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 ...

How a Generation of Overachievers Finally Learned Some Humility

The Washington Post, June 10, 2015

College reunions are wonderful things, organic studies of how a generation ages in five-year increments. My generation has long been known for being “programmed,” Achievement Kids obsessed with racking up accomplishments within an at once kaleidoscopic and unimaginative framework of success: the law clerkship, the magazine internship, the McKinsey gig, the summer trip clothing orphans in Malawi.

Ten years later, our jobs — at least for those of us pulled back to campus to reminisce about a high point of the Achievement Kid fantasy — are still pretty bourgeois, anticipated: “I’m a litigator,” was the sentence I heard the most at my college reunion.

And yet it was usually offered in a quiet, even sheepish voice, not one strengthened by pride. Read more ...

The Real Reason Airports Depress Us

The Washington Post, June 3, 2015

It’s the start of summer in the northern hemisphere, and thus the season for a million stories about air travel: the record numbers of people moving by air, the delays, the guy who stripped nude to protest the TSA, the tips on how to travel with a terrier or which on-board wine to pair with your foil-wrapped chicken marsala.

But precious little is written about airports themselves. They’re such fascinating spaces. It’s easy not to notice that, not even to think about them, because they’re fundamentally so similar to each other. We tend to notice difference. The air when we step off the plane in Los Angeles or Beijing, the architecture in Stockholm or Morocco. But it’s the sameness of airports that’s precisely their intrigue. Read more ...

Why We Should Relish Endings

The Washington Post, May 13, 2015

Many years ago, living in Boston but in love with a man in New York, I took the train down the Eastern Seaboard twice a month. Five or ten minutes before the ride ended, the train would begin to slow. This was my favorite part of the ride: the whizz of goldenrod yellow, asphalt blue, indiscernibly shadowy backyards, town squares popping up into view and then vanishing fast as the backs of cresting dolphins disappearing down into the deep — all this suddenly started to resolve into detail, to piece itself together into identifiable things. I savored the chance to pick out the shape of a single purple tricycle in someone’s open car-port, the lettering on the street signs, the different wildflowers genuflecting at the edge of the gravel railway track, the face of a child in a window. What had been imperceptible became knowable through the very different rhythm of the journey’s ending.

I’ve been thinking about these train rides lately. Read more ...

How Your Last Boyfriend Helps Your Next One

The Washington Post, April 20, 2015

A long time ago, a man and I, in love with each other, argued about his lack of curiosity about the world. It seemed to me that more interest in others could make us happier, and more important, make him happier. He said no: he was happy as the homebody he was; this trait was elemental; it could never change. We each dug into our positions. The conflict swelled. We parted.

Eight months later, though, he returned to me. “I’ve become the person you thought I could be,” he said, with surprise and pleasure in his voice. Read more ...

Why Change Can Be Better Than Constancy

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The Washington Post, April 13, 2015

Every morning before I sit down to write I go look at the sky above Nairobi, where I live part-time. I’ve got a big picture window facing north, wide enough to frame great masses of clouds and a half-dozen falcons playing in thermals as if life is nothing but joy. What I love about this view is it’s always different. Nairobi almost never has blue skies nor gray skies, but always a mix of the two: heavy thunderclouds laboring with bellyfuls of rain and fringed at the top with ice-blue from the sun behind, or soft eraser-marks of cirrus clouds over a mat of turquoise, or cumulus clouds as perfectly-shaped as a flock of sheep marching north towards some heavenly pasture.

And yet I simultaneously associate the sight of this particular sky with constancy. It’s always different, but it’s always there. Read more ...

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 ...