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 ...

What Lentils and Onions Taught Me About Relationships

onions image.jpg

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 ...