported to reveal Washington’s secrets. In fact, its purpose was the exact opposite: to make the city, and US politics, appear impossible to understand. Read more ...

Can Your Best Friends Be Books?

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By Eve Fairbanks, Lithub, August 29, 2017

Recently, reading a Mary Oliver essay collection, I stumbled across a piece called “My Friend Walt Whitman.” In it, she admits she had merely a few friends as a child in 1950s Ohio, and they were all dead. They were her favorite books.

Defiantly, she insists that, while inanimate, they were true friends. “Powerful and amazing,” “avuncular,” “full of metaphysical curiosity,” and “oracular tenderness.” Like the comic strip Calvin’s stuffed animal Hobbes, they accompanied her on adventures into the wilderness, their heavy weight in her backpack the reassuring equivalent of a human child’s hand in her own, encouraging her to go a little bit further. She was not alone.

They were not only companions, but mirrors. Or more than mirrors—they were seer stones. Read more ...

Individual Racists Aren't the Reason Racism Persists

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, May 15, 2017

The other day, I had an experience that shook me. Out of my own stupidity, I broke a panel of my partner’s garage door. I called the company that had installed the door: The whole door had to be replaced, they declared, to the tune of $1,000.

But South Africa, where I live, has an extensive network of informal handymen. These handymen differ from America’s; they’re often not even legal businessmen but get jobs by word of mouth; lone operators who know things and travel around with a backpack of tools, building bedframes, installing plumbing, repairing drywall.

My landlord suggested a garage-door handyman named Barry. I called: He could come the next day. The garage-door company is run by Israelis, so when I heard Barry I somehow registered his accent as Israeli, concluding Israelis have a lock on the garage-door business in South Africa.

I was late to meet Barry the morning he arrived, and he was waiting outside the door when I pulled the car up. I’d been anxious that this repair go well, and before I could think, my heart registered a dip, a feeling of slight worry and disappointment: Barry was not white but black. Read more ...

The Last White Africans

 Image: Jodi Bieber

Image: Jodi Bieber

By Eve Fairbanks, Foreign Policy, January 16, 2017

It was an image out of a bygone era: 150 young white people jammed onto a narrow pathway on the campus of the University of Pretoria (UP), one of South Africa’s premier universities, facing off angrily against hundreds of black students. Tensions had been broiling for months, since at least October 2015. A group of black student activists had organized a series of demonstrations — first against the university’s fee structure, then against its use of outsourced workers, and finally against curricula in Afrikaans, the language of Afrikaners, the white minority who ruled South Africa for four brutal decades in the second half of the 20th century.

That morning in February 2016, black students had entered classrooms to protest instruction in Afrikaans. As they moved across campus and sang anti-Afrikaans songs, white kids who opposed them formed a human chain in the bottleneck of the grassy walkway. According to Jaco Grobbelaar and Henrico Barnard, two white participants, they shouted at the demonstrators, vowing to run blacks off “their” campus.

As the South African summer sun beat down, tempers flared. At least two students exchanged punches. “There were fists flying,” Grobbelaar recalls. Eventually, security guards dispersed the crowd.

The white students had been rallied in part by a group called AfriForum, South Africa’s most established advocacy organization fighting on behalf of white people — specifically Afrikaners. Read more ... 

How Losing Can Bring an Emotional Windfall

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, August 24, 2016

When I was young, I especially loved the “consolation prize”: the small toy or piece of candy given to the loser in a game. At my sixth birthday party, my mother ran a freeze-dancing competition to old-school French pop spun on vinyl. The smooth movers got little dolls, but the bad dancers got whimsical lollipops we bought at the special confectioner’s all the way out in the next county, huge fruit-flavored saucers decorated with lions’ and tigers’ heads done in icing.

The consolation prize always felt more wondrous than the trophy from a real win. You had failed, and yet the world treated you with pleasure anyway. They say it is sweet to receive what we deserve, but it seemed sweeter to me to get what I hadn’t, apparently, deserved; I kept these lollipops in my nightstand for years, a sugary reminder of grace.

Are the greatest joys of our lives the prizes we seek or the consolations? Read more ...

Painful Moments Make the Sharpest Memories. Is That a Good Thing?

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 26, 2016

In recent years, for work on a book, I’ve sat with two South African men, one black and one white, for dozens of hours as they pieced through memories of their earlier lives. One, C., had spent his young life never imagining white minority rule could ever collapse in the African country. The other, E., spent his childhood fantasizing about what would happen when it did.

Our memories of our lives are funny things. Ask people to remember their houses from childhood, their birthday parties, their happy recollections, and the details are vague. The moments we remember most powerfully are those of shock. Though E., the black man, spent his youth wondering what would happen if and when black people liberated themselves from their long oppression, he struggled to recall April 27, 1994, the day it did. He’d been 17, nearly old enough to vote. What had he done? What had his father and mother done that day?

But the morning his beloved elder brother, Sam, died? He remembered exactly how it had rained, the soft, soaking rain his people called medupi, also a beloved name for women. And then it had cleared, and the leaves of the giant fig tree from which Sam had fallen had dripped and lifted, and a certain type of bird had sung in the branches. Read more ...

Home -- the Idea of a Stable, Settled Existence -- Is a Fantasy

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 22, 2016

Once, a therapist asked me what my “inner blocks” were against “becoming the person I really wanted to be”: settled, a homebody. The question was kindhearted, an observation of a yearning that, at the time, gave me pain.

I’d been on the road for months, my suitcase my most intimate companion, and I would cry when I thought of a house, the shelves for books, the dirt of many shoes on the doormat, the well-worn pans.

We buy so much into this philosophy of becoming — that, through effort, we can arrive in ourselves. We take Myers-Briggs tests to pin down our ephemeral natures. We read “The Purpose-Driven Life.” “How to find yourself” is the most-input Google search following the words “how to find …” Read more ...

Students of Art Can Find the Art Gets to Know Them, Too

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 18, 2016

When I was 12, I read a poem by Robert Frost called “To Earthward.” “When I was young … The petal of the rose it was that stung,” he wrote. “Now no joy but lacks salt, that is not dashed with pain and weariness and fault.” Reading it felt like peeping through a keyhole into the dimmer, holier room that would be adult life, a room whose wood was distressed, whose shadows were deep and whose silvers were tarnished, yet glowed; a magical place where salt became sweetness and pain could turn, through alchemy, into love.

Coming into my 20s, I came across it again. Instead of mysterious, it seemed to me bright and beautiful, so sweet I could almost taste it: Its description of youthful happiness, “the swirl and ache from sprays of honeysuckle,” was perfect to that time. And then, 10 years later, again. The poem’s cadences seemed jerkier than I’d remembered them, grittier, defiant.

This is art: a supposedly dead thing, letters on a page or pigment on a canvas, that, miraculously, seems to change its shape as we do. Read more  ...

The Reason We're All Horrible at Taking Good Advice

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 13, 2016

Seven years ago, a beloved friend gave me a copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.” The short book collects Rilke’s advice to an acquaintance, a 19-year-old would-be artist overwhelmed by self-doubt, artistic confusion and inchoate longings for greatness. Speaking from his own mistakes, Rilke counsels patience with yourself, solitude and listening to your own heart rather than the demands of the market.

I think my friend gave me the book as a gentle way of communicating the same messages to me. I was burdened by the same anxieties as the young poet: that I would never be satisfied with others, that I would never live up to a talent. But although the letters were aimed at me, I didn’t get them at all. There were some beautiful phrases in there, but they didn’t land. I left the book to gather dust at the bottom of that tucked-away bookshelf where you keep books you never intend to read again.

Seven years later, a few days ago, packing to move, I found it again. It was a completely different book; as if it had secretly rewritten itself in the dust and the quiet of the years. Read more ...

How Some of Your Ugliest Feelings Help You Experience Joy

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 20, 2016

For the past six years I’ve traveled nearly incessantly: by car all over southern Africa; by plane to South America and the Middle East, through Wyoming by bicycle. Lately, though, every trip has felt harder. There’s the exhaustion of living out of a suitcase, developing rituals to keep track of my things that are so fastidious they’re almost religious, and which, like faith, inevitably fail. The fear of getting sick on the plane. The never knowing what I’m going to eat. The unpacking, which is worse than packing, and the never-fully-unpacking, which is easier but, like sweets on the physique, has a bad long-term effect on the spirit.

And yet, sometimes, the morning I get ready for travel, I feel all that lift. It’s as if the reluctance is a mist that miraculously dissolves, leaving pure eagerness. And I think: Doesn’t this happen so often? Read more ...

The Effect You Have on People Is Profound -- and Unseen

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 11, 2016 

A few weeks ago, I saw a jazz bassist play. I’d seen him before in a different venue, with a different, smaller audience. That crowd sat stony-faced as he coaxed his beats out of the belly of the instrument; he tried laughing and howling and crooning as he played, but we remained unmoved.

This recent night, though, he had younger, looser fans, who screamed as he screamed, playfully batted back his smiles like tennis balls, swiveled and danced between tables. And they brought forth a completely different man.

In front of the dead crowd, the bassist had seemed old, low-energy. His eyes were visibly cloudy with cataracts, his brow sagged, his fingers slowed as the night wore on. Yesterday evening, though, he was 15 years younger, lithe, jumpy, radiating grins.

He seemed like another person entirely, and he was. How thoroughly we are made by the intercourse we have with the people around us! Read more ...

Why South African Students Have Turned On Their Parents' Generation

The Guardian Long Read, November 18, 2015

One of Chumani Maxwele’s stronger childhood memories is of an aeroplane. Not one he rode, but one he heard flying over his dusty village in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, not far from Nelson Mandela’s birthplace. Maxwele, the son of a poor miner, used to play football with his friends in a field behind his house. One morning in 1994, when he was not yet 10 years old, he was startled in the middle of a game by an unfamiliar noise from above – somewhere between a rumble and a drone. He let the ball dribble away and tilted his head to the sky. Maxwele had heard rumours that the African National Congress (ANC) was flying planes around the country: in a few months, South Africa would have its first elections in which black people could vote, and the planes were dropping campaign leaflets decorated in the ANC’s black, yellow and gold, urging people to vote for Mandela.

The sound of the plane transmitted an impression Maxwele never forgot – one of motion and power. Read more ...


My Favorite Writing Tool: The Facebook Status-Update Window

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The Los Angeles Times, August 23, 2015

When I started college in the early 2000s, late at night, as my will to finish another paragraph of Foucault evaporated, I signed onto LiveJournal, the blog host beloved by teenage girls. I trolled strangers' "journals." These weren't blogs like this paper's Company Town or Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish. They were, especially in the site's early days, simply a glimpse into somebody's real life, raw and vulnerable: fights with mothers, angst and awe at changing bodies, fantasies of R&B stardom, fears of moving through life unseen.

I could read those posts for hours, until the sun came up, the way some kids play video games. The writers just spoke — to friends, to strangers, and to the nebulous and thrilling sense of an audience somewhere out there. They were more transfixing than the Faulkner, T.S. Eliot and David Foster Wallace I had to read in my English courses.

But my habit embarrassed me. Read more ...

Why What Gives Our Lives Meaning Doesn't Necessarily Make Us Happy

The Washington Post, October 20, 2015

Sometimes I think the greatest source of human unhappiness is the gap between what we dream of doing and being and what we’re actually capable of. This gap we name “pain”: the longing, the sense of failure when we fall short.

On the face of it, it seems like the solutions are things like accepting ourselves or “living in the moment.” But is it quite so simple? Read more ...

To Make Love Last, What If We Should Stop Working So Hard?

The Washington Post, October 5, 2015

I used to treat every wound. Pimples got one cream, eczema another. On trips, I carried a freezer bag full of medications: for flu, for cramps, for sleeplessness. Any bodily event somewhat out of the ordinary warranted a doctor’s appointment. Infections made me anxious. What if the antibiotic didn’t work? I sensed my body a fragile thing entrusted to the pharmacy aisle.

And then, one long journey deep into the wilderness, I forgot the freezer bag — and promptly got a cut on my cheek that festered. I had absolutely nothing to treat it besides time. It’s a testament to how alienated we are from the body’s own healing capacities that I was astonished when the infection, in a few days, resolved itself. Read more ...

Love in the Age of Big Data

The Huffington Post Highline, August 17, 2015

Once upon a time, in the Pony Expresso cafe in Seattle, a man and a woman began to experience the long-mysterious but increasingly scientifically investigated thing we call love. The first stage is called "limerence." This is the spine-tingling, heart-twisting, can't-stop-staring feeling, when it seems as though the world stops whirling and time itself bows down and pauses before the force of your longing. The man, a then-44-year-old University of Washington research psychologist named John Gottman, was drawn to the woman's wild mane of black curly hair and her creativity: She was an amateur musician and painter as well as a psychologist like himself. The woman, a then-35-year-old named Julie Schwartz, who'd placed a personal ad in the Seattle Weekly that John had answered, was turned on by John's humble little car—voted the ugliest vehicle in the University of Washington faculty parking lot—and his expansive curiosity. He read physics and math and history and kept a little spiral-bound notebook in his pocket that he used to jot down things his companions said that captivated him.

They talked avidly; it felt as if they'd known each other forever. Read more ...

Why We Should Look at Ruins Like They're in Technicolor

The Washington Post, June 24, 2015

The past exists in our memory in gray, in marble. Greek temples, once painted, have been bleached by time. Old photographs are in black-and-white.

Because of this, we tend to imagine our forebears were more serious than we are, applying themselves dutifully to family and faith and the contemplation of eternal questions while we skitter around reading each other’s Facebook overshares and nurse hangovers and lose hours we’ll never get back watching E! TV. We always suspect modernity constitutes a decline from the past. We experience inner conflict: Drawn to silliness, to “pokes” and Buzzfeed and tiaras and dancing ’til the room blurs, we also hate the silliness in our natures, call it childish, seek to conquer it.

But is the contrast we imagine between the present and the past true? Or is it a trick? Read more ...

Think Traveling in Foreign Countries Is Getting Less Interesting? Try Nature Instead

The Washington Post, June 17

Traveling recently in the Istanbul airport, I saw a lone man in a fez. In a day’s walk in Tbilisi, the capital of the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia, I spotted one man in a fantastical Orthodox monk’s habit, a black cape cantilevered away from his shoulders like a vampire’s cloak. To see these solitary figures was like glimpsing ghosts haunting the uniform present from a queer, costumed past, a mysterious time when different people actually wore different styles of dress and didn’t all carry cell phones.

How the same the world has become, and how fast. Every time I travel, more downtowns I visit look like airport departure lounges, the same Burberry shops and Cadbury bars; more taxis play Katy Perry; more restaurants serve pizza and fajitas; more people wear hipster glasses and distressed jeans. Read more ...